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One Big, Happy Vacation


© St. Petersburg Times

After five days in the Arizona desert, it was time for the sun to set on our ranch vacation, and my daughter Amanda, 12, was not happy about it.

She'd become attached to her horse, Smokey, and the spunky youth counselor, Christy, at Rancho de los Caballeros. ""Will Smokey fit in our suitcase?" Amanda asked. When I answered no, she declared, "Then I'll ride him home."

On the flight back from Phoenix, I looked up from my newspaper and noticed Amanda had tears in her eyes. With a sniffle, she said, "I wouldn't mind going home if I knew I was coming back."

I, too, was sad to leave our Western fantasy world of cactus and coyotes, cowboys and campfires. I even missed my horse, Okey Dokey.

For those grown-ups with a nostalgic hankering for the Wild West and for children like mine who love horses, a guest ranch offers just about the best kind of vacation imaginable. Amanda's sadness at leaving Wickenburg, Arizona's dude-ranch capital, told me we had made the right choice for a five-day getaway.

"Dude ranch" and "guest ranch" are the same sort of place. Because ranches can create vivid memories and can foster a strong sense of belonging, many guests return to the same ranch again and again. They get to know the owners, other guests, the wranglers and the horses. For instance we were chatting with a family from Charleston, S.C., -- from elderly grandmother to young daughter -- staying near us at Rancho de los Caballeros, when the grandmother asked her gray-haired son, "Did you tell them you were here as a little boy?"

"When I'm here," the man confided, "I'm still a little boy."

In one of the photo albums in the ranch lounge, he found a picture of his family at a cookout more than 40 years earlier. Many ranches maintain such scrapbooks to help guests reminisce.

The simple pleasures of ranch life in the 1990s appeal to parents seeking relief from everyday stress and provide for togetherness, away from the usual distractions. Your rustic cabin or lodge may not have TV or radio, but the close-to-nature experience can make a lasting impression on your family.

After a ranch stay, kids come away with a new appreciation for the environment, animals and the solitude obvious in the great outdoors. Most ranches welcome children, and some specifically court the family market with ambitious youth programs staffed by counselors. Wright Catlow, executive director of the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association, says that families represent at least 60 percent of guests at his association's 38 member properties.

Although horseback-riding comes most quickly to mind when most of us think of dude ranches, there is seldom pressure for anyone to hop into the saddle if they're reluctant. In addition to riding, ranches also offer such activities as nature walks, fishing, panning for gold, square dancing, trap shooting, archery, swimming, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and excursions to national parks and historical points of interest.

On trail rides at Rancho de los Caballeros, we met several female guests whose husbands spent their days on the 18-hole golf course that surrounds the desert resort like a green necklace. (Former vice president Dan Quayle plays golf there on visits to his parents' Spanish-style hacienda.)

Whether you prefer the amenities, space and privacy of a large resort ranch or the hominess of a smaller place, guest ranches provide good value, though they may look pricey on the surface. Average weekly rates of $700 to $1,200 per adult, $600 to $1,000 per child, plus taxes and tips, usually include three meals a day, horseback rides, other recreational activities and after-dark entertainment.

Although cactus-studded deserts and Rocky Mountain peaks dominate the views from most ranches, you also can get a taste of the Old West out East. In New York's Hudson Valley, for instance, Roseland Ranch is a sprawling retreat attracting families from Florida to Canada. Many clans choose the ranch as a meeting point for family reunions, said owner Chickie Fichera.

Located at the foot of the Berkshires, about 20 miles northeast of Poughkeepsie, Roseland is the only ranch in the area with unlimited horseback riding.

And at Pinegrove Dude Ranch, west of Poughkeepsie, the Tarantino family has been welcoming city slickers for 31 years. Guests can even watch or participate in a cattle drive.

In western North Carolina, Clear Creek Ranch is nestled in a quiet valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounded by Pisgah National Forest. With log buildings furnished in Western decor, Clear Creek is a new ranch and features a heated pool, hot tub, children's activities, petting zoo and fishing pond.

In the Feather River country of Northern California, Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch offers trail rides for ages 7 and older in Plumas National Forest. For children younger than 7, the Wee Wranglers program organizes hikes, kite flying and cookie baking.

Idaho's Moose Creek Ranch also caters to families, offering an all-day schedule of activities built around a theme. Roxann Van Orden, who owns the ranch with her husband, Kelly, said, "One day it will be Indians, another day mountain men, another day animals. So our hikes, games and crafts are all related to that subject." She said each child under age 7 has his or her own counselor, two of whom are the Van Ordens' daughters. Moose Creek sets aside September for adults only.

