Let’s face it: getting away from it all is on everyone’s mind almost all the time. Maybe this general malaise we feel is rooted in the noise of our lives: running from one activity to another, juggling work, another late night at the rink, pasta sauce that’s exploded on the stove again thanks to a grade 7 math emergency, the phone glued to our hips…it all equals get me out of here.
But it’s not enough to check into a hotel, flop back on half a dozen pillows of different thicknesses and flip through 101 channels and back again. Leave the pillow testing to Goldilocks; you need to do something. Watching TV in a hotel room isn’t getting away from it all, it’s only changing the source of the noise. A real escape means a complete disconnect from everyday life and that’s why you need to visit a dude ranch.
Dude ranches – or guest ranches – have existed since the early 1900s when wily ranchers took advantage of the desire city inhabitants had to get away from the bustle and opened their homes to paying guests. Fast-forward a century and not much has changed. The ranch experience offers visitors a chance to play at cowboy, learn to do things we never dreamed we could, and stop to smell the campfire.
We spent several days at a ranch in the interior of British Columbia several years ago. It was a working cattle and horse ranch, and though our family wasn’t there to work we absorbed as much of the atmosphere as we could. Our ranch was open for a small number of guests; meals were served at set times, so interaction with fellow visitors was necessary but didn’t feel forced and we — townies, greenhorns, tourists — were obviously catered to with the availability of trail rides and weekly cookouts, but real ranch life went on around us almost despite our presence.
A dude ranch offers families a way to reconnect in a way only someplace off the Wi-Fi grid with almost unlimited access to the outdoors can. Your teens may grumble about the lack of cell service — they’ll get over it — but access to canoes to explore nearby lakes and rivers, the responsibility for manning the fire during evening cookouts, an invitation to help with the horses, and a comfortable bed to pass out in at the end of the day will make up for it. Spend as much time together (or not) as you want; it’s a controlled environment and there will be other kids your children can meet, so the likelihood of youthful shenanigans is high and to be encouraged. It will give you more to talk about when everyone turns in for the night.
Rustic Not Rough
Don’t mistake a perceived throwback to a simpler time with roughing it; many ranches offer a new rustic experience. Visitors often have private cabins or suites with their own fireplaces, perfect for cozy family evenings or romantic nights. Lodging can range from rooms to cabins to prospector tents and these are scattered around the main farmhouse so that there’s never a feeling of being on top of one another. The goal after all is to recreate a feeling of old-timey western life.
Meals are generally served in a central location, but the cabins where we stayed were outfitted with a kitchen and we could have brought food to cook. While that option is more economical, I recommend taking at least one meal a day with the rest of the guests. It’s more convivial, and who wants to cook all day while on holidays?
Certain ranches are spas and first-rate golf courses with trail rides thrown in, but ours was simpler. Luxury came in the form of outdoor hot tubs that were heated by woodstoves and full access to canoes, kayaks, and skates, for the winter months. The point is you are not sleeping in a lean-to nor using an outhouse.
The Great Outdoors
Be as active as you want or see how close you can get to mimicking a sloth, the choice is yours. There are even options to participate in multi-day cattle drives, so if you’re not accustomed to hours in the saddle, start training now. Your glutes will thank you. The ranch will match the rider to the horse based on experience and ranch hands can teach even a novice to sit a horse.
Horses are great teachers of the art of chilling out and most ranches will let you pitch in to care for them. Spend time getting to know your mount, bring him an apple, and slow down your racing mind. Horses can read body language and pick up tension from across the barn and being with them will force you to relax. They’re like yoga teachers who don’t make you get bendy.
Besides riding, dude ranches offer kilometers of hiking or snowshoeing trails — winters at dude ranches are just as fun — and are often on or near lakes and rivers perfect for swimming, paddling, or skating. You will be surrounded by nature so don’t be surprised if a large buck goes bounding by you when you’re lying in the grass contemplating the shapes of the clouds.
Learn A Skill
You’re on vacation to relax and disconnect from emails and social media, what better time to learn something valuable and settle the dispute over which is the most effective way to start a fire: log cabin or teepee. For the record, you start with a log cabin and once the fire is going, switch to a teepee. Learn to lasso, ride a horse, distinguish a steer from a cow, whittle your own walking stick, these are simple skills that might not be necessary on the streets of Halifax or Chicago, but you’ll still take pleasure in mastering them — or at least learning the basics — and you’ll be doing it as a family.
You’re thinking, “I know lots of people and I’m here for the Wild West feel,” but this is different. Guest ranches bring people together from all over North America and the world; we aren’t the only ones craving this experience. Many of the ranch hands are also young people from different countries looking to gain experience, perfect their English, and live an adventure before starting real life. In any other scenario sitting around a campfire with strangers while telling personal stories might be hokey, but under the stars, after a full day of riding, it works. And it makes for wonderful, if fleeting, connections with like-minded people.
Dude ranches can be simple or extravagant, kitschy or posh, a spa set in rolling hills dotted with decorative sheep or a get-dirty-and-round-up-cattle experience. Choose your preference, shut off your phone, and then enjoy every moment.
Check out some of these resources to book your dude ranch vacation: