Staying at a Dude Ranch
Staying at a dude ranch evokes that dream of cowboy life, John Wayne riding against a sunset backdrop and well, yes, it’s sentimental, but childhood memories are strong, right… Sentimental or not, a ranch stay is one of the best ways to experience the American West with its gorgeous landscapes, ranging from sweltering deserts to snow-clad mountain peaks. Ranching is still how many local people make their living so you’d get a chance to experience a lifestyle that has been around since the pioneer days. But how do you pick one of all these gorgeous ranches? It can be a daunting mission, particularly from afar. Here are some tips that I hope will help you on your way.
1. When are you traveling?
The first thing to take into account is the season you will travel. If it’s wintertime, most ranches are closed in the northern states like Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, even Colorado. You can’t blame them really – I would also like to avoid having to dig my way through snowdrifts as high as the barn door. The good thing is that there are plenty of nice options in the southern states like Arizona, California, and New Mexico. On the other hand, in the summer it can get unbearably hot at the lower elevations, and some ranches close down for this very reason. Bear in mind that even within a state the altitude changes everything: during wintertime in Arizona, for instance, you can go skiing then swimming in a pool under the palm trees, all within 2,5 hours of traveling. As a European, I still find these climate changes astonishing.
2. Who are your buddies?
Are you traveling with a friends, family, or by yourself? A larger ranch like Tanque Verde ranch (TVR) in Tucson, AZ, where I stayed last year, offers activities for everyone, a big plus when you are traveling with family or friends, who may not be as horse crazy as you. A kids program may be ideal if you want to keep the little ones engaged while you are enjoying a ride with the grown ups.
On the other hand, if you are traveling by yourself, a smaller ranch may offer a more personal experience. When I stayed at Zapata Ranch in Colorado, I was traveling by myself but I soon got to know the other guests, as we enjoyed meals seated at the same table and then spent all group rides and activities together.
3. What’s THE thing that makes you want to go?
Is it the horseback riding, the cattle herding, or do you want a bit of everything? Consider your priorities. If it’s horseback riding, and you are an experienced rider, you will want to find out if the ranch allows trotting and cantering. Many places only allow walking because they cater to beginners. At Tanque Verde Ranch, for example, they solve this issue by offering separate rides for advanced riders where cantering is included. First you will have to pass a brief practical test to show the wranglers that you can change from one gait to another.
Some ranches offer a unique learning experience, for instance about nature, history, and wildlife. At Zapata Ranch, for instance, we learned how the staff manages the bison herd to conserve this species that almost became extinct in the 19th century. Zapata is a forerunner for managing a ranch in an environmentally friendly way, a result of being owned by The Nature Conservancy, America’s largest conservation nonprofit organization.
But don’t plan too much on your Dude Ranch vacation…
You can figure out what type of experience you can expect by checking out a ranch’s website, or, of course, by contacting the staff before making a reservation. The Dude Ranch Association (DRA) is an excellent resource with staff that can give an overview of all the ranches it represents: duderanch.org. That being said, not all ranches are part of DRA.
Some research and planning certainly help but don’t fret too much. Whichever will be your choice of ranch, I can almost guarantee that you will have a wonderful time. Personally, I love the beauty of the unexpected, of going to a new place and let it take you by surprise. And then there’s always the possibility of going back to stay at second ranch, or a third, or a fourth…
Jody Miller is a professional photographer specializing in Horse Photography, Equine Photography, and Equestrian photography. Her work can be viewed online here in her gallery section, and she is also featured at these Arizona Galleries: Arts Prescott Gallery CO-OWNER, Dragonfly Arts in Cottonwood, Coops Coffee House at Talking Rock Ranch. Opened June 1st at Sedona Artist Market and Hart of AZ Gallery.