by Justine Durrel
Even as TiVo and text messaging tap into daily life, more and more people are looking to unplug, kick back and get away from it all — at least on their vacation. And you can’t get much further away than donning a worn pair of blue jeans, saddling a fine horse and spending a day rounding up stray heifers.
No wonder dude ranch vacations have become hotter’n a cast-iron skillet over a roaring campfire. It’s a perfect way to explore the mountains and deserts of the Old West, all while being very much part of nature itself.
Ranch vacations also offer great value. At most places, rates are all-inclusive, covering accommodations, horseback riding and instruction, use of fishing gear and other facilities and often even gratuities. Here’s a selection of ranches where travelers can find happy trails.
California — Coffee Creek Ranch
Dating to three mining claims staked in 1877, this 367-acre ranch is located 72 miles northwest of Redding. Surrounded by national forest and the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area, the property lies along its namesake stream that provides excellent trout fishing. For riding, Coffee Creek breeds its own registered Quarter horses and Paints; typically, two rides a day are scheduled. The all-day “wilderness” ride to a lake offers the most spectacular scenery; the itinerary can be extended into an overnight pack trip for enthusiasts. Each guest cabin has a theme based on its brand: Circle B, for example, is decorated with bears, Bigfoot and butterflies. Some cabins offer wood-burning stoves. During supervised summer programs, kids enjoy a fun-filled schedule of pony rides, nature walks, crafts and panning for gold. When guests aren’t exploring the mountain trails, they can swim in the heated pool or try their hand at badminton, volleyball, horseshoes, table tennis, shuffleboard, pedal boating, or basketball. (800-624-4480 or 530-266-3343; coffeecreekranch.com)
California — Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch
Just where the Sierra Nevada range meets the Cascades you’ll find this 600-acre ranch nestled in a small valley. The property sits near more than 100 lakes, 1,000 miles of rivers and streams and over 1.2 million acres of national forest. Estray Creek flows through the ranch, feeding two ponds and providing water for the 100-plus horses. Both ponds are stocked with trout and ready for fishing. Led by seasoned wranglers, riders climb mountain trails, cross creeks and explore lush green meadows. A unique aspect of the riding program is the guest rodeo (strictly voluntary), with events such as spoon racing, barrel racing, pole-bending, keyhole competition and an obstacle course. The Kiddie Corral for children between three and five years of age features games, arts and crafts, storytelling, snacks and horse-led rides around the ranch. Simple, Western-style accommodations are set either in a lodge or separate cabins. All have private baths — but no TV or telephone. (800-334-6439; www.greenhornranch.com)
Colorado — Colorado Trails Guest Ranch
Set 12 miles northeast of the historic western town of Durango, the 450-acre spread sits at 7,500 feet in a valley that adjoins two-million-acre San Juan National Forest. The rides group their participants by ability, age and interests. For advanced horsemen, Colorado Trails offers a half-day Longhorn cattle drive. Geared for different age groups, the kids’ program offers riding, swimming and fishing; youngsters can also go rafting or to the petting zoo, or learn archery or arts and crafts. In addition, Colorado Trails Ranch offers a full-service fly-fishing program with over two miles of private water on the Florida River. Guests also have access to streams in the San Juan National Forest or on the San Juan River during guided trips. Special theme sessions include a horseman’s week with cattle work, falling fishing clinic, an adults-only drawing and painting clinic and more. Guests stay in cabins with comfortable porches and private baths. (800-323-3833 or 970-247-5055;http://coloradotrails.com)
Colorado — Lost Valley Ranch
A working cattle ranch since 1883, the property began taking guests in 1947. Bob and Karen Foster are now the second- generation owners/managers. Located near Deckers (two hours from Denver and Colorado Springs), the spread is known for its supervised children’s/teen program. Different age groups enjoy horseback riding, swimming, hiking, picnics, fishing and crafts. Teens have evening as well as daytime programs. Geared to skill levels from beginner to advanced, rides are scheduled every morning and afternoon. Well-marked trails follow old logging roads, crisscross wooded ridgelines and wind through stands of shimmering aspens. Lost Valley also offers roundup weeks in the spring and fall. In the spring work involves branding, tagging and moving the herd from the ranch onto summer pasture on 40,000 acres in the Pike National Forest. Participants can learn how to throw a calf and lasso a steer. Cozy and comfortable, the one-, two- and three-bedroom cabin suites offer a porch swing, refrigerator and electric coffee maker. Wood is delivered daily for the fireplace. (303-647-2311; www.ranchweb.com/lost/)
Idaho — Twin Peaks Ranch
