Ranch Stays: Home on the Range

A ranch stay is often the perfect way to relax and rejuvenate. Whether referred to as a “dude ranch”, a “cattle ranch vacation” or a “ranch stay”, (our preferred term), here is the opportunity to get back to nature and to interact with animals and physical activity in a very special way. There are ranch stays of every variety, from family vacations to singles, from those that focus on actual ranch work to those that are primarily about relaxation in a western setting. Whatever your preferences, there is a ranch vacation waiting on you.

  • Ranch stays typically refer to vacations or retreats that involve the following elements:
  • a period of time on a working farm or ranch, often in a western North American setting (although South American ranch stays are available);
  • with an emphasis on working with cattle, horses and other livestock;
  • in an environment hosted by experienced ranch personnel.

This Travelhoppers guide will explain the various considerations for considering and planning a ranch stay. Those travelers looking for an active, outdoor adventure will greatly appreciate the tremendous value that many ranch stays offer.The promise of a ranch stay is a memorable vacation, adventure and natural beauty. Ranch stays are all about the out-of-doors. Here the traveler has the opportunity to reconnect with an active aspect of life that is too often missing from the day-to-day work world. Families, couples and singles alike enjoy ranch stays, and find the experience not only brings them closer to nature, but also makes for a greater appreciation of team work and physical labor. The ranch stay does not have to be all about activity, however. There is typically plenty of time for relaxation, reflection, and good food.

A ranch stay is for you if:

  • You enjoy active vacations;
  • You want to work with animals, especially horses;
  • You want to spend your vacation time out of doors;
  • You enjoy rustic settings;
  • You want to experience a very different type of vacation.

There are as many types of ranch stays as there are ranches. Indeed, every ranch operation offers a slightly different experience based on the character of the proprietor and the nature of the ranch. The most popular ranch stays include the opportunity to spend a lot of time on horseback with plenty of time at your own leisure. Some ranches will permit you to keep a single horse throughout your stay and ride when you like, others will provide a pool of horses from which to select daily. Most often, there is the option to work with either cattle or sheep, or both, from horseback. The central activities typically involve herding the livestock from one destination on the ranch to another, or simply ranging across the landscape either alone or in a group enjoying the scenery.

Family ranches invite aspiring cow pokes of all ages. Such ranches may offer special programs for children. Parents can participate with children in some activities, or engage in their own pursuits while their offspring encounter ranch life in a supervised setting. Other ranches are adult only, so be sure to check the allowed age limits for you and your family companions. Working ranches permit guests to be involved in other aspects of daily ranch work such as branding cattle, fixing fences or gathering crops. Alternatively, guests can observe the working ranch in progress, enjoying the view from a less engaged more reflective vantage point. Other ranches emphasize specialized activities, such as fishing, hiking, trail riding or wrangling.

There is typically the opportunity to learn new skills during a ranch stay. The staff will often teach guests how to work with cattle, how to rope and to practice “cutting”, or maneuvering, cattle in and out of a herd.

But all is not work! Many ranches are located in the wide open spaces of rural Canada or the American west, providing breathtaking sightseeing, fishing, water sports, rock climbing, mountain biking and photography opportunities. Wildlife abounds, and good photographers are rewarded with many opportunities for prize pictures. Ranches provide down-time for guests for relaxation, reading or mingling and sharing experiences with other guests. Decide if a heavily structured environment is right for you, or if you would prefer a more relaxed, unstructured vacation. The point is that there is a right ranch stay for just about everyone!

Accommodations range from rustic bunk houses to deluxe cabins with hot tubs and lodges with complete bars. Your preferences in sleeping comfort and conditions will greatly influence your choice of one ranch stay over another. Many ranches offer camping on the range for some portion of the stay as a part of the experience. Sometimes there is organized evening entertainment, or the guests may be left to their own devices.

Food quality and quantity is another variable of the ranch stay. Most ranches offer food as a part of the package, but some meals are often taken off premises in a local town or nearby restaurant. Many ranches offer special dietary consideration for vegetarian or other cuisines. Request a sample menu during your research. Finally, ask your chosen ranch about the advisability of renting a vehicle for transportation from the airport, for running into town, or for drives around the ranch.

