There are beautiful resorts and vacation properties all over the world. The best start with a stunning destination, then add experiences, dining, and activities in a way that feeds both a sense of adventure and the need for relaxation. Then there are a few truly special, tucked-away places that manage to do all of the above, plus add a certain something that take them over-the-top for family travel. What is this secret sauce? It’s hard to say, but you know it when you experience it: it’s genuine, organic, and rooted in excellent guest service. These magical places make our top 1% of destination reviews.
The Three Bars Ranch in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia is one of these places. One of the top 1% ones. One of the cream of the crop ones. They don’t get this rating from us by offering the most luxurious accommodations we’ve ever seen (we’ve seen nicer). They don’t get it from serving gourmet food. They don’t get it with a Michelin rating or a bunch of diamonds after their name in the guidebooks. They get it by being themselves, which is an authentic guest dude ranch with a long-standing family history, and by doing for guests: if it’s on your bucket list and can be done in the Rockies, they’ll make it happen.
We’ve now reviewed multiple dude ranches, and our standard advice continues to be: know what you want before you book, then book accordingly. Some dude ranches we’ve experienced focus almost exclusively on their riding program, and are best for experienced riders. Others are more like B&Bs or farm stays. Three Bars Ranch wins in the ‘all-round best for everyone’ category, but after staying for a week, I urge families not to think of it as a dude ranch.
Instead, think of Three Bars as an all-inclusive Canadian holiday, or as a family camp. With rafting, mountain biking, sport shooting, tennis, swimming, fly fishing, hiking, and golf in addition to its riding program, Three Bars truly does have something for everyone. But it’s more than that: remember the secret sauce? Three Bars manages to offer all of the above, and do so seamlessly, in a way that makes families feel relaxed, welcome, and comfortable both with the ranch staff and with each other. Trust us: not all dude ranches achieve this.
What to expect at Three Bars Ranch:
Three Bars is situated on over 1200 acres of pasture, forests, and mountainsides, plus uses an additional 60,000 acres of leased land in the heart of the Canadian Rockies along the St. Mary’s River. The ranch property includes the main lodge where we checked in, the cabins, tennis courts, an indoor swimming pool and hot tub, an activities barn with mountain bikes, and the horse padlocks and barns. Right away, it was clear that we were to consider this property ‘ours’ during our stay, and immediately, the kids felt comfortable wandering (as did we). They found the ping-pong and foosball tables, the pool table in the bar (open to youth players), the cozy gazebo, and the petting ‘zoo’, which is a true manaserie of animals all in need of lots of petting and holding (including a donkey, pigmy goat, pony, chickens, kittens, and goats).
After a Sunday evening meet-and-greet, welcome dinner, and orientation, daily life at the ranch settles into a routine. Every day, a bulletin board will list the day’s schedule, which will always include a morning and afternoon horse ride, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and an evening activity. Alternative afternoon activities are always offered: whether it be a scheduled rafting trip or a specifically arranged fly fishing trip, ATV ride, or mountain bike trip. Every morning, head wrangler (and ranch owner) Tyler Beckley comes around to each breakfast table to arrange the day’s activities for each family. This is the time for families to choose which type of ride to go on, or what alternative activity to schedule. As the week wore on, we, like many families, met friends and arranged to ride and play together, asking for teen rides, group rides, and ladies only rides. All were easily arranged.
Our typical day (Mon-Fri at the ranch) started by barely waking up in time for 8 am breakfast (unheard of for us, early-risers!), taking a morning ride of our choice (usually a fast ride while the kids rode with friends, or a family ride), coming back for lunch and a little break, an afternoon activity, which alternated between another ride or a different activity (one afternoon we went target shooting, another we went rafting), then down time in the late afternoon.
We filled this time by swimming in the pool, playing ping-pong or tennis, riding a bike along the trails, or just sitting on the porch of our cabin with a glass of wine.
Our family especially love riding bikes along the single track horse trails and many dirt roads and ATV trails around the ranch; bikes are available in the activities barn (the smallest being 17″ during our visit…a good size for a 10-year-old or up). From the barn area, trails can be accessed easily, either from the pastures or the trails past the large reining barn. We also swam and played tennis, and other families went fly fishing (equipment is available to use) and ATV riding (extra fee).
The ranch bar opens each day at 5 pm, and families tend to gather there to compare notes on the day. Kids order smoothies and play pool, and adults relax over a beer or cocktail. Dinner is at 6:30, followed by an evening activity, always with the wranglers, who also eat meals with guests and socialize naturally with everyone.
Evening activities during our stay ranged from a reining horse demonstration by horse trainer Jessie Buckley to a volleyball match and a cowboy guitar entertainer. Because it doesn’t get dark in summer in this part of the world until almost 11 pm, the kids tended to play on the lawns or soak in the hot tub until well after 9 pm, with lights out for our crew of school-aged and teen kids well past bedtime.
