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.

[See: 10 Luxury Dude Ranches Worth Ditch Your Vacation For.]

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.

[See: 6 Under-the-Radar Family Vacations in Colorado.]

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.

[See: 6 Family-Friendly Adventure Trips You Can Afford.]

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.


15 Must-Visit National Park Attractions


Photo Gallery
National Parks in the U.S.
USA, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, Midway Geyser Basin, Grand Prismatic Spring
Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain
the beautiful setting of Havasu Falls in Arizona. Taken under an overcast sky with a soft warm light highlighting the red sandstone, green cottonwoods and the famous turquoise waters of the lagoon.
It is a long walk to the top! Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, in Colorado. The park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America, rising about 750 feet (230 m) from the floor of the San Luis Valley on the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Range, covering about 19,000 acres (7,700 ha).
Hikers at the end of the Harding Icefield trail. Kenai Fjords National Park
The Narrows at Zion National Park
Landscape Arch in the Arches National Park, Utah, United States.
Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley with El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.
General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park
Gorgeous Crater lake on a summer day
Stunning vista with snow covered mountains, lush green alpine meadows and trees, on Highline trail in Glacier National Park, Montana USA.
Kilauea Lava Flow near former town of Kalapana, Big Island, Hawaii, USA
Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park
aerial view of Waterlemon Cay in Leinster Bay, St.John, US Virgin Islands
|

Here's where to make the most of the National Park Service centennial.
The National Park Service will be celebrating its centennial on Aug. 25. As part of the 100th anniversary, the National Park Service is waiving admission fees to all of its parks and sites for 16 days in 2016, including April 16 through 24 and Aug. 25 through 28, which means it's time for you to start planning your next big adventure. We've rounded up must-visit attractions at some of the nation's most popular and off-the-beaten-path parks to help you decide which national park to conquer this year. 
(Getty Images)

Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Old Faithful gets a lot of love from visitors, but the Grand Prismatic Spring is just as much of a stunner. Measuring 370 feet in diameter, 120 feet in depth and reaching 189 degrees Fahrenheit, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States. Plus, it holds the distinction of being the most colorful attraction Yellowstone National Park has to offer. The many colors that make up the striking spring vary by season and are caused by the various types of bacteria that reside within its waters.
(Getty Images)

Cadillac Mountain
Acadia National Park, Maine

Cadillac Mountain isn't just another mountain to climb; it's the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard. Located on Mount Desert Island in Maine, the mountain is a whopping 1,530 feet tall (higher than the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower) and provides magnificent views of the surrounding seaboard and the small islands that dot it. And thanks to its unique location, Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. to view the sunrise from Oct. 7 to March 6 every year.
(Getty Images)

Havasu Falls
Grand Canyon, Arizona 

Everyone knows if you want to get wet in the Grand Canyon, you should go river rafting in the Colorado River. But if you're looking for something a little less wild, hike to Havasu Falls about 2 miles north of Supai Village. There are many waterfalls that call the Grand Canyon home, but Havasu stands out for its turquoise-colored waters. The vibrant hue comes from minerals that live within the water, which combine with the sunlight to create its luminous shade. Mix that with the canyon's jagged red rock formations and surrounding lush greenery and you've got the perfect photo op, or a great swimming spot.  
(Getty Images)

High Dune
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Located about three hours south of Colorado Springs, Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one giant sandbox just waiting to be played in. Measuring 30 square miles wide, the park is known for housing North America's tallest sand dunes, including High Dune. Though not the tallest, it is the most manageable to traverse of the highest dunes with a two-hour hiking time. If you're looking to do more than just walk around, sand sports of all kinds are allowed as long as they are played away from vegetated areas.
(Getty Images)

Harding Icefield Trail
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska 

The Harding Icefield, which is actually composed of 40 glaciers, is the star attraction in Kenai Fjords National Park. And to skip the Harding Icefield Trail would be like skipping the park altogether. This 8.2-mile round-trip hike takes visitors through the best assets of Kenai. Starting off on the valley floor, the trail winds through meadows and forests, providing expansive views of the park's icefield at the top. But come prepared: This hike is strenuous. Visitors gain 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. 
(Getty Images)

The Narrows
Zion National Park, Utah

If you're looking for a challenge, there is no better place to get the blood pumping than The Narrows in Zion National Park. Far from your run-of-the-mill hike, The Narrows, as its name implies, is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, and requires hikers to get both their hands and feet dirty. To complete the hike, visitors must travel upstream through the Virgin River and traverse through gorges that are at times only 20 to 30 feet wide. Although the trek is strenuous, hikers are rewarded with time spent surrounded by some of Mother Nature's most incredible architecture, including natural walls upward of 1,000 feet tall.
(Getty Images)

