Give the dude ranch a chance

My first, snowy glimpse of the Sundance Trail Dude Ranch. Photo: Mattie Schuler

My first snowy glimpse of the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch. Photo: Mattie Schuler

As a person who prefers the hard-packed ground with a tent overhead rather than a plush bed, I was skeptical at the thought of heading to a dude ranch. I’d never been, and other than guided horseback riding, I had no idea what to expect.

But my mom was in town and we needed something different than our regular road trips around Colorado. She’s always down to hike and explore, but she’s pretty adamant about not sleeping in tents. Thus, the dude ranch.

It was March, and some dude ranches are open in the winter, but many aren’t. We decided on a two-night stay at the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch in the very small town of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, about an hour northwest of Fort Collins.

It had just snowed two feet the day before, so the ranch was covered in glistening white powder, as were the mountains surrounding the ranch in Roosevelt National Forest.

Although I’ve never been to a dude ranch in the summer, I can imagine that the feel in the winter is much more laid back. We didn’t have to wake at dawn to feed the horses, but instead rolled in for breakfast around 8 a.m., then rode around 10 a.m.

From there, our activities were up to us, pending lunch around 12:30 and dinner at 6 p.m. We could take care of the horses, add in another afternoon ride, relax in the hot tub or read on the porch — it was a lazy weekend surrounded by beauty, horses and plenty of fresh air.

By the end of the weekend, I felt like the owners were my new friends. I was going to miss my horse, Danny Boy, and the five dogs constantly running around. It wasn’t as adventurous as a hike to a campsite, but I was able to experience nature from a different view (literally).

I still got outside and spent time with family, and I didn’t feel jilted — even without a tent over my head. If you’re like me and never had considered a dude ranch in the past, here are some tips should you decide to try something new. Something less rugged and more relaxing.

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Mouse, one of the wrangler’s main horses, ready for a snowy ride. Photo: Mattie Schuler

Summer vs. Winter

Winter is the off season for dude ranches. You’ll still get to ride horses and hike if you’d like, but the overall schedule is much more relaxed and open to what you make of it. The summer, though, is chock-full of activities, like barn orientation, multiple hikes, multiple horse rides, shooting, archery, campfires and even square dancing. 

It’s a social thing

Within an hour of checking into our cabin room, we sat down for dinner in the communal dining room. At our table were the two owners, and two other ranch hands. Later in the weekend, our table included other guests as well as other ranch hands to chat it up with.

Every meal was communal and social like this, and the ranch even planned evening activities, like games or a movie. Bonus: the food was amazing, as was the dessert. 

Make the most of it

Barn manager, Kaitlyn, works on breaking Chico in the pen. Photo: Mattie Schuler

Barn manager, Kaitlyn, works on breaking Chico in the pen. Photo: Mattie Schuler

Sure, I spent a few hours sitting in the sun watching the dogs play, but the rest of the time I was learning and asking questions. Our wranglers, though only young adults, had been working on farms for years, and were more than happy to share their wealth of ranch knowledge.

I learned about how horses sleep and what spooks them, about their care in the winter and summer, and even watched one of the wranglers attempt to break a wild horse. The experience was more than just an hour-long ride on the back of a horse — my feet got muddy and my hands got dirty. 

Take local advice

Look for a dude ranch that specializes rides to your group, like if you want to learn to trot or explore a certain area of the land. Photo credit: Mattie Schuler

Look for a dude ranch that specializes rides to your group, like if you want to learn to trot or explore a certain area of the land. Photo: Mattie Schuler

At the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, almost all of the wranglers were local and provided advice on where to hike in the area — like at a local state park ringed with red rocks.

Do your research

Dude ranches can vary by activity, horseback riding style and size. There are so many different types to choose from. Do you want nose-to-butt style riding, or instruction where you’ll get to jog or trot? How much of your days do you want booked with activities? Are you looking for a rustic cabin or a plush suite?

With a variety of dude ranches around, you can easily find something that suits your style of ranching.

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