Editor's note: This is a special advertiser-supported article from the Essential Park Guide, Fall 2014.
There's a sense of place in the West. It flows from endless stands of lodgepole pines, glades of aspen tinged gold by the season, horizons that spread the sky wider than youâve ever noticed. Spend a little time here, and it seeps into you.
It's the distant bugle of a bull elk, a band of pronghorn darting across the open range, the chortling flock of sandhill cranes, southbound, high overhead. They all fill your senses with the West as it's always been, as it always should be.
There's a comfortable, inviting feel to this landscape, a landscape that has been preserved in some of our most iconic national parks. And it's also one that can be found on the park's doorsteps; dude ranches steeped in Western traditions.
Spend a little time at one of these ranches and you can slip into the saddle of your trail horse for a ride while the morning dew is still fresh, and again before dinner to catch a sunset that you'll carry home with you. And after dinner, enjoy the starry night skies, relax with new friends, or plan a day trip into your favorite national park next door.
Some dude ranches border national parks. The Triangle X Ranch, operated by four generations of the same family, actually is surrounded by a park: Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
There's more than you might imagine to an all-inclusive dude ranch vacation. True, horses are at the forefront. But you also can work on your fly-fishing technique, enjoy live music around the campfire, and perfect your brush stroke with a watercolor class. You can go for a mountain bike ride, hike, or even climb. And at day's end, relax before the flickering flames of a fire before retreating to a cabin with warm furniture, comfortable beds, and heavy comforters, if needed, against fall's chill.
The following dude ranches, with national parks within easy reach, stretch from Colorado to California and from northern Montana to southern Arizona. All are members of the Dude Ranchers Association. Since 1926 this organization has set high standards for its members, evaluating just about everything from their horsemanship and horse care to the comfort of their accommodations and the quality of their meals.
Arizona Dude Ranches
The White Stallion Ranch near Tucson is practically an extension of Saguaro National Park, as it borders the northern end of the parkâs Tucson Mountain District. Take an all-day ride; it might lead you into the park. Or pick up the pace with a cantering ride through the chaparral of the Sonoran Desert, or take a day out of the saddle to work on your bouldering techniques, or head out on foot to explore the region. After dinner, you might work on your line-dancing steps, or study the heavens through one of the ranchâs telescopes.
At the Elkhorn Ranch, fall and winter, not summer, are the high seasons. And that makes senses, as the cooler temperatures of these seasons are perfect for exploring the ranch's 10,000 acres, the Baboquivari Mountains, and the Altar Valley southwest of Tucson. Blend your riding outings with photography or watercolor classes, which might focus on the colorful stalks of octillo when they bloom red in both fall and spring. Conservation is the key at Elkhorn, where the sun and winds help power the operation. Saguaro National Park and its Cactus Forest lies an hour to the north.
California Dude Ranches
When fall turns the leaves gold high in California's Sierra range, it's time to bring the cattle down from the high summer pastures. You can join the wranglers at Hunewill Circle H on this traditional cattle drive, and opt to spend two nights sleeping under the stars. Relax a bit more and enjoy the fall colors during the ranchâs four-night Fall Color Ride, in what John Muir called the "Range of Light." With Yosemite National Park 30 minutes away, it's easy to plan a day exploring Tuolumne Meadows along the Tioga Road.
A bit to the northwest, the 600-acre Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch near Quincy is surrounded by the Plumas National Forest. Here you have practically endless miles of national forest for riding. While you might arrive as a "greenhorn," work with the wranglers and by week's end you might be confident at loping your horse across the open meadows that split the forests. You can even test your skills against the other guests in the weekly ranch rodeos. Check off Lassen Volcanic National Park, just 90 minutes from the ranch, from your national park to-do list with a visit on a day out of the saddle.
Colorado Dude Ranches
Fall brings gold, in the form of fluttering cottonwoods and quaking aspens, to both the Florida River and the San Juan Mountains at the Colorado Trails Ranch near Durango. There's a flash of silver in the streams from the trout that make this part of Colorado hallowed ground for fly-fishing. But if riding is on your mind, the Horseman's Week in September lets you focus on your riding ability, whether you're a greenhorn or an experienced equestrian. With Mesa Verde National Park but 35 miles away, take time to explore Ancestral Puebloan history and cliff dwellings.
You won't run out of activities at the C Lazy U Ranch just west of Rocky Mountain National Park. Take aim with some archery or trap shooting, wet a fly in the Colorado River, work on your flexibility with a yoga class, head out for a mountain bike ride, or visit the western flanks of the national park just minutes away. Fall is the perfect season to explore the Rocky Mountain's fall foliage on a trail ride on the ranchâs 8,000 acres. Then, before dinner, enjoy a massage and relax with a soak in a copper tub overlooking Willow Creek.
