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The West's best dude ranches.

We spent months on the trail rounding up the rest of our 50 best ranches, then herded them into six different categories - although many of them shine in more than one regard. Unless otherwise noted, rates are per adult for week-long stays during peak season, American plan, and include all standard ranch activities, such as horseback riding. Discounts are often offered for children and groups, and rates may be lower in the off-season. Many ranches do not take credit cards - be sure to ask. Tipping policies vary: some ranches add a 15 percent service charge to their weekly rates; others leave tipping up to you. In general, the ranching season in the Southwest peaks in the cooler months of fall and winter; summer holds sway in the north. A number of ranches are open year-round.

GOOD VALUE

Brand-name shopping. Think you can't enjoy a great dude ranch vacation on a budget? The following ranches got high marks and cost adults about $1,000 each per week (less for children). Still not cheap, but well worth it.

COLORADO

Coulter Lake Guest Ranch. At the end of the road and deep in the still-undiscovered mountains of White River National Forest on Colorado's little-populated Western slope, this old-fashioned ranch offers lots of quiet, a surfeit of natural beauty, friendly ownership, and a relaxed schedule. Log cabins edge the trout-stocked lake, wide-open meadows promise great loping, and pine-slab tables are heaped with three square meals a day. Capacity: 30. From $1,040. Near Rifle, 85 miles northeast of Grand Junction; (800) 858-3046.

Sundance Trail Guest Ranch. Part of the century-old Lady Moon Ranch, the original ranch house has been expanded as the main dining room and common area, but it retains much of its original log cabin flavor. A beautiful mountain locale, comfortable accommodations, and a friendly, down-home feeling complement a wide array of activities. Capacity: 30. $1,150. In Red Feather Lakes, 35 miles northwest of Fort Collins; (800) 357-4930.

MONTANA

Beartooth Ranch. The ranch adjoins some of the most spectacular country in the state: the 1-million-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. Settled in 1890, the Beartooth Ranch offers trail riding, square dancing, horseshoe pitching, cookouts, and volleyball, plus good fishing in the riffles and pools of the legendary Stillwater River. Capacity: 20. $665. Near Nye. 90 miles southwest of Billings; (406) 328-6205.

G Bar M Ranch. Tucked amid cottonwoods near trout-rich Brackett Creek, the ranch has been in the Leffingwell family for almost a century. Ride fence, check cows, bring salt out to the animals, and listen to owner George Leffingwell talk knowledgeably about area history, flora, and fauna. At night, gather at the long pine table for simple, homecooked meals (many ingredients fresh from the garden) and relax in the living room decorated with leather sofas, saddles, and braided rugs. Capacity: 15. From $790. Near Clyde Park, 26 miles northeast of Bozeman; (406) 686-4423.

Sweet Grass Ranch. A guest ranch since the 1930s, Sweet Grass is set in the remote alpine meadows of Sweet Grass Canyon on the east side of the 11,000-foot Crazy Mountains. A riding ranch where guests can take half- and full-day rides and arrange pack trips into the nearby mountains, this is also a working cattle ranch. Guests can take an active part in all phases of ranch life, from feeding pigs to doctoring cattle to fencing. Capacity: 20. From $775 per person, double occupancy. No credit cards. Near Big Timber, 115 miles northeast of Bozeman; (406) 537-4477.

NEW MEXICO

Hartley Guest Ranch. Guests participate in the life of a real ranching family on a 25,000-acre property in the dramatic Canadian River Canyon country of eastern New Mexico. Whether you do some real work or simply watch it being done, you'll leave with a good view of authentic Western ranching and a close-knit family. Capacity: 10. $600 for three nights, $900 for five nights. Near Roy, 220 miles northeast of Albuquerque; (800) 687-3833 or www.duderanch.org/bartley.

OREGON

Bar M Ranch. Situated along Umatilla River and at the base of the Blue Mountains, the Bakers' Bar M Ranch has a lot of history (the main ranch house was a Civil War-era stage stop) and special facilities, such as hot springs-fed swimming pools, a wood-floor recreation barn for basketball games and square dancing, and a stocked trout pond for kids. Capacity: 30. From $800 per person, double occupancy. Near Adams, 30 miles east of Pendleton; (541) 566-3381.

