Sunday, May 07, 2006


By Rick Kaempfer

(From the May 2006 Issue)

“The biggest trouble-maker you'll probably ever have to deal with watches you shave his face in the mirror every morning."
-- Unknown Cowboy Philosopher

When a typical day consists of rushing from one place to the next, hurrying to pick up kids here, or drop them off there, or sprinting to catch the train to and from work, or eating in the car because you don’t have time to prepare a meal, or squeezing in a trip to the store to get your shopping done before coming home to collapse in a heap at the end of a frenzied frazzled day, it’s no wonder that when vacation time rolls around the last thing you want to do is the same a different location.

Sometimes you just want to mosey. When it’s time to mosey, there’s no better place to do it than a Dude Ranch.

What is a Dude Ranch Vacation?

“Don’t squat with your spurs on”
--Unknown cowboy philosopher

A Dude Ranch vacation is everything that our world isn’t. In a world of deafening noise, a dude ranch is quiet and peaceful. In a world of deadlines, a dude ranch is a place where a clock doesn’t dictate your day. In a world of high speed internet access, a dude ranch is a place where things move at a much slower pace.

A typical week at a dude ranch includes campfires, horseback orientation and training, horseback riding through the countryside, and lots of time spent in the great outdoors. Most dude ranches are geared to families, and offer activities like nature hikes, visits to local artisans, swimming, rafting, skeet shooting, archery, mountain biking, rock climbing, hot air ballooning, and fishing. For the less adventurous, many of them also have pools and hammocks and lounge chairs. “Vittles” at dude ranches range from the traditional cowboy campfire fare to gourmet dining, and most of the prices quoted by dude ranches include the cost of meals. It’s like a land-locked all-inclusive resort.

You can make a dude ranch vacation into anything you want it to be, provided you want to get away from the rat race.

Where do you find dude ranches?

"The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back into your pocket."
-- Unknown Cowboy Philosopher

There are more than five hundred dude ranches in America, and most of them are listed at That website has more than 470 listings of dude ranches in thirty-three states and Canada. The listings are pretty bare-bones in terms of information (address, phone number, etc.), but many of them include links directly to the websites of the dude ranches themselves.

If you really want the full dude ranch experience, you’ll probably want to head out West. Most of the Western States have a bevy of dude ranches, but there are a few states who really take pride in their cowboy heritage. Colorado, for instance, has over a hundred dude ranches. Wyoming, Texas, Montana, Arizona, and California also have quite a few. Think of what it would be like to experience the traditional cowboy lifestyle surrounded by some of this country’s most breathtaking scenery. The beautiful mountains and wide open spaces of these states are a perfect setting for riding. It really is very much like going back in time...without having to give up essential modern conveniences like beds, bathrooms, and showers.

But how do you know which dude ranch to pick? There are so many choices, it’s almost overwhelming. One way to help narrow the search is by checking with the various state dude ranch associations. Most of them provide “grids” which are easy to use and really helpful in the selection process. For instance, they can help you find which dude ranches are better for expert riders or beginners, which ones have the most additional activities, or which ones are rated the highest by visitors. Once you narrow down your search, a simple call to the dude ranch itself will help you learn more.

Most of these places are family run, and when you speak with the owner, you’re really getting a feel for what the experience will be like. Keep in mind that a ranch’s main focus is the riding program, so ask specifics about their instruction (What do you learn? How much time does it take to learn it? What sort of instructors do you have?), and the types of rides (all-day, 2-hour, unguided, guided, children’s, etc.). If there’s another part of the dude ranch lifestyle that you absolutely want to (or don’t want to) experience, this is the time to ask. Don’t settle for one that doesn’t have everything you want. With over 500 dude ranches in this country, you’re bound to find one that is absolutely perfect for you and/or your family.

What should you pack if you’re going to a dude ranch out west? If you’re going to the mountains remember that the temperatures fluctuate wildly from day to night. All of the dude ranches out there suggest you wear layers, and that you ride with long sleeve shirts, cowboy boots, a cowboy hat (with a hat string—that’s important so it doesn’t fly off), leather gloves, a bandana to keep the dust out of your mouth, jeans (no need to bring fancy stuff), and don’t forget sunscreen and insect repellant.

Local Dude Ranches

"Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment."
-- Unknown Cowboy Philosopher

While the Midwest isn’t exactly known for its dude ranches, there are a few that come highly rated in our area: In Michigan, the Rockin R in Bear’s Lake (45 miles southwest of Traverse City), in Illinois, the White Pines Ranch in Oregon (near Rockford) and in Wisconsin, the Woodside Ranch Resort in Mauston (15 miles northwest of Wisconsin Dells).

Rockin R Stables, 9061 Thirteen Mile Road, Bear Lake, Michigan, 616-864-3539,

The Rockin R Stables is a throwback to the old cowboy experience. The lodging ranges from bunkhouses for groups, to campsites, to teepees (you read that right), to old fashioned log cabins, to a romantic honeymoon log cabin with a hot tub. They have a saloon, a general store, a stagecoach, rodeos on the weekend, and of course, riding stables. They say they can handle any level of rider, from the novice to the pro, and the Rockin R does have the advantage of riding trails that will take you to a point overlooking Bear Lake.

White Pines Ranch, 3581 Pines Road, Oregon, IL 61061, 815-732-7923,

White Pines is a dude ranch just for kids, although they do occasionally have adults-only weekends. This ranch is a favorite destination for summer camps (during July & August) and school groups (the rest of the year). It’s more than just a fun place to visit, it’s educational. Several school districts in Illinois have actually made a weekend trip to White Pines a requirement for their students. That’s because in addition to the traditional dude ranch activities (horseback riding, hiking, campfires), White Pines also has outdoor education programs for students and teachers to study fossils, wildlife, vegetation, natural springs, and more. The kids stay in dormitories and are served buffet style in a cafeteria. Each kid is assigned a job and has to help with clean up after every meal.

Woodside Ranch, Highway 82, Mauston, Wisconsin 53948, 608-847-4275,

Woodside Ranch has been attracting visitors since the 1920s. In the past few years it has been expanded to include a conference, business, and fitness center, but the main attraction here is, and always will be, the dude ranch. The riding stable has over a hundred horses for riders of just about any level, but they also have ponies for the youngsters so that the parents can hit the trail. Is there a bar? Is this Wisconsin? You bet, although Woodside calls it a watering hole (read—adult watering hole). They also have a private pool and sauna, and a private fishing pond stocked with bass. You can choose to stay in a one, two or three bedroom cabin, or in one of the main lodge ranch house rooms (which sleeps two to six people), and the food is served family-style in the main dining room every night.

It’s Not Just a Vacation, It’s a Philosophy

“Don't worry about bitin' off more'n you can chew; your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger'n you think.”

---Unknown Cowboy Philosopher

The one sure thing about visiting a dude ranch is that you’ll run across one of these unknown cowboy philosophers offering a little homespun wisdom. It may make you chuckle a bit as you sit around the campfire, but after you return to your life, when you least expect it (during rush hour traffic, or waiting for your kid’s soccer practice to end), it will pop back in your head. And at that moment, you’ll know precisely what he meant by; “Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction."

This is just one of my three pieces in this month's SHORE MAGAZINE. I'm really proud of this magazine. You should get a copy of it if you can--it's available in the tri-state area (Michigan, Indiana, Illinois). If you want to check out the on-line edition of the magazine, go here: