YYou’re in the saddle at daybreak. You hear only the creak of your saddle and the plodding of your horse’s hooves. You breathe in clean, crisp air as you ride over open terrain. You check fences or round up wandering cattle. Perhaps you move the herd to a new grazing spot. If this sounds like your idea of bliss, don your gloves, coil your rope, and become a vital part of an authentic working cattle ranch. You’ll have a genuine Western experience. You’ll enjoy the cattle work, the wideopen spaces, the wildlife, the local lore, and being close to nature. You’ll learn a lot about this slice of American life and maybe even a little about yourself.
To get you started, we researched some of the best ranch vacations available. We personally visited several of the ranches, interviewed the owners, and learned a little about the challenging work involved in raising cattle.
One thing we learned is that if you use your own horse on a cattle drive, be prepared for surprises.
We once set out with our Oregon friends to gather about 300 head of cattle. We’ve ridden our geldings, Cowboy and Nate, past hundreds of cows over the years. Even black cows lurking in the shadows are of no concern to our steady steeds. However, there’s something different about a huge mass of moving cattle.
As we started out, Charlene’s horse, Nate, froze with fear. Kent’s horse, Cowboy, started hopping. Kent and Cowboy hopped their way back to help Nate get moving. Once Nate moved out and walked with the cattle, Nate’s fear dissolved. Cowboy kept hopping. To him, it was so exciting!
Before You Book
When choosing a working ranch vacation, first decide whether you’d like to bring your own horse. If you do, this will narrow the field considerably.
Then find out all you can about the ranch and the experience it offers. Ask about the ranch’s main focus, such as ranch work, riding, or a cattle drive. How long can you expect to be in the saddle each day?
Ask also how many guests the ranch usually books at a time. You might wish to find a ranch that offers a smaller group experi-
For your next getaway, don your gloves, coil your rope, and become a vital part of a working cattle ranch. Here’s a roundup of nine authentic working ranches to get you started. STORY AND PHOTOS BY KENT & CHARLENE KRONE
ence. Are there evening gatherings, such as campfires?
Then ask not only about the cost, but also what’s included in the cost. Find out about the ranch’s accommodations. Will you stay in a cabin or lodge, or travel with a cattle drive and stay in a tent?
After you book your reservations, ask for a packing list of what to bring, and what kind of weather you can expect.
Here’s a list of nine working ranches available to the general public. These ranches focus on working with cattle and cattle drives. The experience ranges from rustic to deluxe. You may stay in a tent as you travel with the cattle, or stay in a lodge and ride out each day to do ranch chores and work cattle.
Bar W Guest Ranch, Whitefish, Montana
The seed for the Bar W Ranch was planted when Dave Leishman, an Eastern businessman, and his two young daughters vacationed at a northwest Montana dude ranch. According to Leishman, it turned out to be “a vacation for the ages.” He discovered that not only did he love riding, but also he was good at it. “We went up and down ridges where I never imagined a horse could go,” Leishman says.
So, when Leishman had an opportunity to buy a dude ranch, he did. And that’s the Bar W. We spent several days at the Bar W, riding and enjoying the scenery and recreational opportunities. Leishman and his family were superlative hosts.
You may choose to stay at the luxurious ranch or head out on the range for one of the ranch’s specialty cattle drives that generally take place twice per year. Contact: Bar W Guest Ranch, (866) 828-2900; www.thebarw.com.
Bear Creek Ranch, East Glacier, Montana
Location! Location! Location! Bear Creek Ranch has that, with the majestic Glacier National Park to the west, the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the south, and the Blackfoot Indian Reservation to the east.
Bear Creek Ranch has an exciting collection of horseback vacations, cattle drives, and horsemanship clinics all developed by the ranch crew. For an authentic Western experience, try the ranch’s Off the Beaten Path Week, when the ranch offers the best of the best. You’ll ride in some of the most beautiful country to be found, from Heart Butte to nearly the Canadian border. Contact: Bear Creek Ranch, (406) 2264489; www.bearcreekguestranch.com.
Double Rafter Cattle Drive, Ranchester, Wyoming
This is the real deal. The Double Rafter holds a number of cattle drives throughout the year. Generally, guests stay out on the range in tents and follow the cattle. Gear is carried in horse-drawn wagons, then on pack horses when the going gets too rough for wagons.
