How many times have you started planning your national park vacation, only to suddenly and regretfully realize that you started too late and all the lodgings inside the park are booked for the dates you wanted to travel?
A possible solution to that dilemma is to consider staying at a dude ranch near one of the national parks on your itinerary. True, many dude ranches offer all-inclusive vacations, but some are located inside national parks, so you really can combine the two, while others are just a short ride away, close enough for a day trip.
Just imagine staying in the landscape that surrounds Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming. Come evening, wisps of Wyoming rouge crease the evening sunset, while the pungent aroma of sagebrush hangs heavy in the air. Sprawling mountain ranges sweep the horizons north, west, and south, falling away only to the east where the Great Plains roll away toward the Mississippi.
It's the type of country best seen from the back of a horse that can take you to the high country lakes and cascading creeks where trout wait, across plains were prairie dogs dart from burrow to burrow while golden eagles glide overhead, and through meadows bursting with Indian paintbrush, lupine, and mountain asters.
Across the West, in locations surrounding not just Yellowstone and Grand Teton but also Glacier National Park in Montana and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, you'll find more than a few dude ranches ready to offer you a memorable, authentic, Western vacation as part of your national park adventure.
Let’s take a look at some of the options, starting in Wyoming.
Located within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park, the Triangle X Ranch is the only operating guest ranch concession within the National Park System. This dude ranch, long owned and operated by the Turner family, runs year-round and can offer you summertime activities such as horseback riding and float trips on the Snake River while the Tetons soar overhead. Come in winter and you can don snowshoes or cross-country skis to explore the park.
The ranch, which dates to 1926, is located 26 miles north of Jackson and 32 miles south of Yellowstone’s south entrance. With the Triangle X as a basecamp in the summer, you can take guided fishing trips into the surrounding mountains, set out on wilderness pack trips for a few days, or simply relax at the ranch after days spent exploring Grand Teton.
Accommodations at the ranch are found in 20 log cabins with gorgeous, sweeping views of arguably the most iconic mountain range in the United States. These are historic log cabins, not recently fabricated structures. Some, for instance, date to the 1800s and might have housed early settlers in the Jackson Hole Valley.
Meals are taken in the "main house” of the ranch. This building once served as the home to the first two generations of the Turner family and later was turned into a dining and gathering spot for ranch guests.
Summer rates at the Triangle X vary depending on how many people are in your group. For instance, during the peak season that runs from June 9 through August 25 a three-bedroom cabin that will hold six guests runs $1,800 per person for 7 nights. That same cabin would cost $2,025 per person if there were only five guests sharing it.
One-bedroom cabins range from $2,500 per person for a single guest for seven nights to $1,800 per person for three people for seven nights. Off-season rates, which run up to June 9 or after August 25, range from $1,800 per person per week for two or more people, or $257 per person per day, to $1,960 per person per week for singles, or $280 per day.
For children who are too young to ride a horse the rates are half the listed rates.
For those prices you enjoy lodging, meals, horseback riding, and all ranch activities. Additional costs come into play if you decide to go on a pack trip, a float trip, guided fishing trips, or guided hunting trips.
Winter rates are decidedly reduced are go by the night, in the neighborhood of $140 per person.
For more information, check out the ranch's website.
In Colorado, you have several dude ranches near Rocky Mountain National Park. There is the Drowsy Water Ranch, the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, the Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch, and the C Lazy U Ranch.
The Drowsy Water Ranch is located near Granby, Colorado, on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This 700-acre ranch has been welcoming guests for more than 90 years. Along with horseback riding, you can enjoy swimming, rafting, trout fishing, guided hikes, hayrides, and much more. Rocky Mountain National Park, with its endless miles of hiking trails and the beauty of Trail Ridge Road, is just 25 miles away.
Accommodations at the Drowsy Water are spread through a number of log cabins as well in rooms within the main lodge. The rooms have the ubiquitous Western decor, with wood wainscoting along the walls, wood plank ceilings supported by log beams, and heavy Western-style comforters that tell stories in their quilted brands.
Rates for the 2013 high season, which runs from June 2 through September 14, range from $1,940 per person per week, double occupancy, to $1,985 per person per week for a single.
Family rates, which apply to families of three or more sharing the same accommodations, run from $1,500 per person for children age 6 to 13, and $1,700 for children age 14 to 17 to $1,900 for adults aged 18 and above. For kids 5 and under, the weekly rate is $810. And for those not interested in horseback riding, you can deduct $375 from the weekly rate.
For more details, head over to the ranch's website.
The Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, just 13.5 miles west of Interstate 25 and 25 miles east of the national park. The ranch dates to the early 1900s when it was a small cattle operation long the Big Thompson River. Fast-forward to 1946 and the ranch, which was fairly rundown at the time, was purchased for Maurice Jessup, who along with his wife 'Tillie' turned the property into a guest ranch.
From those early days when the ranch covered just 125 acres the Jessups have expanded it to 3,200 acres as a working guest ranch. Today at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch you can, of course, head out for a horseback ride or even help the ranchhands move cattle. Saddle sore? Gather your friends and family together for softball game.
There is also an outdoor heated pool as well as a hot tub to ease any sore muscles that crop up, and nearby you can enjoy white-water rafting as well as golf. Also on the ranch’s list of activities are trapshooting, rock climbing, and guided flyfishing.
