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Thinking About a Dude Ranch Vacation This Summer? Tips from an Expert

The horse may just replace the racecar, space ship and James Bond-helmed motorboat as the whiz-bang mode of transportation this summer. I make that prediction after watching the trailers for the new, Johnny Depp-helmed (he’s Tonto) version of The Lone Ranger that will be hitting movie theaters this July and seems destined for blockbuster status. Every single preview features racing stallions, their manes rippling like flags in a hurricane, their haunches knotted into solid blocks of muscle. If you don’t get the yen to go for a canter yourself after that movie (or even just the preview), well, you may want to check if your heart’s still ticking.

My further prediction is that dude ranch vacations are going to ride the tail (or mane) of this film, to even greater popularity. So I decided to check in with Gene Kilgore, a noted expert in the field, about how novice riders can prepare for this sort of vacation. Kilgore has written 8 books on dude ranch holidays and wears a cowboy hat and boots without irony.

Frommer: How did you first get interested in dude ranches?

Kilgore: I was taken to a dude ranch as a young boy and just fell in love with the whole thing. I often say if you take a child to a beach and ask them ten years later to name the beach, they won’t be able to do it. But if you take them to a ranch, they’ll remember not only the name of the ranch but the name of the horse they rode! It’s a life-changing experience.

Frommer: There are ranches across the US and Canada. How does a newbie choose which one to try?

Kilgore: Pretty much every guest-accepting dude ranch nowadays offers programs for beginning and intermediate riders. So you have to decide what type of experience you want. You could be riding up in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, in a desert landscape like Arizona, on the high plains. There are terrific ranches in all these types of destinations, not to mention in Brazil and Argentina (though transportation costs make those options too pricey for most families).

Frommer: What do you think surprises people about the dude ranch experience today?

Kilgore: Oh, it’s changed so much. Yoga is a really common activity at many ranches. You wouldn’t have found that 20 years ago. And about 50% of the ranches offer massage, which is great after a long day on the trail.

Frommer: You’re making dude ranching sound rather luxurious!

Kilgore: It can be. Dude ranches range from those with creaky floors to those with 600-thread count sheets and gourmet chefs on staff. I think what surprises folks most about dude ranches is the wide range of activities they offer well beyond riding. I’m talking fly- fishing, guided nature hikes, river rafting, swimming, touring nearby parks, tennis. It’s really an adventure wonderland at ranches today. They’re a particularly good choice for women.

Frommer: Why is that?

Kilgore:  Single women find they can meet others easily at dude ranches because you dine with other people and the activities are very inclusive. These are places where you can let your hair down without being judged. And for moms, well, it’s a true vacation.  With the exception of cruise ship, I know of no other vacations where there are such involving programs for the kids! The moms really get to take a relaxing break.

Frommer: I have to bring up the downside of dude ranches which is what can happen to, well, your downside. What advice do you have?

Kilgore: It’s a good idea to buy a couple of extra-long pairs of jeans and put them through the wash about five times before you wear them. You put them through the wash a lot to get them nice and soft, and you want them extra-long because they’ll ride up when you’re sitting in the saddle. Wearing bike shorts under your jeans can help, as can wearing pantyhose under the jeans. I’ve seen women and men do that—it really helps reduce the friction between the skin and the jeans.

Frommer: I can’t let you go before asking you how you can save money on dude ranch vacations.

Kilgore: By going in the off-season. With the exception of the desert areas, the summer months are most expensive at Canadian and American ranches, particularly in July and August. But there can be discounts even then. We list a good number of them on our website