by Ed Wetschler
There are more experts on spas, cruises, and ski resorts than stars in the heavens, but when it comes to dude ranches, Gene Kilgore is the expert, a star in his own right. Kilgore dropped out of medical school to write his first guide to ranch vacations in 1980, and since then he has witnessed – and reported to the world – profound changes in how dude ranches entertain their guests. Ranches have updated their programs so much, in fact, that you might even wonder if the term “dude ranch” still applies. So we decided to corral this cowboy and get the lowdown.
How did you get hooked on ranch vacations?
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I watched all those great westerns on TV. Then, one summer, my parents took me to a dude ranch, and I just fell in love with it.
The whole country watched those westerns — Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel – but TV is no longer dominated by westerns. Children no longer get cowboy outfits for Christmas. Yet dude ranches are more popular than ever. Why?
Plenty of boomers, like me, want ranch vacations because they remember the great westerns. At the same time, Ralph Lauren and other marketers sell the romance of the West to people in their 20s and 30s, and so do rodeos and country music. What’s more, it’s not just Americans who love the Old West: Europeans are so taken with the cowboy way that they have cowboy clubs.
How have ranch vacations changed over the decades?
The eco-warrior movement has found its way into ranch vacations. Today ranches serve as base camps and launching pads for all sorts of activities you might not have found 30 years ago.
Archery, hiking, heli-hiking, birding and other naturalist activities. Riding lessons in French, tennis, sailing, spa treatments, photography, yoga. There are women-only ranches, adults-only ranches, ranches with vegetarian cuisine. To see even more of these options, click on Ranch Categories at ranchweb.com.
Did you say vegetarian cuisine – at a ranch?
Yes! The food served at ranches 40 years ago was pretty basic, but now a lot of ranches emphasize local produce – organic vegetables, free-range chickens, grass-fed beef – prepared by trained chefs. Many of the ranchers are involved with sustainable and holistic practices, too. And just as the food has been upgraded, so have the lodgings.
I used to work as a musician at a dude ranch that really was all about horses and chuckwagon chow. Can you really call a lodge with a golf course and a wine list a dude ranch?
Sure, because the horse remains the focus of a dude ranch. Of course, not everyone wants to go horseback riding; you might spend more of your holiday on a mountain bike than on a horse. But however you choose to enjoy a ranch vacation, it is still a place where you can go back in time, where families can reconnect with each other and the spectacular scenery around them.
This can’t be cheap.
Oh, but there’s a wide ranch of prices, from less than $200 per person per day to $1,000 or more. And these rates are all-inclusive, covering just about everything except spa treatments and flyfishing guides. You can search ranches by price on ranchweb.com, and you should also click the Trail Bargains tab to see who’s offering specials. Some of the best deals are here in the United States, but you’ll find additional bargains in countries like Argentina and Brazil. Extraordinary food, too.
What advice would you give a first-timer?
Prepare to have the best vacation in the world. But before you even make reservations, look at Ranchweb.com‘s list of questions to ask yourself: questions about your budget, where and when you want to go, what activities interest you, and so on. Then make sure you’ve got a warm jacket for evenings, and put a few miles on your boots before you visit the ranch. And get a couple of pairs of washed jeans: Riding with new jeans is not a good idea.
For more information, visit Ranchweb.com
Ed Wetschler is the associate editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, and the executive editor of Tripatini.