Best Dude Ranches for Families
By Janine Devine
Keeping everyone entertained on a family trip is a cinch at a dude ranch.
Organizing a true getaway that’s entertaining, memorable, just a bit educational, perhaps even life-changing for everyone can be a bit daunting. Planning one is a cinch, though, when you consider a dude ranch vacation experience, especially at one of the best dude ranches for families.
What is a “Dude Ranch?”
These are the ultimate “all-inclusive” ranch resort family vacation experiences, where most – if not all — meals and many activities are included in one price. Ranging from budget-friendly to ultra-luxurious, ranches feature abundant outdoor activities to appeal to every member of the family, even that lone fusspot who has never once donned a cowboy hat or may even be wary around horses.
Ranches keep guests entertained indoors and outside while providing warm hospitality and the added bonuses of lots of fresh air and natural social distancing.
“Working Dude Ranch” Versus “Resort Dude Ranch”
The categories tend to be very fluid and frequently overlap, reflecting the owners’ personal preferences. Points in common: they all focus on horse-related activities, acres of outdoor space, and breath-taking views.
“Dude” in ranch-speak referred to city-slickers, primarily East Coast-based, who headed out west for a taste of the Wild West. Although a few ranches have sprouted on the East Coast, the majority still tend to be situated closer to the Rocky Mountains in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
They are generally working ranches but focus more on guest experience than on their cattle. Typically, dude ranches have week-long stays, although, during some seasons, minimum stays of three or four nights may be booked.
Resort Ranches include the usual horse-y activities, like horseback rides, along with a higher quality of accommodations, amenities, and cuisine. Resorts feature luxuries like spas, golf courses, children’s programs, and tennis courts. They are open year-round with no minimum stays, except for certain packages.
Working ranches are ranches that started as farming, breeding, or grazing facilities for livestock. Very often, the owners opened their homes to other breeders and then hospitality became part of their business.
Below are the 10 best ranches in the U.S for families, segmented by the flexible categories above, with starting prices for low-season stays noted. There’s one that is perfect for your family, no matter its size and ages of kiddos.
It’s always best to call your travel agent or the ranch itself to make sure that programs and features listed on their website are still in effect.
The Resort at Paws Up – Greenough, Montana
Catering to families and friends of all ages and sizes and passions, Paws Up is located just 30 miles from Missoula Airport, alongside a 10-mile stretch of the Blackfoot River in the unspoiled territory explored by Lewis & Clarke.
This resort pampers guests on 37,000 acres of private land and a working cattle ranch. Accommodations are spacious, individual homes to keep families comfortably close or a glamping experience in fully-equipped, safari-style tents.
The resort is renowned for its world-class cuisine and features a schedule of visiting Top Chefs, who also offer culinary classes. The resort boasts a wide range of outdoor pastimes, including skijoring, snowmobiling, and sleigh rides in winter and horse-whispering, hot-air ballooning, and fly-fishing in warmer months. You’ll also find the standard dude ranch activities like trail rides and a riding program, cattle drives, and chuckwagon dinners.
This is a new-ish resort that opened in 2005 with some accommodations and packages prices beginning at $600 per person per night.
Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort – Solvang, California
An iconic resort ranch just 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara, the Alisal is a premier destination if you want a family-friendly digital detox.
The resort, which opened in 1947, features 73 cottages and suites with traditional western décor and wood-burning fireplaces, but no phones or TVs. That said, high-speed wi-fi is included in the room rates for those who can’t quit cold-turkey.
With so many activities to sample on-site, the real challenge will be for everyone to narrow them down to fit into a day. On its 10,500 acres of ranchlands once tended by Spanish vaqueros, horseback riding is their focus, and trail rides catering to beginners and experienced riders leave daily on the half-hour.
Alisal guests can also enjoy two 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts, biking trails, and archery activities. A beautiful spring-fed 100-acre lake is perfect for kayaking, fly-fishing, canoeing, or waterside picnicking.
Rates start at $450 per night, including breakfast and dinner.
C Lazy U Ranch – Granby, Colorado
Family-owned and operated, this award-winning resort ranch is situated in the picturesque “ranch country” of the Colorado Rockies and enjoys a long history of repeat clientele.
