In a world powered by technology, constant communication, and instant gratification, nothing untangles tension more than unplugging and saddling up on a remote guest ranch. Galloping a horse down a sandy arroyo, meandering through the switchbacks of a red-rock canyon, trailing cattle across a mountain meadow, or gazing up at a starlit sky restores peace of mind.
In the 1920s, guest ranches began popping up all over the West, offering a taste of open space and the Western lifestyle.
“Early dude ranches were located near railroads,” explains Jamie Denue of the Dude Ranchers Association. “As rail travel became possible and ranchers were looking for ways to diversify, they saw an opportunity to have ‘city slickers’ from the East Coast come experience the cowboy way. With so many Europeans settling in America at the time, the American West was a big draw; everyone wanted to see what it was like to be a cowboy.”
Today, with the popularity of television shows such as Longmire and Yellowstone, people from across the country pack up and head West to live their cowboy dreams. Denue says that guest ranches are an important tool for connecting people, including celebrities, to ranching and helping them understand its role in food production and land conservation.
If a guest-ranch vacation is on your radar, here are several that offer a good starting point for anyone ready to plan a trip. We’ve narrowed the options to four ranches steeped in history that offer unique experiences and a commitment to horses, horsemanship, and five-star hospitality.
Bonanza Creek Country Guest Ranch, Martinsdale, Montana
Background: A fifth generation working cattle ranch operated by the Voldseth family—David and June, and their son, Vance, his wife, Kim, and their three sons—Bonanza Creek Country Guest Ranch was originally called the TG Ranch, started in 1877 by two Norwegian brothers, Martin T. and Anton T. Grande.
Through the years, the ranch has been passed down, but many of the same traditions remain. In 1993, the Voldseths added a lodge and cabins to accommodate a handful of guests.
“I thought it’d be fun to have a guest ranch,” says June, who grew up on a family ranch in Wyoming. “I always said, ‘I didn’t like the hayfield, but I like people and horses a whole lot better.’”
The guest-ranch operation is open for only four weeks a year; however, June also coaches five four-day Cowgirl Retreats during the summer, designed to empower adults to make changes in their lives, let go of old habits, and make positive life choices.
“Horses keep us honest, and they read us,” June explains. “It’s a great healing atmosphere being in the middle of nowhere. We have a saying, ‘Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.’”
Season: The ranch is open to guests for two weeks in June and two weeks in early September. Cowgirl Retreats are held in between.
Guest capacity: Eight to 12 adults with intermediate or advanced horsemanship skills. June says people really like the intimacy of the small group and advises guests: “don’t worry about coming alone, because you won’t be that way for long.”
Where guests stay: The ranch has four rustic log guest cabins—the Cowboy, Indian, Pioneer, and Mountain Man/Prairie Bunkhouse duplex—nestled in the trees. Each cabin sleeps two to six guests and has a front porch with log rocking chairs for taking in the view of the Crazy Mountains. When guests aren’t riding or in their cabins, they gather at the large lodge to relax, read, play games, access the Internet, and enjoy meals.
Horseback highlights: Guests ride steady, surefooted, cow horses, most of which are American Quarter Horses purchased from area ranches. They have an opportunity to work cattle, team pen, and trail ride on the 25,000-acre ranch.
“A guest described the ranch as ‘where the prairie meets the mountains,’” June says. “There are not a lot of flat trails—there’s a certain amount of up and down. We don’t do nose-to-tail ride; we spread out and go! Moving cattle, you never know where you’ll end up.”
Other activities: Guests can also fish, hike, and relax on the ranch.
For foodies: Chef Kayla Tousignart, who was a guest on the ranch, prepares and serves three healthy meals a day and serves them family-style around a long log table.
Side trips: The north entrance into Yellowstone National Park is about two hours from the ranch if you want to stop on your way. Central Montana is also known for all forms of outdoor recreation, from golfing to rock climbing to boating.
Nearest airport: Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Bozeman, Montana, is about 90 minutes from the ranch.
Learn more about Bonanza Creek Country Guest Ranch at bonanzacreekcountry.com.
Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch, Shell, Wyoming
Background: Belgium-born businesswoman Paula De Cabooter-Flitner, and her husband David, started The Hideout in 1995. Paula’s nephew, Peter De Cabooter, and his wife, Marijn, also from Belgium, took over in 2006, and continue to actively run the ranch today.
The ranch’s roots run deeper, however. It was started as the New Trapper Creek Guest Ranch, in reference to the historic Trapper Creek Guest Ranch, dating from 1889, which hosted such influential guests as Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, and artists N.C. and T.C. Wyeth.
Season: April to November; however, the ranch also offers an annual winter riding vacation for a dozen returning guests as well as two photography workshops in January.