Landscape Arch
Arches National Park, Utah

Although it's impossible to see the 2,000-plus arches that reside within the park in one trip, try to add as many to your itinerary as possible. Key arches to see include Landscape Arch, the park's longest arch, Delicate Arch, which is featured on the Utah state license plate, and the Windows Trail, which is also visible from Turret Arch. 
(Getty Images)

Tunnel View Overlook
Yosemite National Park, California  

If you're not the kind of traveler who likes to take the most treacherous path, but you still want the vistas that typically come with those challenging journeys, the Tunnel View overlook is your best bet. If you follow U.S. Highway 41, all you have to do is continue on Wawona Road and you'll eventually hit one of the park's most famous lookouts. From Tunnel View, visitors are treated to scenic vistas of some of Yosemite's greatest attractions, including Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan. 
(Getty Images)

The General Sherman Tree
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California 

You might want to do some stretching before visiting Sequoia National Park as your head will likely be fixed upward the entire time. That's because some of the largest trees in the world reside here. The General Sherman Tree is the largest tree in the world at 52,508 cubic feet tall. Plus, the parks' sequoias, which are about as tall as a 26-story building, grow 40 cubic feet each year, so the trees you see during your trip won't look the same if you ever decide to return. 
(Getty Images)

Crater Lake
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

The lack of landmarks within this national park may deter some visitors, but Crater Lake's undeniable beauty more than makes up for its shortcomings. Crater Lake, as its name suggests, is set within the inactive Mount Mazama volcano. After a massive eruption in 5,700 B.C., the crater filled with rain and snow over time, creating what is now America's deepest (and possibly bluest) lake. The best time to witness this natural wonder is in the summer, when the sun further illuminates its deep blue waters and the 1,200-foot-tall cliffs that surround it. 
(Getty Images)

Highline Trail
Glacier National Park, Montana

There is no better place to feel like an explorer than the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. The famous trail hugs the jagged cliffs that line the Continental Divide, affording dramatic views of the tall peaks, lush valleys and wildlife that dwell within. But be forewarned: those afraid of heights might want to sit this one out. A quarter mile into the hike the trail becomes only 4 to 6 feet wide with cables built into the wall for extra support. Luckily, that part of the trail lasts for less than half a mile.
(Getty Images)

Mount Kilauea
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park's top attraction is also the world's most active volcano, producing 200,000 to 500,000 cubic meters of lava per day (enough to cover a 20-mile long, two-lane road each day). Located on the park's famed Crater Rim Drive, Mount Kilauea offers visitors the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with this natural attraction at the Kilauea Overlook. 
(Getty Images)

Hoh Rain Forest
Olympic National Park, Washington 

Dripping in moss, dotted with giant conifers and blanketed with ferns, the Hoh Rain Forest looks like something out of a fairytale. What's more, the area gets 12 to 14 feet of precipitation per year, creating a misty atmosphere that only adds to its overall allure. The rainforest, unsurprisingly, is one of the park's most-visited attractions and is considered to be one of the best examples of a temperate rainforest in the U.S. And the forest features predominately short and flat hikes, making it the perfect place for a relaxing stroll. 
(Getty Images)

Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay
Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands 

With more than 40 percent of this Caribbean destination covered in water, it's the perfect place for some subaquatic adventures. The park features multiple bays and beaches waiting to be explored, with throngs of coral reefs and wildlife ready to make an appearance as you embark on your journey under the sea. Beginner snorkelers and scuba divers will appreciate Francis Bay and the Underwater Trail at Trunk Bay, while those looking for a challenge should consider traversing Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay, the former of which features a big drop into the ocean.  
(Getty Images)

Bryce Amphitheater
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah 

The most-visited section in this Utah national park is also the easiest to reach. Just a 14-minute drive from the park's visitor center, Bryce Amphitheater is truly a sight to behold. The stunning rock spires that comprise the 6-mile-long attraction were formed after millions of years of erosion. The attraction is also unique in that it seemingly changes colors dependent on the placement of the sun. If you can, swing by during sunrise or sunset to see Bryce Amphitheater at its most photogenic time of day.
(Getty Images)

