Cowboy Culture

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From rustic to resort-style, dude ranch getaways offer travelers a taste of the Old West.

By Sharon Stello and Steve Zepezauer

Many city dwellers are trading the pavement, traffic and electronics for fresh country air and an authentic Western experience at dude ranches across the nation, donning cowboy boots for horseback rides over scenic hills or through sun-dappled forests.

Such idyllic settings offer vacationers a chance to recharge and reconnect with their families—and with the land. After experiencing the ways of these ranches for the first time, a number of guests return every year to celebrate traditions, from down-home country cookouts to line dancing, singalongs and rodeos, or to simply enjoy nature’s tranquility.

“It’s really a vacation where you build memories,” says Colleen Hodson, executive director of The Dude Ranchers’ Association, which represents approximately 100 ranches west of the Mississippi River. Ranches are a place to unplug, unwind and spend quality time rather than waste precious vacation hours in theme park lines, she says. It’s the flexible itineraries, high level of service and all-inclusive packages that make ranches an attractive getaway.

Property sizes vary from boutique ranches, which accommodate a few dozen guests at a time, to much larger operations. Smaller ranches allow guests to get to know one another—often eating family style around one big table—while bigger ranches typically boast more amenities.

For example, the Hideout Lodge and Guest Ranch on 300,000 acres in Shell, Wyo., provides a customized experience for up to 25 visitors per week. With about 95 horses on-site, guests are sure to find one that fits their needs. Staff members—who speak five languages—also outnumber the guests, ensuring personalized attention.

The Hideout is among a number of working ranches that let guests lend a hand, too. Those seeking a real taste of the cowboy—or cowgirl—life can help drive cattle, look for strays and assist with branding, depending on the season. Meanwhile, a Le Cordon Bleu chef rustles up gourmet meals for these hard workers.

From the masseuse available at The Hideout to full spas at other properties, modern ranches range from rustic to resort-style and everything in between. Luxury amenities abound at both Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., and The Ranch at Rock Creek near Philipsburg, Mont. Both feature upscale rooms, unparalleled cuisine and spas to soothe sore muscles after a long day of riding.

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Seasonal cuisine

Colorado’s C Lazy U Ranch, which sets its spa services in tent cabins along a creek, also brings a touch of the modern world with iPod docking stations in rooms. Some ranches provide Internet access, TVs and phones in the rooms, but many defer from that route, encouraging visitors to disconnect for a few relaxing days. Ranches typically offer so many activities that guests won’t miss the electronic distractions.

Beyond the traditional equestrian activities expected at dude ranches, itineraries can be filled with a range of ventures. Tanque Verde boasts hiking, mountain biking, fly-fishing and more. C Lazy U features a ropes course and zip line, while The Hideout’s guests can ride ATVs, participate in a nearby dinosaur dig or attend a rodeo. Some ranches, like Rock Creek, even offer target shooting and winter activities such as snowshoeing and sleigh rides.

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Here, Newport Beach Magazine takes a look at two of the country’s top dude ranches, perfect for a rugged escape from coastal living.

Rustic Retreat:
The Ranch at Rock Creek
Pair authentic luxury with an idyllic setting in the Rocky Mountains.

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Hillside horseback riding

This ain’t your grandfather’s dude ranch. For many, dude ranches conjure up images of a Disneyesque experience with watered-down activities for city slickers. When Jim Manley bought and developed The Ranch at Rock Creek, this was the furthest thing from his mind.

Jim, founder of Atlantic-Pacific Capital, had been searching for nearly 20 years for the ultimate trophy ranch where he could spend time with family and friends, and entertain clients. He had very strict criteria for what he wanted in his vision of paradise and, when he finally set eyes on The Ranch at Rock Creek, he knew he had found an idyllic spread of land that would realize his dream.

Nestled in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana (about a 90-minute drive from Missoula), The Ranch at Rock Creek spans 10 square miles of rolling hills and pasture with a blue-ribbon trout stream running smack through it. Once at the ranch, there are more than 20 miles of mountains between yourself and any real civilization (the charming old mining town of Philipsburg is about 45 minutes away). And, it’s filled with an abundance of wildlife that would please the likes of Daniel Boone. It’s the kind of country that grabs you by the eyeballs and yanks them right out of their sockets.

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Bue-ribbon trout stream

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The visual symphony does not stop there, however. The ranch’s satellite accommodations include traditional log cabins, replete with copper soaking tubs, screened-in porches and ample bunk beds wherein the kids may slumber while dreaming of wild horses and woodland adventures. As for the grown-ups, the appointments are thoughtful and accommodating, creating luxurious spaces in which to recline and get lost, if that’s your aim. Renowned for his Western chic expertise, the ranch’s designer, Jet Zarkadas, has staged the property with a sense of place and authenticity that extends well beyond the cabins.