Guest capacity: The ranch offers six-night stays for 25 guests to create a personal environment.
Where guests stay: Five cozy duplex log cabins with Western furnishings, updated bathrooms, heat and air conditioning, wireless internet, stocked mini-fridge, and a porch with rocking chairs. There are four one- and two-bedroom casitas with all the cabin comforts, plus more. For luxury family lodging, the spacious Hideout Home is located about 10 minutes from the ranch headquarters with panoramic views of the Big Horn Mountains.
Horseback highlights: The Hideout is truly a riding ranch where guests of all experience levels can learn and hone their horsemanship through demonstrations, trail riding, team penning, and sometimes cattle work. The ranch has access to approximately 650,000 acres of diverse terrain, from high desert valleys at 4,200 feet in elevation to mountain meadows, alpine forests, and lakes above 13,000 feet.
“Our ranch is all about horses, riding, and learning respectful horsemanship,” De Cabooter says. “Our guests are looking for a ranch that is all about riding horses and learning respectful, authentic horsemanship, while being surrounded by upscale hospitality. We have guests from all walks of life, cultures, and beliefs and we are very open-minded, culturally astute, and embrace diversity.”
The Hideout emphasizes “Authentic Horsemanship” based on natural-horsemanship principles and works with professional horsemen to start horses and keep them fine-tuned once they’re in the guest string.
Other activities: Guests can spend time swimming in the lap pool, self-guided fly fishing, trapshooting, archery, taking scenic off-road and 4-by-4 tours, hiking, and mountain biking.
For foodies: The ranch strives to prepare “healthy, uncomplicated food from scratch,” according to De Cabooter, who adds that the ranch’s current chef hails from the East Coast and specializes in preparing fresh seafood.
Meals are served family style in the dining room, where guests have a chance to mingle and share stories from the day’s rides.
Side trips: Some guests take a day to visit Cody, Wyoming, home to the Cody Rodeo, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, as well as a host of shops and restaurants. Other popular places to visit include Sheridan, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, and Teton National Park.
Nearest airports: Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyoming, is about an hour away, and Billings-Logan Airport in Billings, Montana, is about 2½ hours.
Learn more about Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch at thehideout.com.
Rancho de la Osa, Sasabe, Arizona
Background: Owned by True Ranch Collection, Rancho de la Osa is a Southwestern-style retreat located outside of Tucson, Arizona. For nearly 300 years, the ranch has been a refuge, first for the Native Americans who inhabited the area, then as a mission outpost in the 1700s.
The ranch includes an outpost built by Jesuit missionaries in the 1720s which now serves as a cantina for guests. In the 1800s, the ranch was part of a 3-million-acre Spanish land grant and was later acquired by the United States in the Gadsden Purchase. The land first became a dude ranch in the mid-1920s and was most recently re-opened in 2017. Current managers Ross and Lynne Knox bring decades of horseback and hospitality experience, and Ross is a noted cowboy poet and performer.
Season: September to late April.
Guest capacity: 40 people per stay.
Where guests stay: The ranch includes 19 adobe guest rooms in a variety of configurations to accommodate different sizes of families or groups. Each room is unique and named after influential people who have stayed on the ranch, including former president Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Tom Mix, John Wayne, and Zane Grey. The interiors are rustic with adobe walls and wooden beams, and they’re decorated with Native American and Southwestern furnishings.
Horseback highlights: Horses are the superstars at this ranch. Wranglers carefully match guests to horses and mules based on size and time spent in the saddle. Guests can practice obstacles, enjoy demonstrations on mechanical cow called a “flag,” or join a horsemanship clinic with their own horses.
At 3,600 feet in elevation, the ranch offers two rides per day for adults and children over 5 years old on trails through rolling grasslands and sandy washes at the base of Baboquivari Peak. The ranch also has access to 130,000 acres of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge where birds and wildlife abound.
“So often on guest ranches, riders have to stay nose to tail, but the Buenos Aires actually wants us to spread out, so we don’t make trails,” Lynne says, adding that Ross rarely follows a trail. “It’s amazing how many people have never been off the pavement, and it’s neat we can offer them that experience.”
Other activities: Guests enjoy swimming in the heated pool, target shooting, archery, hiking, bird watching, and UTV tours to the border wall between the United States and Mexico, or up Smugglers Pass and down into Presumido, a ghost town. Ross, a renowned cowboy poet, performs for guests in the cantina or by a bonfire in the evenings.
For foodies: The ranch offers three meals a day, served family style. Chef Chase Smith, who is in his fourth season at the ranch, serves a variety of Southwest-inspired dishes.