A 2,900-acre working ranch, Twin Peaks is located near Salmon, Idaho, on the wild “River of No Return.” The property was originally founded as a sportsmen’s lodge in the early 1900s. Today, the ranch can accommodate 55 guests in the cozy original cabins as well as newer, more spacious deluxe cabins, some of which have whirlpool tubs. Riding trails follow rushing streams lined by aspens and climb to overviews of the snowcapped Continental Divide where Lewis and Clark cut their pioneering trail to the West. On rides, guests might spot Bighorn sheep, moose, bear, deer and elk, which sometimes run in herds of over 100. Other Western activities include flyfishing, whitewater rafting, barrel racing and overnighting in a tent camp at North Basin, where dinner features a thick BBQ steak, corn on the cob and Dutch oven cobbler. (800-659-4899 or 208-894-2290; www.twinpeaksranch.com)
Montana — 320 Guest Ranch
Picture a quiet place just north of Yellowstone Park and just south of Big Sky Ski Resort. Here the pristine Gallatin River winds through sage and towering pines, and mountains rise up against the bluest of Big Sky country. A year-round retreat, 320 Guest Ranch offers horseback riding, hiking and fishing in summer, skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. Ranch history began in 1898, when Sam Wilson homesteaded 160 acres along the Gallatin River. Today the property offers 87 sleeping rooms within 59 luxurious and modern cabin-like accommodations, in addition to log homes and a mountain chalet. Many rooms feature wood-burning fireplaces. Horseback rides lead through high mountain meadows or to the top of 10,000-foot peaks. Along the way, riders might encounter wildlife such as elk, deer, eagles, moose, coyotes, bears and — if they’re lucky — maybe a wolf. In addition, Montana is famous for wild trout. Two miles of the blue-ribbon Gallatin River — setting for fishing scenes in “A River Runs Through It” — run right through the ranch. (800-243-0320 or 406-995-4283; www.320ranch.com)
Wyoming — Goosewing Ranch
Elk, moose, mountain sheep, antelope, bear, eagles, cranes ... Some of North America’s most spectacular game makes its home within range of this ranch poised at 7,000 feet in the Gros Ventre Mountains that rise above Jackson Hole. Goosewing Ranch is both a working cattle operation and a wilderness retreat. From the herd of 50 horses guests are assigned their own horse for the duration of their stay. In winter, the ranch offers daily guided tours by snowmobile or snowcoach into the Jackson Hole region and Yellowstone National Park. Goosewing has eight private guest cabins and a large, family-style log home for groups. With its large stone fireplace, the main lodge serves as a central gathering place for dining and relaxing. Fireplaces, wood-stoves, hot tub and a swimming pool add to the cozy atmosphere. [888-733-5251; www.guestranches.com/goosewing/)
British Columbia — Echo Valley Ranch & Spa
Hot tubs and a heated indoor swimming pool. Meals prepared by a chef who has cooked at the James Beard Foundation. A roster of activities that includes three-step meditation as well as falconry demonstrations and sheep-pasture golf. All this proves that this ranch set in the foothills of Mount Bowman in British Columbia delivers something different when it comes to cow punching. East meets Wild West at the spa, where treatments include Sabai Sabai, the Thai approach to wellness that promotes harmony of mind, body and spirit. Of course, Echo Valley delivers cowboy-doms 3 Three R’s as well — riding, roping and relaxing. Riders saddle up on Tennessee walking horses, renowned for their smooth gaits and even dispositions. For whitewater thrills, guests can go rafting on the Fraser River — site of a 19th-century gold rush. New for 2007, the “Exceptional Experience” package allows guests to custom-design their vacation experience by choosing from activities such as flyfishing lessons, gold-panning trips and guided all-day horseback rides. (250-459-2386; www.evranch.com)
DUDE RANCHES — Travel Tips
Before riding off into the sunset, here are some questions to ask about each ranch:
• How much experience do guests need? Ranches cater to riders of various levels — from never-evers to silver-buckle winners prepping for the rodeo season. According to ranch owners, the majority of their guests have limited riding experience, so teaching safe horsemanship is a prime goal of their programs.
• What will the riding be like? On most trail rides, the horses walk most of the time. Experienced riders should check whether “fast” rides (canter/lope and gallop) are an option.
• What should people wear? Long pants are required for riding. That cowboy classic, blue jeans, works best. Pants should be comfortable but close-fitting, since baggy jeans rub (forget hip-hop chic). For safety, boots or shoes with heels work best — sneakers are not appropriate, since they can slide through the stirrup.
• What do prices cover? At most ranches, rates include accommodations, three meals daily, horseback riding and other on-ranch activities and facilities such as fishing, hiking, swimming pool, etc. In general, rates will not include taxes or gratuities, ground transfers from the airport to the ranch, or optional sightseeing excursions.::::