National Parks in the U.S.
USA, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, Midway Geyser Basin, Grand Prismatic Spring
Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain
the beautiful setting of Havasu Falls in Arizona. Taken under an overcast sky with a soft warm light highlighting the red sandstone, green cottonwoods and the famous turquoise waters of the lagoon.
It is a long walk to the top! Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, in Colorado. The park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America, rising about 750 feet (230 m) from the floor of the San Luis Valley on the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Range, covering about 19,000 acres (7,700 ha).
Hikers at the end of the Harding Icefield trail. Kenai Fjords National Park
The Narrows at Zion National Park
Landscape Arch in the Arches National Park, Utah, United States.
Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley with El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.
General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park
Gorgeous Crater lake on a summer day
Stunning vista with snow covered mountains, lush green alpine meadows and trees, on Highline trail in Glacier National Park, Montana USA.
Kilauea Lava Flow near former town of Kalapana, Big Island, Hawaii, USA
Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park
aerial view of Waterlemon Cay in Leinster Bay, St.John, US Virgin Islands
Morning sunlight over the amphitheater at Bryce Canyon viewed from Inspiration Point.

Here's where to make the most of the National Park Service centennial.
The National Park Service will be celebrating its centennial on Aug. 25. As part of the 100th anniversary, the National Park Service is waiving admission fees to all of its parks and sites for 16 days in 2016, including April 16 through 24 and Aug. 25 through 28, which means it's time for you to start planning your next big adventure. We've rounded up must-visit attractions at some of the nation's most popular and off-the-beaten-path parks to help you decide which national park to conquer this year. 
(Getty Images)

Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Old Faithful gets a lot of love from visitors, but the Grand Prismatic Spring is just as much of a stunner. Measuring 370 feet in diameter, 120 feet in depth and reaching 189 degrees Fahrenheit, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States. Plus, it holds the distinction of being the most colorful attraction Yellowstone National Park has to offer. The many colors that make up the striking spring vary by season and are caused by the various types of bacteria that reside within its waters.
(Getty Images)

Cadillac Mountain
Acadia National Park, Maine

Cadillac Mountain isn't just another mountain to climb; it's the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard. Located on Mount Desert Island in Maine, the mountain is a whopping 1,530 feet tall (higher than the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower) and provides magnificent views of the surrounding seaboard and the small islands that dot it. And thanks to its unique location, Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. to view the sunrise from Oct. 7 to March 6 every year.
(Getty Images)

Havasu Falls
Grand Canyon, Arizona 

Everyone knows if you want to get wet in the Grand Canyon, you should go river rafting in the Colorado River. But if you're looking for something a little less wild, hike to Havasu Falls about 2 miles north of Supai Village. There are many waterfalls that call the Grand Canyon home, but Havasu stands out for its turquoise-colored waters. The vibrant hue comes from minerals that live within the water, which combine with the sunlight to create its luminous shade. Mix that with the canyon's jagged red rock formations and surrounding lush greenery and you've got the perfect photo op, or a great swimming spot.  
(Getty Images)

High Dune
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Located about three hours south of Colorado Springs, Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one giant sandbox just waiting to be played in. Measuring 30 square miles wide, the park is known for housing North America's tallest sand dunes, including High Dune. Though not the tallest, it is the most manageable to traverse of the highest dunes with a two-hour hiking time. If you're looking to do more than just walk around, sand sports of all kinds are allowed as long as they are played away from vegetated areas.
(Getty Images)

Harding Icefield Trail
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska 

The Harding Icefield, which is actually composed of 40 glaciers, is the star attraction in Kenai Fjords National Park. And to skip the Harding Icefield Trail would be like skipping the park altogether. This 8.2-mile round-trip hike takes visitors through the best assets of Kenai. Starting off on the valley floor, the trail winds through meadows and forests, providing expansive views of the park's icefield at the top. But come prepared: This hike is strenuous. Visitors gain 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. 
(Getty Images)

The Narrows
Zion National Park, Utah

If you're looking for a challenge, there is no better place to get the blood pumping than The Narrows in Zion National Park. Far from your run-of-the-mill hike, The Narrows, as its name implies, is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, and requires hikers to get both their hands and feet dirty. To complete the hike, visitors must travel upstream through the Virgin River and traverse through gorges that are at times only 20 to 30 feet wide. Although the trek is strenuous, hikers are rewarded with time spent surrounded by some of Mother Nature's most incredible architecture, including natural walls upward of 1,000 feet tall.
(Getty Images)

Landscape Arch
Arches National Park, Utah

Although it's impossible to see the 2,000-plus arches that reside within the park in one trip, try to add as many to your itinerary as possible. Key arches to see include Landscape Arch, the park's longest arch, Delicate Arch, which is featured on the Utah state license plate, and the Windows Trail, which is also visible from Turret Arch. 
(Getty Images)

