Last summer I finally lived out my dream of taking a dude ranch vacation. At 8 and 10, my kids were finally old enough to pull on boots and saddle up for seven consecutive days. I launched an exhaustive search for the perfect place and finally decided on Vista Verde Ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Both the ranch and the experience exceeded my expectations in every way. If you and your kids love horses, beautiful scenery, and the outdoors, a luxury guest ranch makes an unforgettable family vacation. Here are five reasons to consider one for your next trip:
1. You get to play dress up for a week
I don’t know about you, but my suburban life affords me relatively few opportunities to get completely decked out in Western wear without looking like a complete jackass.
On dude ranches, it’s the people without the hats and boots that feel like idiots. A baseball hat? I don’t think so. You’ll even see chaps and really big belt buckles every now and then (more on the staff than the guests, but still).
By the end of the week I was pretty much swaggering around and talking like John Wayne. I wish I were kidding.
2. You’re spoiled for choice
It’s not just horses either. Vista Verde offered fly fishing, mountain biking, river rafting, kayaking, hiking, and hot air ballooning too. There were cooking classes, yoga classes, photography clinics, wine tastings, songs around the campfire, and even a barn dance. In the winter, they offer cross country skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and snowshoeing too.
There was even the option of just relaxing in our cabin, soaking in our Jacuzzi, or sitting in an Adirondack chair near the pond with a book. We didn’t do too much of that (we were afraid we’d miss something fun), but theoretically it was possible.
3. No cooking! No cleaning!
Because of the kind of travel I usually do, I haven’t had very much experience with all-inclusive vacations. The only two that come to mind are a cruise to the Bahamas and a long ago semi-debauched week at Club Med. When we travel, we usually rent condos and apartments. From a chore standpoint, it’s a lot like being at home.
Our cabin at Vista Verde had every luxury we could have needed (no phone or TV though), including a little fridge and coffee maker, but it didn’t have a kitchen. It didn’t have a washer and dryer either. We didn’t need them since the food was plentiful and superb and the ranch offered same-day laundry service.
The week I spent on the ranch was the longest I’ve ever gone without cooking and cleaning since I moved out of my own parents’ house. Can you spell v-a-c-a-t-i-o-n?
4. Free range kids
Most people I know of my generation roamed the neighborhood with packs of feral children every day after school until it got dark. We called this “childhood”. Our own kids? Not so much. They take violin, Spanish, and chess.
Dude ranches offer a comparatively safe place to let children off leash a little (after a quick chat about not jumping in the pond or sneaking up on dozing horses, that is). Our kids were able to mostly come and go as they pleased.
At Vista Verde, there are kids-only activities every day that include things like panning for gold, ziplining, riding a fire truck to town for ice cream, and riding horses to the mares’ barn to see the newborn foals. There are also lots of dogs and cats on the ranch to play with. I have to imagine it’s the same at dude ranches everywhere.
Teens have their own cool counselors (called wranglers) and even more freedom. Though not too much, if you know what I mean.
5. Cattle drives and rodeos? Yeehaw!
The activities that really made our dude ranch vacation special were the ones we couldn’t do anywhere else. For my husband and me, it was the all-day cattle drive. There aren’t many vacations that teach you how to herd cattle and then actually let you do it. Seven hours was a long time to be in the saddle, but they were seven child-free hours so they flew by.
For the kids, the highlight was the end-of-the-week kids’ rodeo. The kid wranglers divided everyone into two teams (red and blue, with matching war paint) and every kid got to show off their stuff in relay events like barrel racing and pole bending. It was beyond cute and made us want to come back every year for the rest of our lives. If only.