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5 Tips for Planning the Perfect Dude Ranch Family Vacation

Look for a few key characteristics before booking a family-friendly guest ranch for the gang.

U.S. News & World Report

5 Tips for Planning the Perfect Dude Ranch Family Vacation

Cowboy and cowgirl on horseback in the morning sun.

You and the kids can enjoy a blend of activity and relaxation with kayaking, horseback riding and other outdoor experiences at top retreats.(Getty Images)

Flathead Lake Lodge, a Montana dude ranch known for its horseback riding program and rustic Western ambiance, may not seem like an ideal place to go sailing. After all, who goes sailing at a dude ranch? But thanks to its ideal location, along the water on the scenic (and massive) Flathead Lake, the lodge's shore laps the manicured lawn sloping from the patio of the main lodge. Alongside their riding program, the lodge offers a watersports program, including water skiing and wakeboarding, along with fishing, paddleboard and kayak rentals, and yes, even sailing. The water sports crew maintains three sailboats, racing sloops and several motorboats, all of which are at guests' disposal. After a fun sailing lesson, or other active recreational pursuits on the water, every member of your group, from tweens to teens, is sure to approve of the dude ranch experience. Many factors make a dude ranch like Flathead Lake Lodge special, but for families, a memorable sailing experience is unexpected and one-of-a-kind.

Dude ranches provide families with a unique twist on the typical all-inclusive vacation, but not all dude ranches are created equal. All have their own culture and priorities. Before you book a dude ranch vacation, consider if your desired getaway has kid-friendly amenities and services and wow factors that appeal to outdoorsy types of all ages. Here's what to look for before you commit to a dude ranch getaway with the kids.

Diverse Activities

Unless you know your entire family wants to enjoy horseback riding morning, noon and night, you'll want to find a dude ranch that offers more than a stable. While no ranch other than Flathead Lake Lodge is located on the largest freshwater body of water west of the Mississippi, additional ranches, like Three Bars Ranch in British Columbia offer a variety of activities, including mountain biking, hiking, whitewater rafting, clay pigeon shooting and more. Don't forget about R & R, too. The best ranches provide a relaxing environment to unwind between heart-pumping activities. Look for a dude ranch with leisure spaces such as open porches lined with Adirondack chairs, swimming pools or open grass fields.

The Chance to Create Your Own Itinerary and Experiences

A week at a dude ranch can feel like an eternity. Typically, a routine is quickly set, and families embrace the rhythm of hearty breakfasts, daily activity sign-ups and dinner gatherings. The best ranches feel more like summer camp than a resort; they encourage guests to help themselves to leftovers in the kitchen, to leave their doors unlocked and to treat lobbies and lodge spaces like their own living rooms. Look for ranches with open-access spoon drawers, BYOBars (where guests bring in their own adult beverages and slide behind the bar to serve them) and open-door policies at the barn.

A Laid-Back Setting

The best family-friendly dude ranches have a relaxed, low-key ambiance that allows guests to disconnect and recharge their batteries. To ensure you've chosen an ideal ranch, seek out a place that offers a multitude of versatile activities well-suited to different interests, a surefire sign that the ranch values the whole vacation experience over intense riding or fishing. It's also a wise idea to look at the ranch's retention rate among families. You want a ranch that families gravitate back to year after year. When you're considering booking, call the ranch office and ask a staff member if there's a mixture of new and veteran families booked during the week you're contemplating. Long-returning families can provide a plethora of information (think: where to find needed supplies like flatware), and new families can add a sense of enthusiasm and fun.

An Attentive Staff

For a satisfying experience, you'll want to spend a week at a dude ranch staffed with employees that cater to you and your family with personalized experiences. Find a ranch that books no more than 150 people per week, so you can be ensured of top-tier service. There's a learning curve to dude ranching, and you want to make sure your questions will be answered. At Flathead Lake Lodge, the front office is the place to go for FAQs, personal inquiries or directions. Meanwhile, at Three Bars, the owner personally visits each table at breakfast to help guests plan their day. While dude ranch sizes vary, for those traveling with youngsters in tow, population of about 100 guests is ideal: large enough to meet various people, but small enough to get that personal connection.

A Sense of History

Dude ranches that stand the test of time have been around for a while. And the best have been in the same family for generations. At Flathead Lake Lodge, for example, the third generation is running the ranch, with the current patriarch of the family, Doug Averill, still present in the day-to-day operation and lives of the guests. Oftentimes, the ranch owners are part of the guest experience, from check-in to trail riding. At Triangle X Ranch in Wyoming, the ranch owners even offer a history lesson on the ranch after supper. The fascinating stories and heritage of these ranches serve to heighten the hospitable feeling from each stay. At the top dude ranches, you don't feel like you're at an impersonal resort or hotel, but rather a family's home.

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About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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