Rates at the guest ranch, which cover six nights of lodging as well as meals, range from $1,300 per person for guests ages 13 and older per week and $2,300 per person per week for an "adults only" gathering at the ranch in late August to almost $2,500 per person per week for special themed weeks such as "the Native American" and "the Adventurer." Rates for children 3 to 5 and 6 to 12 are much less expensive.
To see more of the particulars, visit the ranch's website.
The Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch is located to the southwest of Rocky Mountain National Park along the Colorado River. Among its claims to fame is possibly being the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Colorado.
Here you can stay in one of 12 log cabins or in a room in the main ranch house. Rates, of course, include all your meals during your stay and activities such as horseback riding, flyfishing, hayrides, mountain biking, and campfire programs.
Many of the log cabins offer views out across the Colorado River, so you can either start or end the day by wetting your line or simply listening to the murmuring river. The cabins can sleep from two to eight guests and feature screened-in porches, queen or king size beds, as well as coffeemakers and coolers that are stocked with ice by the ranch staff for your favorite beverages.
On the ranch grounds you also will find a swimming pool and hot tub, a massage room, a petting corral for the youngsters, as well as free laundry facilities and even cowboy boots you can borrow if you don’t have a pair of your own.
Rates at the Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch range from $1,200 per week for kids aged 3 to 6 and $1,400 per week for kids 7 to 12 to $1,925 per week for guests ages 13 and over. If you stay in the ranch house, add another $200 per person.
The guest season at the ranch runs from May 26 through September 29. For more information, check out the ranch's website.
Also on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park is the C Lazy U Ranch, an 8,500-acre operation located not far from Granby. The ranch dates to 1919, when it started out as a working cattle operation. It since has evolved into a comfortable guest ranch operation with a focus on horsemanship.
The ranch has more than 175 horses, as well as a 12,000-square-foot, heated indoor riding arena for when it’s too cold or wet outside.
Many of the guest rooms at the ranch feature beautiful stone fireplaces, as well as the expected Western and Southwestern furnishing touches. In addition to the main ranch house, there are dozens of cabins dotting the surrounding hillsides.
If you’re considering a dude ranch vacation with some friends, you might want to reserve the Ridge Cabin, which actually is two renovated cabins with multiple bedrooms and a shared bedroom. You also can sample "glamping."
Activities at the ranch include, of course, horseback riding as well as yoga, trapshooting, archery, mountain biking, and even tennis. Nearby you’ll find not only the national park, but also golfing, white water rafting, and hot-air ballooning. Come in winter, and you can enjoy ice skating, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, as well as cross-country skiing.
Pricing varies depending on when you went to visit the ranch, by the cabin you want to call home, and the number of people in your group. For rates, call the ranch at 970-887-3344.
In Montana near Glacier National Park there are couple dude ranches that you might want to investigate. There’s Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge and the Bar W Guest Ranch.
You'll find Averill’s, naturally, on the shores of Flathead Lake. Accommodations here can be found within the historic Flathead Lake Lodge or in some of the rustic cabins found on the property.
Each of the cabins fronts Flathead Lake and offers sprawling views of the lake.
As with the other dude ranches, during your stay at the Flathead Lake Lodge you can enjoy horseback riding, including private lessons or roping demonstrations, sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and even stand-up paddle boarding, lake. There also bikes to rent basketball courts tennis courts as well as beach volleyball courts.
If you’re looking for some guided adventures, the guest ranch can arrange guided flyfishing outings, white-water rafting, skeet shooting, or even tours of a nearby elk preserve.
Rates at Averill's, which cover Sunday to Sunday stays, range from $1,435 for children age 3 to 5 to $3,444 per adult. Those rates cover your lodging as well as family-style Western dining. For more information, visit the lodge's website or call them at 406-837-4391.
The Bar W Guest Ranch can be found near Whitefish, Montana, to the west of Glacier. Located along Spencer Lake, the ranch encompasses 3,000 acres perfect for daily horseback rides as well as fishing opportunities. During your stay you can enjoy rides out across ranch or perhaps take in a horsemanship clinic or barrel racing in the ranch's indoor or outdoor riding arenas.
Of course, horseback riding isn’t the only activity at the Bar W. There’s also fishing for pike on Spencer Lake, miles of hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and badminton, volleyball, or even horseshoes.
Lodging at the Bar W ranges from suites in the 6,200-square-foot main lodge to cabins such as the Eagles Nest, a beautifully handcrafted building that offers a bedroom with queen bed as well as a sleeping loft that can handle two or three other guests. All told, the cabin can accommodate up to 10 guests.
The Bear Den is a one-bedroom cabin equipped with a kitchenette with microwave, refrigerator, and coffee maker. With the two futons in the sleeping area, this cabin can handle six guests.
Rates at the Bar W cover accommodations, all meals, maid service, and ranch activities including horseback riding, cookouts, archery, biking, fishing on the lake, and even wagon ride dinners area.
During the summer, six-night, five-day packages range from $1,700 per person double occupancy to $2,265 per person. Shorter stays of three nights lodging range from $850 per person to $1,132 per person, double occupancy. For more information visit the ranch’s website, or call them at 866-828-2900.
These are just some of the dude ranch accommodations available to national park travelers who are looking for something a little different, somewhat off the beaten path, and yet not to far from the national park of their choice.
For more dude ranch options, visit the website of the Dude Ranchers Association.