LEARNING EXPERIENCES

Readin', ridin', and 'rithmetic. You could argue that for the novice dude, everything on a dude ranch is educational. Squeezing your feet into your first pair of cowboy boots - that's a learning process unto itself. As for climbing onto the back of a five-story-high horse, well, that should earn you a Ph.D. That said, some dude ranches go the extra mile - giving their guests other educational offerings, from nature study to photography to Western history. Here's a sampling of the best.

ARIZONA

Tanque Verde Guest Ranch. A professionally run but relaxed guest ranch offering a full range of programs and amenities in a gorgeous setting. A staff naturalist leads regular bird-watching outings and nature walks through the Sonoran Desert. There are nightly lectures on everything from cowboy lore to wildlife. Capacity: 200. From $290 per couple per night. In Tucson; (800) 234-3833 or www.tvgr.com.

MONTANA

Lone Mountain Ranch. Tucked in a narrow glaciated valley near the West Fork of the Gallatin River, luxurious Lone Mountain features standard dude ranch fare plus a variety of outdoor educational offerings - bird walks and classes in medicinal plants and orienteering - as well as a fly-fishing program with six guides on staff Capacity: 84. From $1,900 (less for each additional person). In Big Sky, 45 miles south of Bozeman; (406) 9954644.

Pine Butte Guest Ranch. This ranch has been in the rugged foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front since 1930. Besides horseback riding, guests can visit the famous Egg Mountain dinosaur dig under be guidance of paleontologists. Staff naturalists hold a popular series of nature workshops. Capacity: 25. $1,075. Near Choteau, 90 miles northwest of Great Falls; (406) 466-2158.

WYOMING

Breteche Creek Ranch. Remote and rustic (tent cabins, central bath and shower) Breteche Creek Ranch features diverse educational programs from wildlife biology and photography to writing, geology, and horsemanship. Capacity: 20. $525 for three nights, $975 per week. Group rates available for 12 or more. Near Cody, 100 miles south of Billings; (307) 587-3844.

T-A Ranch. The T-A was the battleground in the West's most famous range war, the Johnson County War. Now owners Barbara and Earl Madsen have spruced up the T-A winningly, and added horseback riding, fly-fishing, and summer seminars, like this year's three-day programs on the Bozeman Trail and Women in the West. Capacity: 30.

DELUXE RESORTS

High in the saddle. The first dude ranches were on the spartan side - you rode hard and slept harder, unrolling a bedroll in a bunkhouse that offered more cowboy authenticity than creature comfort. * No more. You want to bunk in a lodge that would make Ralph Lauren gnash his teeth in envy? You want cuisine that draws both from the prairie and Provence? There is a dude ranch for you. Along with fine food and luxurious surroundings, these resort ranches generally offer a wider range of activities than do simpler spreads. Such pleasures come at a price - as much as $2,030 per person per week at one ranch.

ARIZONA

Merv Griffin's Wickenburg Inn & Dude Ranch. Entertainer and hotelier Merv Griffin bought the inn in 1995 and has been renovating ever since. Redecorated rooms, a new pool complex, and a re-emphasis on traditional elements such as horseback riding, hiking, and cattle drives are some of the changes. Capacity: 130. From $210 per night. In Wickenburg, about 60 miles northwest of Phoenix; (800) 942-5362.

COLORADO

C Lazy U Ranch. High in the Rockies, C Lazy U has just about everything - cookouts, square dancing, swimming, massage, game rooms, and golf nearby. Capacity: 110. From $1,750. Near Granby, 95 miles west of Denver; (970) 887-3344.

Home Ranch. If you can leave the hot tub on the porch of your handsome log cabin (with views of Hahn's Peek or Sand Mountain), be sure to sample the hiking, riding, barn dancing, or cookout dinners. There's even a fishing guide to show you where the trout are biting. Mobil four-star rating. Capacity: 50. From $3,230 per couple. Near Clark, 18 miles north of Steamboat Springs; (970) 879-9044.

Wit's End Guest Ranch & Resort. This elegant, pricey getaway in a beautiful ranch setting has stylish cabins and plenty to do tennis, swimming, hay rides, fly-fishing. Capacity: 216. From $1,837. In Vallecito Lake, 25 miles northeast of Durango; (800) 236-9483, (970) 884-4113, or www.gorp.com/witsend.

