“Mom, I know we have been to some amazing places and those trips have all been great, but this was the best trip ever.” And with that, Hannah put into words something that we had all been feeling throughout our week at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in Montana.
We have been to beaches, theme parks, and European capitals, and even explored the wilds of Iceland. But nothing was quite like our time on a family dude ranch. Since returning from Montana I’ve become a bit of an evangelist on the value of dude ranch vacations for families, so I just had to share what makes family dude ranch vacations so special.
And before you say, sure Tamara, but you have a girl that loves horses, what would others think of family ranch vacations? Let me tell you, you don’t need to love horses to enjoy a family ranch vacation — although some willingness to try riding is pretty important.
I grew up dreaming of horses but never had a chance to try riding until I was an adult. Glenn grew up on Long Island and we like to joke that his only pets were stuffed animals. He was like Billy Crystal in City Slickers, down to the Mets hat.
Hannah discovered a love of horseback riding at day camp, followed by a few weeks of riding camp. Despite this limited experience, we were all still beginners and not quite sure how we would fare. But since we were heading out west to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, we all thought it would be a perfect time to try a dude ranch vacation.
About the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, Montana
Note: Our stay at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch was hosted for purposes of editorial coverage. All opinions are our own.
We picked the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch for a few reasons, first and foremost that it was close to Yellowstone (just a 45-minute drive to West Yellowstone.) I also liked that it was family-owned and run. Since I wasn’t sure if we would be riding every day, I wanted to make sure there were other activities like fishing and hiking. The Nine Quarter Circle Ranch also offered a children’s riding program and plenty of family-friendly evening activities.
The accommodations were rustic and we were situated in a two-room log cabin. The main room was the master bedroom, with a queen bed, so there wasn’t a lot of space just for hanging out inside, but there was a nice porch and plenty of space at the lodge. The second bedroom had bunk beds and was perfect for Hannah and her friend.
The food was hearty ranch fare, simple and delicious with homemade desserts at lunch and dinner. Since all the meals were served family-style and guests were moved around at each meal, we had no problem getting to know the other 40 guests. Plus, the kids sat together and started making friends right away.
At the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, the main event truly is the riding, with two-hour trail rides in the morning and afternoon. There was also one evening trail ride, two all-day rides for advanced riders, and even an overnight ride for those really adventurous.
Kids ages six to ten go out together in the “Rough Riders” group (younger kids have a form of rustic daycare), and adults are broken into groups of beginner, intermediate and advanced riders. The ranch also offered fly fishing instruction at their stocked pond or down at the creek or river. This is prime fly-fishing country so we all gave it a try with limited success.
While the girls completely fell in love with their horses, I think what we all enjoyed was the good-natured camaraderie between other guests and the crew. Our evenings were full of fun activities, kicking off with adults-only happy hour while the kids ate together. The kids then played while the grown-ups chowed down.
After dinner, we all came together for a guest-crew softball game, campfire songs, a hayride, or an evening trail ride and picnic, and capped off the week with an old-fashioned barn dance. The pace was active but not frantic. There was plenty of time to sit and read a book if you wanted, but not enough time to feel at loose ends.
Throughout the entire week, I did not hear one kid say they were bored or complain about being “forced” to do activities. Even the fourteen-year-old boys happily joined the square dancing — I’m not sure that would have happened back home in Boston!
We never felt like we had to worry about the kids or keep them entertained and occupied. It was such a worry-free trip! The main benefit of family dude ranch vacations is wholesome family fun.
See other dude ranch family vacations that are perfect for multi-generational trips. Since our week at the Nine Quarter Circle in Montana, we have also spent spring break at the Vista Verde Ranch in Colorado and loved it just as much for the amazing food and winter activities.
10 Reasons to Take a Family Dude Ranch Vacation
It is hard to capture the magic of a dude ranch vacation until you experience it for yourself but I’ve tried to share the benefits below.
1. You can’t do this at home
Over 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. When do we get to ride horses, hang out in a barn, sleep in a log cabin, and harken back to a simpler way of life? Don’t our kids deserve a little taste of what life is like on farm, where everything isn’t about soccer games, big box stores, social media and the latest mobile games?
2. Kids can be Kids
It is amazing to watch the excitement of your girl as she sticks her hands into the pond to scoop out tadpoles, or grasp hold of a wriggling fish that she just hooked for the first time.
The first day on the ranch, I was worried about my kids making friends with the rest of the kids. Would they be ok eating with the other kids? Would they find something to do afterwards? But why did I worry? Granted, it was helpful that we brought a buddy for Hannah to hang with, but soon they were all one gang of kids.
