Long winter got you down? Did your anticipation for Spring turn into suffering with hay fever or allergies from everything blooming? Are you ready for not only a change of pace, but also a change of place? The American West is filled with authentic working ranches where you can become a cowboy/girl for a week or two. And not only watch the real cowboys and cowgirls, but also participate in a lot of their activities...such as ridin', ropin', and round-up. And if you're inclined toward other outdoor recreational opportunities, these ranches, with towering mountain ranges and flowing-forever plains and vistas without end and "Big Sky" and rivers and lakes and fresh, unpolluted air - and first-class amenities for their guests - are fantastic places at which to do it!
Here are my Top 5 Western Ranches in America, places that'll make you feel very much at "home on the range"...
#5 - VERMEJO PARK RANCH, RATON, NEW MEXICO - The owner of this ranch - and several others in New Mexico - is Ted Turner, of CNN, TNT, Atlanta Braves Baseball, etc. fame. With snow-capped alpine tundra, 19 fishable lakes and over 550,000 stunning acres, Vermejo is a jewel in northern New Mexico. Its diverse landscape is home to a wide variety of wildlife including elk, bison, and black bears. Whether riding through open fields surrounded by high peaks that change color during the day, exploring turn-of-the-century charcoal kilns, or fly-fishing for Rio Grande cutthroat trout, Vermejo has something for everyone. Including 550,000+ acres, 1,200 wild bison, 19 fishable lakes, 30 miles of pristine streams, holistic spa services, and Western cuisine with an elegant touch. The ranch has a large selection of accommodations, too, among them intimate, historic cottages; an eco-friendly mountaintop lodge; or even Ted Turner's own private quarters, in a 25,000 square-foot, Turn-of-the-Century mansion called Casa Grande. The resort offers a variety of historic and eco-tours, day tours and adventure tours, and special experiences like being on the range with the cowboys during a bison round-up.
#4 - WESTERN PLEASURE GUEST RANCH, SANDPOINT, IDAHO - After a drive up winding mountain roads above the scenic village of Sandpoint (named by Rand-McNally readers the "Most Beautiful Town In America" a few years back), you'll arrive at a piece of Paradise. You'll feel at home the instant you drive into Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, and with good reason. Janice and Roley Schoonover - fourth-generation owners - treat their guests like family, and know every guest's name. Their ranch, only 40 miles from Canada and set amidst the deep-green mountains of the Selkirk Range, is authentic and comfortable and informal and woodsy. And every room is filled with beautiful art and crafts from Western/Native-American craftspeople. Breakfasts are not only-down-home but also delicious, as are dinners; and a lot of the cooking is done by the family (which now includes the fifth- and sixth generation on the ranch!) The Great Room in the main lodge is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen in the West. And so are the guest rooms inside it, as well as the outlying cabins, from many of which you can see the Cabinet Mountains in Montana. The trail rides will take you through beautifully-silent virgin forests, where you may come across a stray cow or two. As you wander around the ranch, you'll come to an old barn and a machine-shop with antique tools in it, as well as old red or green tractors. And when the Schoonover clan treats their guests to an outdoor barbecue as the sun sets over the mountains, and then get out their guitars and banjos for some good old-fashioned fun by the campfire, you won't be able to keep your feet from stompin'.
#3 - DEVIL'S THUMB RANCH RESORT & SPA, TABERNASH, COLORADO - Devil's Thumb Ranch is named after the most distinct geologic feature of this region, an enormous rock formation poking up from a mountain miles away. This beautiful ranch offers a total vacation experience, encompassing luxury accommodations, gourmet dining, and upscale amenities such as the excellent spa. This 6,000-acre property offers typical Western pursuits, such as trail-riding, feed-rides, and learning and experiencing the cowboy life, but also options such as mountain biking, fly-fishing, zip-lining, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), SUP yoga and studio yoga (with memorable views of the Continental Divide), geo caching, adventure courses and hiking. Dining choices include a tavern called Heck's; the upscale Grotto Suraboza, and the atmospheric Ranch House Restaurant & Saloon, and there's also a coffee shop and a distinctive wine cellar. The ranch's specialty is the succulent wagyu steak, from 100% pure Colorado wagyu steers raised right here on the ranch; it's the best steak you'll ever have. Devil's Thumb Ranch has a corral-full of awards, too, among them "Conde Nast Traveler" and USA Today top picks, and a "Wine Spectator" Award of Excellence.
#2 - C LAZY U RANCH, GRANBY, COLORADO - This is C Lazy U Ranch's Golden Anniversary...it opened in 1919. And since then it's been providing authentic Western vacations to families who keep coming back, year after year. C Lazy U prides itself on offering "high-class amenities and down-home experiences." Here, every direction leads to pleasant surprises. For example, you can walk against a backdrop of 10,000' peaks and wander into verdant green pastures with horses grazing peacefully, or into a corral where a cowboy is shoeing one of the herd. There are 40 individually-decorated guest rooms and private cabins, all of which have been recently upgraded, and most of which have stone fireplaces. The furniture is crafted of fine Western woods by excellent craftspeople, and there's beautiful art and furnishings everywhere, along with Mother Nature's palette all around you. The dining room is a perfect example of Western luxury, and the food is gourmet. This ranch has won numerous awards from the media and professional associations, and it's not hard to see why. There are programs for both younger kids and teens, and on-site professional fishing guides who can help you catch your own dinner. Archery, mountain-biking, tennis lessons, trap-shooting, zip- lining and climbing are all available on property, along with real cowboys who can teach you some real cowboy skills. When you sit out on the elevated deck at the lodge...heaven is spread out before you. And you'll realize that it doesn't get any more Western - or special - than this.
And now, my pick for the No. 1 Western Ranch In America...
#1 - RED REFLET RANCH, TEN SLEEP, WYOMING - "Reflet" (re-flay) means reflection in French. And the Red Reflet Ranch reflects one of the most authentic Western experiences - along with some of the best guest amenities - in America. Here, under the "Big Sky," you'll breath the freshest air you've ever breathed, fish in the clearest rivers and streams you've ever seen under the bluest skies you've ever seen, and walk or hike in the most peaceful natural surroundings you've ever seen. The ranch sits on 25,000 acres that go up to 8,300' in elevation, with spectacular views everywhere you turn, and landscapes ranging from high-desert to forests to multi-colored canyons. Here, you can enjoy horseback riding, trail rides with cowboys, cattle work, off-trail adventure rides, all sorts of game, ATVs, mountain biking, star-gazing, climbing- walls, tennis, fishing, and swimming, as well as the most magnificent nighttime displays of the constellations you'll ever see. Red Reflet can also teach you cowboy skills such as roping and barrel-racing. There's even a "Cowboy Waterpark" for those who love aquatic recreation. The accommodations here are beautiful chalets, which are stocked with gourmet foods and beverages for your arrival. Dining is a Five-Star experience, and almost everything on your table has been grown or raised on the ranch. There's a superb wine cellar, as well. Breakfast is typically taken in your chalet, making breakfast in bed while gazing out at drop-dead views a convenient possibility. And if you own a plane, you can be on a horse or on the banks of a stream within minutes after arrival - because Red Reflet even has its own private airstrip!
If you've got any favorite Western ranches, we'd love to hear about 'em!