If your ideal vacation spot includes beautiful scenery, lively action, and fine horses, consider visiting a guest ranch. In the past, guest—or dude—ranches were known for their sedate trail rides tailored to city slickers in brand-new boots.
[CHECK OUT RIDING TRAILS: WHERE-TO-RIDE GUIDE]
Today, however, many ranches are adapting to include rides that will keep savvy riders active and interested.
Here, we’ve put together our pick of riding-vacation destinations where you can ride fast, traverse serious terrain, learn to work cattle, or even participate in a real cattle drive. These ranches, recommended by the Dude Ranchers’ Association and as a result of our editors’ own travel experiences, have horses to match your riding level.
While most ranches don’t allow you to bring your own horse (for their herd’s safety), they work to keep their horses tuned up and ready to do more than simply follow.
Read on to find out where you can do some real horseback riding at guest ranches.
Bonanza Creek Country
This 25,000-acre Martinsdale, Montana, ranch is home to a herd of 1,500 cattle—plus all the horses necessary to take care of them. Eight to 12 guests per week are invited to join in on the family’s ranch work. The Voldseth family has owned the ranch since 1877, and the current owners are direct descendants.
Riding requirements: Because the challenging terrain around the ranch requires riders to have genuine know-how, this ranch accepts only intermediate-level and above riders.
“Good riders like to ride with other good riders,” says owner June Voldseth. She adds that many of the ranch’s guests are horse owners.
Riders must be able to canter outside an arena to help gather and move cattle. Most rides offer some fast-paced riding, but speed can be limited due to the mountainous terrain.
“We always ride in the arena on Monday mornings to check each guest’s riding ability and make sure everyone is well matched to their horse,” says Voldseth. “Then every rider gets to work with the cattle a couple times each week.”
The horses: The ranch continuously purchases new Quarter Horses and Paints from other Montana ranches to make sure the mounts are fresh and agile. The wranglers work with all horses to keep them responsive and mannerly.
The horses are turned out on 360 acres to run or relax as they please. Doing work they love and having the freedom to live naturally makes for happy horses, says Voldseth.
Special events: The ranch offers cowgirl retreats with ride time plus life-coaching sessions. Each scheduled retreat is unique; instructors are varied. Check out bonanzacreekcountry.com/retreats.
Ranch amenities: Each of the four cabins has a view, and though spread out for privacy, they’re all within walking distance of each other, the main lodge, and the stables. Cabins include a refrigerator and coffeepot, though the ranch provides three meals per day.
Get there: Fly into Bozeman; the ranch is almost in the middle of (and two hours from) Bozeman, Billings, and Great Falls. 523 Bonanza Creek Road, Martinsdale, MT 59053; (406) 572-3366; bonanzacreekcountry.com.
Cherokee Park Ranch
Colorado owner Christine Prince says her family’s dedication to natural horsemanship means this ranch’s horses are well trained and ready for any type of ride. The ranch offers team penning and fast rides as well as slower ones for youth or inexperienced family members.
The historic ranch was built in the late 1880s as a stagecoach stop between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Laramie, Wyoming. Much of the original wood furniture and antique horse equipment is still on display. The Prince family purchased the ranch in 1996 after vacationing there for four years in a row.
Riding requirements: There’s a horse for every level of rider. Each day, the head wrangler asks each group what kind of ride and speed of travel they desire. The options are morning, afternoon, or all-day ride. Participants are then grouped by ability.
“Our guests are able to ride the same horse all week long and develop that special bond,” Prince says, adding that auxiliary activities like team penning are fun and boost horsemanship.
“But nothing can compare with venturing out into the forest to maneuver river crossings, climbing up vistas, or loping through Aspen groves,” she says. Cherokee Park’s diverse trails provide fun for riders from beginner to advanced.
The horses: The ranch is home to over 140 mounts of all types (and none are leased). Prince says a good guest ranch must have plenty of horses to allow them to rest well between work sessions. The ranch also has an indoor arena for training and inclement weather.
Cherokee Park Ranch horses—most foaled on the ranch—are “cared for like family,” Prince says. “With our ranch open for only four months, they have eight months to just be horses.”
The Princes’ youngest son, Townsend, trains and tunes up all mounts. “He’s an avid follower of Buck Brannaman’s training and attends clinics throughout the year,” says Prince.
Special events: The ranch hosts weekly rodeos and team pennings for guests. The rodeos include barrel racing, keyhole racing, and pole bending as well as hilarious egg-toss games and clowns’ goofy antics.
Ranch amenities: The mountain setting provides views all around. Stay in a suite within the 120-year-old lodge or opt for a cabin. Activities include square dances, a hot tub, a fire pit, a petting zoo, and more. Guests can relax with a massage or swim in the pool.
