It’s after a soft, pattering rain, with the clouds clearing and the sun streaming through, that the essence of the Western landscape rises up. The pungent scent of sagebrush is wicked up by the moist air, mingling with the sweet aroma of pine. And whether you’re astride your horse, or relaxing on the ranch-house porch with a steaming cup of coffee, the early fall view of snow-dusted peaks with valleys below glimmering with the gold of aspen leaves seems crisper, almost magnified.
Surrounded by hundreds, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of acres, the views from dude ranches from northern Montana down to southern Arizona never seem to end, sweeping across mountains and over meadows. And that bugling you hear early in the morning or late at night? It is indeed a reveille, but not to summon the troops. Rather, it rises up from deep in the throats of bull elk and pierces the air -- with a flume of steam, if it’s cold enough -- as they summon their harems.
Try to gain a feel for this land through your windshield and you’ll be wondering what lies beyond that ridgeline, how bad the badlands really are, and whether that mechanical horse you rode as a youngster was adequate preparation for a ride into the forests or up into the mountains.
Dude ranches have been showcasing these landscapes, and their associated experiences, for generations of families, many who come back year after year after year to relive the experience. And why not? These typically week-long vacations revolve around trail rides that literally carry you into these marvelous settings. And that day in the saddle is followed by a hearty meal that might feature Citrus Roasted Half Chicken, Porcini Mushroom Risotto, or a classic Buffalo Tenderloin. At day’s end, you’ll settle into a soft, warm bed in a cabin that’s rooted in the setting.
With some ranches closing in on a century of welcoming guests, it’s not a lie to say the industry literally grew up with the National Park System. So intertwined are the two that there’s almost a symbiotic relationship between them.
True, most dude ranch vacations feature all-inclusive ranch stays. But there are ranches out there that relish and promote their proximity to national parks, places such as the Lone Mountain Ranch that is just 18 miles from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, or the White Stallion Ranch that sidles up to Saguaro National Park in Arizona.
When considering a dude ranch vacation, be sure to look for the establishment’s endorsement from the Dude Ranchers’ Association. This organization, which arose from a meeting in 1926 in a Bozeman, Montana, hotel room between cattle ranching and railroad interests, doesn’t take membership lightly. Rather, ranches are evaluated for two years on everything from their lodgings to how they care for their horses before they’re granted membership.
Today, only about 100 ranches sprinkled through the Western United States and two Canadian provinces have qualified for that distinction.
Here’s a look at ten dude ranches that can connect you with a national park when you want the best of both experiences -- ranch life and a sampling of America’s best places.
This 300,000-acre ranch at the base of the Big Horn Mountains in north-central Wyoming specializes in intimate experiences by limiting weekly stays to about two dozen guests. Under the wide Wyoming skies you can work on your horsemanship, or help drive some of the ranch’s 1,200+ head of Black Angus cattle down from the high country to their wintering grounds near Trapper Creek Lodge. Want a national park day trip? Yellowstone is about two hours west, while Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is about the same distance to the north.
Big Sky, Montana
With a history that dates to 1915 when the ranch was homesteaded, this guest ranch offers everything from fly fishing and horseback riding to tours of Yellowstone. Those parks tours are led by one of the ranch’s naturalists and can be done from atop a horse or on foot. Kids have their own programs to look forward to, be it pony rides for the youngsters (3-5 years old), or maybe an overnight backpacking trip for teens to build their outdoors skills. After a long day, enjoy a massage before, or after, dinner and then retire to your cabin and relax in front of the fire.
This southern Arizona ranch spans 3,000 acres, but can seem larger thanks to the access it has to Saguaro National Park and its 91,439 acres right next door. All-day horseback rides at the White Stallion Ranch can include treks into the national park. You also can ride up into the surrounding mountains studded with the region’s iconic saguaro cacti or, if you have the skills, take a faster ride that features loping and cantering through the Sonoran Desert. Recall the day’s activities around the evening buffet dinner grilled outside, and relax afterwards by studying the night sky or listening to a cowboy singer.
Exit your adobe casita each morning at Tanque Verde Guest Ranch and you have a multitude of activities to choose from. You can work on your horsemanship or roping skills with a morning class, take in the ranch’s 60,000 acres of desert and mountains on horseback, or sign up for a hike in Saguaro National Park. There’s also the 21 acres of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just outside Saguaro’s Tuscon Mountain District to explore, mountain biking options, and even water color classes or simply relaxing around the pool.
Towering over your stay at the Gros Ventre River Ranch are the crags of Grand Teton National Park. Not surprisingly, the park can play a supporting role in your vacation at the ranch. You can take time to climb the Grand Teton itself, or play white-water cowboy on the rapids of the Snake River that flows through the park. Daily trail rides offer great photo opts with the bison and moose that call this landscape home. Family style dinners back at the lodge allow you to make new friends while comparing your day’s adventures.
Just west of Rocky Mountain National Park, the C Lazy U Ranch dates to 1919 when it was a working cattle ranch. These days guests have more than 175 horses to choose from for trail rides, though you also can wet a fly in the Colorado River, improve your archery skills, or stretch out with a yoga lesson. Meals in the main ranch house feature entrees such as rosemary rack of lamb and Rocky Mountain trout. The national park is a short drive up Highway 34, making a visit an easy day trip.
Sweeping views of the glacier-streaked Teton Range atop Grand Teton National Park highlight a stay at the Red Rock Ranch located on the fringe of the park. Start the day with a steaming cup of coffee while seated across from the cracklin’ fire in the main lodge, and end it a dozen or more hours later before the woodstove in your cabin. In between, the hours can be filled with trail rides, angling for trout in the ranch’s 2.5-mile stretch of Crystal Creek, exploring the park, or improving your square dancing.
The forests of northern Idaho are the backyard of the Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, a family owned operation where you can build on your horsemanship or start from scratch. Days are built around two rides, morning and afternoon, though you can also hone your archery skills or take a dinner cruise on Lake Pend Oreille. During the week you might enjoy a Dutch oven dinner followed by music around the campfire. You also can break away for a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park a few hours to the east.
In northern California, far from the crowds and surrounded by the Plumas National Forest, you can work on both your horsemanship and line dancing at the Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch. Practice your skills trotting or loping with your horse, or simply enjoy day rides into the mountains flecked red, yellow and orange by autumn. Those late afternoon rides might include cookouts, or you might head back to the main ranch house for dinner. Display your new-found skills during the “guest rodeos.” Lassen Volcanic National Park is just 90 minutes to the north, a perfect distance for a day trip.
There is a place in northern Montana where days are spent on trail rides or sharpening skills barrel racing or maybe simply fishing. Visitors to the Bar W Guest Ranch also have access to mountain bike trails and relaxing on evening wagon rides that culminate with a cookout. For some, helping with a cattle drive might be on your schedule. For all, rides high up into the mountains and through the pine forests are daily adventures. The 3,000-acre ranch is not far from the Canadian border...and it’s also less than an hour from Glacier National Park. Whether you’re anxious to get back on a horse, or want to slip your foot into a stirrup for the first time, a dude ranch vacation surrounds you with landscapes so magnificent in their beauty that we protect many of them as national parks.
Coming Sunday: Enjoy a colorful fall drive through the National Park System.