Tunnel View Overlook
Yosemite National Park, California  

If you're not the kind of traveler who likes to take the most treacherous path, but you still want the vistas that typically come with those challenging journeys, the Tunnel View overlook is your best bet. If you follow U.S. Highway 41, all you have to do is continue on Wawona Road and you'll eventually hit one of the park's most famous lookouts. From Tunnel View, visitors are treated to scenic vistas of some of Yosemite's greatest attractions, including Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall and El Capitan. 
(Getty Images)

The General Sherman Tree
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California 

You might want to do some stretching before visiting Sequoia National Park as your head will likely be fixed upward the entire time. That's because some of the largest trees in the world reside here. The General Sherman Tree is the largest tree in the world at 52,508 cubic feet tall. Plus, the parks' sequoias, which are about as tall as a 26-story building, grow 40 cubic feet each year, so the trees you see during your trip won't look the same if you ever decide to return. 
(Getty Images)

Crater Lake
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

The lack of landmarks within this national park may deter some visitors, but Crater Lake's undeniable beauty more than makes up for its shortcomings. Crater Lake, as its name suggests, is set within the inactive Mount Mazama volcano. After a massive eruption in 5,700 B.C., the crater filled with rain and snow over time, creating what is now America's deepest (and possibly bluest) lake. The best time to witness this natural wonder is in the summer, when the sun further illuminates its deep blue waters and the 1,200-foot-tall cliffs that surround it. 
(Getty Images)

Highline Trail
Glacier National Park, Montana

There is no better place to feel like an explorer than the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. The famous trail hugs the jagged cliffs that line the Continental Divide, affording dramatic views of the tall peaks, lush valleys and wildlife that dwell within. But be forewarned: those afraid of heights might want to sit this one out. A quarter mile into the hike the trail becomes only 4 to 6 feet wide with cables built into the wall for extra support. Luckily, that part of the trail lasts for less than half a mile.
(Getty Images)

Mount Kilauea
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park's top attraction is also the world's most active volcano, producing 200,000 to 500,000 cubic meters of lava per day (enough to cover a 20-mile long, two-lane road each day). Located on the park's famed Crater Rim Drive, Mount Kilauea offers visitors the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with this natural attraction at the Kilauea Overlook. 
(Getty Images)

Hoh Rain Forest
Olympic National Park, Washington 

Dripping in moss, dotted with giant conifers and blanketed with ferns, the Hoh Rain Forest looks like something out of a fairytale. What's more, the area gets 12 to 14 feet of precipitation per year, creating a misty atmosphere that only adds to its overall allure. The rainforest, unsurprisingly, is one of the park's most-visited attractions and is considered to be one of the best examples of a temperate rainforest in the U.S. And the forest features predominately short and flat hikes, making it the perfect place for a relaxing stroll. 
(Getty Images)

Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay
Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands 

With more than 40 percent of this Caribbean destination covered in water, it's the perfect place for some subaquatic adventures. The park features multiple bays and beaches waiting to be explored, with throngs of coral reefs and wildlife ready to make an appearance as you embark on your journey under the sea. Beginner snorkelers and scuba divers will appreciate Francis Bay and the Underwater Trail at Trunk Bay, while those looking for a challenge should consider traversing Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay, the former of which features a big drop into the ocean.  
(Getty Images)

Bryce Amphitheater
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah 

The most-visited section in this Utah national park is also the easiest to reach. Just a 14-minute drive from the park's visitor center, Bryce Amphitheater is truly a sight to behold. The stunning rock spires that comprise the 6-mile-long attraction were formed after millions of years of erosion. The attraction is also unique in that it seemingly changes colors dependent on the placement of the sun. If you can, swing by during sunrise or sunset to see Bryce Amphitheater at its most photogenic time of day.
(Getty Images)

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Tags: travel, vacations


Amy Whitley is a family travel writer, editor, and columnist based in Southern Oregon. An avid traveler, backpacker, skier and hiker, Amy has written about family and outdoor experiences for local and national publications since 2009. Amy authors the NWKids column in OutdoorsNW Magazine, is the Southern Oregon ambassador for Travel Oregon, works as a gear reviewer for multiple outdoor brands, and is founder of family travel site Pit Stops for Kids. Amy has been a U.S. News Travel contributor since 2015. Follow her on Twitter @pitsopsforkids.

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