8 Great Dude Ranches and Guest Ranches in the U.S. and Canada
Vacations don’t get more all-American (or all-Canadian) than this: spectacular scenery and outdoor adventures with your kids or grandkids at a dude ranch. You’ll feel wind-in-your-hair vitality as you balance atop your trusty steed, trotting across along streams, into forests, and along desert washes. Learning to control a horse gives kids—and adults—confidence, and at many ranches, twice-daily rides can stretch into long barbecue luncheons or all-day journeys into pristine wilderness.
But you don’t even have to ride. More dude ranches also lure wannabe wranglers with fly-fishing, whitewater rafting, zip lining, yoga, and other off-the-horse adventures. And in the evenings, you can square dance, make s’mores by the fire, and soak up a sky full of stars.
Each of these dude ranches has a different flavor and locale, but all create memorable family vacations that celebrate the pioneer spirit and bring you in communion with nature, North American-style.
Pictured above: Horseback riding at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, Montana
The Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in Gallatin Gateway, Montana, sprawls on 1,000 acres in a valley surrounded by two million acres of national forest—riding is over mountains, meadows, and alongside rivers. Owned by the Kelsey family for more than 75 years, the ranch breeds, raises, and trains its own horses, making it easy for wranglers to match a mount’s personality to your riding ability.
Kids aged 3 to 5 can simply sit in the saddle as guides lead the buckeroos through pastures as part of a supervised play program. One of the ranch's standout programs, Rough Riders, assigns kids aged 6 to 9 the same horses for the week, mastering fundamentals and riding trails together as they form a bond. Ages 10 and older join adults with similar skills for trail rides.
Nine Quarter can also arrange fly fishing, swimming in a mountain pond, and hiking through wildflower-filled meadows. Its overnight pack trip is a good way to bond with teens.
Rates: all-inclusive with meals
Minimum stay: 6 nights, Sunday to Saturday
Ride length: 2 hours, and there are also lunchtime and all-day rides
Minimum trail ride age: 6
Children’s riding program: ages 6–9
Supervised non-trail riding children’s program: infant to 5 years old
Maximum guests: 50 guests in 1–4 bedroom cabins
From Elk Mountain, Colorado’s highest guest ranch, the scenery is a sweep of peaks more than 14,000 feet tall. National forests surround the 7-acre property for miles in every direction. Here, you and your cowpokes aged 8 and older ride through open parkland and into the aspen- and pine-forested mountains on horses that are provided to you.
Elk Mountain Ranch’s well-crafted children’s program (ages 3–7) does much more than pony rides: Little buckeroos learn to sit, balance, handle the reins, and ride in an arena. Kids also improve their dexterity with gymkhana equestrian games like rounding barrels and dodging poles.
Off the saddle, Elk Mountain has hiking, biking, fishing, and archery. Off the ranch, there’s nearby whitewater rafting, an adventure park with a ropes course, and Aspen itself.
On this 350-acre ranch, kids ages 6 years and older ride with their parents through woods and open pastures in the Ozarks’ Boston Mountains, but riding horses isn’t the only way to whoop it up at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, Arkansas. There are lots of other things to do, too: Glide on zip lines, paddle canoes, shoot skeet, hike, try archery, and rock climb using a via ferrata (“iron way”), a safety cable system that anchors iron rungs in the rocks for foot and handholds. The arrangement makes scrambling up and over rocks relatively easy for novices.
Counselors lead kids aged 3 to 5 on pony rides and take the kids on bug hunts, nature walks, and to the pond for fishing.
The 500-acre Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch in Northwest Arizona borders 360,000 acres of federal land in the foothills of the Mohave and Hualapai mountains. Picture you and your family riding through the classic cowboy country you’ve seen in old Westerns: high mountain desert dotted with scrub brush and cacti. The stucco-style buildings add to the atmosphere, as do the antique buckboards, covered wagons, surreys, and the authentic stagecoach you can board for a jaunt.
