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AAA World Article

At Home on the Range

For city slickers and suburbanites, too, a dude ranch vacation feeds cowboy dreams.

By Theresa Gawlas Medoff

AAA World Article

Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains
Photo Courtesy of Debi Lander

Our wrangler, Jessica, suggested that we ride the North Red Trail for the views. She had delivered the goods on that morning’s ride, so with a nod of agreement, my three friends and I nudged our horses with our heels and set off behind her. The ride began as a steep climb up a rocky hill. I wondered nervously if my horse, Rico—a chestnut acting a bit lackadaisical this morning and none too pleased to have me along for the ride—would be surefooted enough to navigate the path. Soon enough, the trail leveled off to a more moderate climb. We continued to ride up and up through spectacular scenery—pine forest to our left, red rock mountains on our right, traversing grasslands awash in the rainbow of a Wyoming May: pink coneflower and white daisies, magenta wild roses, mariposa lilies in ivory and pink, and snow-white Western yarrow. Ahead, a big-eared mule deer paused to watch us before dashing off into the woods.

Up and over the mountain we went, until before us unfolded a scene that took my breath away: seemingly endless pasture—some of the 7,000 acres that make up Eatons’ Ranch—and beyond, more than 100 miles in the distance, Montana and the 4,842-foot-high Wolf Mountains set off against an impossibly clear blue sky.

All Duded Up
When I’d been offered the opportunity to visit Eatons’ Ranch, a working cattle ranch and dude ranch for tourists in Wolf, Wyoming, I couldn’t pass it up. You see, I’ve ridden horses a fair number of times—for an East Coast city girl, that is—mostly on guided trail rides in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, although I’ve also ridden on the beach in Nicaragua and attended a women’s rodeo camp a few years ago. Those little tastes of what I viewed as “cowboy life” had given me a hankering for immersion in ranch living—or at least to experience the closest approximation I was qualified for: a dude ranch vacation.

Dude Ranch Barn
The barn at Eatons' Ranch
Photo Courtesy of Debi Lander

When it comes to dude ranches, Eatons’ certainly has an enviable pedigree. The Eaton brothers—Howard, Willis and Alden—began welcoming visitors to their Wyoming ranch in 1904—and to their former ranch near Medora, North Dakota, as far back as 1879. Being in the hospitality field hadn’t been the Eaton brothers’ original intent. They had come out West to be ranchers, but those darn folks from back East kept visiting, so the Eatons decided to make a business of it. These days, the fourth and fifth generations of Eatons operate the Wyoming ranch, which welcomes horse-riding guests from May through September.

I had arrived in early June and, used to the heat and humidity of a Mid-Atlantic summer, I had worried when I found out that my cabin wasn’t air-conditioned. I soon learned it wasn’t necessary. I simply threw open the windows and enjoyed the cool mountain air.

Dude Ranch Cabin
A guest cabin at Eatons' Ranch
Photo Courtesy of Eatons' Ranch

Ranch Life
The next morning, the clanking of a bell roused me from bed, and I stepped out of my rustically decorated cabin into God’s country: all big sky and sweet-smelling air and majestic mountains surrounding. After fueling up at the plentiful buffet breakfast, I joined the other guests at the corral, where we waited for the horses to be saddled so that we could climb on and go about the business of our visit.

At many dude ranches, trail rides are escorted and go on predetermined routes. Eatons’ operates more loosely. If you want a wrangler along on your ride, one will accompany you, but if you’re a highly experienced rider and feel confident enough, you can set out on your own. That’s what I had done on my first ride at Eatons’, riding along with a friend who had been around a barn or two. We set out in a small group to find the gravesite of the legendary Harry the Horse, who lived to a ripe old age and, after he was retired, used to wander the grounds like a dog, much to the delight of guests. As it turns out, Harry’s gravesite is not as grand as his legend, and we never did find it, but we enjoyed a pleasant ride nonetheless. 

There’s Wi-Fi at the ranch, I was told, but unless you’re in the exact right spot in the library—and no one else is using it at the same time—the Wi-Fi isn’t very powerful. I learned that the first time I tried to post a photo to Facebook of me astride my horse. At first, the lack of connectivity frustrated me, but within hours, I welcomed the feelings it brought of calm, relaxation and getting away from it all. Even so, I dutifully slipped my smartphone into my jeans pocket for each ride—after all, I needed photo proof of my escapades. It was amusing when my cohorts and I would reach a summit while out riding, as our phones would start pinging with rapidly downloading emails and text messages. But I ignored my inbox; there were better things to see and do.

Dude Ranch Guests
Guests enjoying a Eatons' Ranch cabin
Photo Courtesy of Visit Sheridan

Besides the riding, Eatons’ offers a range of activities for guests, including an outdoor swimming pool and hot tub, yoga classes, archery and trap shooting, and fishing in Wolf Creek or the ranch’s bass-stocked pond. But I was here for the horses, so I rode the maximum of twice a day for several hours, riding the first day in the morning and evening, with the afternoon spent sunning myself poolside, and the second day in the morning and afternoon. If I had stayed for a longer time at the ranch, I would have signed up eagerly for “cow camp,” an overnight pack trip into Bighorn National Forest. Maybe then I could have fulfilled my unusual desire to eat beans cooked in the can over an open fire!

