Dude Ranches: Not Just For Dudes

Colorado ranches offer a nice change of pace for families of city slickers and cowpokes alike.


Heading out to Grand County, Colo. was my daughter’s idea. She’s the cowpoke in our family, having demonstrated a deep love of horses from a very early age. It wasn't the first time I wondered whether she might have been switched at birth.

As a born and bred city slicker, I'd had little chance to ride a horse and even less desire. But we all do things for our kids we never expected to do, right? In that vein, heading to Colorado to check out two dude ranches seemed like a small sacrifice. Besides, I thought, there was always a chance I would get in touch with my inner cowgirl.

My Inner Cowgirl

Turns out I had little choice but to find her. Unlike the nose-to-tail trail riding we flatlanders practice in the Midwest, riding in Colorado can mean cantering through a field, climbing a steep hill, or worse, heading down one.

Fortunately for novices like myself, dude ranches are all about learning to ride. They cater to everyone from rookies (me) to more experienced riders (my daughter, Tess, then 10) to seriously accomplished riders. Visitors can spend a week riding, grooming and bridling the horses, getting to know the other riders and just hanging out in pristine natural settings where nary a cell phone is heard to ring.

The week starts in the corral, with a wrangler who pairs riders and horses and doesn’t let a rider out of the gate, regardless of age, until he or she can demonstrate an ability to control the horse.

Upscale or Down Home

We spent two days at Drowsy Water, a real down-home experience, and two more at Aspen Canyon, a less rustic, more upscale ranch. Both offered the expert riding lessons and Western hospitality I expected from a dude ranch. Our only disappointment was the lack of a pool at Aspen Canyon.

Weekly rates at Aspen Canyon are $1,700 for adults; $1,200 ages 7-16; $900 ages 3-6 and free for 2 and under.

Weekly family rates at Drowsy Water are $1,735 for adults; $1,540 ages 14-17; $1,350 ages 6-13 and $755 ages 5 and under—deduct $345 if you don’t ride. (But if you don’t ride, why go?) Youngest children get pony rides around the ranch, no trail rides.

Most of the ranches offer other activities, too. We loved the Colorado River white water rafting trip run by Mad Adventures, for an extra $45 for adults and $38 for children 4 to 12 years old (the minimum age is 4).

Getting There 

Grand County is located about 90 miles west of Denver and is home to six dude ranches, which allows it to call itself the “Dude Ranch Capital of the USA.” If you fly into Denver, the easiest and most cost effective transportation option is to rent a car. That also gives you the flexibility to head into town for supplies (such as Ben Gay for those muscles you rarely use hailing a cab in the city), to spend a free afternoon hiking at nearby Rocky Mountain National Park or for a nightcap at one of the local watering holes.

Tips for Choosing the Right Ranch

The ranches we visited had been recommended to us, but how do you know which ranch will be right for your family? Plug “dude ranch” into Google and you get 1.22 million results for ranches from Arizona to Montana, California to Georgia.

Barry and Elena Lessin of Chicago have been going to dude ranches for more than 15 years, since before they had kids. Now they head west with Jakob, 8, Ava, 6, and their baby, Milly, in tow. They’ve learned a few things along the way and offer these tips:

  • Narrow the list by choosing the state you want to visit—dude ranches abound west of the Mississippi, but there are many east of it, too.
  • If you’re traveling with kids, decide how much family togetherness you crave. Some ranches have programs that keep kids occupied all day. Others ensure plenty of family togetherness.
  • Think about the food. Do you want gourmet dinners? Cookouts around the campfire? A little of both?
  • Decide whether your kids will be able to live without a pool—these aren’t necessarily luxury resorts and pools are not a standard option. Dude ranches generally are about getting hot and dusty on the trail, not wet and sunburned around the pool.
  • Check out the kids’ programs. Does the ranch have an age limit? Ask about options for kids considered too young to ride the trails.

Destinations: Colorado, Grand County

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Horseback Riding

User Comments

Girls & Horses Go Together Like Salt & Pepper Hey Cindy, I enjoyed your article and appreciate that you traveled out of your comfort zone to support your equestrian daughter. My mom had always wanted a horse, but didn't have the opportunity. After many years of riding lessons and sponsoring horses I was able to have my own horse. Girls and horses go together like salt and pepper. There's just something about that connection; it's the girl version of "Mans best friend." I'll be riding at Ft. Bragg's Ricochet Ranch in August and will submit a review to TravelMuse.

Perfect for those who love pink and ponies I have many family members with young girls who love all things pony (thank you My Little Pony). I will pass these suggestions that seem to offer that and more along for sure.

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