Try mixing a safari with a luxury stay, a petting zoo and a natural retreat. What do you get? Some form of a dude ranch vacation, probably. Dude ranches, or “guest ranches” as they are sometimes called, are a uniquely American vacation option. Dude ranch visitors, or “dudes,” experience the cowboy way in a beautiful setting.
But, just because you want to try the dude ranch experience for yourself doesn’t mean you should stop looking for a resort in Vail too. Dude vacations can be a few nights or a few weeks. If you want to divide your time in Colorado between a few destinations, it’s perfectly possible.
Picking Your Ranch
You might be hoping for a luxury getaway with just a few pointers on how to saddle a horse between yoga and spa sessions. Or, deep down, you’re raring to gallop through the fields with the wind in your hair before drinking whiskey and playing poker in the bunkhouse. What you want out of your dude ranch experience is the foremost concern when picking your destination. There are more than 100 dude ranches in the U.S., and in that number are many different kinds of specialty operations — from tiny, one-family ranches to larger places suited for corporate retreats. There are also many kinds of hosts, from second-career retirees to hired hands making money the only way they know how — with horses and sweat.
Read the dude ranch descriptions carefully. If you are a novice rider, you’ll want somewhere with plenty of experience teaching adults to ride. If you’re bringing children with you, you’ll want the ranch to be family friendly.
Most dude ranches have some kind of “extras” as well. Whether that’s a chance to learn how to milk a cow, a natural hot spring in the back pasture or some quiet time in front of the ranch house fireplace, you’ll want to consider those options before booking.
What to Pack
If you’re heading for a dude ranch experience in Colorado, you’ll want to dress according to the season. The high elevation of the state makes it chilly at night even in warmer months and downright freezing in the winter. Shoes should be a particular consideration, since you’re going to be riding a horse — or at least trying to ride one. You don’t need to invest in expensive, tooled-leather cowboy boots, but you should bring some shoes good for walking around a farm environment that you don’t mind getting dirty. If there’s a chance you’ll see snow, your footwear should be waterproof as well.
Sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and a scarf or bandanna to put over your mouth will also help when you’re out riding, no matter the weather.
Your particular ranch may have their own list of packing suggestions to complement their available activities; call and ask before you bring a huge suitcase of “what if” gear.
When to Go
Dude-ranching is an all-year possibility but you, the “dude,” may enjoy it more in clement weather. Summer is usually a great time to visit a dude ranch, weather-wise, but prices may be higher for your stay. Any school vacation time might be a bad idea unless you’re bringing your own children along or unless you just really like to do farm chores while children watch you.
Colorado in the fall is a special time of year for horseback riding among the colorful leaves in the forest. Spring is beautiful too, but sometimes the winter doesn’t break until April or May in the high country.
What to Expect
When you visit a dude ranch, expect a few things. First of all, expect to get a little dirty when you’re out with the horses and other animals. If you don’t like mud on your shoes, dude-ranching might not be the best choice for you. Expect to spend plenty of time in the great outdoors. Whether you choose to ride a horse into the sunset or just walk the perimeter of your host’s pasture, a dude ranch should be a back-to-nature opportunity.
And mostly? You should expect to have fun.
About the Author: Hilda Cameron works at a small startup in Boulder and often writes about Colorado-related subjects.