In the foothills of the Rockies, southern Colorado's Don K Ranch, near Pueblo, has an excellent youth program. Counselors organize activities from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but "parents can always come and get the kids if they want to go for a hike together or go to the pool," said Mary Smith, who owns and operates the ranch with her husband, son and daughter-in-law.

Parents at the Don K enjoy a candlelight dinner and hayride on the night when kids camp out in Indian tepees. Other evenings at the ranch feature square dancing, a murder-mystery play, family casino night and a campfire. On the last night guests see themselves in an hourlong video.

Of course, while adults start counting on a return visit, some aspiring cowpokes -- such as my daughter -- say they won't be totally satisfied until they get a horse of their own. Ranch dressing For some folks, half the fun of a guest ranch vacation is dressing up to play the part -- cowboys boots, a Western hat, pearl-button shirt and bright red bandanna.

Although it's fun to stock up at a Western-wear store or shop through a mail-order catalog, ranch-bound travelers don't need to splurge on new wardrobes. The watchwords are comfort and practicality.

When it comes to denim jeans, comfort is more important than brand name. Because you may spend considerable time in the saddle, make sure your jeans are well-washed and softened. They should fit snugly but still provide some breathing room. Avoid black denim -- it gets too hot. Real cowboys wear jeans over the boot, not tucked in. A hint for women: Wear an old pair of pantyhose under your jeans to prevent chafing.

For riding, boots are a must because gym shoes slip through the stirrups, unless they are specially made for riding. Cowboy boots start at about $70. Even a fashion boot with a medium heel fills the bill. Do bring athletic shoes for hiking and other non-riding activities.

A wide-brimmed hat shields your face and neck from the sun. The straw variety is most comfortable in summer. A hat's "stampede strings," which go under your chin, are required at some ranches to make sure hats don't fly off and spook the horses behind you. Planning makes good horse sense

If you're seriously considering a ranch vacation this year, now is the time to start rounding up information. When looking at brochures, would-be wranglers should ask the following questions:

-- What do the rates includes? Most places operate under the American Plan, with lodging, all meals and activities included in the basic rate. Taxes and gratuities are usually extra. Some ranches have minimum length-of-stay requirements. Peak season for northern ranches is June through August; lower rates may apply in spring and fall. Most Arizona ranches operate only from September to May.

-- Besides horseback riding, what other activities are available? Does the ranch provide equipment such as fishing poles and tennis rackets?

-- If you are going with your children, do you wish to be with them all the time? Some ranches offer child care and organized children's programs. At what age are children allowed to go on trail rides? For more information

Ranch Vacations, a 616-page guidebook by Gene Kilgore (John Muir Publications, $22.95), is filled with color pictures and details on more than 225 guest ranches throughout the United States. Try bookstores or call (800) 637-8100 to order by mail.

Free brochures are available from:

-- American Wilderness Experience, P.O. Box 1486, Boulder, CO 80306; (800) 444-3833. The 26-page Old West Dude Ranch Vacations brochure lists packages for 64 ranches.

-- Arizona Dude Ranch Association, P.O. Box 603, Cortaro, AZ 85652. Write for a brochure describing 12 ranches in the state.

-- Bandera Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 171, Bandera, TX 78003; (800) 364-3833. This town in central Texas Hill Country has eight major dude ranches.

-- Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association, P.O. Box 300, Tabernash, CO 80478; (970) 887-3128. A directory lists 38 ranches.

-- Dude Ranchers' Association, P.O. Box 471-G, La Porte, CO 80535; (970) 223-8440. A 26-page directory describes more than 100 member ranches in 12 states.

-- Idaho Dude Ranch Association, c/o Wapiti Meadow Ranch, HCR 72, Cascade, ID 83611; (208) 633-3217.

-- Montana Big Sky Ranch Association, 1627 W Main St., Suite 434, Bozeman, MT 59715; (406) 587-1244. A directory lists 20 ranches.

-- Montana Ranch Vacations, HC 87, Box 2161, Big Timber, MT 59011; (406) 537-4477. The 10 member ranches are cattle ranches that put their guests to work.

-- Wyoming Dude Ranch Association, P.O. Box 618, Dubois, WY 82513; (307) 455-2584. A brochure lists about 35 ranches. Freelance writer Randy Mink has to leave his home in Bolingbrook, Ill., to reach the wide open spaces.

Originally published May 11, 1997

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