MONTANA

Mountain Sky Guest Ranch. The setting - Paradise Valley, north of Yellowstone - explains why people move to southern Montana, while the ranch lodge and cabins demonstrate what can be done with a good bit of money and equally good taste. Meals rise far above the dude ranch standard. All this plus tennis, swimming, and an unusually well organized children's program. Capacity: 75. From $2,030. Near Emigrant, 60 miles south of Bozeman; (800) 548-3392.

Triple Creek Ranch. Set amid dense clusters of Douglas firs and ponderosa pines, thickly carpeted log cabins feature glassed in fireplaces, log-past beds, satellite TVs, stocked bars, some his and her bathrooms. and hot tubs on the decks. Hiking, fishing, tennis. swimming, and horseback riding up Trapper Peak are among the many activities available. Capacity: 42. From $475 per couple per night (must be age 16 or older). Near Darby, 70 miles south of Missoula; (406) 821-4600 or www.triplecreekranch.com.

NEW MEXICO

Bishop's Lodge. Though guests may be tempted away by nearby Santa Fe dining, shopping, and cultural attractions, the lodge holds its own with a wide variety of activities, including rides, a great children's program, tennis, skeet and trap, swimming, and nature walks. Capacity: 175. From $202 per person per night, double occupancy. Some activities cost extra. Near Santa Fe; (800) 732-2240 or (505) 983-6377.

Lodge at Chama. A relaxing, luxurious hunting and fishing retreat, the Lodge at Chama is not a family resort. As manager Frank Simms says, "This is a place for those who have high standards and want exclusivity in a retreat from a high-pressure environment." Capacity: 24. $425 per person per night. Near Chama, 90 miles north of Santa Fe; (505) 756-2133.

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Echo Valley Resort. A homestead since 1908, the ranch has new log cabins with upscale comforts, and a fully equipped exercise room with massage and spa facilities. Capacity: 36. From $250 (CN) per person per night, double occupancy (three-night minimum). About 30 miles northwest of Clinton. Ranch, (250) 459-2396; reservations, (800) 253-8831.

THREE-DAY WEEKEND

Stopping for a short spell. In the golden era of dude ranching, from the 1910s through the 1930s, guests spent entire summers on their chosen ranch. Those lazy days are gone, alas. But many dude ranches are still geared mainly to week-long stays. * If you can't spare that much time or money, don't give up the idea; here are some of the best ranches permitting short-term stays. (Note, too, that other dude ranches may allow shorter stays off-season or if they've had last-minute cancellations - it never hurts to ask.)

ARIZONA

Flying E Ranch. It began as a fly-in dude ranch with its own airstrip in the late 1940s, and still maintains the genteel, Western ambience of the post-World War II years - right down to the religiously observed cocktail hour. Riding is on the ranch's 21,000 owned and leased acres; part of the ranch is a cattle operation. Capacity: 34. From $230 per room per night. Horseback riding costs extra. No credit cards. Liquor is BYOB. Near Wickenburg, about 50 miles northwest of Phoenix; (520) 684-2690.

Kay El Bar Guest Ranch. The 72-year-old ranch is set on the banks of the Hassayampa River in a grove of salt cedar and eucalyptus trees. It has maintained an old Arizona ambience and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its traditional adobe guest buildings. Thousands of acres of varied desert terrain make for good riding with a good meal and peaceful relaxation at trail's end. Capacity: 24. From $140 per night (two-night minimum October to February 14; four-night minimum February 15 through April). In Wickenhurg; (800) 684-7583, (520) 684-7593, or www.kayelbar.com.

Rancho De La Osa. This beautiful ranch in a stunning grassland wilderness is elegant but friendly with picnic rides, sunset wildlife rides, all-day rides to old trading posts (for week-long visitors), and rides to the quaint town of Sasabe. The ranch also offers cooking demonstrations, bicycle rides. birding, stargazing, Mexican fiestas, and a swimming pool. Capacity: 43. From $300 per couple per night. Near Sasabe, 67 miles southwest of Tucson; (520) 823-4257 or (800) 872-6240 (fax).