Side trips: Sasabe, a small border town, is only 10 minutes from the ranch and has a family-run general store with the quirky Hilltop Bar tucked in the back. Guests also pass through the west side of Saguaro National Park and can check out the Sonoran Desert Museum and Kitt Peak National Observatory, too.
Nearest airport: Tucson International Airport, in Tucson, Arizona, is located near the ranch.
Learn more about Rancho de la Osa at ranchodelaosa.com.
Mendano-Zapata Ranch, Mosca, Colorado
Background: Owned by The Nature Conservancy, the Mendano-Zapata Ranch is located on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, nestled against the Sangre De Cristo mountains and the Great Sand Dune National Park and Preserve. Managed by Duke Phillips, his daughter, Tess Leach, and son, Duke Phillips IV of Ranchlands, the ranch was once home to Native Americans who hunted and grew crops on the land. In the 1800s, the ranch was part of a Spanish land grant and was later owned by ranching families who raised cattle.
The Nature Conservancy took over the ranch in 1999 and placed a controlled herd of 2,000 North American Bison in a 50,000-acre pasture. The ranch also raises Angus cattle and has abundant wildlife, which offer guests even more to enjoy. Guests from all over the world leave the ranch with a greater connection to the land and a deeper understanding of the important relationship between ranching and conservation.
“Our mission at Ranchlands is to engage people in ranching to learn about horses, livestock, wildlife, the land, and the role that ranching plays in conservation,” says Kate Matheson, general manager of the ranch. “People need to feel connected to nature, and our programs offer people that connection, bridge the gap between urban and rural communities, and help shed light on the realities of ranching.”
The ranch offers a host of special workshops to appeal to diverse guests, including painting and photography, horsemanship, culinary, yoga, writing and literature, cattle work, and natural fabric dying.
Season: March to the end of October.
Guest capacity: Approximately 30 to 40 people.
Where guests stay: The lodge, which is the original homestead built in the 1800s, has 15 guest rooms configured for solo travelers, couples, and families. Decorated with simple Southwestern flair, each room has a private bathroom, luxurious bedding, and scenic views right outside.
Horseback highlights: The remuda consists of about athletic, surefooted American Quarter Horses and Tennessee Walking Horses. Wranglers select the horse best suited to each rider’s skills and personality. The 100,000-acre ranch and neighboring National Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve allow guests to ride through an ancient cottonwood grove, amongst the bison, down sandy washes, or through the white sand dunes. Guests can also watch round-pen demonstrations to further their horsemanship.
“The horses are our heroes,” Matheson says. “It’s so rewarding to see the guests’ love and respect for them grow during their stays here. Their lives are forever changed once they’ve connected with their partner for the week.”
Other activities: Fishing, hiking, rock climbing, ecological tours, cooking lessons and leathercraft.
For foodies: The ranch has three chefs who prepare classic comfort food with a Southwestern twist using ranch-raised bison and beef as well as locally sourced produce.
Side trips: The ranch can help coordinate white water rafting and fly-fishing trips along the Arkansas River in nearby Salida, Colorado. Valley View Hot Springs offers a secluded space to soak in hot mineral springs after a day of riding. Guests also enjoy hiking to nearby Zapata Falls.
Nearest airport: Denver International Airport is about four hours north of the ranch, while Albuquerque International Sunport is four hours south. Commuter flights are available from Denver to the San Luis Valley Regional Airport in Alamosa, Colorado, which is 35 miles from the ranch.
Learn more about Mendano-Zapata Ranch at ranchlands.com.
Choosing the Right Ranch
The Dude Ranchers Association, formed in 1926, has more than 90 member ranches and a helpful staff that assists guests in selecting a ranch. Jamie Denue of the Dude Ranchers Association offers some advice for selecting a ranch, when to book, and what to pack.
Select a season and region. Guest ranches are busiest during the months with the best weather, and some close during the heat of the summer or the cold of winter. For example, in the Southwest, temperatures soar well beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, so winter and spring are the best times to visit. The opposite is true with ranches in the north, where it can be below zero in the winter.
Consider the type of ranch. “Decide how hard you want to work on the ranch, whether it’s a working cattle ranch, a traditional family-oriented ranch, or a luxury property,” Denue advises. “That will go a long way in deciding what amenities and activities you want and narrowing your options.”
Book a year in advance. “Many of our ranches have a 50 to 60 percent return rate, so families will often book next year’s trip before they leave this year’s trip,” Denue says.
Pack the essentials. “Heeled boots, ideally cowboy boots, are required on many guest ranches,” Denue says. “Pack comfortable jeans, layers, and a hat, because the sun will get you.” She also advises bringing a good camera to capture memories.
For more information on the Dude Ranch Association, visit duderanch.org.
This article about guest ranch vacations appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Western Life Today. Click here to subscribe!