Dude ranch vacations have gained immense popularity in recent years, and for good reason. They combine the peace of mind and convenience of an all-inclusive vacation with the nostalgia of summer camp, all against a backdrop of beautiful wilderness and lively adventure. The best will offer a range of activities that appeal to your whole family, but each ranch specializes in different things and has different strengths and weaknesses. The task of finding the right one for your needs can feel daunting. Here’s how to pick a dude ranch for your family trip, plus top ranches in each of four general categories.
Step 1: Ask yourself the following questions
1. Is horseback riding the most important aspect of a dude ranch vacation for our family?
If the answer is yes, choose from ranches that emphasize their riding programs above all else. These ranches tend to be the best pick for advanced, experienced riders who seek more freedom in their rides.
If the answer is no, you’ll want to look for a ranch that offers a wider range of more generalized activities, or risk booking a ranch that’s all horseback riding, all the time. Many will offer golf, hiking, mountain biking, swimming, and rafting in addition to riding.
2. Are your kids all over at the age of 6-8 years?
If the answer is no, you’ll need to look carefully at the fine print of each dude ranch site, to make sure your kids will be able to participate. At many ranches, kids under age 6-8 (depending on the ranch) cannot join riding programs. Some ranches will offer babysitting or childcare services, but most will require you have an adult in your party willing to forego activities to watch young kids. We highly recommend waiting to take a dude ranch vacation when all kids are over age six, at least.
3. How important is your dining experience at the ranch?
If ranch cuisine is very important, you’re in luck: there are certainly ranches offering gourmet dining experiences. If not, you’ll certainly have more options, and can expect food that falls in the upscale family style buffet category.
4. Will you be combining your dude ranch vacation with other destinations in the same trip?
If yes, look for ranches near vacation destinations that appeal to you, and make your dude ranch stay part of a longer road trip. While some ranches are truly apart from major towns, most will be in ‘gateway’ regions, such as a gateway to the Rockies or Sierras, to a national park, or to a city.
5. Do you want to make new friends, or bond as a family?
At some dude ranches, you can certainly do both, but at others, the kids’ program is separate from the adult program, making the experience is much more like ‘camp’ for the kids. If you have social butterflies who can’t wait to meet new kids, this may be perfect. Pick a ranch with a kids’ program that extends beyond riding to kids’ dining and kids’ afternoon activities. If you want to eat meals as a family and ride as a family, pick a ranch that is structured in this way, and avoid ranches that promote kids’ only dining and adults’ only activities.
Step 2: Narrow down your choices
Use a site such as the Dude Ranchers’ Association or a dude ranch round-up to identify specific ranches that will meet your needs. We recommend staying open-minded regarding ranch location as long as possible, placing a higher emphasis on ranch amenities and programs than on geography. To help you along, we compare and contrast three excellent ranches below. Note that while all are amazing ranches, they offer very different experiences.
Triangle X Ranch in Moose, Wyoming:
Triangle X Ranch gives families quite a bit of rein (pun of course intended). Two rides per day are scheduled for those who wish for them, as well as an all-day ride for adults and optional overnight pack ride for teens. Beginning riders are accommodated, but the focus is definitely on advanced riders. Kids eat and ride separately from adults. Triangle X is open year round, with snow sports offered instead of horseback riding in winter. It’s located inside Grand Teton National Park, with absolutely stunning views. Read a full review of Triangle X.
- fun, exciting rides
- beautiful setting
- excellent evening programs and educational components
- separate programs (including riding and dining) for adults and kids
- nice cabin accommodations
- Inexperienced riders may feel in over their heads
- separate programs for adults and kids
- Meals are serviceable, but nothing fancy
- WiFi in town only
Three Bars Ranch, Cranbrook, British Columbia:
Three Bars Ranch is set against the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, and offers a riding program that’s more family-focused. Rides are more flexible, with families able to decide whether to ride together or separately (kids together, with friends, etc) on the morning of each day. Rides are on the controlled side, with options to pick up speed as the week goes on. The ranch is picturesque, and many additional activities are offered. Read a full review of Three Bars.
- Beautiful grounds with comfortable cabins
- WiFi available
- family-focused with flexibility for mingling with others
- safe horse program
- multiple additional activities offered
- above-average food
- wranglers spend time with guests on and off the trails
- horse program may be too ‘tame’ for some advanced riders
Tanque Verde Ranch, Tuscan Arizona:
If you want luxury, head to Tanque Verde in the Southwest, or go north to Paws Up in Montana. Both ranches offer a full spa as well as decidedly upscale cuisine. Guests are lodged in luxury dwellings and service is on par with top luxury resorts. Don’t worry: kids aren’t forgotten; they still have a full program of offerings.
- dining is amazing
- service is outstanding
- high price
- riding sometimes takes a backseat to spa treatments or golf
Aspen Ridge Resort, Bly Oregon:
Want a non all-inclusive option? Several ranches in Central and Southern Oregon, such as Aspen Ridge, offer ranch programs with a more B&B feel. Families stay in log cabins with full kitchens, make their own meals, and plan only the number of horseback rides they want. The setting is lovely, and families get a good sense of what a working ranch really feels like. In addition to riding, families can bike, hike, and play tennis. Aspen Ridge is open year round, with snowshoeing offer in winter.
- stays can be shorter than the standard week
- price can be lower, since you pay a la carte
- dates are more flexible than an all-inclusive ranch
- riding is individualized, not in a program (could be a pro)
- dining is on your own, or in Aspen Ridge’s dining room (a la carte)
Have you gone on a dude ranch vacation? What’s your pick?
Photo credit: Ken Bosna, Amy Whitley