My daughter and I went on our first dude ranch vacation and we loved it. Well, I guess technically this was not our first ranch experience because we spent a week at Jane Fonda’s ranch as her guests. That was amazing! A week at her beautiful home gave us our first taste at ranch life and my goal of owning a ranch one day was validated. Years later when we wanted to take a vacation, we sought out a dude ranch. It was on my bucket list and I love to ride horses. My daughter Skye had only rode that one time at Jane’s ranch but she loves animals and the outdoors. My husband and son, not so much. A dude ranch was the perfect vacation for the two of us. Actually I think it’s a great vacation for everyone (even my husband and son; I’m bringing them next time).
Why Should You Take A Dude Ranch Vacation?
In my research of dude ranches I had many options – luxury, rustic, all-inclusive, resort-style, family-style – there is a dude ranch for any and everybody. My friend Jodi recommended Tumbling River Ranch; she had been there multiple times with her family and loved it. Jodi said that Tumbling River was not fancy, but it was comfortable, beautiful and the family who owned it was lovely. She promised that we would have a wonderful time. I did some more research on TripAdvisor and read only glowing reviews similar to what Jodi said. All reviews raved about the food.
After a 90 minute drive from Denver’s airport up to the Rockies, we arrived at the ranch in the middle of nowhere. We soon learned that with limited cell phone service and spotty wi-fi this would truly be an outdoor experience, totally off the grid. I welcomed un-plugging myself and I loved that my daughter could be fully present without Snapchat and Instagram, only using her phone to take photos.
After settling into our spacious and comfortable cabin, we quickly fell into the routine of ranch life. We started our day with a hearty breakfast while the staff confirmed the day’s horse riding and activity schedule. On the first day all the guests are tested in the rodeo ring for horse-riding ability and instructions about how to properly handle a horse. Thereafter we were assigned a horse to ride for the week.
My horse was Montana and Skye’s horse was Hoosier. Every morning when we arrived at the stable our horses were saddled and waiting for us. The wranglers took great care to help us mount and made sure that we were in control of our horse before they left us to help someone else.
The wranglers – I can’t say enough good things about the wranglers! They were knowledgable, helpful, personable and fun. Some were older adults who work the ranch summer season while on break from their year-round jobs and many were college students working a summer job. Some were international students and that was fun for Skye to have conversations with them. Daisy, Jon and Brady were our main wranglers and we made fast friends with them and all the staff.
There were about seven other families at the ranch that week that included a few small kids, several 8-10 year olds and a few teenagers like my daughter. There was a binder in our room with a list of the all families, the ages of the kids and where they were from. We ate all the meals family-style at large tables so we got to know these families pretty well and soon we were all friends.
The food. THE FOOD! All the Tripadvisor reviews were correct – and then some. I have never had food that good during an all-inclusive vacation. Every meal was better than the last. And the desserts – oh my! The pastry chef was from North Carolina and if you know anything about southern cooking, “North Carolina” is all I have to say. If we weren’t eating in the dining room family-style then we were eating outdoors, where all the food was grilled over an open flame. One morning we rode horses to a delicious brunch cooked outdoors; that was the biggest cast-iron skillet that I have ever seen. One night is “Fancy Night” and the adults have dinner and drinks without the kids. Meanwhile the kids have dinner together and play games with the wranglers.
Every day we rode horses, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for half the day. There is even an option to ride for a whole day. We rode on flat trails and we rode on steep narrow paths up tall mountains (and then, more harrowing, back down again). It was challenging at times and I just had to trust that my horse knew how to safely navigate a tricky pass. Sometimes if we were in a large clearing we were allowed to canter.
The scenery was gorgeous, the trees and Rocky Mountains, and I felt privileged to sit upon such a beautiful animal as we rode through nature. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. I believe the minimum age limit for most trail rides was over 5 years old. If the parents wanted to go on a trail ride, the smaller kids stayed with a staff member. They played games, fished, swam in the pool and rode horses with a wrangler holding the lead.
