Not just for dudes any more, the modern-day guest ranch puts you to work. Stays are akin to wrangler apprenticeships. And though we all know that food tastes better after a day on the trail, what cowboy doesn’t appreciate a chef-prepared meal—or a hot tub, for that matter? Here are 23 of our favorite ranches from across the West and beyond.
Sunrise never looks so fine as from the back of a horse, whether I’m at a ranch in the Arizona desert or the Rocky Mountains or the wide open Plains. And there’s just something about the satisfaction of a hearty breakfast at a rustic lodge or around a blazing campfire that makes early morning light come alive across unspoiled country. When I swing into the saddle on a well-trained horse for a day of adventure and spectacular scenery, I forget that I ever had a desk job.
Originated by enterprising ranchers looking to make an extra buck off East Coast greenhorns, the dude ranch is a Western tradition that has continued evolving into a 21st-century mainstay. Horsemanship and great trail rides have always been a premium, yet service and amenities (or lack thereof) are much improved. Living like a cowboy for a spell—whether you choose a ranch with a Michelin-rated chef from New York or a rough, overnight cattle drive—will remind you of the finer things in life. The creak of the saddle, the cry of a hawk, and the clip clop of hooves cleanse the harried soul.
And a week spent with horses, and without TVs or cell phones, brings people together like nothing else—especially families. The simple pleasures of hours on the trail, cookouts under the stars, and two-stepping at a barn dance put the real focus on the family.
Vista Verde Ranch
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Why go: Whether it’s the five-star food (Sample dessert: Mexican molten cake topped with homemade dulce de leche ice cream and rum-caramel sauce), the brand-new lodge with its huge fireplace, timbers, and picture windows, or the 600-thread count sheets on custom log beds, the goal of co-manager Ben Martin is to instill “the wow factor.” This fall Vista Verde is launching an intensive weeklong cattle gather tailored for serious riders (and those who want to be). The new indoor riding arena has also been a huge hit.
The riding: The big buckskin I rode here was the fastest horse I’d ever been on. My wife loved her gentler mount, Sugar, and the ranch-riding clinic taught us to do “diagonals” for the first time. We learned to drive the wagon team as well, which was a kick. I really enjoyed the long hours in the saddle through the colors of the Routt National Forest.
Price: $3,400–$3,600, one-week minimum
Guest total: 40