CALIFORNIA

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. In the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara is a ranch whose guest list has included some of Hollywood's biggest names. Riding competes with golf and tennis for your attention. Still, this plush resort boasts dude ranch bona fides: the owners run 2,000 head of cattle here, and riders can choose from 50 miles of trails that lope across 10,000 oak-studded acres. Capacity: 200. From $335 per night, double occupancy. Horseback riding and lunch cost extra; ask about riding packages. Near Solvang, about 40 miles north of Santa Barbara; (800) 425-4725 or www.alisal.com.

Circle Bar B Guest Ranch. It sits just down the road from Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo, and guests learn what the former president knows: the mountains west of Santa Barbara are among the most beautiful in Southern California. Small, cozy, and informal, the Circle Bar B still has a certain show business glimmer - a dinner theater runs April through November, and newer guest rooms are decked out in enough high-buckaroo style to charm any singing cowboy. Capacity: 35. From $186 per couple per night (two-night minimum on weekends). Riding costs extra. Near Goleta, 28 miles north of Santa Barbara; (805) 968-1113.

Highland Ranch. Sprawled on 247 acres in a valley amid the redwoods, Highland is more a full-service resort than a ranch. Roughing it here means curling up in a hammock, sipping the finest local wines, or trotting off for a morning trail ride punctuated by stunning forest vistas. Forgot your fishing rod, ukulele, tennis racket, or shotgun for clay pigeons at home? Not to worry. Highland is well stocked to indulge your recreational whims - but it won't send you home feeling like a cowpoke. Capacity: 20. $220 per night (two-night minimum). Near Philo, 125 miles north of San Francisco; (707) 895-3600.

IDAHO

Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch. Set in the spectacular Sawtooth Valley, this ranch with classic hand-hewn lodge and cabins - offers all the comforts, from gourmet meals to a hot springs-fed pool and rocking chairs on the broad porch overlooking a pond. There's hiking, riding, mountain biking, fishing, and occasionally, a cowboy poet-singer who entertains you at dinner. Capacity: 42. $92 per person per night, double occupancy. Horseback riding and lunch cost extra. Near Stanley, about 130 miles east of Boise; (208) 774-3544.

WASHINGTON

Hidden Valley Guest Ranch. Family-run and low-key, this 700-acre spread of rolling range and canyon is truly hidden away in the ponderosa pine-thick hills of central Washington, only 90 minutes from Seattle. Guests can choose among fishing, mountain biking, bird-watching, and hiking along Swauk Creek. There's also an activities great room, a pool, and a hot tub. The only planned activities are trail rides. Capacity: 35. From $95 per person per night, double occupancy (two-night minimum on weekends). Guided horseback rides cost extra. Near Cle Elum, 95 miles east of Seattle; (800) 526-9269.

WYOMING

Spear-O-Wigwam Ranch. The small ranch's claim to fame is hosting Ernest Hemingway back in the '20s (it's even named one of its cabins after him), but its setting alone is worth bragging about. Situated high in the Bighorn National Forest, the ranch offers an informal riding program that features outings big on scenery and short on speed (the rough terrain prevents much loping). There's a well-worn recreation room and the occasional cookout (as well as swimming and boating on a nearby reservoir), but expect a low-key getaway. Capacity: 30. $150 per person per night, double occupancy (three-night minimum). No credit cards. 30 miles southwest of Sheridan; (307) 672-0002.

WORKING RANCHES

Home on the range. You want a taste of the true West? Roll up your sleeves and try these outfits. Most are short on amenities but long on the kind of activities that are the stuff of fantasy: you may get to do things like herd the dogies, bring in the hay, or ride drag on a multiday cattle drive.

ARIZONA

Horseshoe Ranch on Bloody Basin Road. Guests saddle up with the cowboys (not wranglers) at the Horseshoe Ranch in central Arizona and spend the day riding the 75,000-acre range, working the ranch's 1,800-plus herd. Rewards include a day spent in the beautiful high desert, late afternoons and evenings relaxing in the ranch's bucolic valley setting, and hearty family-style meals. Guests should be experienced riders and at least 12 years old. Capacity: 12. $175 per night (three-night minimum). Near Mayer, 65 miles north of Phoenix; (520) 632-8813.

