TRAVEL: Dude Ranch VacationsA couple of summers ago I had the opportunity to visit a half-dozen dude ranches in Colorado. I was curious to see whether there was anything else for one to do but ride horses, and of course, I wondered what the food was like. Would it be chuck wagon chow? Beans and wieners?
By: Bea Ojakangas, Duluth News Tribune
I never thought I’d visit a real dude ranch, much less ride a horse – something I had never done. This fact surprises many, because I grew up on a farm near Floodwood. (I did drive a tractor, though.) A couple of summers ago I had the opportunity to visit a half-dozen dude ranches in Colorado. I was curious to see whether there was anything else for one to do but ride horses, and of course, I wondered what the food was like. Would it be chuck wagon chow? Beans and wieners?
There’s something for everyone at a Western Dude Ranch. But first I was told that a dude isn’t necessarily a derogatory term. This is according to Ken Fosha, who with his wife, Randy Sue, owns and operates the Drowsy Water Ranch near Granby, Colo. “A dude is somebody who is living a different kind of life than they live at home,” he said. “A dude ranch is not a luxury resort, nor is it a camp. It’s a place to relax, get away, forget your job and be a cowboy or a cowgirl.”
When our daughter, Susanna, was an adolescent, she was simply crazy for horses. If we, as a family, had taken a dude ranch vacation, we’d have taken excellent riding instructions offered by all of the ranches and our family dynamics might have been entirely different. We might have all been dudes. Even though there are things for non-riders to do, being immersed in ranch life makes horseback riding a catchy idea.
I was taken by the enthusiasm of the young “wranglers” or ranch hands, most of whom were college students doing their dream job – working on a ranch for the summer. I was surprised the dude ranches of Grand County, Colo., don’t hire from their neighboring towns and cities. Their wranglers are students from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York State, Ohio, Kentucky and other far-flung states. “It makes for better community among the workers – you don’t have parents, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends visiting,” said one of the ranch owners.
Most ranches have no Internet or television, just the smells of horses, birds, wind and water. One beautiful, demure blonde wrangler from New York City admitted that she would love to have the smell of horses and horse manure in a spray bottle to take home.
A dude ranch is quiet and it takes a couple of days to get used to no phones (cell phone service is sporadic in the middle of Colorado.) It was my experience that I totally forgot about the news of the day, television, email, phone calls and the things that make my life crazy. But it did take time for me to wind down, and the first day, I have to admit I was a little restless.
Dude ranches have a similar pattern throughout the week. Monday, there’s detailed, excellent Western-style horseback riding instruction for beginners followed by a slow ride in the morning and another in the afternoon, if you’re not saddle sore already. For advanced riders, there is a clinic and trail rides.
But live horses (as opposed to the plastic ones at amusement parks), have a personality. The horse needs to get to know you. That’s why grooming a horse, petting it above the eyes on the forehead, and talking to the horse allows it to know your voice and is important before you ever get on its back.
Monday morning at every ranch is “meet your horse” time, and that’s the one you’ll ride all week. The wranglers (ranch hands) match each guest up with a horse that matches your level of experience. My horse was a slow, plodding one that wasn’t likely to take off in a cantor. I really didn’t expect to ride because I had other interests, but it seemed a shame to bypass the opportunity. I found out quickly that one needs special jeans, without seams to keep from getting saddle sore!
So, what does a non-rider do while the family is out riding? Most of the dude ranch programs are varied and vast. You can go hiking, learn archery, take fly-fishing lessons (the ranch chefs will gladly cook any legal fish you bring in), take guided nature hikes, experience cook-outs, hunt (in October and November), go golfing, boating, or rafting to name just a few activities. In the evening you can soak in a hot tub, go swimming in a heated pool, or take part in evening activities, like dancing, hay rides, talent shows and carnivals.
The food at dude ranches goes beyond beans and wieners. Over the course of a week, it varies from good down-home cooking to creative and “gourmet.” Some ranches, like C Lazy U and King Mountain hire trained chefs. Others have really great cooks. Of the six ranches in Grand County, C Lazy U is by far the largest ranch with a capacity of 90 guests. C lazy U also has very high Mobile and AAA ratings which positions them as one of the highest-rated ranches in the state. Dining experiences varied from updated versions of American Western with a barbecue or Southwestern flair, to outdoor mountaintop breakfasts and barbecue lunches.
While the cadence of the Western experience is similar between the ranches, they vary in their rusticity. At Drowsy Water, the buildings reflect the history. Low-slung ceilings made me feel as tall as the cowboys themselves who had to bend their heads a little to get from one end of the dining room to another. All of the ranches offer modern bathrooms, some in cabins, some in the main lodge. Most can accommodate entire families.
Cost? Stays are usually recommended for a full week. Rates range from $1,500 to $3,000 and all the ranches have a good number of discount weeks throughout the summer. There usually is special pricing for kids, and meals, riding lessons and horseback rides are included in the price. For more details check the Web site at www.dude-ranch.com and compare the ranches and their prices.