How to find the right dude ranch
What is a dude ranch, anyway?
Some are working cattle ranches with "dude seasons"--when guests pay to play cowboy--while others are full-time tourist operations. "There's such a variety," says Amey G. Adams, a former ranch owner who gives seminars to people thinking of getting into the business. "Before booking anything, ask, is this a basic ranch with horseback riding, or is this an upscale place where all our needs are taken care of, including very elaborate meals?"
Where do I find one?
It's no surprise most dude ranches are out west. The Wyoming-based Dude Ranchers' Association (307/587-2339, duderanch.org/) is particularly trustworthy, because it inspects every one of its 116 member properties. State dude-ranch associations, such as www.coloradoranch.com and www.montanadra.com, are also good sources. (Find other state associations by doing a Google search. Investigate the criteria involved in getting listed--if it only involves paying a fee, look elsewhere.) Finally, there are websites, such as ranchweb.com/ and duderanches.com/, which list ranches around the country.
What's it going to cost?
Anywhere from $800 to $3,000 per head per week. Sounds steep, but most dude ranches are all-inclusive--one price covers all riding, meals, beverages, and activities, with three- to seven-night minimum stays, and you can expect mucho pampering on the high end. If you're priced out of traditional dude ranches, consider a horse-friendly B&B. Some, like West Pawnee Ranch in Grover, Colo. (970/895-2482, westpawneeranch.com/), offer lodging by the night ($60-$100) and riding by the hour ($20).
Is this ranch right for my kids?
Dude ranches seem like they all should be kid-friendly, but many are not. "They don't come right out and say, 'We don't take any kids,' but they make it pretty obvious," says Cheri Helmicki, co-owner of Bar Lazy J in Parshall, Colo. (800/396-6279, barlazyj.com/). Ask up front about kids' programs and discounts. Ranches that want to please everyone have been known to stay open a few weeks into the fall, when they only accept adults.
What are my options?
Call up and find out. Do you want short beginner rides? An overnight trip? Other activities such as fishing or swimming? Bigger ranches tend to have more options, while smaller ones usually yield closer friendships. And ask about chow: Many are heavy on steak and potatoes; others hire chefs rather than cooks. At Bar Lazy J--co-owner Helmicki is a vegetarian--there's fare like vegetable medley Alfredo (in addition to meat). "It's not the norm," she admits.