On the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park, you can wake every day to Longs Peak out your window; it's one of the amenities of a stay at the Wind River Ranch. Another is being able to ride into the park to Twin Sisters Peaks, or Lily Lake or, some other peaceful setting inside the park. Come September, the ranch focuses on three- and four-day couple's, men's, and women's retreats. Day trips into the park, with the Beaver Meadows entrance just minutes away, are easy. Not associated with any denomination, the ranch operates on Christian principles. While inspirational talks are offered, attendance is optional.
Idaho Dude Ranches
Not everyone can spend an entire week at a dude ranch, and that's understood at the 1,100-acre Western Pleasure Guest Ranch near Sandpoint. Come October 1 and continuing through May, take advantage of the ranch's bed-and-breakfast option, with horseback rides available. At day's end stoke a fire in your log cabinâs wood stove and enjoy the quiet beauty of the surrounding Panhandle National Forest. Fall visits mean riding leave-covered trails, spectacular views of the Cabinet Mountains, and day trips to Glacier National Park to the east. With the arrival of snow,you can enjoy a sleigh ride.
Montana Dude Ranches
Evening's light comes a bit sooner in fall, but it fires the reds, gold, oranges and yellows of the autumn finery in the mountains surrounding the Bar W Guest Ranch in northern Montana near Whitefish. That growing chill in the air actually makes your trail ride more comfortable, and seems to make the fish in Spencer Lake hungrier. Trail rides wind through the forests and range high above timberline, with panoramic views of this region known as the Crown of the Continent. Off to the east, less than an hour away, rises Glacier National Park.
Not much more than the two-lane asphalt of U.S. 191 and some national forest (in this case the Gallatin) separates Lone Mountain Ranch outside Big Sky from Yellowstone National Park. After you're done with your flyfishing on the Yellowstone, Madison, or Missouri rivers, take a horseback ride into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, and join one of the ranch's naturalists for a trek to explore some of the wonders of the world's first national park. Dinners, which revolve around lamb, beef, fish and poultry with fresh, locally- sourced ingredients, will make you glad you were outdoors all day.
Far from the Grand Loop Road that runs a Figure 8 through the heart of Yellowstone National Park, the northwestern corner of the park is generally overlooked. But not by the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, which is just down the road. Close enough, in fact, for the ranch to lead trail rides into Yellowstone and, at times, multi-day pack trips for those seeking a wilder experience. Don't ride yet? They'll start you out with the basics shortly after you arrive, and work as needed throughout the week to hone your technique.
Wyoming Dude Ranches
They still drive cattle at the Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch in northern Wyoming. The wranglers are ready to help you learn the skills that previous generations of cowboys learned while pushing cattle from Texas to Montana. Of course, you can leave the work behind and explore this country on trail rides that take you up above 10,000 feet, or retrace a century-old mail trail. Dinners are in the spacious lodge dining room, family-style, where a cracklinâ fire in the stone fireplace heightens the ambience. Take a break from riding with a daytrip to Yellowstone National Park, two hours west.
Filling the Wind Riverâs East Fork valley near Dubois, Wyoming, the Lazy L&B Ranch is an oasis surrounded by some of the badlands that color this part of the state. With a weekly limit of 35 guests, you don't feel rushed or overlooked by the wranglers. Daily rides let you explore this landscape. Or you can leave your boots in your room and head to Grand Teton or Yellowstone national parks, just 90 minutes away, to further diversify your vacation. There's also a backcountry camping option that really gets you into the wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest.
Wyoming is especially rich in dude ranches, and the CM Ranch is one of the oldest, dating to 1927. Here at the base of the Wind River Range, the ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It likely is in many fishing guides, too, as the Big Wind, Little Wind, and Jakey's Fork teem with brown, rainbow, and brook trout. Arrange a stay high in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, where the ranch has some cabins on Simpson Lake, and try to hook some. With Yellowstone and Grand Teton only an hour-and-a-half away, you can add geysers and climbing to your vacation.
Fall's calling card in western Wyoming is the snow-dusted crags of Grand Teton National Park, with golden aspen and green pines lower down on the mountainsides. Enjoy this view from your cabin at the Gros Ventre River Ranch, from a rocking chair on the front porch, or from the saddle while also keeping an eye out for the moose, bison, or pronghorn that make this landscape home. Fly-fish some of the best blue-ribbon trout streams in the West, or explore the area by canoe. Round out your vacation by climbing the Grand Teton itself, or float the Snake River, weather allowing, of course.
Four generations of the Turner family have run the Triangle X Ranch, which will celebrate its 90th year in operation just as the National Park Service celebrates its own centennial in 2016. Wrapped by Grand Teton National Park, you won't have a bad view from the ranch, and you don't lack for open spaces to ride. The wranglers can take you on a backcountry pack-trip into the Teton Wilderness, or get you on a float trip down the Snake River through the park, to give you a break from the saddle. Plan a return trip for winter and exchange your horse for snowshoes or Nordic skis.
Wake up this fall to the smell of hot coffee brewing with a spectacular vista out your window. Get a little trail dust on your boots, and end the day before a blazing fire with new friends and great memories. Gain a sense of the true West with a stay at a dude ranch.