Get there: Fly into Denver and head northwest (past Fort Collins) for an hour and forty-five minutes. 436 Cherokee Hills Drive, Livermore, CO 80536; (970) 493-6522; cherokeeparkranch.com.
C Lazy U
This Granby, Colorado, ranch offers historic grounds, mountain views, and high-end amenities. Younger children have assigned counselors to help with swimming-pool activities, archery, and even nap time, if needed. Teens can participate in overnight camping, whitewater rafting, or visiting a rodeo. For you, it’s ride the many trails, enjoy the indoor arena, or take a horsemanship clinic, then relax with the amenities.
Riding requirements: All riders are interviewed and paired with mounts based on ability. Wranglers choose a slow pace on Monday-morning rides to assess horsemanship and ensure each rider has the right mount for the week.
Because rides are designed to accommodate the least experienced rider, ranch managers encourage relative novices to start with an easy ride. This allows groups with advanced riders to move at the pace they want without leaving anyone behind.
“Our ‘fast rides’ are geared toward avid equestrians,” says ranch spokesman Brady Johnson. “We typically have several guests every week who ride competitively and enjoy the fast pace of these rides. We cover a lot of terrain that offers wonderful views and long lopes.”
The summer fast rides are typically three hours in the morning and about two hours in the afternoon. The ranch also offers an all-day ride for advanced riders and horsemanship clinics every afternoon in the summer for less experienced riders.
The horses: The ranch has mounts geared toward all riding levels. More advanced riders are paired with soft, responsive horses often ridden by wranglers.
Special events: Visit clazyu.com/specials-events for a full list of equine-clinician visits, yoga retreats, health and wellness sessions, holiday specials, and more. At select clinics and events, you may bring your own horse.
Ranch amenities: Aiming for luxury, the ranch offers a full-service spa, hot tub, pool, zip line, ropes course, basketball, tennis, fly fishing, archery, and more.
Choose a lodge room or a cabin within walking distance of the main lodge, dining room, and amenities. A full-time chef and sommelier prepare meals.
Get there: Fly into Denver and travel west to Granby. 3640 Colorado Hwy. 125, Granby, CO 80446; (970) 887-3344; clazyu.com.
An hour and a half east of Cody, Wyoming, and Yellowstone National Park, the upscale Hideout neighbors the Bighorn National Forest. The Shell, Wyoming, ranch is steeped in horsemanship training and is committed to the ongoing learning of all staff and riders.
The ranch’s 650,000 acres are diverse; elevation ranges from 4,200 to 13,100 feet above sea level. This means plenty of trail riding and stellar Western views for the ranch’s 25 weekly guests.
Riding requirements: Depending on the season, guests can choose two half-day rides, all-day scenic rides, and on some days authentic cattle work lasting all day.
“Each week of our season we have advanced, even professional riders visiting our ranch,” says spokesperson Rebecca Bercher. “They’re always happy with the level of riding and quality of our horses.”
When advanced riders arrive, the staff takes time to evaluate whether they can, for example, move their hands softly while controlling the horses. The ranch also hosts a riding and safety orientation each Monday morning.
“Because of our terrain, we don’t do rides at a ‘breakneck’ pace,” Bercher says. “We do trot and lope where it’s safe and the terrain allows, but riding as you would on a beach or across open plains is not what we do.”
Find out more about The Hideout’s horsemanship philosophy at thehideout
The horses: The Hideout’s 130-horse string consists of Quarter Horses, Paints, and Mustangs. The ranch owns most of the horses; a few are leased long term and are therefore known well. The ranch works to keep different levels of horses for different levels of riders.
“Some horses in our herd are so finely tuned that only our wranglers and very experienced guests ride them,” says Bercher.
The Hideout’s 25 Mustangs are part of their specialized training program. “We always have a few young Mustangs in training,” Bercher explains. “This program attracts many experienced riders, as most of our Mustangs are suitable for intermediate and advanced riders. Some guests have loved riding their Mustangs so much that they went on to adopt their own.”
Special events: Though the ranch doesn’t host special weeks for advanced riders, many experienced horsemen visit in the early spring or late fall seasons when there are fewer guests.
The ranch works with and co-operates Trapper Creek Ranch, where clinician Farrah Green hosts several week-long intense horsemanship clinics throughout the season. During these clinics, guests are welcome to bring their own horses to work with them and take them out on trails. Find out more at wyoming-horse-riding.com.
Ranch amenities: The Hideout’s handsome cabins and full-size homes boast views of Shell Canyon and the Bighorn Mountains.
