While planning my family's ranch vacation this year, I spoke to a pro who gave me her best dude ranch vacation hacks—and I'm sharing them with you.

By Cari Wira Dineen
Updated August 02, 2018
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When planning our annual family vacation earlier this year, I discovered I needed some serious dude ranch vacation hacks. Googling “dude ranch” brings up about a gazillion options and I had no idea how to narrow them down. Most booking sites don’t include dude ranches in their search inventory, and there wasn’t a travel agent I could track down who seemed to be able to give me advice on this type of adventure. So how did I even begin to start planning this? I spoke with Courtney Frazier, Executive Director of theColorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association, for her best dude ranch vacation hacks—and then put them to the test.

1. Plan to book your trip directly. Large travel booking sites don't tend to have dude ranch vacation options, and it maybe hard to find a travel agent with dude ranch experience. Instead, look for a dude ranch association in the state where you want to visit. (The Dude Rancher’s Association, which is a national group that can help point you in the right direction.) “The national and state associations are like the AAA of the dude ranching world,” says Frazier.

2. Steer clear of any ranch that isn’t in a professional association. These groups help ensure the quality of dude ranches. “To be in the association, a ranch has to qualify to certain levels of hospitality, food, and programs," says Frazier. "Our ranches are inspected regularly before they are accepted as a member and continue to be monitored to keep the highest level of standards.”

3. Forget a star-rating system. Typical hotels are rated on the 1- to 5-star rating system. Dude ranches are rated on how dirty your family is willing to get. There are basically three types of dude ranches:

  • A working or farm ranch, where you’re a rancher and you'll be expected to pitch hay, muck pig pens, and even remove poop from the henhouse. This is more tailored to adults, not families, and is considered a very active vacation.
  • A traditional ranch is a guest house where you're, well, a guest! The dirtiest you’ll likely get is riding the horses but not cleaning up after them. Perfect for most families, most accommodations are modern but rustic and include daily housekeeping. My family and I stayed at the Rainbow Trout Ranch in Antonito, Colorado, where we had cabins that were built in the 1940s with individual log burning fire places.
  • A luxury dude ranch. This is basically like a ritzy hotel that might come with room service, a spa, fine dining, and other high-end amenities but still includes horseback riding, fishing and activities. Great for adults and kids alike who still want an outdoorsy vacation but are willing to pay extra for luxe accommodations. Your filth level is low to non-existent. Colorado Trails Dude Rancy in Durango, Colorado, offers brand new cabins that feel more like high-end condos—mini fridges, luxe bathrooms, and central air conditioning.

4. Determine your budget early on. Most dude ranches are all inclusive—meals, activities (we’re talking horseback riding, fishing, square dances, kids programs, hay rides, and more), and your accommodations are included. “Typically, the average is around $250 to $500 per person, per night, and most ranches require a stay of about 6 to 7 nights,” says Frazier, who points out that alcohol is often not included nor are off-site excursions, such as white water rafting. And don’t forget about gratuity. While Frazier points out that some ranches build gratuity into their bill, we ended up tipping 20 percent of our entire bill to the ranch hands after our stay.

5. Consider going during the off-peak season. “While July and August is peak season, fall and winter are both awesome times to visit a dude ranch, particularly to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s—and can save you considerably,” says Frazier. Horseback riding and horse-drawn sleds work in the snow and many ranches offer tubing, cross country skiing, or are close to downhill skiing. “Most ranches offer an adult-only week at some point during the year if you’re trying to plan a kid-free vacation,” says Frazier. When I booked our family vacation for mid-June, I saved about 20 percent because it was considered “shoulder season.”

6. Choose a ranch that's out west. While there are a ton of dude ranches across the country, for a truly authentic, cowboy experience complete with cattle wrangling, ho-downs, and old mining towns, head to one of the Western states, such as Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, or Colorado. “It’s easy to tack your dude ranch trip on to visiting national parks, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, the Great Sand Dunes, or Mesa Verde which are family vacation bucket-list locales to begin with,” says Frazier.

7. Leave your fancy clothes at home. Forget the heels, the dangly earrings, and the cute summer chemise. “Even the luxury ranches are very casual,” says Frazier. What to definitely bring: jeans, boots (hiking work just as well as riding or cowboy boots), lightweight, long sleeve shirt, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and your swimsuit. “Most ranches have a pool and because you’re outside all the time at a higher altitude, you need to be vigilant about sun protection. And pack light—most ranches have laundry rooms or services for guests to use.

8. Stay hydrated. Ranches are often located in the mountains (i.e. higher altitudes) in order to offer gorgeous trail rides, and being dehydrated from too much alcohol or caffeine will make altitude sickness even worse. If you live on the coasts or at sea level, you should give yourself a few days to fully acclimate to the thinner mountain air.

9. Don’t just focus on horse back riding. You’ll miss out on all the other super cool stuff to do—like white water rafting, swimming, on-site mountain biking, guided hiking, and fishing. “Often if you catch a fish, the ranch will cook it up for you for dinner that night,” says Frazier who also points out that many dude ranches often grow their own vegetables, so you can also get in on some gardening. Evening entertainment can include dancing, stargazing, and hayrides. “Specialty weeks—when an expert, such a well-known photographer, painter, or astronomer teach classes—are very popular,” says Frazier. Check the ranch website for pre-planned events and speakers. Or just chill out. Chances are, the ranch will have many rocking chairs, a fully stocked library, and some great vistas where you can just relax (while the kiddos are well-tended to in the junior buckaroo and teen programs).

10. Stretch before you go horseback riding. It's a sport and for good reason—you work a lot of muscles to stay on the horse. And like with any sport, it’s a good idea to stretch before and after your ride. And don’t go crazy on the first day with an all day ride. “The best way to avoid saddle sores or a thrown-out back is to slowly build up your riding—maybe an hour the first day, then 2 or 3 hours in a few days until your body can handle a longer ride,” says Frazier.

11. Expect to ditch your tech. The whole point of going off the grid is to, well go off the grid. Many traditional family ranches don’t have TVs in the rooms, and the wifi service is often spotty. “Going on vacation at a dude ranch is all about unplugging and being with your family in the moment,” says Frazier. “It’s not about getting the best staged Insta pic of the moment.” Frazier says that it takes about two days for the whole family to get past their device addiction. “By the end of the week, even the most phone-addicted teen or email-gluedworkaholic is immersed in the dude ranch experience, “ she says. Which is exactly why you’re there.