While not necessarily rigorous, a ranch vacation will make modest demands on a traveler’s physical conditioning. In considering whether a ranch vacation is for you, take stock of your willingness to spend most of your day in the out-of-doors, in a saddle, walking, hiking and, in general, being very active. Some riding and exercising in advance of your vacation will help ensure that you do not spend your first nights on the ranch nursing sore muscles!

Travelers are well advised to book as far in advance as possible. Most ranches have a relatively small capacity, restricting the number of guests, and operate during limited season. Many sell out during particular weeks and may not be able to accommodate you and your companions, particularly if there are a number of others accompanying you. Booking well in advance also allows for the best possible airfares if you are flying to your ranch destination.

Spend time with your travel consultant working through brochures and other sales collateral. Make sure that the accommodations, programs, setting and food selection are all to your liking. In addition, look for indications that the ranch invites guests of an experience level comparable to your own. If you are a novice looking for an introduction to horses, cattle and outdoor life, the ranch you choose should welcome the beginner. Likewise, if you are an accomplished outdoor enthusiast, you want a ranch experience equal to your abilities.

Pack clothing that is suitable for outdoor activity. A typical day will have cool mornings and evenings with warm mid-days. Boots are typically a very good idea to protect your feet. Loose, comfortable clothing, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must. Yes, a bandana is a good idea!

Most gear will be supplied by your ranch. However, check to see if binoculars are provided or if you should bring your own, especially if wildlife is abundant. Because of the beautiful natural settings of most ranches, make sure that your camera makes the cut!Your ranch operator and host will often provide a list of recommended clothing and gear to bring with you on your trip. Finally, not all ranches permit smoking, so be sure to check if you have a strong preference for smoking/non-smoking.

Is a ranch stay safe? Any travel entails some degree of risk. However, ranch operators are very much aware of the inherent risks of being in the out-of-doors and seek to minimize the risk of having novice guests around farm animals and settings.

Here are a few tips that can help you ensure that you enjoy your ranch stay with the maximum value and minimum risk:

  • Prepare for the trip by making sure that you can physically participate in the activities the ranch offers.
  • Listen to your host! They are very much concerned for your safety and will offer you a great deal of advice about being round livestock and ranch equipment. If you are a novice, ask for assistance. Even if you are experienced, be willing to accept instruction and to learn new skills.
  • Livestock – respect them, love them, never, ever, ever abuse them or lose your temper with them. Same goes for humans.
  • As with any active vacation, travel insurance covering trip cancellation, trip interruption and medical emergencies is a good idea.

In practically every state of the United States, province of Canada and in many South American countries, you will find ranches inviting guests. Your travel consultant can assist you with determining which location matches your preferences. In the western United States, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah have dozens of ranches offering vacation experiences while Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina in the east have many options. But the list hardly ends there! No matter where you desire to spend your vacation, it is highly likely there is a dude ranch close by. In Canada, British Columbia and Alberta offer a large number of ranches offering stays ranging from one week to months!

Your own preferences will dictate the location of the best possible ranch stay. Want wide open scenery and wildlife? Want to be at altitude with the Rocky Mountains as your backdrop? Is fishing a part of your dream ranch vacation? Ranches in western North America have a peak season during the summer, typically June though August. Most offer fringe seasons when early spring might impose some colder weather or even a late snow storm on guests. In particularly warm settings, like Arizona, late fall and early spring are often better choices to avoid the heat of mid-summer. In the final analysis, however, the best time to go is when the ranch’s season matches the one in which you want to travel! Remember, too, that because of the limited season and guest capacity of many ranches, opportunities can sell out quickly. Book in advance!

All Current Travel SpecialsThe cost of a ranch stay varies widely. At the low end, where the ranches are authentically “rustic” the food is “grub” and the entertainment is largely supplied by the guests, the adult rates will be in the range of $150 a day and children $110. A more generously endowed set of amenities will average closer to $180 a day for adults and $125 for children. Truly deluxe guest ranches with many amenities, (one advertises “Gourmet meals in the main lodge and Ralph Lauren sheets on the beds”) superior lodging and food selection will be in excess of $220 a day for adults and $150 for children. Carefully review what is included in your rates. Some ranches include tips, some do not. Taxes are almost always additional. Food is typically covered, as are any fees for fishing or other activities, but cover these issues with your travel consultant when making arrangements.

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