The Granite Lodge anchors the property and houses nine comfortable and beautifully appointed rooms, as well as the Great Room, which features a crackling fire perpetually stoked to welcome visitors after a day of fly-fishing, horseback riding, paintballing or other bucket-list activity. Some may look to the Silver Dollar Saloon for a well-deserved Moscow mule and a frame or two of bowling or karaoke for the courageous, talented and/or willing. Hell, on a good day, which is most, the saloon is even a wallflower’s dream with plenty of colorful characters moving in and out of the scene.

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The Granite Lodge at The Ranch at Rock Creek
On-site bowling alley
On-site bowling alley

A 10-minute walk from the lodge, the popular luxury canvas cabins sit creekside and epitomize the “glamping” experience while emphasizing the nature and culture of the ranch.

The all-inclusive aspect at The Ranch makes for a carefree and truly escapist experience that’s ideal for families, couples and singles alike. From the endless gourmet grub and drinks (standard packages include three world-class squares dailyfrom talented executive chef Josh Drage) to a pick of two guided activities per day (including any gear that guests may require), the ranch offers a five-star Western adventure with extraordinary comfort and amenities, including a full spa.

The outfitters, guides and staff are competent and affable. But, there’s one thing that sets The Ranch at Rock Creek apart. That clincher begins with outdoorsman/general manager Adam Shoen and is inherent in every employee—it’s the ebullient passion for outdoor life and the willing exuberance to share it. And it’s contagious. —S.Z.

Desert Oasis:
Tanque Verde Ranch
Western tradition meets luxury resort in southeast Arizona.

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As the sun melts into the horizon, filling the sky with streaks of orange and pink, a line of horseback riders follows a trail past towering saguaro cacti while listening to the rhythmic clip-clop of their trustworthy steeds. Tanque Verde Ranch, 60,000 acres bordering Saguaro National Park in Tuscon, Ariz., caters to all sorts of riders, whether they’re lifelong equestrians or hopping in the saddle for the first time.

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Tanque Verde Ranch guest rooms feature a Southwest style.

After a breathtaking ride, guests of Tanque Verde head to a country barbecue in the Cottonwood Grove or a gourmet dinner made with fresh, seasonal ingredients in the dining hall. To better acquaint guests with the charm of the Southwest, most evenings feature a talk on ranch history or wildlife after dinner. Then, the Doghouse Saloon beckons for a final cocktail. This desert oasis even has a signature drink: the slightly sweet and refreshing prickly pear margarita, made with syrup from prickly pear cactus fruit harvested by resort staff. Afterward, guests are off to bed, retiring early to rest up for another full day of activities.

This Western-style resort combines rustic charm with upscale lodging and luxury amenities including a spa, fitness center, tennis courts and sparkling swimming pools. It accommodates up to 200 people in its guest rooms, which feature pink, adobe-style exteriors and Southwest-inspired interiors. Casitas (junior suites) and haciendas (suites) come with a fireplace and a private patio with sweeping views of the saguaro-filled desert.

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Full-service spa and pool.

Along with contemporary conveniences, the property has a rich history. Tanque Verde, named for the “green pool” of water used by Pima Indians, was established as a ranch in 1868. Just like a scene straight out of an old Western movie, the owner died after marauding bandits tried to hang him. Around the turn of the century, Jim Converse expanded the business by inviting Easterners to participate in ranch activities—a tradition has continued through the years.

The Cote family has operated the ranch since 1957 and, in fact, 79-year-old Bob Cote can still be found flipping his signature blueberry pancakes for breakfast ride participants atop a hill at the Old Homestead.

Guests can practice their horsemanship skills during trail rides at breakfast time and throughout the day, or they can take lessons on one of the ranch’s 180 horses (at peak season). Harmony with Horses provides an opportunity for visitors to get up-close and personal with these noble creatures. After brushing the animal’s coat and mane, and cleaning dirt and pebbles from its shoes, a customized lesson helps to improve riding skills.

This deeper connection is also fostered in a popular children’s program, in which a horse is hand-selected for each child to ride during their stay, allowing these young visitors to bond with the animals. It’s not unusual for kids to visit the stable for a last goodbye to “their horse” before leaving.

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The family-oriented ranch truly offers something for everyone, from horseback riding to mountain biking, fishing, hiking, yoga classes, wine tasting and watercolor workshops. No matter which activities are chosen, any visit is sure to make memories that will last a lifetime. —S.S. NBM

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