CALIFORNIA

Hunewill Circle H Guest Ranch. Hunkered down in a meadow at the foot of the Eastern Sierra, this cattle ranch has been putting up guests since 1931. Most of the time, a stay here is all about riding, with a campfire sing-along, hayride, or game of horseshoes tossed in for variety. But the Hunewill recruits guests (intermediate to advanced riders) for a cattle "gather" in September and a 60-mile cattle drive in November. It also hosts cattle work weeks in June and September, in which guests perform a variety of jobs around the ranch. Capacity: 45. From $865 per person, double occupancy. Near Bridgeport, about 120 miles south of Reno, NV; (702) 465-2201 (October 15 to May 15) or (760) 932-7710 May 15-October 15.

COLORADO

Vista Verde Guest Ranch. Vista Verde's atmosphere is that of an old homestead ranch where guests can help rotate the cattle between the pastures, cut out a few cows, or join in a cattle drive (two a year). It's balanced by a long list of upscale activities (fly-fishing to rafting), plus a spa, hot tubs, and imaginative gourmet meals. You retire to a swank log cabin set in the crease of pine-covered mountains. Capacity: 35. From $1, 750. About 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs; (800) 526-7433 or www.vistaverde.com.

MONTANA

Schively Ranch. You'll feel less like a dude and more like a ranch hand here than just about anywhere else. That includes the accommodations (we're not talking about any "faux" rustic out here) and organized programs (there aren't any), but the Bassetts are warm and gracious, and the countryside is harsh, grand, and beautiful all at the same time. There is riding all summer, and plenty of cattle work, but if you want action, come for the roundups in the spring and fall. Capacity: 14. $750. Near Pryor, 50 miles south of Billings; (307) 548-6688.

NEVADA

Spur Cross Ranch. The real deal - a working ranch running cattle in the high-desert sage country. Put on your work duds, break out the Ben-Gay, and plan your day with the ranch hands (no programmed activities here). You might help brand a calf, ride the fences, or herd cattle. Accommodations are clean and plain (no TVs, phones, or reliable electricity - when the generator goes out, so do the lights), and kids under age 10 aren't encouraged. Capacity: 12. $115 per person per night, double occupancy (three-night minimum). In Golconda, 18 miles east of Winnemucca; (800) 651-4567.

WYOMING

Hideout at Fitner Ranch. Just outside the tiny town of Shell, the Hideout is a relatively new facility with a log lodge and five log cabins, all with great views of Shell Canyon and the Big Horn Mountains. The facility has beautifully landscaped lawns with pools and streams, and an arena. Rooms feature cowboy-styled pine beds, drum lamps, and a loft area in each cabin (great for kids). The ranch also has mountain cabins reachable by horseback. Guests work cattle, brand, and participate in other general ranch activities. Capacity: 36. $285 per night (three-night minimum). 65 miles east of Cody; (800) 354-8637.

CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS

Fun for the young'ns. By their very nature, most ranches are geared toward families. But a few outfits round up a corralful of special programs and activities for kids. They have wranglers or counselors who work just with the children and kid-friendly facilities like game rooms, sandboxes, and swing sets. One place even serves up freshly baked cookies each afternoon - your kids have gotta love that.

CALIFORNIA

Rankin Ranch. This 135-year-old working ranch is set in a surprising place of beauty - a strange, isolated spot in the Tehachapi Mountains northeast of Bakersfield. It offers a relaxing atmosphere, hospitable staff, and great children's programs: a petting farm, arts and crafts activities, hikes, treasure hunts, and swim meets. There are no TVs or phones in the rooms (cellular phones don't work out here). Capacity: 35. $140 per night, In Walkers Basin, about 45 miles northeast of Bakersfield; (805) 867-2511.

Spanish Springs Ranch. Step into the lodge and smell a heady mix of leather, fresh air, coffee, fresh flowers, and pies a-bakin'. Ages 5 and up can learn to ride in a serious but varied horseback-riding program (from arena riding to advanced terrain); the ranch also holds its own weekly rodeo, with games like mutton-busting, catch the pig, and barrel racing. Capacity: 100. From $125 per night. Near Ravendale, about 160 miles east of Redding; (800) 272-8282.

COLORADO

Latigo Ranch. This ranch features a classic mountain setting in a pine forest and plenty of structured activities, such as nature walks with owner Jim Yost (who is a former college instructor), and facilities ranging from a swimming pool and game room to a volleyball court anti stocked fishing pond. It's also a good place for children to learn how to ride - the head wrangler has a doctorate in equine science. Capacity: 40. $1,495. Near Kremmling, 55 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs; (800) 227-9655.

