The Wild West has long held a fascination with American city dwellers, or “city slickers” as the real cowboys like to call us. A century ago, it was wealthy families from the East Coast who wanted to hop a train and experience a taste of the frontier. Vacation havens known as “dude ranches” began springing up around the West, charging for room and board and providing a little taste of the Western life. Some of those early ranches are still hosting guests today, and many more have joined them.
By definition, a dude ranch is one that welcomes families and offers authentic Western experiences, such as horseback riding, herding cattle, fly-fishing and hiking. Outdoor recreation and ranch culture may be the main attractions, but family bonding, connecting with nature and making new friends are all sweet bonuses.
And a key perk is the kid-oriented, wholesome fun of it all. Perhaps your child will tie on his first fly, have her interest sparked in identifying wildflowers or learn to build a campfire. If you long to introduce your children to horseback riding, a dude ranch is the place to do it.
Guest ranches run the gamut from roughing-it bed-and-breakfasts to luxury resorts with on-site spas, and the wide range of rates reflect these differences. Most dude ranches host weeklong stays, usually Sunday–Sunday. The week is punctuated with campfire sing-alongs, wagon hayrides and yard games such as horseshoe and volleyball — just like summer camp!
All-inclusive rates are common (this is referred to as the “American plan”), by which the per-person cost covers lodging, all meals and various recreational activities. Some ranches do offer shorter, three-day stays.
Four Family-Friendly Dude Ranches in the Northwest
K Diamond K Guest Ranch
“Home, Home on the Range” might be playing in your head as you drive up to the K Diamond K Guest Ranch in the Okanogan Forest just south of Republic. This place is more of a family ranch than a fancy resort, and the Konz family makes you feel right at home from the start.
Your stay begins with a guided tour of the ranch in a 12-passenger wagon pulled by a team of Belgian draft horses. Your sleeping quarters are in the family’s new log-cabin-style lodge with 15 guest rooms, built of peeled logs from larch and fir; the family’s oldest son, Dave Konz, built the structure and cut every tree himself for its construction. Notice the rustic craftsman details, such as inlaid horseshoes in the stairs and mammoth stone fireplaces. A peek into the kitchen reveals a plethora of cast iron, an essential tool for cooking on a ranch.
Standout activities: Guided horseback rides and lessons, cattle drives, nearby hiking and biking trails in the national forest.
Rates: The ranch operates on the all-inclusive “American plan” — meaning that for $179 per night per person ($150 in fall and spring), you get lodging, all three meals and the opportunity to take part in all ranch activities, including twice-daily guided trail rides on horseback. There’s a three-night minimum stay.
Long Hollow Ranch
Just 13 miles northeast of the Western-themed town of Sisters, Long Hollow Ranch is nestled in a lush green valley flanked by juniper and sagebrush mesas. Owned by Dick and Shirley Bloomfeldt, Long Hollow Ranch is the real deal, a working ranch that invites guests to participate in hands-on chores such as fixing fences, grooming the horses, harvesting hay and even riding with the ranch hands while they work.
Or not. Take a rest with a cool drink on the wrap-around porch or sunny patio and enjoy the view while the kids play old-fashioned yard games. The main ranch house has five guest rooms, and there’s a separate ranch cottage that’s perfect for families. All rooms are air-conditioned. There’s no television, although you’ll enjoy the free Wi-Fi in case you just can’t unplug.
Standout activities: Guided horseback rides, hands-on “chores” and white-water rafting.
Rates: The typical Long Hollow Ranch stay is six days, Sunday–Saturday. Rates for the six-day stay are $1,470/person double occupancy, $1,590/person single occupancy. Cost for children younger than 12 is $1,320/person. Rates include lodging, all meals, horseback riding, all on-site ranch activities and a guided half-day white-water rafting trip. Three-day stays (typically Sunday–Wednesday) are also available.
Wilson Ranches Retreat
Owners Phil and Nancy Wilson share their Western way of life with guests who are ready to saddle up and lend a lasso. The Wilsons run cattle drives throughout the year, and they have plenty of boots, hats and saddlebags for guests. Ranching isn’t a second career for the Wilsons — they are fifth-generation ranchers. Set on 9,000 acres in the heart of eastern Oregon’s painted desert, the Wilson Ranches Retreat boasts a 1910 Sears, Roebuck & Co. ranch house (a bonus for buffs of these homes) with six pristine ranch-style guest rooms decked out with antler lamps and horseshoe hangers. You’ll also write home about the hearty “ranch breakfast”: biscuits and gravy, farm-fresh eggs, muffins, oatmeal and more.
Standout activities: Scenic horseback rides, cattle drives, hiking and ranch tours. The John Day Fossil Beds are nearby.
Rates: $139–$159 per night for a family of four, including lodging and breakfast. Activities are extra, such as guided horseback riding with Phil ($40 per rider for the first hour, $20 for each additional hour).
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch
Mountain Sky, just north of Yellowstone National Park, is the crème de la crème of dude ranches, with a price tag to match. It first opened its doors to guests in 1929, and much of that old-fashioned dude ranch atmosphere still hangs in the crisp mountain air. Purchased in 2002 by one of the cofounders of The Home Depot, it’s undergone a luxurious transformation and is one of the premier dude ranch experiences in the West for families that can afford it. Thirty spacious guest cabins nestled among the pines balance deluxe amenities like cushy beds with rustic wood-burning fireplaces.
Standout activities: Mountain Sky boasts expertly guided horseback riding and angling outings, but also offers unexpected activities such as tennis, golf, swimming and yoga. Families are its primary market, so children’s programming is extensive and childcare is available for a fee.
Rates: Adults are $3,590–$4,540/
week, children ages 7–12 are $3,040–
$3,820/week, kids ages 6 and younger are $2,360–$2,940/week, babies 18 months and younger are $755/week. Nannies are welcome at a flat rate of $1,295/week. Rates include lodging, all meals and gratuities, and all on-ranch activities. In the heart of summer, only seven-night stays are offered, but that is reduced to three-night minimum stays during the shoulder seasons.
Lauren Braden is a travel writer based in Seattle. Read about her family’s adventures and get more local travel tips at Northwest TripFinder.
Finding a Ranch for Your Little Dudes
In addition to the dude ranches featured here, you’ll find dozens more throughout the western states. The Dude Ranchers’ Association is a great place to start. duderanch.org
To save on the considerable cost, consider a shoulder-season ranch stay, which some ranches offer. Or find a ranch that isn’t all-inclusive (such as Wilson Ranches Retreat) and add on only the amenities you really want, such as one horseback trip.
Round up: Four More Unique Ranch Stays
Flying Horseshoe Ranch in Cle Elum, Wash., is close enough for a quick Western getaway and cheap enough for almost any budget.
Rent one of its rustic sleeping cabins that sleep eight for $100 per night. Guided two-hour trail rides on horseback ($35 per person, ages 7 and older) include a lesson on saddling and safety.
Pine Butte Guest Ranch in Choteau, Mont., is a nonprofit project of The Nature Conservancy and walks the walk when it comes to conservation by using solar and wind power, and harvesting fresh veggies from its on-site garden.
Rocking Z Guest Ranch in Wolf Creek, Mont., is a family-run, green operation powered by biofuel. Its horses are trained using natural horsemanship, a technique featured in The Horse Whisperer.
The Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, Calif., offers something unique — it’s a wild mustang ranch with hundreds of rescued wild horses that roam freely around the ranch’s 5,000 acres at the foot of Lassen Peak.