Head to the Pacific Northwest for the guest-ranch vacation of your dreams! The beautiful states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and northwest Montana offer first-class ranch experience for trail riders.
Ride to outstanding vistas, brush up your horsemanship skills, and move cattle. At night, soak in a hot tub and enjoy a Charlie Russell sunset, or sit around a campfire singing old cowboy tunes.
Here, we’ll profile Bar W Guest Ranch, one of our favorite guest ranches, then give you a rundown on seven more inviting northwest ranches. Just come on up and ride!
Bar W Guest Ranch
This northwest Montana ranch provided us with a ranch experience we’ll long remember.
The seed for the Bar W Ranch was planted when Dave Leishman, a stressed-out, Eastern businessman, and his two younger daughters vacationed at a northwest Montana guest ranch.
According to Dave, it turned out to be “a vacation for the ages.” He discovered that not only did he love riding, but also he was good at it. “We went up and down ridges where I never imagined a horse could go," he said.
This vacation did more than provide relaxation and fun riding experiences. It affected his relationship with his daughters; it drew them closer together. Summer after summer, for four years, they came out as a family to enjoy riding, outdoor activities, and Western culture. This wasn’t enough.
The ranch experience was something Dave wanted his family to have on a regular basis, and he wanted to share his priority-altering experience with others. To accomplish this goal, Dave, his brother Greg, and his friend, Phil Dukes, collectively purchased the Bar W Ranch.
If location is everything, then the Bar W Ranch has it all! The ranch is located in jaw-dropping, scenic northwest Montana, and is 23 miles from Glacier National Park. It’s also 3. miles from the town of Whitefish, rated one of “The Top Ten Cool Towns” by Frommer’s Budget Travel.
The ranch snuggles on a velvet green lawn below Spencer Mountain, and rests between two pine-covered ridges alongside the 30-acre Spencer Lake. This idyllic paradise feeds both the soul and an adventuresome spirit.
A guest may choose from a myriad of outdoor activities, or engage in quiet contemplation in the gazebo by the lake.
Ranch services cover a wide spectrum: delightful meals; horseback-riding in all sorts of terrain; wilderness hikes; bird-watching; fishing and boating on Spencer Lake; photography; swimming; mountain biking; archery; skeet shooting; or serious relaxing!
The backbone of any operation is only as good as the folks running it, and the Bar W Ranch has some mighty good hands!
Dave and Jan Leishman’s three daughters are involved in the day-to-day operations, along with 20 other employees. Emily is in charge of housekeeping, Meghan runs the office, and Haley, the youngest, is a wrangler.
We listened as general ranch manager Dave Schettine gave guests a safety talk before sending them off on their first morning ride. He explained and demonstrated basic horse-and-rider communication techniques and laid down the safety rules, giving clear reasons for all of them.
Guests were given the opportunity to try out their horses in the arena, ask questions, and get comfortable riding before heading out on their first trail ride.
Bar W horses are trained to neck rein and are generally 10 to 15 years old. Lindsay Sunderland, head wrangler, has an experienced staff of nine, each of whom is more than happy to accommodate riders at various levels of experience. Experienced riders can request lengthy rides in more challenging terrain.
Lindsay says she gets paid to “do what I love.” When asked about her job highlights, she smilingly described a lady in her mid-70s sadly bidding good-by to her horse after a fun week of riding.
“The guest had tears sliding down her cheeks,” says Lindsay. “She patted her horse’s neck and said, ‘Dreams really do come true.’ ”
We had the opportunity to observe interesting people enjoy the ranch. A family from New York City came because their 7-year-old daughter, Ava, loves horses.
Other guests were a father and his 16-year-old son from Palo Alto, California, and the Great Eight, a lively group of four couples from Louisville, Kentucky.
The Great Eight were admirable and amazing. These happy folks were lurking in their 70s and some had health issues, but their spirits were bright, and their laughter contagious. Horseback riding at a guest ranch was a bucket-list item. They also went whitewater rafting.
