Dude ranches have their roots far back in American history. By the end of the nineteenth century, the romance of the wild frontier was no more than that – a romantic myth. But now that the vast expanses of the Old West were relatively safe, they began to attract tourists from America’s cities, seeking a nostalgic taste of pioneer life: open skies, cantering horses, and a release from the shackles of sedentary labor. Ranches already established on former frontier territory took advantage of this new hunger and, as railroads connected America’s previously remote regions, the concept of the dude ranch took off.
These days dude ranches have sprouted across the country – from Colorado to Arizona to North Carolina. And they cater to all tastes, be it couples after luxury romance, families seeking an outdoor vacation, or adventure-seeking wanderers on horseback searching for breathtaking landscapes. Here we’ve gathered together ten of the best, enabling a new generation to sample the beauty and thrill of galloping across untamed miles of American terrain.
Arizona’s rolling backcountry looks much the same today as it did when it provided a hideout for outlaws fleeing retribution in the Old West. The upscale Tanque Verde Ranch is located in the heart of this wilderness, surrounded by the sparse beauty of the Sonoran Desert. It’s a pretty luxurious base, with a spa, a pool and excellent southwestern cuisine. But really a stay at Tanque is all about roaming the desert on horseback, following trails past Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti and up mountain slopes to rest in fragrant clusters of pine trees.
Nestled deep in Santa Barbara wine country, Alisal is far removed from the raw and rugged ranch experience found at many places on this list. It has two 18-hole golf courses, a spa, a private fishing lake, boating and tennis courts, and guests are expected to dress up for dinner in the resort-style restaurant. This secluded luxury has made it a go-to destination for generations of Hollywood stars, who can ride through the area’s patchwork of hills, forests and vineyards safe from pursuit by the paparazzi.
Clear Creek is sublimely situated in a green valley cradled by the Great Smoky Mountains, out in the wilds of North Carolina. It’s grounds are bordered by Pisgah National Forest, whose leafy trees flow over the slopes, valleys and gorges of the Great Smoky Range. Trails from the ranch run through this landscape, and there’s also some thumping white water rafting on the nearby South Toe River. Frequent rodeos and hootenannies inject a western flavor into this Appalachian setting.
C Lazy U is a working cattle farm located in classic Colorado ranch country, where the Colorado River flows over the Continental Divide and through a series of beautiful mountain valleys. The ranch maintains a maze of trails through this terrain, and also has a 12,000-foot heated indoor riding arena and an outdoor arena where guests display their skills in weekly "Shodeos". C Lazy U is also a particularly good choice for families, offering carefully designed kid and teen riding program and heaps of supervised indoor and outdoor games.
The Hideout is for true dude ranch aficionados: it takes only 25 guests a week, puts them up in beautiful log cabins, and trains them hard in the arts of horsemanship and cattle driving. The ranch is located east of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming’s wild backcountry, surrounded by 650,000 dramatic acres of pine forests, mountain crags, crystal lakes and rolling grasslands. With the attentive help of the ranch’s dedicated staff, you’ll be roaming these grand landscapes with consummate skill in no time at all.
Located among the hills, meadows and waterways of Georgia’s Historic Heartland, Southern Cross is a laid-back, family-run ranch that is all about the horses - it breeds its own, and now has over 150 fine Paint and Quarter steeds. It also has an excellent riding program for newcomers to horseback, and is unusual in allowing more experienced riders to head out alone on unguided trips.
Cantering through sage meadows, casting into trout-filled rivers and hiking among wildflowers are among the hearty, wholesome activities that Paradise Guest Ranch specializes in. Flung far out in rural Wyoming, it’s hidden beneath the canopy of Bighorn National Forest, where trails roll out of the tree cover and up the surrounding Bighorn mountains. Overnight trips to camp out under glittering crag-framed stars are a highlight, and the ranch also has a superb kids program.
Mountain Sky Ranch sits in Montana’s Paradise Valley, a pretty canyon which was the site of a rough pioneer settlement in the 1860s, evolving into a fully-fledged, 50,000-acre cattle ranch in the 1920s. These days it’s an upscale dude ranch, with a very tight staff-to-guest ratio, luxury accommodation, and superb cuisine such as gourmet king crab cakes served in an elegant firelit dining room. But these comforts are eclipsed by the surrounding natural world, where wildflower meadows roll into dense woodland, hills halt at windswept ridges, and buffalo roam the open plains. Wranglers can take guests on day trips into nearby Yellowstone National Park, where phenomenal trails and views await.
Elk Mountain is gloriously isolated at the end of a ten-mile dirt track running through San Isabel Forest, in the heart of Colorado’s Rockies. Guests can ride out into forests and meadows decked with wildflowers and inhabited by deer, elk and antelope, all in the shadow of towering snow-flecked peaks. The Ranch is also a short drive from the town of Buena Vista, known as the "White Water Capital of Colorado", so be sure to fit in some rafting during your stay.
Paws Up mingles the traditional ranch experience with the opulence and service of an upscale resort. Accommodation is in luxury tents or private cabins; there’s a fine dining restaurant with a broad choice of exquisitely presented dishes; guests can relax in a spa with state-of-the-art yoga facilities and choose between a selection of specially-tailored packages, including honeymoon and family. And surrounding this luxurious home are 37,000 acres of rolling cattle-covered pastures, shared between Black Angus cows and wandering elk. Guests can also go fly-fishing on the Blackfoot River, rappelling off cliffs, clay shooting and whitewater rafting, while there are plenty of programmed activities for kids too.