By Kara Williams
The Vacation Gals
I'm a huge fan of all-inclusive resorts: a single fee up front covers your room rate, food and drink, activities, and entertainment. While my family and I have enjoyed the all-inclusive concept at a handful of resorts on Mexico's coast, we recently sampled an all-inclusive stay in our home state at Elk Mountain Ranch near Buena Vista, Colorado.
Dude ranches offer travelers similar benefits to all-inclusive resorts, and because they can be found throughout the western United States, some families (like me) may live within driving distance (a road trip might be cheaper than flights to Mexico). Some ranches, as described by the Dude Ranchers' Association, are "working ranches," where guests might help with duties like sheep herding, while others are more resort-like with on-site spas. No matter what your objective for a family vacation, there's likely a U.S. dude ranch to fit your needs.
While equestrians, naturally, love dude ranches with their myriad of opportunities for horseback riding, you should also consider a dude ranch for your next family vacation—no matter if you're a clan of city slickers or suburbanites.
Top 10 Reasons to Take Your Family to a Dude Ranch
You know the price up front. As I said above, most dude ranches are all-inclusive. Our Elk Mountain Ranch stay included three meals a day, plus snacks and a bottomless cookie jar in the main lodge. It also included daily trail rides, the children's program, several other activities and off-property excursions (see below), and a welcome gift. Many dude ranches state their prices in week-long terms, as seven-day visits are highly recommended; honestly it takes a couple days just to get into the laid-back dude ranch state of mind. Also, some activities (like a kids' rodeo or fishing trip) are only offered once a week.
Horseback riding for all levels. Not all guests have the same riding ability, but that's okay. Typically guests rate their horseback experience before their arrival, and the ranch then matches them with appropriate horses. Guests of similar ability are grouped together for rides. Kids who have never ridden before learn in an arena before setting out into the wilderness.
It's not all about the horses. Many dude ranches use the term "guest ranch" in their proper name, and that term may better describe this vacation type, since there are so many other things to do at ranches besides ride horses. Swimming, hay rides, campfires, cookouts, hiking and fishing are just a few. At the ranch we visited, families could play a pickup game of basketball, volleyball, badminton, Frisbee or tetherball at any time. Indoors, we got to know other kids by initiating Scrabble and Uno (with games provided by the ranch) in front of a roaring fire.
Children's programs. Many ranches offer a supervised daily kids program, which provides the adults with a chance to go off on their own adventures. While a dude ranch vacation can be all about family togetherness (see below), I think it's nice for the kids to "do their own thing" sometimes, too—especially when the activities, including arena rides, gold panning, making arts and crafts, and nature walks, are so much fun.
Lots of family together time. Meals, family campfires, group hikes and "down time" in between scheduled events are perfect times to connect with your kids on at a dude ranch. My children and I had a ball playing endless hands of cards and simply relaxing in the hot tub on our dude ranch vacation.
Connect with nature. Don't expect to spend too much time in your room—not when rolling hills, towering mountain peaks, pristine forest and green meadows beckon outside. For "city slickers" coming from metropolitan areas, all the fresh air found at a dude ranch might be a shocker!
Unplug from technology. Since many dude ranches are in remote locations, don't be surprised if your cell phone doesn't work and the wireless Internet is sketchy—if it's offered at all. While it can be frustrating if you need to take calls and get a little work done, try to look at being totally unplugged as a blessing.
Meet families from all over the world. On our dude ranch vacation, we got to know folks from Georgia, Louisiana and Denmark. Kids being kids, they quickly befriend the others their age; one favorite vacation memory is our two children playing a rousing game of impromptu hide and seek throughout the property with a bevy of other kids as the sun went down.
The incredible food. Filling cowboy cuisine is typical at dude ranches, but don't expect beans and franks at every meal. At Elk Mountain Ranch, hearty breakfasts comprised of Eggs Benedict, brandy French toast, and pancakes with sausage fueled our days, while we reveled in roast turkey, brisket, lasagna Florentine and grilled steaks at dinner. Desserts like homemade Oreo cookie ice cream and apple pie a la mode made us waddle back to our rooms.
They're healthy. Besides the aforementioned fresh air, dude ranch vacations do focus on being active, whether you're riding, swimming, fishing or hiking. (You need to be active to burn off all those delicious calories you've consumed, too!) That said, if you want to take a siesta in a hammock in the afternoon underneath some towering pine trees, you can do that, as well. After all, a dose of rest and relaxation is good for your health!
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Photo credit: istockphoto / Andrew Rich