After our family ranch vacation to the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in Montana last summer, I’m convinced that every family should plan a family dude ranch vacation. But dreaming about ranch vacations for families and actually making one happen takes some effort, and there are a few things you need to know before you get started. The best family ranch vacations start with the best fit. To get you started, I’m going to share my tips on how to pick a dude ranch and tips for dude ranch vacations for families.
How to Pick a Dude Ranch
The first step is picking a dude ranch. I know when I started this process, I was overwhelmed with the choices. There are over 100 dude ranches West of the Mississippi alone. Before you start scouring the Internet and the options become one big blur, there are a few things you need to think through first.
- Ranch style — family ranch vacations come in all different flavors. There are working ranches, standard ranches, and luxury ranches. You need to think about the best fit for your family.
- Working ranches — the working ranch requires a decent level of riding ability and is best for families with children 10 and up. As you may expect from the name, on a working ranch you are actively assisting in the operation of the ranch and working with the animals — think “City Slickers” without the scary dude.
- Standard ranches — these dude ranches focus primarily on riding. Cabins are rustic, food is typically comfort food served family style, and additional activities are fairly limited. They focus on providing an authentic family experience that is primarily unplugged and old-fashioned (in the best way.)
- Luxury ranches — luxury ranches offer the amenities of a four or five star resort including gourmet restaurants, spas, and added activities like boating, water sports, adventure courses, etc.
- Location — The next big decision factor is location. You may be surprised to learn that you can find dude ranches in New York and Florida — not just out west, although a large majority are in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Factors including:
- Accessibility — keep in mind that some of these ranches are in remote areas so if you are flying in, flights can get limited and pricey. It makes sense to see what your options are before booking. You can always look for something in driving distance to your home.
- Landscape — do you dream about a desert or mountain landscape?
- Weather — want to do a family ranch vacation in December? Then Tanque Verde in Tucson, Arizona might be a good pick, but it might be a little hot in August. In August, you will find cold nights and pleasant days up at Flathead Lake Lodge in Montana.
- Landmarks — do you want to combine a ranch vacation with a visit to a certain city, National Park or other site? Then start with those in the nearby vicinity.
- Amenities — the other big factor is finding a ranch with the amenities that you are looking for. Do you have young children and need childcare? Do you want activities beyond riding? Do you want a robust riding program for children? Do you need WiFi? These are all things to think about when researching your options.
Still don’t know where to find the best dude ranches for families? Start with the Family Travel Association. They have many ranches as members who have a dedicated interest to serving families. I’d also recommend the Dude Ranchers’ Association. Its website allows you to easily sort through the options but the staff are also happy to get on the phone with you and help you find a match.
Tips for Planning Dude Ranch Vacations for Families
- Since many families book for the following year while at the ranch, or the ranch holds the dates for long-term customers for some months, you will want to plan early if you need specific dates
- If your dates are flexible, give the ranch a call to see what families have already booked for the dates you are interested in and pick one with kids around the same ages as your children
- Check the policy about what is included in the rate. Some ranches include alcohol and others do not. If they do not and you want to imbibe, consider bringing your own to avoid higher rates and limited options at the ranch store.
- If you have picky eaters, get a good understanding of the dining options. Many ranches do not have a menu. They serve meals family style and it is very much “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” While there is a lot of comfort food (turkey, burgers, steak, fish, tacos, etc), if you have some really stubborn picky eaters, they are going to have a tough time. Luxury ranches will sometimes offer a menu and may have more variety.
- Pack some snacks. There are usual set mealtimes and while those meals can be quite filling, it is good to have some snacks on hand for those inevitable afternoon munchies. Again, there may be some things for sale in the ranch store but you might as well bring your favorites from home if you have room in your luggage.
- Be careful if you have allergies. I can’t recommend a ranch vacation for families that suffer from environmental allergies. You’ll encounter animal hair, hay, dust, smoke, and many other triggers. And, while ranch chefs now do their best to accommodate true dietary allergies, I would be nervous about cross contamination. I know on our ranch, almost all the desserts had some sort of nuts in them and they were served family style. Plus, especially for meals eaten outside, people aren’t washing their hands right away.
- Buy travel insurance. Like any all-inclusive, a dude ranch vacation is a big investment. If someone gets sick or you can’t make your trip, you don’t want to lose that investment. It is also important to have emergency medical insurance. Scary to think about but things do happen when you are around horses. On our ranch visit, someone was thrown off their horse and had to be airlifted out. I certainly hope that they insurance! But don’t assume you are covered. Some travel insurance will require an additional level of insurance to cover “dangerous” sports such as horseback riding. We use Allianz for our family travel insurance.
- Consider bringing your own riding helmet. Some ranches do not supply riding helmets. This was a surprise to me and I was nervous every day (especially considering the above.) Ask in advance and if they are not provided and you would feel more comfortable with a helmet, make an investment and bring your own.
- Read the fine print. Make sure you understand what activities are offered and for what ages. You don’t want to arrive with a five year old and find out that you need to be six to join the riding program.
- Talk to your family in advance to set expectations. Ask for a sample schedule and share it with your family so they know what to expect. For example, if breakfast is served when the bell rings at 7 am, then the teens need to know that they are going to have to roll out of bed if they want to eat before noon. If WiFi is only available in the lodge, set those expectations early!
- Pack smart. I’m working on a whole dude ranch packing list, but you will want to be prepared with the basics. You will need: cowboy boots, riding jeans, long sleeve shirts, a wide-brimmed hat, bandana or buff (for dust), sunscreen, bug spray, warm sweatshirts/jackets, books, western gear for special events like barn dances, and a positive attitude!
Make sure you also read my article about reasons why every family should try a dude ranch vacation.
Have you taken a dude ranch vacation? Have any tips to add?