Dude ranches are now called guest ranches, but the concept remains the same. Log cabins. Horseback riding. Fishing. Group meals. All in the midst of a mind-blowing beautiful setting.
I’m not quite sure what possessed me to throw out the concept of a dude ranch vacation out to my family last fall. I’m even less sure what moved everyone to reply so enthusiastically. My kids never agree on anything, but they were all excited to go to a dude ranch. And so, without questioning it further, I booked what ended up being one of our greatest vacations ever at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in Montana.
Dude ranch vacations come at various price points. I began my ranch research by looking at the Resort at Paws Up in Montana near the Glacier National Park and realized that the high end dude ranching experience was WAY out of our price range (over $30,000 for a week for the 6 of us). So we bid farewell to the dream of having a butler and continued our search. Most ranches book up a year in advance with families that return every summer. After calling a number of ranches, I ended up settling on the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch near Yellowstone because of its spotless Trip Advisor reviews and its mid-range price point ($2,330 per adult per week and $1,975 per child above 6 per week). Then we put the trip out of our mind for the next ten months.
As August neared, we all began to get a little nervous. What should we pack? What would we do? Were we a dude ranching type of family? Would it be too much riding? Would the kids hate it? What if someone got hurt?
We got outfitted at a western clothing store in downtown Chicago called Alcala’s Western Wear. We tried on cowboy hats and cowboy boots as Mexican cowboy music blasted around us and started getting in the mood for adventure. Be warned – you can spend a LOT of money at Alcala’s, but you’ll have fun doing it.
So what should you pack for a dude ranch vacation?
- Cowboy boots that you’ve worn in a little, strutting around the neighborhood.
- A cowboy hat with a stampede string to keep it from flying off your head and spooking the horses.
- Two pairs of riding jeans – hit the Levis section in Walmart or Sears – or get yourself some jodhpurs on Amazon.
- 3-4 pairs of comfy riding socks.
- Layers – mornings are chilly and afternoons are hot. I loved riding in my flannel shirts whose sleeves could easily roll up.
- A few long skirts for dinner once you’ve cleaned up from a day of riding.
- an ENO hammock to get cozy – totally optional but we loved ours.
- bug spray – lots for the afternoons
- suntan lotion
- lip balm – it’s dry in the mountains
Our days began with the breakfast warning bell, telling us that breakfast would begin in ten minutes. It was just enough time to stumble out from under our cozy quilts to put on something to head up to the lodge. Breakfast was cooked to order and always included eggs and bacon or sausage. Other options varied by the day but included pancakes, french toast, muffins and oatmeal.
After breakfast we had an hour to relax before our first ride of the day from 9-11. The second ride was from 2-4. Kids aged 6-9 were placed in a Rough Riders group with their own wrangler. All other riders were grouped by self-reported ability into beginners, intermediate and advanced. No group was larger than 8 riders. During the week people progressed through the levels if they wanted to. Some people only wanted to take leisurely walking rides to take in the gorgeous scenery. All rides forded rivers, passed through forests and plains, and went up and down mountains. Bella and Jack began as beginners and finished with me, galloping with the advanced group. We will all be dreaming of the feel of the wind in our faces as our horses pounded up the trail in pursuit of one another.
We saw some elk and many deer during our rides. We saw eagles and hawks as well. We heard stories of wolves and bears but did not see any, which was just fine by me!
Steve only rode with us in the morning. In the afternoons, he fished for rainbow and cutthroat trout. Each day his fishing adventures got longer and longer and his smile got broader and broader. On his last morning, he caught the big one and declared himself a very happy man. A River Runs Through It was filmed in the area and it’s easy to see why.
While breakfast was open seating, both lunch and dinner had assigned seats, with the kids separated from the adults. For dinner the kids ate an hour earlier and played on the playground when the adults ate. From 5:30-6:30, as the kids ate their dinner, the adults congregated for happy hour, a time to share their stories from the day.
Doing all of this with a 4-year old worked for the most part. There was a babysitter for Sophie who sat with her at meals and watched her as we rode. She was supposed to ride on a lead with the sitter but this only happened a few times. It took them a while to warm up to each other and Sophie was definitely the one having the least fun in our party. Our dude ranch vacation would have been easier if all our kids were over the age of 6 and riding. But after a few days of adjusting, Sophie got into the rhythm of the place and loved our vacation as much as everyone else.
Beyond the gorgeous scenery and the joy of riding such beautiful horses, the magic of Nine Quarter Circle Ranch for me was to see the growth in all my children. While on the ranch, they not only became confident riders, they climbed a mountain, made new friends, and embraced with joy being disconnected from electornics for ten days. We played UNO and monopoly. We sang around the campfire. We square danced. And we made memories that twill last us a long long time.
On our second night of vacation, a group of ten kids, including Bella, Jack and Juju, decided to climb the mountain opposite the ranch. Scaling Lincoln Mountain is a rite of passage at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, but the kids left a little late and as the sun disappeared behind the horizon at 8:30, they still weren’t back. We had lost sight of their tiny specks in the distance, so Steve and another dad went off on a rescue mission. They found the kids, unharmed and beginning their climb down. Juju and another 9 year old girl were a little teary but the kids were surprised to see the dads. “Why are you here? We didn’t need you. We are the LURVIVORS! Lincoln Survivors!” They called themselves that the rest of the trip. I couldn’t believe these were my city kids, scaling mountains in the dark fearlessly. Dude ranch vacationing is not your typical resort vacation. It’s a call to adventure and the kids embraced it wholeheartedly.
We won’t become one of those families that return every summer to the dude ranch, but are already planning our next trip during the summer of 2018 when Sophie will be six and the whole crew will be on horseback. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that we are all counting the days until our next stay at the ranch.