If the countryside by horseback is on your bucket list, take a few days from your Central Florida theme park vacation and experience an old-Florida cattle ranch. Whether you seek a shared bunkhouse, a rustic cabin, or a deluxe teepee, there are many ways to observe life as a rancher. For centuries, raising cattle was an important industry in the state, but recent development has reduced the number of working ranches. However, the Florida outback still offers the would-be cowpoke a chance to hop on a horse and follow the cattle out to pasture. Not interested in riding? Simply sit back and enjoy the slower rhythms of ranch life from a rocker on a homey porch, observing nature in all its variety.
Westgate River Ranch
Where: River Ranch
It’s certainly a huge ranch, and while there are horses, cows, cowboys, and a rootin’ tootin’ rodeo, visitors don’t rough it here. Westgate Resorts offers a dude ranch experience that will satisfy the pickiest city slicker, whether you want the luxe comfort of a resort-like cottage or prefer accommodations a little closer to the campfire(but no less luxurious)–options include yurt glamping or an upscale teepee with AC, a fireplace, and a chandelier made of antlers. Trail rides, airboat tours, and campfire activities keep guests busy.
The Griffin Ranch
Where: Ft. McCoy
Carl Griffin invites locals and visitors to escape to his 30-acre Griffin Ranch for a weekend getaway, to ride, take a wilderness survival course, or just to enjoy the slow pace of old-Florida life. A kayak or canoe trip on the nearby Ocklawaha River or swimming at Juniper Springs are great ways to cool off. The ranch van drops guests at the springs and picks them up when they are done. The ranch also offers hayrides and unique night-time forays into the forest to see the spider’s eyes reflected in flashlights. Accommodations include a 100-year-old cabin with a claw-foot tub and private front porch, a lodge with private bedrooms, and even an Airstream trailer. The ranch’s sister organization, Out of Ocala, offers wilderness adventures.
Happy Acres Ranch
Jim and Beanie Moore own this 40-acre working ranch with 15 registered quarter horses. Guests can take riding lessons, go riding on the 50 miles of trails adjacent to the ranch, or enjoy boating, canoeing, or swimming in the nearby Rainbow River. Cottages on the ranch have Wi-Fi and air conditioning, or guests can ride the trails and camp overnight. The ranch hands bring camping gear and food out to the trail and pick up the horses. Next morning, they return with fresh horses and retrieve all the equipment.
Circle F Dude Ranch
Where: Lake Wales
This dude ranch and camp, founded in 1952, offers outdoor experiences to families on weekends. The ranch sits amid 500 acres of rolling hills, pasture, and live oaks on a huge, spring fed lake. Rustic bunkhouse cabins with ceiling fans, large windows, and air conditioning, sleep up to 12 people each. Family style meals are served in the large dining hall. The lake offers opportunities to swim, kayak, and canoe, and the ropes course, rock wall, and zip lines ensure lots of outdoor activities. Guests can interact with horses in the stables and corrals, and riders of all levels of experience can ride along many miles of trails.
Cypress House Ranch and B&B
Amy and Michael Griffing welcome visitors to the peaceful countryside at their ranch on the edge of the Withlacoochee State Forest, just a few miles from Disney. Guests can book a two-hour trail ride through the forest or simply sit on the porch enjoying the breeze under moss-draped oaks. The ranch only has five rooms so guests should book ahead. There are no meals provided other than a simple breakfast, but the rooms have a microwave and fridge, and the owners encourage people to cook out on the fire pit.
The Smoakhouse Ranch
The Smoakhouse Ranch is a historic family farm, located on 50 acres in the heart of North Florida, home to many major springs and rivers. Guests can enjoy ranch life and also swim, dive, kayak, or canoe in the cool waters of nearby Ichetucknee Springs and river run. The hosts, Debra and Oscar Cramer, invite guests to interact with ranch animals, including cows, donkeys, and goats.Depending on the season, guests can help pick blackberries, apples, and grapes; hang around the campfire in the evenings; or just sit on the porch and read. Accommodations include three private cottages and a three-bedroom farmhouse.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Florida Guide