Lost Valley Ranch. At the end of a long drive, Lost Valley feels like what the ranch in Lonesome Dove would've been like if Gus and Cal had been successful. Each family designs a brand that's burned onto the dining room's pine walls; there's one from Walt Disney - a reverse L connected to a W and a D (the L was for his wife, Lillian). There's also an excellent teen program. Capacity: 100. $1,650. Near Sedalia, 65 miles southwest of Denver; (303) 647-2311.

Wilderness Trails Ranch. The setting is pure forest with mountain rising in the north - the epitome of a Colorado scene. A solid riding program is augmented by lots of other activities, from four-wheeling and rafting to pack trips and cattle drives. Capacity: 48. $1, 480 per person, double occupancy. 35 miles northeast of Durango: (800) 527-2624 or (970) 247-0722.

MONTANA

Nine Quarter Circle Ranch. Located on the Taylor Fork River, the ranch sits on a broad, grassy meadow dotted with lodgepole pines and wildflowers. It began as a homestead in the late 1880s, and has a herd of 120 Appaloosa horses for riding. Geared especially toward families with children - from infants to high schoolers - the ranch offers "kiddie wranglers," a playground, and plenty. of family activities such as square dancing, nature talks, and star walks. Capacity: 75. $1,092. About 60 miles south of Bozeman; (406) 995-4276.

OREGON

Rock Springs Guest Ranch. With youth counselors keeping the kids busy (and safe) and twice-daily small group rides for adults and children through 12,000 acres of pine, juniper, and sage at the edge of the high desert, Rock Springs is a tonic for families. Sumptuous meals, special touches like a kids' hayride and talent show, and the quiet keep guests returning year after year. Capacity: 50. $1,545 per person, double occupancy. About 10 miles northwest of Bend; (800) 225-3833 or www.rocksprings.com.

WYOMING

Double Diamond X Ranch. It offers commanding views of the upper reaches of the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Cabins and a motel-style rooming area are clustered around the log lodge with an indoor swimming pool and hot tub, recreation room, and private fishing pond. Besides arts and crafts and storytelling projects, youngsters learn about horse science and safety and Indian lore and also enjoy outings to view wildlife. Capacity: 32. $1,460. About 35 miles southwest of Cody: (800) 833-7262, (307) 527-6276, or wave.park.wy.us./~beverly/ddx.html.

Paradise Guest Ranch. Besides all the things you'd expect from a great dude ranch - lovely, rugged country (the Bighorn National Forest), well-organized activities, a large variety of riding experiences, good food, and a helpful staff - the Paradise hosts a children's program that should have your youngsters talking about it long into the school year. Activities range from arts and crafts and ice cream socials to overnights and a kids' rodeo. Capacity: 78. $1,375. Near Buffalo, 33 miles south of Sheridan: (307) 684-7876.

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Big Bar Guest Ranch. Children love the casual atmosphere and variety of fun here, from row-boating and fishing on the private lake to gold panning, river rafting, and guided wilderness tours. The ranch has its own game room and wranglers, but there's plenty of family togetherness at evening campfires and on hayrides. Cabins and motel-like lodge rooms are tidy but plain. Capacity: 70. Froth $93 (CN) per night. Riding costs extra. About 30 miles northwest of Clinton; (250) 459-2333 or www.bigbarranch.com.

Additional research by Geri Anderson, Suzy Boss, Greg Campbell, Dale Conour, Jeanie Puleston Fleming, Thom Gabrukiewicz, Leah Gastman, Fred Haefele, Roseann Hanson, Bonnie Henderson, Susan Kaye, Steve Lipsher, Jena MacPherson, Claire Martin, Candy Moulton, Caroline Patterson, Kurt Repanshek, and Kerry Shaw

RELATED ARTICLE: Wrangling the right ranch

Surprises are part of the adventure of a dude ranch, but imagine arriving only to discover that the menu doesn't accommodate your vegetarian teenager.

Former cowboy and author of the classic Gene Kilgore's Ranch Vacations guidebook, Gene Kilgore knows the pitfalls and how to avoid them. His advice: read up, call the ranches you're considering, and get references.