Rides become progressively longer and more challenging as the week progresses and your skills improve. All-day routes go deep into the mountains to reach an abandoned gold mine.
Stagecoach, which is entirely accessible for people who use wheelchairs, deploys a ramp to enable them to mount horses for a ramble in the arena. Wranglers are also capable of leading special needs kids aged 6 and older on supervised trail rides. After dinner, everyone watches roping, joins line dancing, and plays billiards and horseshoes.
Like many properties, Three Bars Guest and Cattle Ranch, in Cranbrook, British Columbia, also offers an excellent slate of out-of-the-saddle adventures. The river rafting, mountain biking, e-bike tours, fly-fishing and archery options are as much a part of your lodging package as horseback riding.
Owned and operated by the Beckley family (whom you can watch train in competitive reining), the horse-and-cattle ranch unfolds on 2,500 acres on a plateau above the St. Mary River with access to 35,000 additional acres in the spectacular Canadian Rocky Mountains. Trails take you down along rivers and up into the peaks.
The ranch owns its horses, so wranglers can easy pair you with suitable steeds for the week. Families can ride together, and kids 6 to 12 years old can giddy-up on their own with newfound friends of similar ages and abilities. Outings for small children are along the lines of frog catching, fort building, and gold panning. Not that you’ll need the nuggets: If you’re spending U.S. dollars, the favorable exchange rate stretches your vacation budget.
Situated on 878 acres in the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains, Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, in Stanley, is a place to savor the celestial beauty of Idaho at its best, even if your interest in horses is minimal. Your views will be of snow-capped mountains, icy blue streams, and forests thick with lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. The rugged scenery and historic log cabins catapult you back to the Old West, but one with excellent food, professional massages, and twice-daily yoga.
Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch is a good place to bond with your adventurous tween or teen by (yes) riding horses, fly fishing, rafting, and mountain climbing against a rugged, film-worthy backdrop. Local outfitters provide guided outings at an additional cost, and horseback rides tend to consist of easy, low-impact scenic walks to overlooks. Three evenings a week, the ranch organizes crafts, games, and stories for younger kids so their adults can sneak off to enjoy a private dinner.
A working cattle ranch owned by the Rankin family since 1863, the Quarter Circle U Rankin Ranch’s 31,000-acre spread opened to guest riders in 1965. Twice a day, you and your dudes aged 6 or older ride for an hour through meadows, over rolling hills and chaparral, and across and oak and pine tree-covered mountains.
Off the horse, kids can also craft, hike, and swim in the pool, and BBQ hay wagon rides are frequently scheduled for lunchtime amusement. Bring your own fishing gear to catch lake trout, which (if you’re good enough to catch any) the staff will clean and cook for you. After dinner, the children’s program takes the group to feed baby calves, lambs, and goats.
But don’t expect your kids to get much screen time: The ranch has no cell phone service, no television, and limited Wi-Fi. (Which, for you, might be a big part of Quarter Circle's appeal.)
Pine Ridge Dude Ranch, on 150 acres about 100 miles from New York City, is a good option in the East for families with grade schoolers who want to dabble in horseback riding but don’t want to make it the intensive focus of their vacation. The room rate covers lodging, three meals daily, archery, tennis, bocce ball, mini golf, evening magic shows, and campfires, plus a guarantee of one 45-minute trail ride per person per 3-night stay. (Kids aged 3 to 8 stick to ponies in a corral.)
You’ll pay extra for more additional trail rides as well as lessons—instruction is offered for everyone aged 5 and older and runs the gamut from the basics to advanced riding techniques.
Pine Ridge’s specialty programs give additional hands-on time with the herd: Horse Owner for a Day allows guests aged 9 and older to spend all day grooming, saddling, feeding, and riding their animal. With the Barn Buddies program, you and your kids get an hour of instructed equine care for a taste of what it’s like to tend to a horse. But careful—it’s easy to fall in love.
Update: We have learned that Pine Ridge will be closing permanently as a dude ranch as of Memorial Day, 2022.