Most people equate dude ranches to the range-riding, dog-wrangling, pot-full-of-beans-eating experience we all watched Billy Crystal endure in the movie “City Slickers.” While that experience is available to those who are looking for it, most dude ranches are decidedly different.

The week my family spent at the Lost Valley Ranch in Sedalia, Colo. is the best vacation we ever experienced together. Adults appreciated the relaxed pace, four diamond accommodations, Rocky Mountain scenery, fabulous food, and ability to do as much (or as little) with our day as we liked. The kids thought the ranch was even better than Disneyland. Why?

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DSC_0714-003The ranch allows the kids to enjoy all that is great about being a kid; getting dirty while fishing down in the creek, making instant friends with children from across the country, having chicken fights in the pool after a day of supervised fun, experiencing the thrill of a ghost story in a cave, laughing hysterically at a cheesy skit put on by ranch staff, and eating way too much ice cream.

Oh, and did I mention there are horses?

DSC_0525Nearly every dude ranch includes unlimited horseback riding in their pricing, with as many as three opportunities to go on organized rides per day. At Lost Valley Ranch, kids are broken up into groups by age and matched with a horse that best fit their size, personality, and experience. Wranglers, who are experts in both riding and working with kids, help children gain confidence and improve their skill level as the week progresses. Meanwhile, adults are broken up into groups based on their skill level (or lack of) and desire to progress. While some folks were happy leading their horses on leisurely walks along Rocky Mountain trails, I chose to join the “progressive beginner” group which took us from nervous newbies to confident trotters and lopers by week’s end.

DSC_0557If a week’s vacation centered around horseback riding doesn’t sound like your ideal summer vacation, it doesn’t mean a dude ranch isn’t for you. Most dude ranches offer a variety of activities such as fishing, trap shooting, and hiking. Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge in Montana is a dude ranch on a lake so water lovers can have a blast water skiing, sailing, and even paddleboarding. Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang features two different golf courses and a full service spa.

Good to know before you go

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Book early. The most popular travel weeks, especially those in the summer, book up fast. January and February are the most popular times to book summer dude ranch vacations.

Do your research. Dude ranches come in all sizes and styles and a little bit of research can lead to your dream vacation. Sites such as Top 50 Ranches and Dude Ranchers Association are great resources which allow you to filter ranches by size, location, and activities.

Check for minimum stay requirements. Traditionally, ranches are booked for one week at a time but some ranches do allow you to book on a nightly basis. You may also find that while ranches do require a one-week stay during the summer months, shortened stays are offered during the off season. Off-peak travel will typically result in lower rates as well.

Ask questions. An email or a phone call to the ranch before you go can help you prepare for your trip. Are there snacks offered between meals or should I bring my own? Do you offer childcare for children too young to ride? What sorts of children’s programs does your ranch offer? Do I need boots in order to ride? Is there WiFi available?

Check the weather. It may be spring or summer at home in Southern California, but that doesn’t mean it is warm and sunny at the ranch. Many ranches, such as those in the Rockies or Sierras, at a high elevations which lead to variable temperatures and varying conditions.

Lost Valley Ranch

29555 Goose Creek Rd
Sedalia, CO 80135
(303) 647-2311
More Info

Alisal Guest Ranch

1054 Alisal Road
Solvang, CA 93463
(800) 4AL-ISAL
More Info

Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge

150 Flathead Lodge Road
Bigfork, MT 59911
(406) 837-4391
More Info

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Sharlene Earnshaw is the editor for Trekaroo, a website dedicated to helping families travel better.