No wonder this ranch recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. It’s all horsemanship here at this all-inclusive retreat that offers “5 spur” service at rates starting at $350 per night.
Still, there’s something for everyone to enjoy here, even off horseback, with a variety of kids programs for toddlers up through teens. Other ranch activities include cattle pushing and “showdeo’s” during the summer season where kids can compete. Guests will enjoy zip-lining, a ropes course, mountain biking as well as Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing. The more steady-handed will appreciate archery, trapshooting, and ax-throwing competitions. Those looking for total relaxation will find it at the Lazy U Spa which changes locations and views according to seasons. There is so much to do here, your only regret may be a lack of time.
If you’d rather lean into the spa activities entirely, visit a dedicated spa or wellness resort instead. We’ve rounded up seven of the US’s best.
Tanque Verde Ranch – Tucson, Arizona
Popular Tanque Verde Ranch has sat on traditional livestock ranch- and pasture lands since the 1850s. Less cowboy and more hacienda with its southwestern decor casitas, Tanque Verde attracts many types of guests due to its close proximity to Tucson at the base of the Rincon Mountains.
There is something for every guest here, including Buckaroos (ages 4-6), Wranglers (7-9), and Outlaws (10-16) in the Kids Day Camp. For everyone else, there are activities like archery, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, Jeep adventures, along with more activities they are pleased to arrange for you off-site. Horsemanship is central here and there are many varieties of rides and lessons for every level, from beginner horseback riding fundamentals to lope rides and team cattle penning which require more skill.
Southwestern Cuisine rules on the menu here. There are several outlets here for lunch or opt for a private picnic away. At night, guests enjoy gourmet meals in the main dining room.
Rates start from $200 per person, per night, for stays on a bed & breakfast basis (lunches and dinners not included).
Southern Cross Guest Ranch – Madison, Georgia
If the dudes in your family live on the East Coast and want to spend less time traveling and more time riding, then Southern Cross is one of the rare eastern ranch vacations that will fit the bill.
Situated on 225 acres of pasture and woodland that’s been family-run for 30 years, it’s just one hour from Atlanta. Experience the finest southern hospitality here and 200 quality paint and quarter horses from the family-bred championship stock.
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Enjoy lots of daily saddle time, with guided and unguided trail rides for competent riders. New riders are encouraged to bond with their assigned horse through plenty of grooming & saddling sessions. Rooms here are spacious and updated, with king-sized beds, free wifi, and either western or southern décor. The kitchen is notable for its menu of international dishes that take guests beyond the standard burgers and beans. Rates are all-inclusive with riding as well as non-riding options, which include biking, fishing, swimming in the beautiful natural landscapes. Golfing and other activities are nearby in the charming town of Madison.
Southern Cross is budget friendlier than many on this list, with low season rates starting from $150 per person a night, but the quality of its horses and riding experience remains second-to-none.
Western Pleasure Ranch – Sandpoint, Idaho
The grandkids are going to love the log cabins here at this award-winning ranch for all seasons 78 miles from Spokane Airport. Western Pleasure exudes authentic Western hospitality, cosseting each guest at this family-owned and operated ranch.
All the horses were either born on the ranch or at local breeders and then carefully raised and specially trained to develop into safe, responsive, and sensible horses. Wranglers here take the same approach to the younger set (ages 8 and up) to bond with their horses with basic animal husbandry skills in addition to riding. Out of the saddle, cross-country skiing trails are well-tended here, although you need to bring or rent equipment off-site. Guided e-bike tours, a 3D archery course, clay pigeon shooting and more occupy time on warmer days. Whitewater rafting and other pursuits can also be found off-site at an additional charge.
Winter rates range from $130 per person, per night. Ranch cuisine is plentiful and special diets including vegan and gluten-free are catered with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
Bar W Guest Ranch – Whitefish, Montana
Big and small buckaroos (from age 4 onward, age 8 and over for trail rides) – even small fries under 3 — will thrill to this ranch’s wrangler focus in the heart of Montana’s majestic Big Sky Country.
On 100 acres of private land abutting over 50,000 more acres of public lands, guests are free to ride and explore, Bar W is a paradise for riders of all levels and lovers of the outdoors. Accommodating up to 42 guests, Bar W offers a more intimate experience for its minimum 3- and 6- day stays in rustic lodge rooms and log cabins decorated in warm Montana style. The ranch kicks western life up a notch with its cowboy cuisine, as well as square dancing, rodeos, campfires and cookouts, roping, wagon rides, and cattle drives.