Dramatic as the North Red Trail is, it’s nearly a tossup with Sibley Trail for my favorite ride of the trip. That’s because the latter trail took us across three-foot-deep Wolf Creek. I felt as if I were an accomplished wrangler myself as my horse splashed through the rapidly running waters and brought me expertly to the other side.

Sheila Humphreys of Berkeley, California, happened to join wrangler Jessica, my friends and me on this particular ride. I was impressed to learn that Humphreys has been coming to Eatons’ since 1956, when as a 15-year-old, she joined a friend and her friend’s family on their vacation. Humphreys has been coming back to Eatons’ ever since, first introducing her husband, then their children and finally their grandchild to the joys of ranch life. Repeat visits and multiple generations coming to Eatons’ is common I learned in chats with other guests.

After the final ride of our visit, my friends and I sidled up to the ranch’s Apartment Bar for its signature Bloody Mary, jam-packed with celery, asparagus, olives, bacon and jumbo shrimp and enhanced with a shot of local Black Tooth amber ale. Then we headed out onto the porch of the stone Main House to shoot the breeze (that’s what cowboys would call it, right?) until dinner.

I awoke on my last day even before the breakfast bell because I wanted to witness the spectacle that takes place at 6:30 each morning as the horses are wrangled from mountaintop pastures to the corral. A dust cloud rising above a distant tree line was my first sign of their approach. Then I heard the thundering of a couple hundred hooves and the whooping calls of the wranglers, and finally, I spotted the horses—chestnuts and palominos, grays, sorrels, blacks, bays and pintos—as they descended the hill and galloped along the well-trodden path to the corral, shooed along by wranglers in front, to the sides and behind. It was a classic scene, and the perfect finale to my dose of cowboy life.

The 411 on Eatons’ Ranch
Eatons’ welcomes dude ranch guests from June 1 to September 30. The busiest part of the season is July and August. The first weekend of both months is known as Calcutta Weekend, when the wranglers compete before an audience of guests and coworkers to be the fastest at roping.

The maximum number of guests at Eatons’ is 90, and with 220 horses, there’s never a worry that there won’t be one available to ride. Accommodations are in the stone Main House, built in 1894, or in rustically decorated wooden cabins ranging from “economy” one-room cabins to “gold coast” cabins with three bedrooms, a living room with a fireplace, and a porch. Three meals a day are included.

A stay at the ranch included three meals a day.
Photo Courtesy of Visit Sheridan

In addition to the activities noted elsewhere, there’s a Friday night dance during high season in the recreation building, which is used at other times for youth-oriented activities. If you’re the sporting type, you can sign up for a friendly game of volleyball or softball, too., 307/655-9285

Ranch Roll Call
AAA World consulted Gene Kilgore, author of the annual guidebook Ranch Vacations, for his suggestions on some dude ranches that AAA members should check out. Note that Kilgore lists more than 100 ranches in his book and that many ranches can be found as well on the website of the Dude Ranchers Association ( Kilgore suggests making ranch vacation reservations at least six months in advance, particularly for the popular summer months.

Bitterroot Ranch

Dubois, Wyoming, 800/545-0019
25 guests; 150 horses
With Yale-educated, multilingual Bayard Fox at the helm of the ranch since 1971, it’s not surprising that Bitterroot attracts a fair number of European guests. Located in northwest Wyoming 50 miles southeast of Yellowstone National Park (80 miles from Jackson Hole), the ranch borders Shoshone National Forest, Bureau of Land Management lands and Wyoming Game and Fish lands, and trail rides take guests into that wilderness. Unlike many dude ranches, Bitterroot is a working cattle ranch, and there are even a few sheep. That means ranch-raised beef and lamb on the table, alongside vegetables raised in the ranch garden. In addition to trail riding, guests can take riding lessons. Several times throughout the summer, the ranch offers cattle range riding weeks during which guests get a taste of what it’s like to work on a ranch. Bitterroot operates late May to the end of September.

Cataloochee Guest Ranch

Maggie Valley, North Carolina, 800/868-1401

65 guests; 30 horses
Not many dude ranches can boast that their meals are recommended by the Food Network, but Cataloochee’s family-style meals of herb-roasted chicken, baked ham and prime rib as well as frequent barbecues get the nod. The 800-acre Cataloochee ranch, operated by the third generation of the Alexander family, boasts an enviable setting in Maggie Valley on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That location means it’s also a great place for hiking and bird watching, either on the property or in the national park. There’s even a ski resort nearby, and the ranch offers Ski (or Snowboard) and Ride packages in the winter. Operates year round.