"For first-timers, setting and atmosphere are key." Assemble a list of contenders geographically and start calling; determine just how close the ranch is to, say, that Rockies fishing stream your heart is set on.

Because the riding program can be a major part of your experience, get a description of riding terrain, and ask if you'll get the same horse all week and whether rides are taken in small groups.

"Food and amenities are higher priorities for guests now, so many ranches have programs and menus a lot like cruises," Kilgore notes. ASk for menu specifics, and get a list of activities, including what equipment is provided and what you should bring. If you have kids, it's important to find out about the programs and facilities set aside just for them.

For more advice, check out Gene Kilgore's Ranch Vacations (John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, NM, 1997; $22.95; 800/472-6247, 916/939-1009, or www.ranchweb.com).

For ranch listings, write to Arizona Dude Ranch Association, Box 603, Cortaro, AZ 85652, or visit www.cowboys.com/arizonaduderanchassociation. Or contact the British Columbia Guest Ranch Association (800/663-6000); the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association (970/887-3128 or www.coloradoranch.com); the Idaho Guest and Dude Ranch Association (208/633-3217); the Dude Ranchers' Association (970/223-8440 or www.duderanch.org); or the Wyoming Dude Ranchers (307/455-2584).

L. F.

RELATED ARTICLE: Ode to the dude ranch horse

Let us now praise famous horses - all the Smokys and Blackys and Boots who each week feel the nervous weight of novice dudes. Without these steeds, the dude ranch would have only fresh air and stunning scenery, no different than some gol'darned health spa. But with a stable of good horses, the dude ranch becomes the Wild West.

What makes a good dude horse? Most wranglers look for ranch horses, mainly geldings, mature enough (at least five to seven years old) to be comfortable around people. But selecting the best dude horse breeds can spark arguments. "We look for quarter horses," says Mark Rose, head wrangler for the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. "The breed seems to be inherently gentle, physically very strong." But Bud Cahill of the 63 Ranch in Livingston, Montana, begs to differ. "Quarter horses are good horses, but they have a lot of muscles. In these mountains they have trouble getting blood to the heart. I like a Thoroughbred cross. They're athletic - a lot of heart," he says.

Whatever breed they favor, a growing number of wranglers train horses using the gentler, subtler methods pioneered by people like Monty Roberts and Buck Brannaman, inspirations for the book and movie The Horse Whisperer. "Once you can start thinking like a horse, you've accomplished something," says Rose.

When that meshing of human and horse occurs, the results can be magical - especially, he says, among his youngest riders. "On Saturday afternoons, when it's time to go home, a lot of times we have kids crying. They want to take their horses with them. It's neat to see that kind of bond. It keeps me going."

P. F.

RELATED ARTICLE: Ranch dressing

When a few early dudes, often Easterners with a Social Register listing and a flair for fashion, dressed up in their idea of Western wear, they rode the concept to high camp. Take these early dandies described in Dude Ranching: A Complete History: "One wore lavender angora chaps, the other bright orange, and each sported a tremendous beaver sombrero and wore a gaudy scarf knotted jauntily about his throat."

Dudes today dress more sensibly, according to John Wilcox, a vice president for Sheplers Western Wear. The basics - jeans, Western shirt, bandanna, gloves, hat, and boots - are easy, but the dude is in the details. "After a day in the saddle, you'll be grateful for a pair of prewashed jeans that are soft and loose so that they don't bind up," Wilcox advises. And why a snap-front Western shirt? "The snaps are better if you're around animals. If you get gouged or horned, a snap shirt will break away." So your shirt - and you - may survive.

An old ranch hand can read a cowboy's resume in his choice of hat: a crease like the cattleman's or a brim like the rodeo or bull rider style can be a tip-off to those professions. Historic styles are back too, like the Montana peak or the slope-fronted Tom Horn. A lightweight straw hat runs $35 to $70; a good felt hat (a blend of rabbit, beaver, and nutria fur) starts at about $140.

The classic high-heeled, pointy-toed cowboy boot has been in style since the 1860s and can be a lifesaver. If you're bucked out of the saddle, that heel keeps your foot from catching in the stirrup so you can't be dragged by a runaway mount. Today, materials go way beyond cowhide everything from lizard to ostrich ($230 to $500) - and colors include peanut brittle and cognac. Those early dandies would be in heaven.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Publication:Sunset
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:5231
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