In winter, downhill skiing, ice fishing, dogsledding, and sleigh rides fill the time in this year-round playground. Montana-style home The ranch also offers glamping experience in four canvas tents – with private heated bathrooms just a few feet away.
Nightly rates per adult start at $225 per person for lodge room rates.
Red Reflet Guest Ranch – Ten Sleep, Wyoming
This working cattle ranch on 25,000 acres of traditional sheepherding and First Nations hunting lands certainly has its act in gear as it easily spans all categories on this list, from resort to dude to working ranch.
Red Reflet features hands-on experience for guests of all ages on cattle rides and accommodates all horseback riding levels and ambitions in the spectacular mountain scenery. Off horse-back, there are pages of activities for all interests and levels, depending on the seasons, including skeet shooting, dirt-biking, rock-climbing, fly fishing, kayaking, and zip-lining into a ‘cowboy waterpark’ fed by a 3,000 foot-deep artesian spring.
Is that too tame for your family? There’s also private plane sightseeing and fossil-digging among the more unusual activities on this ranch. An organic vegetable garden and free-range chickens and beef of course feature in the kitchen, although the accomplished Red Reflet culinary team can easily cater to special requests. They also intrigue and delight guests with special cooking classes. The wine cellar with international vintages does plenty of its own impressing, too.
Cabin accommodations here are all self-contained and larger families or groups are welcomed with all-inclusive rates starting at $600 per night.
McGuinness Meadows Cattle & Guest Ranch – Libby, Montana
Your family will be primed for their visit to this authentic working ranch 100 miles west of Glacier National Park. McGuinness Meadows is the stand-alone to the other year-round ranches on this list only because of its May-December open dates.
As well, children 12 and over are permitted to ride, with no programs for younger kids. Accommodating just 20 guests, the ranch’s primary focus is its horse and cattle program. All levels of rider experience are accommodated and developed here, following the Buck Brannaman style of horsemanship.
For non-riders, McGuinness staff are not shy about telling them to “get lost” in the pristine wilderness that surrounds the ranch for hiking, mountain biking, bird- and wildlife-watching. Flyfishing for brown trout is prime in McGuinness Creek, or for other varieties at any of the nearby lakes and rivers, just bring your own gear and license.
The food here is gourmet ranch; meals include salads, fruits, and vegetables as health is a priority. The fridge door is “always open” so guests can help themselves.
Currently, the ranch offers only month-long stays. Western motif rooms in the lodge begin at $4463 per person for the month.
The Hideout Lodge and Guest Ranch – Shell, Wyoming
Outside of the Bighorn National Forest, this is an ideal place for your family to hideout on 300,000 acres of farm and ranchlands. The Hideout is one of Wyoming’s oldest ranches and offers a variety of accommodation types in Jackson Hole-style luxury.
East of the Yellowstone National Park, this working cattle ranch limits itself to just 25 lucky guests per weeklong stay. A string of 100 Paints, Quarter horses, and a growing number of Mustangs make for exceptional riding experiences and the diversity of landscapes (from meadows to forests) and elevations (from over 4200 to 13000 feet) means no one will ever get bored or ride the same riding trail twice. Trapshooting, archery, off-road and 4×4 tours keep guests occupied while not in the saddle. In particular, fly-fishing — both on-site and in the greater Yellowstone area — is the best in the state.
Dining here is first-rate, with care taken to allergies and severe dislikes (guests are sent surveys in advance). Cuisine bears a global influence, due to the ranch’s popularity with an international clientele.
Four-night stays (the minimum) start at $2300 per person.
Which Family Dude Ranch are You Visiting?
You’re not still stressing over your best option for a family-friendly getaway, are you?
Whether the destination is desert, forest, plains, or mountains, and the venue is a working cattle ranch or an upscale resort, a ranch experience makes for a great family getaway offering something for everyone in outdoor landscapes that are utterly breathtaking.
Each member of the family can split off after breakfast and enjoy their own adventure. By lunch — or happy hour – all are back with stories to share of new experiences to be treasured for a lifetime.
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