As the winter snows melt and springtime comes to the vast expanses of the American West, the land comes alive. And one of the best ways to experience the awakening West is on a ranch. Here, it's still "The Old West." And these five special places will make you feel "home, home on the range."
5 - FRENCH BROAD RIVER OUTPOST, GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE - Wait a minute...a Western ranch in Tennessee? Yup. This is an authentic piece of the West, in the tiny town of Del Rio, near Gatlinburg in the Great Smokey Mountains. And its unusual location makes the experience that much more fun! This is an authentic Western lodge, with pine and lodge pole furniture throughout, and plenty of Western accents, such as brilliantly-colored weavings, cowboy boots, spurs, and antique furnishings. There's a stable, of course, with horses for first-timer to experienced, and there are rides up beautiful mountain trails and into verdant meadows. There's a woodsy dining room filled with memorabilia, and owner (with husband Shawn) JoAnn Gannon presides over a kitchen that keeps the delicious homemade food comin'. There's an Old Time dance hall, and a saloon. The ranch was recently named one of the ten best places to visit in East Tennessee. And the French Broad River just out the door means there's incredible water recreation.
4 - DROWSY WATER RANCH, GRANBY, COLORADO - The 700-acre Drowsy Water Ranch has been offering true Western vacations for over 90 years. Here, you'll find down-home hospitality amidst a stunning Rocky Mountain setting. There's horseback riding, children's programs, nightly entertainment, raft trips, trout fishing, Western dancing, guided hikes, a zip-line course that's 3,400 feet long and 300 feet high, campfires, carnivals, and rodeos, and nearby are golf, hunting, and treks along mountain trails where you'll probably see some wildlife. The ranch has a notable horseback-riding program, for all ages and skill-levels. The dining room serves hearty Western fare, but you can also enjoy breakfast on a mountaintop, open-hearth barbecue, and chuck wagon lunches with all the trimmin's. And you'll enjoy peaceful walks in the cool mountain air. Drowsy Water Ranch has been voted by the users of TripAdvisor - for three years in a row - as one of the top 25 all-inclusive vacation resorts in the world.
3 - TEXAS RANCH LIFE, CHAPPELL HILL, TEXAS - Just an hour west of Houston lies a bed-and-breakfast ranch where you'll have a genuine Western experience, on the 1,800-acre Lonesome Pine Ranch. Here, you'll stay in authentically-furnished, 1850's farm- and ranch houses that have been rescued, restored and actually moved to the property from around the state. Everywhere you turn there's a scenic vista, ranging from distant rolling hills to meadows covered in wildflowers to forests of ancient oak. A river runs right through the ranch. And guests can learn all sorts of Western skills (among them tomahawk-throwing), can participate in ridin' and ropin' demonstrations, go on guided tours in a Kawasaki "Mule" all-terrain vehicle...and can actually work alongside the cowboys on the ranch, and go on a real cattle drive!
2 - THE RANCH AT EMERALD VALLEY, THE BROADMOOR RESORT, COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO - You don't usually see the words "luxury" and "Western" in the same sentence. The Ranch At Emerald Valley, however, is one of the most luxurious hideaways in the United States...with all the true-West trappings, furnishings, and ambience. Just up the mountain from - and owned by - the magnificent Broadmoor Resort (with all the Broadmoor amenities available), the ranch is surrounded by 100,000 pristine acres of the Pike National Forest. There are 13 beautifully-appointed cabins, each with a fireplace. In the Grand Lodge, you'll dine like the cowboys never did. You'll enjoy fly-fishing, hiking, and horseback-riding, or just meandering along beautiful mountain paths on which the only sounds are your own footsteps. Situated at an altitude of 8,200 feet, the ranch has two lakeside hot tubs, and a panoramic terrace on which you can enjoy world-class wines while watching a kaleidoscopic sun change colors as it sets on the distant mountains.
And now, here's my choice for the top Western vacation ranch in America...
1 - WESTERN PLEASURE GUEST RANCH, SANDPOINT, IDAHO - If you're looking for a true Western experience, in a family-owned - for four generations - Pacific Northwest mountain hideaway, Western Pleasure Guest Ranch is it. Owner Janice Schoonover's grandfather started this ranch in the early-40's, and she and husband Roley and their children (the fourth generation) still run the ranch as if every guest is family. In fact, your chef for the morning or the evening is often Roley. The Great Room is very impressive; it speaks "West" out of every plank in the wooden floor, out of every wooden beam in the high ceiling, out of every Western antique and piece of memorabilia, and out of the wonderful family meals coming from the kitchen. There are four beautiful cabins, a couple with pot-bellied heaters, and there are six guest rooms in the lodge. All rooms are decorated in real Old West style, with antiques and crafts and period furniture and colorful Native-American ceremonial items. You can horseback-ride with views of the Selkirk Mountains surrounding you, and Montana's Cabinet Mountains in the distance. Because of the long history of this ranch, and the fact that it's still owned by the same family, there's a genuine personal touch here. And that's nowhere better-demonstrated than in the outdoor cookouts the family stages for its guests, during which the instruments come out and you'll soon be clappin' your hands and stompin' your feet.
Well, these are my favorite Western ranches. What are yours? We'd love to hear about them!