Dude Ranch
Diamond D Ranch
Photo Courtesy of Diamond D Ranch

Diamond D Ranch

Stanley, Idaho, 800/222-1269
30 guests; 30 horses
Idaho’s Diamond D Ranch is as remote as can be; it even has its own power grid. Nestled in the Frank Church Wilderness, the 280-acre ranch has sweeping views of the Salmon River Mountains that surround it. Guests can ride twice a day most days, and there’s an all-day ride with lunch on Fridays. For an even more remote experience, ask about a custom pack trip into the high country or the river valley. Fishing, hiking, archery and target shooting are joined by more unusual ranch offerings such as gold-panning, stand-up paddle boarding and Shanti yoga classes. Operates June 1 to October 1.

Elk Mountain Ranch

Buena Vista, Colorado, 800/432-8812
30 guests; 60 horses
A 10-mile dirt road leads to this intimate guest ranch in the heart of the Rockies. The property itself is just about 20 acres, but it’s surrounded by the San Isabel National Forest, where guests ride on remote and pristine trails. One to two trail rides are offered daily, lasting from two hours to nearly a full day with a picnic lunch. A typical week includes several optional off-property excursions—one for white water rafting or to a hot springs and pool, another to Aspen for shopping and sightseeing, and a third to a ropes course at Browns Canyon Adventure Park. Organized activities are offered for kids too young to ride (usually under age 8), but families are encouraged to ride, raft and recreate together. Operating dates in 2018: May 27 to September 9.

Dude Ranch Horses
Photo Courtesy of Eatons' Ranch

Malibu Dude Ranch

Milford, Pennsylvania, 800/862-5428
200 guests; 30 of horses
Opened in 1928, Malibu is the oldest dude ranch east of the Mississippi River. In 2010, with the 800-acre ranch in danger of becoming a townhouse development, current owners Alan “Doc” and Phyllis Detweiler stepped in, and they continue to operate the Pocono Mountain property today. Beyond unlimited horseback riding on one-hour guided trail rides, guests can take a rowboat onto Malibu Lake; go fishing for perch, catfish and large-mouth bass; swim in the indoor pool; and go on a hay ride followed by a bonfire. Operates year round.

Nine Quarter Circle Ranch

Gallatin Gateway, Montana, 406/995-4276

65 guests; 115 horses
Life at Nine Quarter Circle centers on horseback riding and fishing and time spent with family and friends. The circa 1920s Lodge is where meals are served and guests spend time playing games and relaxing. Every guest is matched with his or her own horse for the length of stay. Two 2-hour trail rides are offered daily, with two all-day rides also offered during the week (restricted to those age 13 and up). There is even the option in late summer of taking an extended pack trip to wilderness areas, national forest and Yellowstone National Park. Saturday mornings are for the kids, with fun games on horseback. Open mid-June to mid-September.

Rankin Ranch

Caliente, California, 661/867-2511
50 guests; 45 horses
This ranch in Southern California’s Tehachapi Mountains sprawls out on 31,000 acres. A family-owned and -operated cattle ranch (which means great tasting beef on the dining table) since 1863, Rankin began the dude ranch side of the operation in 1965. Guests ages six and older are welcome to ride on twice-daily one-hour trail rides. There’s time and space for hiking and fishing, swimming and sunning, and just moseying around. During the high season (June 1 to August 19 this year), there’s a supervised children’s program operating from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (with an afternoon break), so mom and dad can have time to relax, too. The nighttime action means square dancing, bingo, talent shows and games such as stick-horse racing. The 2018 season runs through October 8.

Dude Ranch
Rocking Horse Ranch Resort
Photo Courtesy of Rocking Horse Ranch Resort

Rocking Horse Ranch Resort

Highland, New York, 800/647-6264
470 guests; 117 horses
Kilgore calls Rocking Horse “a guest ranch with a Disney twist,” by which he means it’s a place with no end to the family entertainment. The “horse adventures” on the 500-acre ranch include trail rides, of course, but also pony rides for little ones under 7 (the minimum age for trail riding), barn tours, horse-shoeing demos and horse-drawn hay rides. Beyond riding, outdoor activities range from mountain tubing (winter and summer) to water sports on a private lake, including banana boat rides. There’s a water park indoors as well as an arcade with mini-bowling. Guests can also try out the super bungee jumper and rock wall. The Silverado Saloon features live family entertainment nightly, and there’s a spa where guests can unwind. Operates year round.

Southern Cross Guest Ranch

Madison, Georgia, 706/342-8027
50 guests; 110 of horses
Travel + Leisure magazine has called 225-acre Southern Cross “one of America’s best dude ranches.” Located in central Georgia, it’s a both a guest ranch and a horse farm where some two-dozen paint and quarter foals are born each spring, giving guests the unusual opportunity to interact with and photograph the young horses. The ranch welcomes riders of all abilities. The most experienced riders have the opportunity to ride on their own. Riding is the name of the game here, but you can also swim in the heated pool (mid-March to mid-November), ride mountain bikes, throw horseshoes, or entertain yourself in the game room. Operates year round.

Dude Ranch
Southern Cross Guest Ranch
Photo Courtesy of Charlotte Detienne


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of AAA World.

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