They were on the playground, or playing hide and seek. They were challenging each other to checkers and making up games to play together. And best of all, we didn’t need to worry about them at all.
3. You Make New Friends
Maybe we got lucky, but I do think that ranches do their best to connect people and create a family-like environment. It helped that at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch the owners and staff eat with the guests, and some guests have been coming back since they were young.
By the end of our trip, there was a Facebook group created, email addresses were exchanged, and friend and follow invitations on social media were flying. Without this togetherness, it would not have been the same experience. But when you spend day in and out with people, you get to know them. You learn their story. And you root for their victories.
If you want to get a better chance of your kids finding friends, my tip would be to call ahead to the ranches you are considering and find out who is already signed up, the percentage of families and the ages of the kids. Maybe you can pick a week where there are other families of a similar composition.
4. You Unplug (at least a little)
Nowadays, most ranches offer some limited WiFi, but it is still largely an unplugged vacation. At the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, the only TV was in the lodge and I’m pretty sure it was only used to play movies for the kids in daycare.
There was certainly no cell service in the valley where the ranch was located. And while there was more WiFi coverage than we had hoped, we still didn’t see the girls texting or on their phones. If they were, it was playing a disconnected game. Mostly it was good old-fashioned fun.
5. There are no Surprise Costs
One of the benefits of an all-inclusive vacation is that you know just what it is going to cost. While a ranch is sooo different from a beach all-inclusive resort or a cruise, you still know what you are getting into.
Ranch pricing can range from $1000-3000 or more per person, per week, but there are ranches for a range of budget. That includes lodging, food and activities. Each ranch spells out if some activities or childcare are not-included or if alcohol is included, on consumption or BYOB.
That means at the end of the week, there are no big gotchas when it comes to the budget (except the kids clamoring for a horse, that one could break you.) Yes, it is not cheap, but neither is a trip to Disney or a cruise, so why not try something different?
6. You’ll Challenge Yourselves
You know how proud you are of your child when they try something they are scared to do and then find out they love it (or are at least happy they did it?) Not only will you get that feeling for your kids at the ranch (like I did when Hannah shocked us all by winning the egg and spoon race in the Gymkhana mini-rodeo), but you will get it too!
I was more than nervous to trot or lope — but the group wanted to try and I went along. I was still happy sticking to my beginner rides but hey, I tried it! I even managed to stay on when my horse Hurdles decided to hurdle a log on a trail ride. We also climbed a mountain that I may have looked at and said “too steep” if the staff hadn’t challenged everyone to climb to the top and leave our name in the notebook at the mailbox on the summit.
7. You Can be a Kid Again
Sometimes we are so busy adulting and parenting that we forget how to let loose and be kids. On a dude ranch vacation, there are no decisions to be made. You show up to eat when they ring the bell. You eat what is put in front of you. You can pick between activities or nothing at all.
You don’t have to worry about the kids — they are fine. And you go to bed early because it is dark and you are tired and there is no TV or Internet to keep you up too late. You join with the gang playing softball because no one cares who is good and who isn’t.
You cheer for each other in the Gymkhana races because even if it is a competition, it really isn’t. You do-si-do with your partner and you don’t care how big of a dork you look like — because it is fun. Good, clean fun.
8. You’ll Get your Exercise
I pictured long hours writing on the lodge porch and reading books on the swing. I definitely had time to do those things, but I also didn’t need to worry about getting out for a morning run or walk, or whether or not the ranch had a fitness center (not that that would worry me at all).
Between walking, hiking and riding, we all got plenty of exercise with a few aching muscles from parts of our bodies we were so accustomed to using.
9. You Don’t Need to Worry about the Kids
I know I said it before but you really don’t need to worry about the kids. They are in good hands with the wranglers and playing together. You don’t have to worry about who else is at the resort, if they could get lost, taken, etc.
On a ranch it is just you and nature with nothing else around for miles. Ok, there are some wild animals so they shouldn’t hike alone. But really, never before have I been able to say to my daughter, “just be back by dark.”
10. Your Kids will Thank You
Remember the story I told you at the beginning of this article. I can’t count the number of times Hannah has thanked us for that trip.
A ranch vacation is truly a relaxing, stress-free vacation that allows families to come together and enjoy each other and their surroundings. If you are ready to plan a family dude ranch vacation, make sure you follow my tips on picking and planning the best dude ranch vacation for you and what to pack for a dude ranch vacation.
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Tamara Gruber is the Founder and Publisher of We3Travel. A former marketing executive and travel advisor, Tamara is an award-winning travel writer and recognized expert in family travel. She is also the publisher of YourTimetoFly and the co-host of the Vacation Mavens travel podcast.