The ranch offers a pool, shooting lessons, archery, fly fishing, 4×4 driving tours, hiking, and more.
Get there: The ranch is close to Wyoming’s northern border. 3170 County Road 40½, Shell, WY 82441; (307) 765-2080; thehideout.com.
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch
Just over an hour from Denver’s airport, Colorado’s 3,200-acre Sylvan Dale Ranch offers Rocky Mountain views and the sounds of the Big Thompson River. Begun as a private cattle ranch in the early 1900s, it grew into a guest ranch when wealthy doctors wanted a place to stay and hunt with their families.
The ranch still owns cattle and hosts two “cattle weeks,” when guests can help move the herd to and from its summer range. The ranch also offers riding lessons for all ages.
Riding requirements: Riders are evaluated in the arena before heading out on trails. “Once we’ve approved riders to jog and lope, we designate rides that will do just that,” says instructor Karen Burbank.
If you want to work cattle and ride at a faster pace, the ranch’s team-sorting competitions may be a good fit. “We set the riders up in pairs, and work with a small herd of 10 to 12 cattle,” Burbank explains.
The horses: Many of the ranch’s horses are bred and raised at Sylvan Dale; these mounts—well trained, tuned up, and sensitive—often work out well for advanced riders, who help season them and expose them to various ranch activities.
Special events: Sylvan Dale hosts Cowgirl Roundups (sylvandale.com/cowgirl-roundup) and Great Grownup Getaways (sylvandale.com/great-grownup-getaway), both of which draw experienced riders. The five-night cowgirl retreats allow for lots of horse time. The grown-up-only week offers opportunities for roping and team sorting, plus an overnight pack trip into the back country.
Ranch amenities: Each cozy Sylvan Dale cabin is different; some include fireplaces and full kitchens. You can walk to the main lodge and main recreation area.
Besides riding, the ranch offers tennis courts, pickle ball, shuffleboard, basketball, volleyball, horse shoes, and a heated pool.
Get there: 2939 N. County Rd. 31D, Loveland, CO 80538; (970) 667-3915; sylvandale.com.
White Stallion Ranch
Ride in the Arizona sunshine at this Tucson ranch, home to the True family and their ranch-raised cattle. Brothers Russell and Michael True were raised on the ranch and now own it together with their families. White Stallion has also been the backdrop for Hollywood movies and popular TV shows.
Riding requirements: The ranch offers fast rides and team penning—after a riding test and an initial slow ride. Guests lope behind a wrangler to demonstrate they can sit well, pace their horses, and stop on their own. The test time helps wranglers know they’ve matched horses and riders well.
“Riders really enjoy a brisk lope through the desert,” says Russell True, noting that fast rides are available in both mornings and afternoons. Team penning, offered three days a week, can be presented as competitive for the more skilled riders or toned down for the less experienced.
“Our cattle-sorting game is slower but requires more finesse,” says Russell. “We also have all-day and half-day rides, meaning guests can enjoy up to 6 or 7 hours total in the saddle if they so choose.”
The horses: The White Stallion horses enjoy the trail rides and working cattle, and doing both enables them to stay fresh.
“Our more responsive horses will rotate between guests and wranglers to keep their talents sharpened,” Russell says. “Plus our horses look good and are fit—always a plus.”
Special events: The ranch hosts four “Cactus Cowgirl” events each year. Participants ride and have access to all ranch amenities while bonding with a private group. The gals’ trip offers a riding lesson, yoga, wine-and-cheese ride, line dancing, and time to hang out with new friends (whitestallion.com/specials).
Ranch amenities: Guest rooms are private, and in the style of a cabin. A full-house “hacienda” is available for family reunions and large parties.
Guests find a hot tub and heated pool welcome after a long day in the saddle. Also available are spa services, a sports court, and a fitness center.
Get there: Fly into Tucson; the ranch is close to town and shopping. 9251 W. Twin Peaks Rd., Tucson, AZ 85743; (520) 297-0252; whitestallion.com.
Travel Planning Resources
Dude Rancher’s Association (includes a blog about experienced riders at ranches):
duderanch.org and bit.ly/equestrianranch.
Arizona Dude Ranch Association: azdra.com.
Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association: coloradoranch.com.
Montana Dude Ranchers’ Association: montanadra.com.
Wyoming Dude Ranchers’ Association: wyomingdra.com.
(Or search online with your favorite state’s name plus “guest ranch.”)
Equitrekking.com is known for its riding vacation videos and travel deals. Search their pages for “Lopes & Gallops” and “Advanced Riders” to find a current list of
favorite advanced-level riding vacations.