Skye’s horse Hoosier was a bit of a challenge. Hoosier didn’t like being too close to other horses or else he would nip them on the butt. Once or twice he got a little skittish and wouldn’t go in the direction of the other horses. But the wrangler stayed close to Skye and taught her how to handle Hoosier with confidence. By the end of our week Skye had greatly improved her horse-riding skills and felt proud of herself.
When we weren’t riding horses, there were other outdoor activities. Every night the staff asked each family our preference for the next day. There is shooting, hiking, fly fishing, and a white-water rafting trip off-site (for an extra fee). Every night after dinner there is entertainment: campfire stories, a hay ride, a mountain man with a wolf-dog and at the the end of the week there is a square dance.
I had always wanted to learn how to fly-fish and shoot and I’m happy to say that I’ve now done both. White-water rafting is on a Wednesday and it was a nice break in the week from riding every day. I had been white-water rafting before but Skye had never been and she was afraid. I talked her into going and she was glad that I did; some of the rapids were pretty big and a bit scary but she had a blast. All the moms on the trip bonded over our weak bladders. You really get to know people while simulating an outdoor bathroom stall; we took turns being a human wall while one mom peeled off her wet suit and peed.
When we weren’t riding or shooting or fly-fishing or rafting we wandered around the ranch. There is a river stocked with fish with fishing poles and bait nearby. To my daughter’s delight there were two free-range miniature donkeys, Phineas and Ferb, and the family’s friendly Golden Retrievers roaming around. There are also chickens, goats (named Kim and Kayne) and a llama.
My daughter loves all animals but when she met Hershey, the resident calf, she fell deeply in love. When she wasn’t riding a horse or engaged in another activity, she was in the pen with Hershey. She fed him, pet him and just sat there with his head in her lap. It was the sweetest thing ever.
Why should you take a dude ranch vacation? A dude ranch vacation is a great way for families to connect with nature and each other in a relaxing and beautiful setting. The memories that can be made are priceless. At the fly-fishing clinic the instructor gutted a fish. He removed the heart and asked if anyone wanted to hold it. One of the littlest guests, a five year girl from England, held out her hand. How many 5 year olds can say that they held a bloody fish heart? She has a great story for show and tell!
My daughter has traveled all her life and has been to some pretty amazing places around the world. Tumbling River Ranch is in her top 3. She cried at the end of the week; she didn’t want to leave. There’s only one way to fix that – we must visit again.
Thinking of a vacation at Tumbling River Ranch? Here are some tips and things to know. Be sure to tell Megan and Scott that we say hello!
- Cell service is spotty and while there is wifi, the signal is weak. Relax and enjoy being unplugged.
- This is not your normal vacation and packing requires a bit of thought. Lucky for you I have a packing list available for download below.☟
- If you don’t already own long-sleeved “cowboy” type shirts, Goodwill is a good place to buy them for $5 or less. I bought a belt too for $2.
- White water rafting was great and worth the extra fee. Purchase the full package with a wetsuit, paddle jacket and boots – the river water was cold. They have helmets for the GoPro but bring the correct pin for attachment.
- There is a van service provided by the ranch (for a fee) but if your flight arrives before or after that van pick-up you will need to rent a car. The drive is pretty straight forward, but cell service can be spotty, so be sure to have printed directions and don’t rely soley on GPS.
- There is a washing machine, dryer and detergent in the Boot Barn.
- There are boots to borrow for adults and kids, but it’s a good idea to bring inserts in case the boots are slightly too big. Visit the Boot Barn early to ensure you find boots in your size.
- We were there in late July and still it was pretty cold at night and early morning. Often we wore lightweight The Northface jackets. It does rain, but the wranglers provide raincoats for horse riding that cover your legs.
- There are a few helmets available for kids, but I would bring my own just in case. If I had a small kid riding horses, I would want them to wear a helmet.
- There is an unmanned gift shop that operates on the honor system. You settle your bill at the end of your stay. They sell candy, sodas, apparel and small items that you might have forgotten. We bought a hand-crafted Tumbling River Ranch mug and a sweatshirt.
P.S. You might like to read about our time at Jane Fonda’s Forked Lightning Ranch.