Horse power has returned to the American West, where amateur wranglers are grabbing the reins, herding cattle on the range or enjoying a relaxing vacation at a working or guest ranch.
Suddenly, we see them: hundreds of bison, their mighty heads bent toward the grass, their scruffy backs outlined against the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. As many as 2000 bison roam Zapata Ranch land in Colorado. It’s an impressively sized herd, but only a small fraction of the more than 50 million princes of the prairie that once populated the North American plain. The dozen or so guests who rode out this morning to fix fences with actual cowboys were lucky: Zapata is the only ranch in the entire country owned by a nature conservancy organization that’s committed to preserving the flora and fauna endemic to the area. Even the grass from a former golf course on the property has been carefully replaced with native plants.
A traditional working ranch raises cattle and requires cowboys and cowgirls. And instead of ambling along behind a dude wrangler on a guided tour, guests get to actually herd cattle with the pros and search for lost calves in areas the size of a small town. In May and June, you can help with the branding and drive the herd to its summer pastures. But no matter how much your knees hurt or how saddle-sore or bow-legged you get from all that riding, a curt “well done” from a seasoned wrangler generally means more to most people than any praise they received in their last employee performance review.
More and more people are heading into the American West to play cowboy or cowgirl for a day or two, gallop their horse across the Great Plains, breath the wild mountain air and look forward with anticipation to a barbecued steak in the evening. In short: They are reliving the freedom and excitement they felt while watching, say, the movie Rio Bravo as a child.
But if you’re not that into swinging a lasso, herding cattle and showing off your new calluses, perhaps you’d prefer to
visit a guest ranch or even an exclusive dude ranch, where the experience can include wellness treatments, relaxing by the campfire and escaping from your daily routine entirely. Such dude ranches are really rustic-chic resorts, often featuring a spa, pool, ambitious kitchen, cooking courses, fly fishing, birdwatching and activities for the entire family complete with a petting zoo. Oh, and you can ride there as well. “There’s been a real run on dude ranches in the last five years or so,” says Colleen Hodson, director of the Dude Ranchers Association, which represents around 100 ranch resorts in the United States and Canada. “People can hardly wait to put aside their smartphones and tablets and do something completely different.” It’s a digital detox in the saddle, a mind-expanding experience entirely without WiFi. And while the parents tack up their horses, go fly fishing or play a round of golf, the children send their homemade boats sailing down the stream and the chef collects the ingredients for dinner in the organic garden behind the resort. Worked up an appetite yet? On the following pages, we present ranches for wannabe wranglers and those in search of relaxation in California, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico and Montana, where the Wild West is almost like it used to be.
A bar a ranch
WYOMING | Guest Ranch
Guests could be forgiven for stopping to pull off their boots on the way to the barn and relaxing for a moment in an XXL hammock, although riding into the sunset all on your ownsome sounds good, too. For kids, the ranch offers riding lessons, outings in an old fire truck, and for the intrepid, a chance to drift down the North Platte River on a giant inner tube.
Rancho de la osa
ARIZONA | Guest Ranch
Cruise around on an electric fat bike or ride into the Sonoran Desert, keeping an eye out for column cactuses, those classic extras in so many Western films. John Wayne stayed here, and fans will enjoy the pool and the cool adobe houses after a hard day in the saddle.
CALIFORNIA | Dude Ranch
Horses are the key draw at this ranch northwest of Santa Barbara, where you can book riding lessons, ride medium-hard trails or try to stay in the saddle at a rodeo. Evening wine tastings (the ranch is surrounded by wineries) have a “shirt with a collar” dress code. As well as a lake for swimming and fishing, there are two 18-hole golf courses.
Dunton Hot Springs
COLORADO | Dude Ranch
At an altitude of nearly 2700 meters in remote Dolores Valley, a former town has been turned into a luxury campsite complete with sommèliere and thermal baths. After riding through spruce forests and fields of wild flowers, guests have a drink in a saloon where gunslinger Butch Cassidy once etched his name into the bar.
ARIZONA | Working Ranch
At this secluded working ranch roughly a four-hour drive from Denver, cowboys and cowgirls help vaccinate bison calves and take photography classes. Best not to pull your Stetson too low while out riding, as you might miss sighting black bears on the plains and in the aspen woods here.
Vermejo park ranch
NEW MEXICO | Guest Ranch
CNN founder Ted Turner, a committed conservationist, owns a 2400-square-kilometer ranch a good 4.5 hours north of Albuquerque with forests, canyons and mountains nearly 4000 meters high. In the main building, which looks like an Italian manor house, forest ecologists and wildlife experts teach visitors all about the region’s flora and fauna.
The ranch at rock creek
ARIZONA | Dude Ranch
Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Vince Vaughn have visited this exclusive ranch to observe bald eagles and sip bourbon on creaky saddles in the saloon. Daytime activities include trail rides to pristine mountain valleys, outdoor yoga and treating yourself to an Alpenglow massage. At night, moose and wapiti bid each other good night in front of the cozy cottages.
These ranches rock
1 Dunton Hot Springs, Colorado
2 A Bar A Ranch, Wyoming
3 Rancho De La Osa, Arizona
4 Alisal Ranch, California
5 Zapata Ranch, Colorado
6 Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico
7 The Ranch At Rock Creek, Montana
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