The Three Bars riding program:
If I had to pick one part of the Three Bars Ranch that is at the heart of the stay, it would be the riding program, though I want to emphasize again that this ranch is about so much more than riding. That said, compared to riding programs at dude ranches we’ve visited that have more of a ‘riding is everything’ attitude, Three Bars is still very much on par.
The riding is incredible. The horses are very well trained and responsive, and to a person, the wranglers were friendly, competent, and helpful. During our visit, there was a very even mix of ability level on horseback, with about 1/3 of the riders considering themselves novices, 1/3 experienced riders who don’t ride often, and 1/3 frequent riders. On Day 1, everyone was introduced to their horse, pre-selected based on a questionnaire asking for experience level. Every one of the 30+ guests were happy with their horses during our stay.
The first day, everyone I spoke to began by walking only, with wranglers keeping a careful eye on ability level and horse/rider compatibility. We didn’t mind, even though we were eager to trot and lope our horses, because the first ride was a great opportunity to get to know the area and see some of the scenery away from the ranch proper. By our second ride (afternoon of Day 1), our family was trotting, and by Day 2, we were loping (by request…this is not necessary). At another ranch we’d visited, rides started out fast and furious…great for experienced riders but uncomfortable for those who ride only occasionally.
On subsequent days, we verbalized what type of ride we wanted during the morning check-in with Tyler, whether it be a walking ride, ride with plenty of breaks and play time for kids, medium ride (with trotting and some loping), or fast ride (with more bouts of loping). We rode with our family unit and also with new friends. I absolutely love riding, so I greatly enjoyed the riding program, but individuals who would rather pursue other actives could absolutely do so. My kids loved having their ‘own’ horses for the week, and bonded with them quickly. In fact, even though 13-year-old Calvin, who liked riding fast, ended up with a very slow horse, he didn’t want to switch…he’d learned to love slow Chico!
Dining at Three Bars:
Meals are served at 8 am, noon, and 6:30 pm at Three Bars, and the food is always good. Occasionally during our stay, it was only ok, and sometimes, it was amazing. Full disclosure: I’m not a foodie. Especially during a vacation where we work up such an appetite, I’d honestly rather have good food, and plenty of it, than great food, in tiny, fancy portions.
At Three Bars, you get the former. We had no complaints, and always had our fill. The dining staff did an excellent job accommodating my pescetarian dietary needs, as well as others’ gluten-free needs. They can accommodate any type of need, with advanced warning. Breakfast included staples such as egg dishes, hash browns, pancakes, and granola, and there was always cereal, fruit, yogurt, and toast. Coffee was average (if you’re a coffee connoisseur, bring your own!) and water, tea, and coffee was always set out during the day.
Lunch ranged from sandwich fixings to make-your-own-burrito bars, always with freshly-baked cookies and side salads. Dinners ranged from ribs to herb chicken to Italian pastas, always with something for everyone. If you come expecting gourmet fare, you’ll be disappointed, but if your primarily goal is to be served hearty fare, you’ll go away happy. We had brought snacks for our room, but never needed them.
Lodging at Three Bars:
The cabins at Three Bars are very comfortable, visually beautiful, and convenient. Each has a TV with plenty of channels (though we hardly ever turned ours on), coffee service, a full bathroom with tub, WiFi (a godsend since I had to work during the stay), and very cozy beds with high-end linens.
There are different cabin configurations, but we ended up with two connecting rooms (one with three beds for the kids and a queen bed for me), giving us two bathrooms. Rooms have mini-fridges and cabinet space for snacks, plus plenty of closet space for riding gear and outerwear. Each cabin has a porch with table and chairs out front, all overlooking the main lawn and lodge.
What to know before you go:
- Everyone will need riding boots. The good news: boots can be rented from the ranch for $30/stay. This is a great value if you have older kids, as boots are expensive.
- Everyone will want a cowboy hat. They have them for sale in the store for a reasonable price. We had our ahead of time.
- Kids under 12 must wear a riding helmet. I felt great about this rule.
- Remember you’ll need passports or copies of the kids’ birth certificates to get across the Canadian border.
- Once at the ranch, you don’t need cash other than gratuity. All extra charges will go on a room charge. Tip should be 5-10% of the cost of the vacation, and can be given at the end of the stay.
- The activities that are not all-inclusive include ATV-riding, shooting, fly fishing, golf, and alcohol from the bar.
- All riding levels are accommodated. Don’t worry about lack of experience, or having too much experience.
- The wrangler staff are primarily young people from Canada and Australia. All are wonderful, and will make your kids feel special.
- Activities such as mountain biking, fishing, golf, and ATV riding can be scheduled at any time. Shooting sports and rafting are scheduled for set times.
- Kids can participate in shooting sports, regardless of experience. As non-gun-owners, we felt the experience was very safe and positive, with an emphasis on respect for guns.
- Bring several pairs of jeans per person, and plan to do laundry!
- Expect to miss your horse when you leave!
We experienced Three Bars Ranch as guests of the ranch, for the purpose of review. All opinions are our own.