by Susan Hamilton & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's the kind of life most people only dream about. Clocks don't dictate your day. You're free to explore the Northwest wilderness from the back of a steady horse. The scents of pine and sagebrush and the soft whoosh of your horse's breath mingle with the spectacular scenery to create a mystique as romantic as the Old West itself. Yes, you can discover your inner cowboy (or girl) at a dude ranch.
An adventurous dude-ranch vacation offers Western hospitality blended with a casual lifestyle that celebrates the natural beauty of the Northwest. All dude, or guest, ranches center around horseback riding, catering to everyone from city slickers to experienced riders. Daily trail rides can range from two hours to a half day to a full day. Many ranches offer other activities as well: fishing, hiking, boating, biking and swimming. Guests vary from singles to extended families, with many dude ranches offering children's programs for young buckaroos.
Ranches tend to reflect the personalities of their owners. Each one is unique, varying from homey to luxurious. Dude ranches attract vacationers who want to reconnect with nature and experience an adventurous and relaxed way of life, those who appreciate the warmth of the ranch family and newfound friends who share their adventures.
What's It Like? & r & So just what is a ranch vacation like? The week I spent at a North Idaho dude ranch began with a tour of the ranch in an open wagon drawn by draft horses and driven by a gristled wrangler named Sarge, who punctuated the tour with his wry and colorful humor. Cocktail hour that evening on the lodge deck -- and later, our four-course dinner -- gave me the opportunity to meet the rest of the 30 dudes with whom I would share our weeklong adventures.
I met the horses at dawn the next morning after cowboy coffee around a roaring campfire. As the dudes lined up along a split-rail fence in the dewy cool of the morning, the wranglers drove the horses towards us with loud whoops. In a mass of pounding hooves, snorting nostrils and flying mud, the horses sped past us. I got the distinct impression that the horses were showing off as they eyed this new crop of dudes, wondering who would be their mount for the week.
After our horse orientation, we met our steeds. Grease, a sturdy bay, was a good fit for me. Though a bit headstrong, he could pick his way among the rocks like a bobcat, even as we descended the steep hillside trails. Riding instruction with the ranch's wranglers gave me a feeling of partnership with my horse and helped me to communicate with him. I learned to "pole bend" and "ride the barrels" (wrangler lingo for weaving your horse around cones and barrels), and I laughed as my fellow dudes tried to herd cows with their horses.
At the end of the week, as I watched Sarge burn the brands the guests had made onto a wooden plank, I realized that though we would leave our marks on this ranch, the ranch had left a larger impression on us. During my week at this dude ranch, I had come to appreciate a horse as a partner while making new friendships and appreciating nature as a living spirit.
Dude Ranch Roundup & r & If you yearn to be a cowboy or girl if only for a few days or a week, the dude ranches of the nearby Northwest offer plenty of variety. Regardless of which ranch you choose, you'll experience a feeling of being part of a ranch family (with most ranches limiting guests to 50 or fewer), learning to ride a horse like a real cowboy or girl and rejuvenating in a secluded setting. Plus, you can try some adventurous new activities.
With all the activities offered at RED HORSE MOUNTAIN RANCH, you'll be hard pressed to fit all your adventures in a week, even though guests can stay for only one day. Located just north of Harrison, Idaho, the ranch takes advantage of its 250,000 acres of Rocky Mountain territory and the adjoining Panhandle National Forest with plenty of trails into pristine backcountry. There are also impressive challenge and ropes courses. The 58-foot climbing tower allows multiple guests at a time to stretch for hand- and foot-holds peppered on its wall. If you want to live out your dream of being a tightrope walker, test your balance on the two-lined Burma bridge 30 feet above the ground or the high balance beam. Kids love the "flying squirrel" that allows them soar more than 25 feet in the air.
Kayak touring in the nearby Coeur d'Alene Chain Lakes is a popular summertime activity at Red Horse Mountain Ranch. Half-day adventures explore not only the water but also some of Idaho's history and wildlife, like osprey, beaver and eagles. Mountain bike tours (including downhill and cross-country), archery (with trails and 3-D format) and shooting are all part of the adventures that will make your vacation here memorable.
If you want to immerse yourself in the cowboy life, WESTERN PLEASURE GUEST RANCH offers a real working fourth-generation cattle ranch. Its 960 acres of summer pastures northeast of Sandpoint afford distinctive views of the Selkirk and Cabinet mountain ranges. You'll often find owners Roley and Janice Schoonover cooking breakfast for guests, shoeing horses or going along on horseback rides. Western Pleasure, known for its focus on horseback riding customized for each guest and its country hospitality, borders Forest Service land and holds numerous trails for horses or hiking.
The ranch's proximity to Sandpoint allows guests to take advantage of the area's many outdoor adventures, from dinner cruises on Lake Pend Oreille to mountain biking at Schweitzer.
The spirit of the wild West is alive and well at the HOLE IN THE WALL RANCH 40 miles west of Missoula. For 20 years in the mid-1800s, the area around the ranch was used as a hideout by outlaws who robbed cattlemen and stages on their way west. After that, bootleggers and prospectors laid claim to the region.
Nowadays, seasoned guide Jason Cataldo coordinates a variety of adventures for Hole in the Wall guests. The ranch is set in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains and is surrounded by national forest on all four sides. Horse trails extend into the Great Burn Wilderness and all the way to Idaho. Guests can fly fish or spin cast in Fish Creek right on the ranch's property or take a day trip on the nearby Clark Fork River to catch rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout. The neighboring Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork offers white water rafting adventures as well as kayaking.
The K DIAMOND K GUEST RANCH may be a working dude ranch, but it also draws on the history of its northeast Washington setting. Located near Republic, which was founded in 1896 as a gold-rush town, the Stonerose fossil site near the K Diamond K features the impressions left by 50-million-year-old plants, insects, birds and fish. Guests at the K Diamond K travel three miles to the site to dig for their own fossils and usually return with significant booty.
Back at the K Diamond K, you'll get your cowboy fix. Miles of riding trails with scenic views sprawl over 30,000 acres of privately leased and national forest land. Riding lessons are given to all guests, with gentle horses for greenhorns. Owners Steve and June Konz let dudes get as much riding as they want and welcome them into their ranch family.
The BAR M RANCH in northeast Oregon's Blue Mountains near Pendleton is built around a natural hot springs and historic buildings. In 1864, a three-story hand-hewn log inn was built on the site of the current ranch and used as a stagecoach stop for the California Stage Company. The refurbished building, known as the Ranch House, is still in use today as the center for all ranch activities at the Bar M. Later owners added a resort building (the Bunkhouse) near the geothermal hot springs, which flow out of a mountain.
The Bar M has been operating as a dude ranch since the early 1940s, incorporating the hot springs into activities offered for guests. A large swimming pool and hot tub allow guests to take advantage of the springs' minerals. Those who prefer floating to swimming or soaking can take an inner tube ride down the rapids of the nearby Umatilla River. And, of course, there's lots of horseback riding at the Bar M.
There are many more Northwest dude ranches -- each with its own story. So if you're ready for a cowboy summer, get ready to saddle up.