We went on a trail ride with Stanford professor Paul Skokowski and his son, Christopher. They’d been on a father/son multi-week road trip, and the Bar W Ranch was the grand finale.
The ranch gave them a glimpse of different lifestyles and an opportunity to try new activities together. We enjoyed watching the quiet camaraderie between father and son.
Little Ava rode to her heart’s delight, and her parents took pleasure in seeing her beaming face. Watching her reminded us of what owner Dave Leishman said about ranch experiences. “It’s about family. Ranch life brings family together.”
While at the ranch, we rode on our own and also went on a wrangler-led ride using Bar W horses. Andrew Mioli, our wrangler, is a 19-year-old hand from Big Bear, California. This was his first summer working as a wrangler for the Bar W, and he was loving it! His biggest challenge, he said, was learning all the trails.
Andrew guided us on a two-hour ride that went alongside Spencer Lake, then up and around a nearby mountain. Our ride was a sensory feast: chirping birds; sapphire-blue sky; dense forest of pine and deciduous trees; and fresh pine-scented air. We followed along, enjoying all of it.
A wagon ride around the ranch before dinner was an unexpected treat. Lindsay, the head wrangler, harnessed two draft horses to a large wagon. After we all piled in, she gave us a ranch tour, then took us to our dinner destination, the gazebo by the lake.
Dave and his family have anticipated almost any ranch package a guest could wish for: a photography vacation; an adult-only week; a cowgirl-up experience; cowboying on the Great Divide (spring and fall), and more.
The ranch offers horsemanship clinics, pack trips, roping, barrel racing, team penning, and children’s programs. And if there’s a ranch activity you’re interested in that’s not listed, just ask. The Bar W wants to personalize your visit.
Unlike many guest ranches, the Bar W is open all winter. During winter months, guests may ride horses on trails or in the indoor arena, ski at Big Mountain ski resort nearby, go cross-country skiing, do some ice fishing, take a horse-drawn sleigh ride, and perhaps try dog sledding!
• Diamond D Ranch. For a real wilderness experience, try the Diamond D Ranch in Idaho. The ranch is surrounded by one of the largest wilderness blocks in the continental United States, the Frank Church Wilderness and the Salmon River Mountains.
The Diamond D is an all-inclusive ranch that offers horseback riding, hiking, gold panning, swimming in a pool or private lake, and hot-tub soaking. After a day in the saddle, enjoy a scrumptious meal and evening activities.
Wranglers will match you to your horse based on your experience level and the type of riding you desire. You’ll find the horse to match your abilities, whether you wish to stick to a slow walk or go on a fast ride. Most rides are up to 2½ hours long. An all-day ride with lunch is provided once a week.
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Diamond D can also provide you with a multiday pack trip into the wilderness. The ranch offers trips to the high country or down Loon Creek to the famed Middle Fork of the Salmon River. This latter trip is one that has always been on our personal bucket list!
• K Diamond K Guest Ranch. This 1,600-acre guest ranch is located near Republic, Washington. An additional 30,000 acres are leased nearby for summer grazing. We’ve ridden near the guest ranch on the Kettle Crest. Talk about awesome Washington scenery!
You’ll feel right at home when you get to this ranch. Upon arrival, you’re given a ranch tour via a team of Belgian horses pulling a wagon. Horseback riding is a primary activity at the ranch. With more than 70 horses, you’re sure to get a horse to match your ability level. Lessons are also available.
You can participate in the seasonal cattle drives. Experience an Old West cattle drive by helping move the herd up into the high country for summer grazing and then bring them down for winter calving. Be a part of the moving, branding, and doctoring.
• Long Hollow Dude Ranch. We found a friendly staff and a wonderful organization when we visited the Long Hollow Dude Ranch near Sisters, Oregon. This is Oregon’s last remaining ranch in the Dude Ranchers’ Association (www.duderanch.org). Horseback activities include a variety of rides, as well as breakfast and dinner cookouts.
