Best Dude Ranches for Families

Mimi Slawoff Avatar
best dude ranch for families
Guided trail rides for kids and adults at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Santa Barbara. Photo credit: Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I always wanted my own horse. I never got one, but when my kids were little we began visiting dude ranches, also called guest ranches. There, I could have my own horse for a few days and embrace the cowgirl’s life.

Our first dude ranch vacation was the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Santa Barbara. When my three kids were tots, they collected eggs and played with animals in the barnyard. By age 7 they learned to ride. Over the years, we’ve returned several times to this ranch and others.

There are hundreds of dude ranches across the American landscape. While horseback riding is the central activity, a dude ranch vacation offers many western-themed adventures. And you don’t even have to ride horses to have fun. A guest ranch vacation offers fresh mountain air, outdoor activities, delicious food and quality family time. Round up the family and giddy up to America’s best dude ranches for families.

Why Choose a Dude Ranch for Your Family Vacation

Dude ranches are unique and fun for several reasons. “It’s a more personal vacation than Disney or cruises,” says Colleen Hodson, executive director for the Dude Ranchers’ Association. The association has 100-plus ranch members west of the Mississippi.

“You’re there with no more than 200 people. It’s a place to connect and reconnect,” she says. “It gives you time to eat and play as a family.”

Since dude ranches are typically family-owned (some for many generations), they are super kid-friendly. Ranch staff interacts with kids and adults, making you feel like part of their family. Kids become friends with the wranglers, cooks and other families. Ask a wrangler and they’ll tell you that many guests become close and time their annual family vacations to be together year after year.

All-Inclusive Amenities

Typically, most dude ranches are all-inclusive. That covers horseback riding, accommodations, most or all meals, a bunch of western-themed activities, and children’s programs. But some activities are available for an additional fee. Know in advance what’s covered.

Guests eat well at the best dude ranches for families
Start the morning with a hearty western meal on a breakfast ride at Rawah Ranch in Colorado. Photo credit: Rawah Ranch

Western-Style Cuisine

Expect to eat well! “Guests will discover that dining at a dude ranch will be one of the most memorable parts of their vacation,” says Hodson.

Imagine dining around a campfire under the stars or enjoying a pool-side barbecue. Or sitting at an elegant candle-lit table. Food is a big part of any dude ranch. The fare will range from home-style cooking to the finest western cuisine. Most ranches have a chef and a baker on staff. Plus, fresh fruits and vegetables are often grown right on the ranch. Most ranches can also meet special dietary needs when needed.

How to Choose the Right Dude Ranch for Your Family

Best dude ranches for families offer kids a chance to ride and care for horses.
Kids can learn to ride and groom horses at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort. Photo credit: Gary Knight

How to Choose the Right Dude Ranch for Your Family

Basically, there are three types of dude ranches, although there is some overlap.

Working cattle ranches usually have fewer guests and are great for learning about ranch life. You can even watch or join cattle drives. “You’ll be in the saddle a lot. You can also learn to round up livestock on horseback. If the ranchers have to feed the cows, you can help. You’ll be immersed in ranch atmosphere,” says Hodson.

Traditional ranches accommodate about 45-50 people. Trail rides and horses are the main focus. You’ll also find outdoor adventures. These dude ranches are usually located by great rivers, so fly fishing is a popular activity. Evening campfires, line dancing, great kids programs, and family-style meals are part of the package.

Resort ranches are the largest. These upscale ranches serve gourmet food and may have an onsite spa facility and swimming pool. Activities are usually guided. For example, guided horseback riding, hiking, fishing, etc.

Find great children's programs at the best dude ranches for families
Kids ages 6 and older ride horses through mountain and meadow cattle country at the family-owned Rankin Ranch in California, operating since 1863. Photo credit: Rankin Ranch

Consider the Geographic Location

Since ranches are located in the mountains, and by rivers and prairies, their location can be remote. Find out the proximity of a ranch to the closest airport and available flights from your hometown.

Ranch location determines the type of riding activities offered. These include overnight pack trips, hunting trips, and all-day rides. In addition, ranches may offer breakfast or lunch rides, cattle drives, team penning, cutting, and guest rodeos.

