Western Ranches Bloom in Arizona, Colorado and Montana
“Next up is Team Chicago,” the disembodied voice crackles over the speaker system mounted above the arena.
A real “Yee-haw!” is heard through the dusty corral, as two men and a woman come through the door, heading for the small herd of bored cattle at the other end of the space. Dust flies from the horses’ hooves, people shout cheers and wave hats, and the trio target a calf in the side and cut the young cow off her siblings, driving her towards the chute.
The calf picks up its pace as two of the riders push it to one side and their third partner to the other. As he trots down the chute, an air horn sounds. Cheers echo from the waiting runners and a sparse group of spectators in the stands.
“Eighteen seconds”, marvels the announcer. “That’s just two seconds off the guest rodeo record.”
Paul Janicki, an architect from Evanston; Ian Janicki, his entrepreneur son from Chicago but now based in Los Angeles; and Sonya Major, a singer from Rogers Park, are all part of a family that travels to Tucson, Arizona, every fall to live like cowboys at White Stallion Ranch, a ranch in the Sonoran Desert.
At this point, they’re basically pros.
“We spotted the cattle and worked out our strategy,” explains Paul Janicki. They had a lot of training. “We’ve been coming here as a family for 25 years.”
“Here” is White Stallion Ranch (whitestallion.com), one of the many ranches that populate the American West. It’s not the experience of “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal’s 1991 film about a group of New Yorkers entangled in cattle-driving misadventures, but a more civilized herding experience of Western pursuits.
It’s a tradition that began in the 1890s in North Dakota. “Dude” referred to people in the back east who paid for the romanticized experience of western life.
“You can’t go cow hunting in Chicago,” Major said. “(White Stallion Ranch) is my favorite place.”
The Janicki clan gathers on four dining tables joined together under soft lighting as the sun paints the sky from yellow to purple. Surrounded by giant saguaros and organ pipe cacti, the dinner scene looks like a family reunion in a John Wayne Western.
Back in Chicago, the temperature reached 37 in the afternoon. In the growing darkness of Arizona, the March temperature is always above 70 degrees. Paul Janicki, looking around, remarks, “It’s a change of pace from the Chicago weather.
White Stallion is a hybrid of a working ranch, with cattle operations separate from the resort, and the visitor area designed and decorated like a traditional Southwestern ranch. It looks rustic on the outside, with low-rise Mexican-style casitas or cabins, but inside, the spacious rooms and modern bathrooms are what you’d expect from an upscale hotel. range.
“You could say there are three types of dude or guest ranches,” says Jamie Denue, administrator of the Dude Ranchers Association (duderanch.org), a group of 92 all-inclusive ranches based in Cody, Wyoming. “There are the luxury ranches which are basically premier resorts with Western activities like horseback riding; traditional guest ranches, ranging from rustic to upscale; and working ranches where you saddle up with the ranching teams.
Dude ranch, the traditional term, has come to be synonymous with guest ranch, but there is a wide range of experiences. Many are all-inclusive and offer a real family experience for less than the cost of a week at Disneyland. Some offer such lofty four- and five-star accommodations (with prices to match) that they’re largely left to celebrities and one percenters.
“We like to tell people ‘yes,'” says Patrick McVey, assistant general manager of Lone Mountain Ranch (lonemountainranch.com) in Big Sky, Montana. “We want people to have a good time, and we’ll go out of our way to accommodate almost any request.”
Lone Mountain has more employees than guests. It is a dedicated guest ranch on 148 acres of pine forest, with a fork of the Gallatin River cascading between the cabins. Where the White Stallion offers all of its activities on the ranch itself, Lone Mountain mixes onsite and offsite activities due to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park (nps.gov/yell) and access to the adjoining lands of the Gallatin National Forest (fs.usda.gov/main/custergallatin). Guests stay in log cabins with porch rockers, rustic decor, and modern Western-Art Deco hybrid bathrooms. Cabins don’t have phones or TVs, but there is cell service and high-speed Wi-Fi.
“We want our customers to go offline as much as possible,” McVey says.
At White Stallion, included meals are served chuck-wagon style to ranch guests in the dining room or on the expansive stone patio. Lone Mountain includes dining in guest packages with fine dining service, but its historic dining room and lounge are among the best restaurants in southern Montana. The menu, featuring Wellington bison and local trout, draws diners from as far away as Bozeman and West Yellowstone.