Long Hollow Dude Ranch is situated near some of the prettiest country you can find. Several times we have ridden the Pacific Crest Trail above the ranch and in areas near the ranch. The ranch is located below the Pacific Crest Trail in perfect cattle country. In fact, the ranch remains a working ranch, producing hay, running beef cattle, and supporting a string of horses.
Working with cattle is a special experience at the ranch. Cattle activities include roundups, moving herds to summer range, moving cattle from one pasture to another, and the late-summer drive, when cattle are returned to the ranch for fall grazing.
• McGarry Ranches. At this ranch, you can really be a cowboy or cowgirl! Located in southeastern Idaho, the ranch uses state and federal permits to secure 55,000 acres for its cattle operations.
Guests join the cowboy crew in such activities as roping, driving and doctoring cattle, mending fences, and trailing the herd to new pastures. When there are 2,000 head of cattle to care for, the jobs and activities are never-ending. You’re saddled up on a good ranch horse and performing real cowboy work.
To provide personal attention, only 10 guests are allowed on the ranch each week. This isn’t a nose-to-tail operation. You may need to ride off on your own to locate stray cattle or check gates. Breakfast and dinner are at the ranch house. Lunch is usually right out of your saddlebags on the trail. A 75 percent return rate illustrates that guests love to return time and again to the cowboy life and renew friendships made on the ranch.
• McGinnis Meadows Cattle and Guest Ranch. In northwest Montana is McGinnis Meadows, a working cattle ranch and a great place to learn horsemanship. This is one of the few ranches that allow you to bring you own horse. Or, you can use one of the ranch’s fine saddle horses.
The ranch focuses primarily on Buck Brannaman’s style of Natural Horsemanship (www.brannaman.com). Guests have opportunities to enhance their riding skills and learn how to handle cattle.
The ranch owner has ridden and participated in 200-plus Buck Brannaman clinics. Buck’s expertise is alive and well at McGinnis Meadow Ranch. Daily activities and riding are designed for the guest to learn and employ this type of horsemanship. Riders learn and have fun at the same time.
Buck Brannaman’s style is taught daily in mini-clinics, and through working cattle and riding out in the backcountry.
After a full day of riding, you can enjoy fabulous meals and excellent accommodations.
• Red Horse Mountain Ranch. Located in north Idaho, Red Horse Mountain Ranch is an all-inclusive guest-ranch adventure featuring activities, cozy accommodations, and mouth-watering meals.
In addition to everything one would expect, there are also specialty weeks at Red Horse Mountain, such as couples’ ranch vacations. If you’re a romantic, this is the place! The women have their own getaway week. This is great for mother-daughters, sisters, or gals wanting a real Western escape.
This ranch has an excellent riding program for children. Children ages 6 to 11 are outfitted with their own horse. Kids’ trail rides include instructions, lunch, and fun rides. There’s nothing better than riding horses by day and cooking s’mores over an open fire at night to make a child happy!
• Western Pleasure Guest Ranch. Located in the Idaho panhandle, this 1,100-acre ranch is adjacent to thousands of acres of riding terrain in the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountains. The ranch is about 16 miles from Sandpoint, recently voted “The Most Scenic Town in America” by Rand McNally.
The owners of Western Pleasure can give you an authentic experience in ranch life. They’re a fifth-generation family, operating the same land since 1940.
Horseback riding is the main ranch activity. The riding program includes morning and afternoon rides, day rides to a waterfall for swimming, a dinner ride, and moving and sorting cattle. Lessons and horse games are included.
Additional activities include archery, trap shooting, whitewater rafting, fishing, and even a dinner cruise on nearby Lake Pend Oreille.
Sincere Western hospitality, comfortable accommodations in cabins or the main lodge, and delicious meals round out a memorable vacation at this special ranch.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at email@example.com.