Some ranches are located next to a national park – a great side trip for your family vacation. Plus, nearby rivers offer opportunities for whitewater rafting during your family dude ranch vacation. Also, some ranches are a stone’s throw to cool historic towns.

Depending on their location, ranch operating seasons vary. Some ranches welcome guests year-round, others are seasonal. In addition, ask about the required minimum stay. Some ranches require a minimum stay of two nights while the policy for others is one week.

Accommodations and Amenities

From rustic to luxury, all ranch lodging is clean and comfortable. But some ranches offer more amenities, like afternoon hors d’oeuvres, WiFi, TVs, hairdryers, etc.  If you’re looking for massages or a hot tub, a resort ranch may be a better option than a cattle ranch. Also, not all ranches serve alcohol. So if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, you may have to bring your own.

Best dude ranches for familes offer young kids plenty of hands-on experiences.
Ranch activities for young kids include feeding chickens and petting barn animals. Older kids ride horses and join in other western activities. Photo credit: Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort

Children’s Programs

Be sure to inquire about kids’ programs, which vary from ranch to ranch. Ask about the minimum age to ride, activities for various ages, and if there’s a facility for infants and toddlers. Are there teen camps or special programs for older kids? Find out if there are other kids booked at the same time. “You don’t want your 5-year-old to be the only kid in the children’s program,” says Hodson.

Ranch Activities

Besides horseback riding, dude ranches offer a gamut of onsite and offsite ranch experience for riders and non-riders. Think mountain biking, exercise rooms, pool tables, recreation rooms and hayrides. Some ranches have golf courses and archery lessons. There may also be western dancing, canoeing, art classes and cooking classes.

During my family’s visit at the cozy Rankin Ranch in Caliente, California, we rode in a hay wagon, competed in a horseshoe tournament and played pool in the recreation room.

Read More: What Can I Do at a Dude Ranch if I Don’t Want to Ride a Horse?

Best Dude Ranches for Every Age Group

Best dude ranches for families offer nature walks, trail rides and many other activities
Kids bond through shared experiences in children’s programs at dude ranches. Photo credit: Tanque Verde Ranch

Great Dude Ranches for Toddlers

Bar Lazy J Ranch, Colorado

Open May – September, the ranch is located along the banks of the Colorado River. Trail rides, a heated swimming pool with a water slide and hayrides are among the many activities. In the children’s program, kids ages 3 – 12 learn horsemanship skills and roping. They also visit the petting farm and pan for gold. For a fee, babysitting is available for those under 3. Families stay in log cabins or in the main ranch house.

Drowsy Water Ranch, Colorado

This Colorado dude ranch operates from May – September. In the Buckaroo program for kids 5 and younger, activities include horseback rides around the ranch, games, crafts and picnic hikes. Counselors supervise naps and feeding. Kids ages 6 to 13 learn to ride and practice skills in the Rangerider program. Parents are welcome to join kids’ activities. Families eat together and stay in one- to four-bedroom cabins.

White Stallion Ranch, Arizona

Open year-round, the ranch is about a 35-minute drive from Tucson International Airport. Kids under 5 stay free and can ride safely on a lead line guided by staff. There’s also a petting zoo and heated pool. Ranch activities include riding, rock climbing, hiking and fat-tire bike riding. The ranch’s 43 guest rooms are ideal for family reunions.

The best dide ranches for families offer an array of outdoor activities in addition to horseback riding
Besides horseback riding, activities at many dude ranches include boating, hiking and fishing. Photo Credit: Red Horse Mountain Ranch

Best Dude Ranches for School-Age Kids

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, California

Open year-round, the Alisal is a working cattle ranch and full-service resort with luxury cottages. Ages 7 and older go on guided trail rides in wide-open spaces with Sycamore trees. Ages 4 – 6 gather eggs, feed chickens, and play with baby goats in Alisal’s Barnyard. Breakfast rides lead to an adobe camp and cowboy buffet. The modified American Plan includes breakfast and dinner.

Red Horse Mountain Ranch, Idaho

Open summer through fall, the full-service resort ranch has riding programs for ages 3 and older. The ranch is among the few that allows kids ages 3-6 to experience horseback trail riding. Kids ages 7 and older learn to saddle up and groom their horses. More ranch activities: kayaking, a challenge course, climbing wall and zipline.

