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Courtesy of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association

What to Know Before Taking an Epic Dude Ranch Vacation

Before you pack your flannels and blue jeans, read up on everything you need to know about roughing it on Colorado's remarkable ranches.

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There are few better ways to experience Colorado’s scenery, history, and culture than through an overnight stay at one of the state’s scenic ranches. The Dude Rancher’s Association lists 25 guest ranches in Colorado, from working ones (where guests lend a hand with daily tasks such as herding cattle and feeding livestock) to resort-style enclaves (featuring luxury amenities like spa services, yoga classes, and wine tastings). If you’re looking to enjoy one of the Rocky Mountain region’s most treasured pastimes, here are some tips to help you maximize your trip.

Horses are the Heart

All ranches revolve around horses and horseback riding. Most ranches are suited to all types of riders, from first-timers to experienced equestrians, and will do their best to create the best possible experience for each individual rider. Be honest with your wrangler (and yourself) about your level of comfort and experience. If you’re afraid of horses, be sure to voice this right away so they can match you to a mount that will take good care of you and your nerves. Pretending to know more than you do is a recipe for disaster, because you can’t fool a horse. Finally, if you’ve never ridden a horse before, prepare to be sore in places you didn’t know existed—hydrating, stretching, icing, and soaking can help you climb back in the saddle day after day.

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Packing Essentials

Even the most luxurious guest ranches involve a heavy dose of rustic and outdoors, so consider Colorado’s ever-changing weather patterns and propensity for getting sweaty and dirty when packing. In other words, this is not the place for your white pants and high heels—comfort is key. “Jeans are a must and a staple of any dude ranch attire—even at dinner,” says Courtney Frazier, executive director of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association.

In addition to jeans, don’t skimp on footwear. You’ll need low-heeled boots for horseback riding, trail shoes for hiking, and sandals for around the pool. Most ranch activities occur rain or shine, so having reliable rain gear at the ready will ensure you won’t have to sit out on the fun, and versatile layers are a must year-round to keep up with the wide range of temperature and weather conditions any mountain location presents. Although some ranches require everyone wear helmets while riding, some will allow adults to opt for a cowboy hat or ball cap instead—just make sure they have a string, strap, or clip to keep them secure during the ride.

The People Make the Place

Although the scenery and experiences at dude ranches are guaranteed to provide endless Insta-worthy moments, try to put at least as much effort into chatting with other ranch guests as you do into curating your social media accounts. Most ranches facilitate socializing with experiences like family-style meals and group activities from trail rides to campfires, and this type of camaraderie is a large part of the appeal of western hospitality. According to the Dude Rancher’s Association, dude ranches “quickly became a ‘home away from home’ as returning guests became lifelong friends with the staff and guests. The remote locations often lead to creative socializing…This social interaction became just as important as the riding.”

Pace Yourself

A successful ranch vacation is all about balance. Many ranches offer a multitude of activities starting early in the morning and lasting late into the evening. People tend to overload their daily itineraries early in the week and wear themselves out too quickly (especially those who aren’t accustomed to altitude, arid climate and strong UV rays—factors which increase the real likelihood of fatigue and illness). Make sure to take time to rest and enjoy the simple pleasures that ranches offer, too, like reading a book by the fire or taking a nap in a rocking chair. Some ranches have spa treatments, yoga classes, swimming pools, and hot tubs available for more serious R&R, but don’t get too comfortable without first sampling some of the more unique offerings like mountain biking, line dancing, or cattle herding.

Colorado Guest Ranches to Check Out

C Lazy U Ranch
Location: Granby
Distance from Denver: 93 miles, northwest
Category: Luxury Guest Ranch
Rate: $554

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Home Ranch
Location: Clark
Distance from Denver: 176 miles, northwest
Category: Luxury Guest Ranch
Rate: $695

Elk Mountain Ranch
Location: Buena Vista
Distance from Denver: 122 miles, southwest
Category: Traditional Dude Ranch
Rate: $325

Majestic Dude Ranch
Location: Mancos
Distance from Denver: 368 miles, southwest
Category: Traditional Dude Ranch
Rate: $293

Zapata Ranch
Location: Mosca
Distance from Denver: 233 miles, south
Category: Working Ranch
Rate: $395

Badger Creek Ranch
Location: Canon City
Category: Working Ranch
Rate: $295

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*Rates represent an adult all-inclusive daily rate during peak summer season (per person). Actual rates may vary. 

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