The lure of the American West remains strong with adventurous travelers, many of whom dream of riding the range on the back of their trusty steed. Those dreams can actually become a reality, even in the 21st century, with a number of working cattle ranches routinely welcoming guests who come to live out their cowboy (or cowgirl) fantasies. Those types of vacations offer a number of unique activities, including riding on horseback while driving cattle across the wide-open range, Lonesome Dove style.
If this sounds like the kind of adventure you'd like to take part in, the Dude Ranchers' Association can help make that happen. The organization represents more than 100 dude ranches across the U.S., many of which offer top notch experiences for expert horsemen and city slickers alike. But if you have a hard time deciding exactly which ranch you should choose, here are our picks for the best cattle drive vacations.
If you're looking for an authentic cattle ranch experience, it is tough to top the Klondike Ranch. Located near the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, the ranch is home to more than 200 head of cattle, giving visitors plenty of opportunity to help round up strays, lead the herd into the corral, or just climb into the saddle and ride along for a few days. You'll spend much of your time on horseback, though other activities include hiking, fishing, and working the ranch in traditional cowboy fashion. There is even an option for an overnight camping trip into the mountains for those who truly want to rough it.
Located in the spectacular northwest corner of Montana, McGinnis Meadows is the place you want to go if you're looking to improve your skills on horseback. Visitors will learn everything they need to know about riding. while also participating in an array of authentic ranch activities. McGinnis Meadows is home to more than 100 horses and accepts just 20 guests at a time, ensuring everyone gets the proper support and attention they need. After spending a week in this idyllic setting, you're almost guaranteed to go home a better rider.
New Mexico's Burnt Well Guest Ranch has been a working cattle ranch for more than a century, though today it opens its doors to welcome curious and adventurous travelers on a regular basis too. Not only does Burnt Well offer all-inclusive packages for those who just want to show up and soak up the scenery and activities, it also features speciality weeks that include horse camping, and of course, traditional cattle drives. Those activities include riding for miles each day in true old west fashion, moving the cattle from one point to the next. It is about as authentic of an experience as you can get, taking you from a tenderfoot to a true cowboy in no time at all.
If taking part in large cattle drives is what you're searching for then look no further than Focus Ranch in Wyoming. Each year between May and September, the staff at the Focus move more than 1,300 head of cattle every five to ten days as part of the ranch's holistic grazing practices. The best part is that it allows travelers to come along for the ride, taking them across some of the most breathtaking scenery that the American west has to offer. The Focus Ranch's programs are even family friendly, making them a good option for the little buckaroos too. The entire experience is an eye opening and educational one that will delight ranch hands of all ages and send them home with lasting memories.
With over 85,000 acres of prime Colorado real estate to explore, Chico Basin Ranch gives potential cowboys and cowgirls a chance to really see what the old west was like. Unlike some working ranches that lure in travelers with the promise of lots of amenities, Chico Basin is grounded in a more realistic approach, giving visitors a truly authentic experience.
While here, you'll get a chance to see what cowboy like is all about as you join the staff in their daily chores. That could include just about anything from mending fences and branding cattle, to moving the herd from one pasture to the next. Every day is an adventure at Chico Basin.
At the Double Rafter Ranch, visitors aren't pampered or coddled in any way, but they are given the chance to participate in a cattle drive just as it would have been conducted back in the 1880s. The sprawling ranch covers more than 60,000 acres and has seven grazing pastures which the herd rotates between. Moving those cows takes time, dedication, and skill, just like it did a century and a half ago. You'll learn to ride, rope, and wrangle with the best of them and go home feeling like a real ranch hand.
Nestled out on the Kansas prairie, just a short distance from historic Dodge City, Moore Ranch is a working ranch with a herd that consists of 300 head of longhorn cattle and about 50 horses. Visitors can get the sense of what it was like to drive those cattle into town as part of the ranch's regular cattle drives, which stove to be as authentic as possible. But what really sets this place apart from most of the others is that they only accept a maximum of five guests at a time, ensuring that everyone gets a unique and personal experience.
The McGarry Ranches in Idaho are actually two different properties spread out on 55,000 acres of land located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This working cattle ranch allows just eight guests at a time, then puts them to work helping round up strays, mending fences, and administering medical care to the animals. But the big adventure comes later in the year when a massive cattle drive moves the herd from its summer grazing rounds to the fall range—no small feat when that herd consists of more than 2,000 head of cattle. Visitors will also learn to rope, ride, and work the land just like the cowboys of yesteryear.