Goosewing Ranch, Wyoming

Open June – September, the resort guest ranch has activities and riding programs for ages 6 and older. Activities include roping, horse grooming, fire making, and wagon rides. For children ages 3 – 6 there’s the young Buckaroo’s program. Enjoy family meals in the ranch dining room, and sleep in cozy cabins.

Tanque Verde, Arizona

Open year-round, the old-time cattle and guest ranch is located in the desert near two national parks. The old west ranch features plush accommodations, a spa, and kids program for ages 3 – 17. Babysitting is available. Among the best dude ranches in Arizona, Tanque offers hiking, biking and fishing. Amenities include an airport shuttle, WiFi, and swimming pool.

Best Dude Ranches for Tweens

Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, Montana

Open May – October, this upscale resort is located near Yellowstone National Park. The minimum age for trail rides is 7, but daily arena instruction is offered to 6-year-olds. The kids’ program includes scavenger hunts and swimming pool games. For adults, the Wellness Lodge features massages, yoga and a steam room. Plus, the ranch offers van tours to Yellowstone National Park. Come chow time, kids are encouraged to eat with peers in the youth program while parents enjoy a multi-course dinner.

Paradise Ranch, Wyoming

From May – September, Paradise is among the best dude ranches in Wyoming for families. The kids’ program has special activities for infants – teens. But tweens and teens get extra privileges such as supervised overnight trips. Gourmet meals are served in the old western saloon and dining room. Luxury log cabins have fireplaces and spacious rooms.

Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, Florida

Overlooking the Kissimmee River, the western-themed resort offers a comfortable glamping experience. Guided trail rides are available for ages 8 and older. Besides riding, tween activities include a mechanical bull, bungee jumping and airboat rides. Dining options: onsite restaurants and dinner hayride. Accommodations feature teepees, tents, cottages and guest rooms. Also: RV and tent sites.

Read More: Stunning Montana Resorts to Rival the Landscape

The Rocking Z Guest Ranch is among the best dude ranches for families
Both riders and horses get a kick playing soccer at the Rocking Z Guest Ranch in Montana. Photo credit: Maria Anderson

Great Dude Ranches for Teens

Rocking Z Guest Ranch, Montana

Open year-round, Rocking Z Guest Ranch offers an immersive horseback riding experience that’s especially conducive to teenagers. Kids ride to their ability, so teens can spend six or seven hours in the saddle if they want. Those looking to advance their skills can learn western-style moves and ride bareback. They can also groom and care for horses, learn to train horses, and help herd cattle. Horse games include soccer and barrel racing. During summer months riders can play and swim with their horses in a nearby creek. Meals are served family-style and accommodate all dietary needs. Adults can enjoy beer on tap in the saloon and wine in the lodge. Come nightfall, relax in an ensuite room with a fireplace.

Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Arkansas

Open March – October, the ranch has exciting children’s programs for ages 3 – teens. Babysitting (surcharge) is available for ages 2 and younger. While kids ages 3 – 5 ride ponies with counselors, older kids have the run of the ranch. Riding, canoeing, and tomahawk throwing are a few examples. Guests stay in rustic log cabins and dine in the main lodge.

Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, Montana

Open from May – October, this upscale resort is located near Yellowstone National Park. For a fee, ages 13 and older can ride their horses in this national park. In addition to trail rides on the ranch property, guests can learn about cattle sorting in the team penning activity. Guests can also assist the livestock manager at the hay and cattle operation.

Paradise Ranch, Wyoming

Open May – September, the ranch is ideal for teens. They’ll spend a lot of time in the saddle on daily rides and overnight pack trips. A full kids program offers crafts and pony rides. More ranch fun includes fly fishing and chuckwagon dinners. Enjoy gourmet style meals and stay in luxury log cabins.

Native Angeleno and seasoned travel journalist Mimi Slawoff writes for numerous print and digital publications. She is also the author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press, 2022). A lifelong world traveler, Mimi is an award-winning journalist who writes about outdoor adventures, cruises, Europe and cultural activities. Mimi has three grown kids and lives with her husband and their dog, Maya, in Los Angeles.
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One response

  1. ranch for senior adults only or young couples

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