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Women & the West: Dude ranches offer varied vacation possibilities for women
Dude Ranches Offer Varied Vacation Possibilities for Women

By Patti Schmidt

I have a confession to make: those Western-style Ralph Lauren ads make me yearn for the chivalry, romance and hospitality of America's Old West. The Horse Whisperer made me weak in the knees for months.

Surprisingly, I grew up in Philadelphia, a city girl right down to my stress level and ever-present cell phone. For people like me, a visit to a dude or guest ranch is the ultimate vacation; luckily, you'll find them all over the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Most feature spectacular scenery, good grub and enough outdoor activities to keep anyone happy any time of year.

Catering to female guests

Dude Ranchers' AssociationLike much else of the travel industry, dude ranches cater to female guests. That's not surprising, says Dude Ranchers' Association executive director Marcia Williams, because "ranches are great places for women." The DRA represents more than 100 ranches all over the U.S. that have each completed a rigorous two-year inspection and approval process.

A single woman herself, Williams considers "feeling comfortable" the key to traveling solo, and says ranch owners and managers go out of their way to make newcomers and single women feel welcome. Maybe that's partly why women have enjoyed ranch vacations for years.

"Dude ranches are easy-going places where women can meet interesting people, relax, and enjoy the beauty and freedom of the Great Outdoors," says Gene Kilgore, a former wrangler, and author of the best-selling, 6th edition guide book Gene Kilgore's Ranch Vacations.

His book offers details on more than 150 ranches in the U.S. and Canada; he also runs, a comprehensive ranch vacation information and search website. Kilgore believes ranch vacations are "the greatest vacations for women in the world today" and that they offer women a uniquely comfortable place.

"It's been my observation that in most tourist areas and certainly in all big hotels, people pretty much keep to themselves. At a ranch, though, there's this terrific sense of camaraderie and fun. Women - even single women traveling alone - don't feel the least bit uncomfortable."

In addition, because women make travel plans for most families, and many don't know much about ranches, his guide stresses that a ranch vacation is "more than horses and horseback riding- it's great food, great country, great camaraderie" and is well-suited for families, couples or singles.

Safety, heritage & horses
The Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association represents 36 ranches in the state, many of which are dude or guest ranches. Executive director Charles Henry says guest ranch visitors provide $22 million in summer business to the state.

"I visit half of our ranches each year," he explained, "and I ask guests why they chose a guest ranch vacation. The number one answer is safety. Number two, Mom actually gets a vacation. (At a dude ranch everything's done for her.) Number three is heritage - a lot of people say 'you know, I grew up going to my uncle's ranch or farm, or I rode when I was a child, and I wanted my children to experience horses.'"

Number four, he says, is the horse.

"The horse is a tremendous draw," he said. Riding is the focus at many ranches, and taking care of and bonding with your horse is a special part of many ranch vacations.

"Number five is the American woman herself," he says. "She's been in the workforce now for 20-25 years, she's in her late 40s or early 50s, her kids are heading off to or already in college, and her parents in their 80s. Twenty or 30 years ago we talked about a biological clock ticking; today she has a memory clock ticking. She's realized she doesn't have the family memories she thought she would have at this point in her life-memories of vacations where Grandma and Grandpa and the kids and everybody is there."

Henry points out that with many American families scattered across the US, women realize, "Whoops, the kids aren't gonna be around next year, or my parents are in their 80s and they might not be around, so she sees it's her last chance to get that family vacation she's always dreamed of."

As she searches for a vacation that has something for everyone, she realizes on a dude ranch vacation Dad, Grandpa and the boys (and tomboys) can go fishing; and Grandma and Mom can ride, rest and relax, knowing the kids are safe.

"All our ranches have playgrounds," Henry says. "But when I visit, the kids aren't there - they're in the woods or the creek. They're down with the animals, they're doin' what kids are supposed to do - play."

He points out that because ranches provide someone to look after the kids, and many offer programs specifically for them, Mom knows they're having fun.

"It's all private property, so they get free reign. If you're at a resort, and the kids say, 'We're goin' down to the pool, Mom,' Mom's nervous. If you're at a ranch, it's OK," he says.

Variety of programs

Covered wagon ride with Homestead Ranch in Matfield Green, Kansas
A covered wagon ride with Homestead Ranch i
n Matfield Green, Kansas.
Photo courtesy of Homestead Ranch.
The DRA's Williams points out that a wide variety of programs mean most women easily find a ranch vacation that meets their needs.

