Horses don’t hibernate in the winter. If they did, some of the country’s best dude ranches would be out of business. From Northern California to the Adirondacks (and of course the Wild West), there are several outstanding options for dude ranch vacations in the colder months between November and April. Rates are often lower, more rooms are available and there’s less competition for the most popular horses.
According to the Dude Ranchers’ Association, an 89-year-old organization encompassing more than 100 accredited ranches, winter is also prime time to take advantage of adults-only weekends and holiday packages. So without further adieu, dust off your cowboy boots and book a wintertime all-American all-inclusive at these year-round ranches.
To say Lone Mountain Ranch in Montana is in an ideal location would be a gross understatement. The year-round ranch, which is celebrating its centennial in 2015, is less than five miles from Big Sky Ski Resort and less than 20 miles north of Yellowstone National Park. Starting at $300/adult/night, guests stay in a creek-side cluster of spacious Wi-Fi-equipped cabins and eat restaurant-style off a menu that includes locally-sourced dishes like bison short rib and rainbow trout.
(Photo: Lone Mountain Ranch)
Atypical on-site ranch activities include private oil painting lessons, a challenging ropes course and coming soon—custom llama experiences. Still, most guests spend the majority of their days in the nearby Spanish Peaks that offer unparalleled horseback riding, hiking, skiing and biking trails. During the winter guests can book the always-popular Sleigh & Stay package or sign up for dog sledding or ice fishing. But the biggest cold-weather draw is the miles of groomed Nordic trails just outside the cabins’ front doors and the endless ski runs and short lift lines at nearby Big Sky and Moonlight Basin.
The country’s largest dude ranch, Tanque Verde, sits on 60,000 acres just 16 miles east of Tucson, Arizona. The property boasts more than 150 horses to choose from and offers quite the array of equestrian experiences. There are the signature Sonoran Desert sunrise and sunset trail rides, horsemanship and grooming lessons, team penning competitions and the less competitive, Harmony with Horses program. In these private, therapeutic sessions, guests practice self-awareness—all while in the company (and with the help of) specially trained horses. Kids can saddle up as Wranglers, Buckaroos or Outlaws—titles determined by age and riding ability. Bi-weekly events for guests include live music and line dancing under the stars and group rides to the ranch’s original homestead for a hearty breakfast of blueberry pancakes. The ranch is currently offering an off-season special for packages booked by the end of October. For $500/adult/night, guests can book three nights and get the fourth free. The package includes complimentary prickly pear margaritas.
With its oceanfront cattle ranch operations, Northern California’s new Inn at Newport Ranch can now be classified as an official dude ranch. In August, the property, just a three-hour scenic drive from San Francisco, opened its doors to the public. More than a mile of oceanfront views are available, but the most memorable vista is from the seven-person hot tub perched on top of a water tower.
(Photo: Inn at Newport Ranch)
More stimulating activities include ATV adventure safaris, horseback riding and guided whale-watching excursions. The architecture and design aesthetic is also noteworthy. When temperatures drop, guests can sit inside the property’s 20-foot-wide walk-in stone fireplace and admire how the architects incorporated the native Redwood into everything from the floorboards to the wall paneling and custom cathedral-style ceilings. The Main Inn has several guest rooms or travelers can rent one of three Redwood House suites that come with a kitchen, deck, outdoor grill and hot tub. Rates range from $250-$775/adult/night. Larger groups can even rent Sea Drum, the owner’s personal vacation home featuring jaw-dropping panoramic views of the Pacific.
Travel back in time at 1000 Acres, an authentic dude ranch in the Adirondacks—a region once home to so many dude ranches that it had a route called Dude Ranch Trail. Most of the properties were sold or shut down decades ago, but this surviving ranch still welcomes guests year-round to its location on the western shore of the scenic Hudson River.
(Photo: Visit Adirondacks)
The property is a straight shot four-hour drive north of New York City and is close enough to Lake Placid to take a day trip to explore the home of the 1980 Winter Olympics. During the summer a main draw is the ranch’s riverfront 9-hole golf course, but when snow covers the ground, guests come for the snowmobiling, cross country skiing and horse-drawn wagon rides. While the classic motor-inn style accommodations are a bit dated, 1,000 Acres prides itself on being affordable (weekly rates start at $995/adult) and its unique programming like guest vs. staff games and competitions, ATV-Only Weekends and winter specials including Thanksgiving and New Years packages. Indoors, adults can find entertainment in the Red Dog Saloon while kids swim in the heated pool or play games in the adjoining arcade.
It’s impossible not to make new friends—of both the horse and human variety—at Bar W. Upon driving up to the ranch, which is nestled in a valley three miles west of the resort town of Whitefish, Montana, guests are taken aback by the sheer number of horses.
(Photo: Dude Ranchers Association)
The wranglers (many former pro-rodeo stars) painstakingly match each guest to a horse that fits their personality and riding ability. When the meal bell rings, it’s time to wash up and pass plates around long tables carefully arranged so guests can get to know one another outside of the arena. Equestrian offerings include cowpoke lessons, roping and team penning competitions, cattle sorting and an all-day ride up to the Canadian border. Guests are also welcome to participate in the guest rodeo and help with barn chores—novelties for most Bar W clientele. Summer is peak season as the ranch receives the spillover of travelers who come to visit Glacier National Park—a 30-minute drive away. However, things don’t slow down much in the winter. Guests ride horseback over snow-covered meadows, ice-fish and ice skate on neighboring Spencer Lake and ski and snowboard seven miles away at Big Mountain Ski Resort. Weekly rates start around $1,500/adult.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.