While White Stallion and Lone Mountain offer activities and events for children, Majestic Ranch (majesticduderanch.com) down the highway from Mesa Verde National Park in Mancos, Colorado, focuses on families as the core of its business. It offers activities for adults, as well as a team of certified counselors for children’s time management.
All ranches offer horseback riding and maintain herds large enough to assign a specific horse to each guest for the duration of their stay. This familiarizes rider and horse and enhances the experience on the trail. Trail rides circle nearby lakes or head out into the mountains or desert for day hikes or overnight backpacking trips.
Lone Mountain offers age-appropriate activities for children and maintains a team of trained camp counselors to help teach horseback riding, archery, tug of war, and kayaking. White Stallion offers similar options, including camp counselors and a kids’ rodeo.
Majestic Ranch centers its activities on the family, from included meals to a weekly baseball game between children and parents. (Kids never lost.) There are adult activities, and camp counselors keep the kids busy while the parents have fun. Both the Majestic and the White Stallion have large children’s play areas.
Activities start early at a ranch, usually right after breakfast. At the Majestic, one of the walks leaves as soon as the dishes are cleared. Lunch is on the trail and runners head into the mountains on backcountry roads. The ranch also offers National Forest ATV tours, for those not ready for eight hours in the saddle.
On the luxury side, the spa experience is as much a part of ranching as a morning stroll. Rock Creek Ranch (theranchatrockcreek.com) in Philipsburg, Montana, is rated five stars by Forbes. In Tucson, Tanque Verde Ranch (tanqueverderanch.com) was Condé Nast’s 2021 Readers’ Choice Best Resort in the Southwest. They too are all-inclusive vacations. Tanque Verde has a history stretching back to 1868 and bills itself as “the last luxurious outpost of the Wild West”.
Getting a reservation takes planning, and Denue recommends scheduling the trip a year in advance.
“Up to 75% of guests at a ranch are regular visitors,” she says. “Some ranches wait until previous guests are booked before opening reservations to new visitors.”
The main goal of the Dude Ranchers Association, she says, is to help customers find a ranch with activities that match their personal interests, budget-friendly prices and a convenient location.
Various ranches offer a multitude of similar activities but adapted to the region. White Stallion hosts a breakfast where guests meander through the desert for about half an hour on their way to an outpost set up for shady breakfasts. At Lone Mountain, you can ride in a horse-drawn wagon or ride a horse to a secluded mountain log cabin with a historic wood stove.
“The cabin was built around the stove,” McVey says proudly.
White Stallion and Majestic have most activities based on or originating from the ranch. Lone Mountain uses licensed guides and transports visitors by canoe and kayak across Hebgen Lake on the Madison River or fly-fishing on one of Montana’s nearby rivers. Ranches near national parks offer half-day or full-day tours from the ranch.
Guests often venture out of the ranch on their own to visit nearby attractions. The activities offered at the various ranches can easily fill entire days, so it’s up to guests to decide whether to book their solid days or include downtime.
“The whole family should have a dude ranch experience,” says the Chicago Major. “Riding a horse in the desert without any sign of modern civilization – it’s an experience that stays with you. Staying at a ranch like this is something you will remember forever.”
The association of breeders
PO Box 2307, Cody, Wyoming; 307-587-2339; duderanch.org
White Stallion Ranch
9251 W. Twin Peaks Road, Tucson, Arizona; 520-297-0252; whitestallion.com
Lonely Mountain Ranch
750 Lone Mountain Ranch Road, Big Sky, Montana; 800-514-4644; lonemountainranch.com
Majestic Dude Ranch
42688 Road N, Mancos, Colorado; 970-533-7900; majesticduderanch.com
Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson, Arizona; 520-296-6275; tanqueverderanch.com
Rock Creek Ranch
79 Carriage House Lane, Phillipsburg, Montana; 877-786-1545; theranchatrockcreek.com
Saguaro National Park, Arizona: nps.gov/sagu
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado: nps.gov/meve
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming-Montana: nps.gov/yell
Gallatin National Forest, Montana: fs.usda.gov/main/custergallatin
San Juan National Forest, Colorado: fs.usda.gov/sanjuan