Most folks think of horses when they think of a dude or guest ranch, and horses are the primary focus at many. You'll also find mountain climbing, river rafting, tennis, cookouts, hayrides, campfire sing-a-longs and Western line dancing.

Most ranches are located in scenic, natural areas and offer fantastic hiking in national parks, forests or other beautiful public or private lands. If you're a fishing fanatic, many ranches are situated along private stretches of streams and rivers, or cold, clear mountain lakes that see little action except from guests. Many offer fly fishing lessons and expert guides, and some have Orvis-endorsed fishing programs. Almost all have a stocked fishing pond.

Don't forget your camera: as part of your ranch vacation, you may snag a visit to a nearby historical or archeological site, gold mine or ghost town, national park or Native American reservation. In fact, specialty programs, such as Jeff Goodman's "Get in the Truck" photography workshop at the Circle Bar Ranch in Montana, offer women a way to focus on a hobby while enjoying a relaxing vacation focused on the outdoors. Many ranches offer programs for skiing (including cross-country) and most other popular hobbies, too.

There's no cooking, cleaning or chores, unless you want to help the cowboys round up a few strays or feed the horses. ("Working" ranches are the exception; at these very active ranches, you can expect to expend some serious sweat.) Otherwise, you can choose to wile away the day by the pool or hot tub or read a good book in the shade of your cabin porch swing. (I recommend Louis L'Amour's Lonesome Dove.)

Although some offer separate, supervised activities for the kids, many require that children be a certain age (10 is common), that they be decent riders and that parents accompany their kids on any activities.

"Our ranches offer service no better than the 4-or 5-star resorts do," points out The Colorado Dude Ranch Association's Charles Henry. "But you know it's the owner providing the service. It isn't a concierge or a housekeeping person delivering the extra pillow, it's the owner of the ranch. People are starved for that kind of exceptional, personal service. And they get it at ranches."

Gal-group trips
All-gal groups are becoming increasingly common sites at guest ranches, which is why companies like Adventures in Good Company in Afton, Minnesota; Call of the Wild in Berkeley, California; and AdventureWomen in Boseman, Montana, now book travel adventures for women exclusively. American Way, American Airlines in-flight magazine, called AdventureWomen "the grande dame of an ever-growing segment of the travel industry."

AdventureWomen president and founder Susan Eckert, who schedules adventure trips for women 30 or older, believes that's because women in all-gal groups tend to be more willing to challenge themselves and try new things.

"They don't have to impress anyone, they can go at their own pace, and they don't have to feel competitive," she said.

With 20 years experience in setting up women-only trips all over the world, AdventureWomen's 2002 catalog includes 26 trips, ranging from a 7-day Montana Cowgirl's Sampler to an expensive trip in a Russian research vessel to the South Pole. On that exclusive trip, 52 passengers sail from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula in two days, then spend another 10 making 2-3 shore excursions per day in rubber rafts to see wildlife, including whales, penguins and sea lions; as well as parts of the peninsula. AdventureWoman trips cost between and $1,895-$8,995. The average age of women who go is about 50. (See Susan Eckert:Adventure Woman on a Mission)

The horseback-riding vacation specialists at Wyoming-based Equitours, a travel agency that schedules horseback rides in 30 countries, say women have always dominated horseback riding trips.

"There are several reasons why," explains owner Bayard Fox, who has also owned The Bitterroot Ranch near Yellowstone National Park for the past 31 years with his wife, Mel.


"Women have more patience and sensitivity than men - men dominate horses rather than teaming up with them," he said.

At the Bitterroot, the only male wranglers are Fox and his son; the other six are female.

"Mostly they're more patient, more sensitive and more dedicated to the job," says Fox.

A few other ranch owners or managers echoed his thoughts- the Homestead Ranch in Matfield Green, Kansas, the Vee Bar Guest Ranch in Laramie, Wyoming and The Elkhead Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colorado also prefer to hire all or mostly all women wranglers.


Whatever your focus or desires, many of the agencies that specialize in booking women's travel can help you find an established program. If one doesn't exist that features the programs you want, many such agencies will work with a ranch to help you set one up.

In addition, some ranches don't have programs for women only, but if your favorite ranch isn't listed, call and ask if your all-gal group can be accommodated; many ranches will try to work something out.

The summer months are high season at most ranches; many offer adults-only programs in June or September.

"You'll get the best deals the fourth week in August and the first two weeks in June," says Charles Henry. "You'll get a summer experience, usually at a 10-30 percent discount."
Happy trails!

<<< Read: Best Guest Ranch Vacations for Women >>>

all photos by Jeff Goodman/JAGPhotoInc.,,
unless otherwise indicated