With experiential travel on the rise, many clients are looking for trip ideas beyond relaxing poolside at a beach resort. Enter the Dude Ranch. Long considered vacation spots just for horseback riding enthusiasts or hard-core adventure travelers, many dude ranches have now evolved into the luxury travel space, becoming full-service resorts complete with spas, high-end lodging, great cuisine, and an array of activities appealing to riders and non-horseback riders alike.
Given the high price point of all-inclusive packages at some of the top resorts, and the variability of pricing by service and by season, travel advisors can have an important role to play in helping their clients select the right resort at the right time, and reap the benefit with commissions and clients happy at discovering a new way to travel.
Below is a selection of some of the top dude ranches in the U.S.
1. Tanque Verde Ranch, Tucson, Arizona
Founded in 1921, Tanque Verde Ranch, near Tucson, Arizona is an old-school working cattle ranch that has developed into a luxury resort. On its 640-acre property near Saguaro National Park, guests can take riding classes and trail rides offered for beginning and advanced riders alike, galloping or slowly walking along cactus-lined trails into the Arizona mountains.
Beyond the riding, guests on all-inclusive packages can sign up for an array of activities including mountain biking, fishing, four-wheeling, tennis, yoga, archery, riflery, and even silversmithing workshops. The rooms are mostly still rustic, but guests don’t spend a lot of time there, with all the action going on.
I’ve personally stayed at Tanque Verde a half-dozen times with family over the past couple decades, and I’m not alone: many guests are second or third-generation visitors to the ranch, creating a welcoming community highlighted with group dining in the main lodge, and cookouts along the trails.
Photo: Alisal Ranch
2. Alisal Ranch, Santa Barbara, California
Located in the scenic Santa Ynez Valley outside of Santa Barbara, California, the Alisal Ranch has played host to Hollywood stars since the ranch opened for guests in 1946. The 10,000-acre property features 50 miles of trails for both horseback riding and hiking, with additional activities including spa services, fishing, tennis, biking, pickleball, golf on their 18-hole course, swinging on their treetop ropes course, and excursions to nearby wine country.
Alisal hosts special events including multiple “BBQ Bootcamps” which give guests a multi-day crash course in the finer points of barbequing, the WildWonder women’s-focused getaway in October, Ranch Cookout events led by guest chefs, and a spiritual retreat focused on the healing powers of animal interaction.
But the core activity at Alisal is and has always been horseback riding, with lessons, private rides, group excursions, and even weekly rodeos led by staff with participation from intermediate and advanced rider guests who can join in a team cattle-sorting competition.
3. The Resort at Paws Up, Montana
In western Montana near Missoula, Paws Up is an expansive luxury wilderness resort redefining the notion of a dude ranch. Located on a 37,000-acre property with more than 100 miles of trails and 10 miles of private riverfront to explore with guides, Paws Up welcomes guests to what they call their “private national park.”
Staying in one of Paws Up’s 28 luxury homes or 36 glamping tents, guests can join in a wide set of activities, with horseback riding being the most popular at the resort’s Saddle Club. Private and group lessons and trail rides are available for all levels of rider, with advanced riders able to join in sorting cattle exercises or even a genuine cattle drive across the sprawling property.
The resort’s extensive activity roster also includes ATV rides, canoeing, skeet shooting and archery, ebike, and mountain bike tours, fly fishing in the area made famous in River Runs Through It. Guests can recover from the activities in the resort’s spa, yoga classes, and fitness center, and then fuel up for more adventure with fine dining at the Pomp Restaurant, casual meals at Trough, and seasonal outdoor barbeques at the Chuck Wagon.
Photo: C Lazy U Ranch
4. C Lazy U Ranch, Colorado
The all-inclusive C Lazy U Ranch is about a 2.5-hour drive outside of Denver amidst high alpine meadows and rolling hills near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Daily horseback riding activities include lessons for all abilities (including in an indoor arena during inclement weather), the pick of 200 horses, and trail rides across the 8,500-acre property. Guests can compete in the ranch’s “Shodeo,” a family-friendly rodeo-style set of events to show off their horsemanship.
The Ranch’s non-horse activities include hiking, biking, a ropes course, tennis, shooting, paddle-boating, fly fishing, jeep riding, and more. Spa services and yoga classes soothe the body before or after daily adventures. The ranch even offers beehive tours, complete with full bee suits and honey samples.
Guests stay in one of 38 luxury cabins on the ranch, ranging from one to three bedrooms, including bunk bed children’s rooms. All are within close walking distance of the main lodge, where gourmet meals with paired wines are part of the all-inclusive program. Family-friendly meals are served in a communal setting for breakfast and lunch, while dinners provide kids-only dining areas to give parents some quiet time.
Photo: White Stallion Ranch
5. White Stallion Ranch, Arizona
The family-owned and operated White Stallion Ranch features 43 guest rooms in traditional southwest style on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona amidst 3,000 acres of cactus and sagebrush horseback riding terrain. They boast one of the largest herds of horses in Arizona, so they can find the right horse for guests, from a docile trail-walker to an energetic galloping steed eager to sprint toward the sunset.
White Stallion offers lessons to both beginners and experienced riders, including cattle-penning exercises for aspiring cowboys and cowgirls, and weekly rodeos to watch the experts do it. Those less serious about a future in wrangling, can join their Wine & Cheese rides or the Beer & Cheeto rides and enjoy a relaxing picnic in a stunning desert setting.
For meals, the ranch grills hearty outdoor barbeques along with a la carte meals in their restaurant, after which guests gather in their western bar, catch a movie in their small theater, or shoot pool in the rec room. A heated outdoor pool, hot tub, tennis courts, rock climbing, a shooting range, and spa services complete the resort-side of the White Stallion dude ranch experience.