We’ve ridden in this area, and it’s beautiful country. If you want to move cattle miles from the road in a gorgeous region, this is it! In addition to adventurous riding, this outfit has one of the best cooks we’ve ever met. All meals are prepared in cast-iron skillets, a Dutch oven, or a pit barbecue. After a sumptuous dinner, settle into your tent under the brilliant Wyoming stars. Contact: Double Rafter Cattle Drive, (800) 704-9268; www.doublerafter.com.
Dryhead Ranch, Lovell, Wyoming
At the end of pavement in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, drive another 14 miles on a dirt road to the Dryhead Ranch. This ranch is remote: There’s no electricity, no cellphone service, and no nearby neighbors.
This isn’t a ranch for lightweights or poolside lounge lizards. However, if you want to get away from it all, do needed cowboy work on horseback, and be a temporary member of a ranching family, then look no further than the Dryhead Ranch.
We visited with one of the ranch owners and found that the ranch consists of 33,000 acres, 1,000 cows, and 150 horses. Open from April 15 to November 10, guests have an opportunity to do the full spectrum of cattle work: gathering; vaccinating; tagging; branding; herding cattle; and even assisting in doctoring.
Almost half of the ranch’s
clientele comes from Europe; 40 percent are return customers. Most guests are horsesavvy and eager to embrace the cowboy way of life, which may mean long hours in the saddle in inclement weather. Contact: Dryhead Ranch, (307) 548-6688; www.cattledrivacations.com.
Laramie River Ranch, Glendevey, Colorado
This ranch offers walk, trot, and canter rides across tens of thousands of acres of Colorado’s beautiful Rocky Mountains. An experienced wrangler accompanies each small group to make sure your ride is safe and enjoyable.
Twice weekly, guests have a chance to work cattle. You’ll ride out and bring cattle back to the ranch from Bull Mountain Pasture. Once in the corrals, you’ll try your hand at team penning. This can be quite a challenge.
Round out your stay at Laramie River Ranch with cookout rides, natural-horsemanship instruction, and a kids’ program. There’s an activity for every member of the family. Contact: Laramie River Ranch, (800) 5515731; www.lrranch.com.
Lucasia Ranch Vacations, Claresholm, Alberta
Here’s one of the best genuine working cattle ranches in Alberta. This is a familyowned and -operated ranch. The Lucas family enjoys meeting folks from all over the world and introducing them to the Western lifestyle.
At this historic ranch, you can step back in time and join cowboys as they herd cattle through the picturesque Porcupine Hills of southwestern Alberta. Activities include cattle drives, branding, seasonal roundups, and regular checks on cattle and horses.
Specific cattle-drive weeks are offered for riders who really want to immerse themselves in a driving experience. You’ll spend 6 to 10 hours a day in the saddle, giving you a chance to really bond with your horse, as well as experience the cattle and the surrounding country. Contact: Lucasia Ranch Vacations, (403) 625-2295; www.lucasiaranch.com.
McGinnes Meadows Cattle and Guest Ranch, Libby, Montana
At this ranch, cattle are available all season for guests to work with. Steers are always available for you and your horse to learn to track, cut, and ultimately pen. In May, cattle are turned out on their grazing allotment. In June, the longer cattle drives begin. And, from mid-September to midOctober the fall gather occurs among a riot of blazing colors.
An added feature of this ranch is the horsemanship instruction. The ranch owner has attended more than 300 Buck Brannaman clinics and constantly brings back knowledge he has learned to the ranch. Contact: McGinnes Meadows Cattle and Guest Ranch, (406) 293-5000; www.mmgranch.net.
Montana Horse Country Adventures, Townsend, Montana
Your hosts for these adventures are Monte and Mary Ellen Schur, who’ve spent more than 30 years sharing Montana mountain and ranch experiences with guests from all over the world. Professional horsemen, ranchers, and outfitters, they enjoy sharing their love of horses with others.
You can participate in cattle drives or horse drives. Generally, you’ll stay in tents, so bring your own sleeping bag. Sometimes, you’ll stay in cabins at host ranches. Enjoy a pleasant pace of moving cattle every day in gorgeous scenery.
Horse roundups are much faster paced. This is for you if you’re in good physical condition, know how to ride, and enjoy the outdoors. Contact: Montana Horse Country Adventures, (877) 569-3267; www.montanahorsecountry.com.
Moore Ranch, Bucklin, Kansas
The Moore Ranch is a working ranch about 45 miles southeast of the historic town of Dodge City, Kansas. The ranch usually has about 300 head of Texas Longhorn Cattle and 50 head of horses. The operation covers about 6,000 acres of hills, creeks, trees, and rocky hillsides.
Here, you’ll experience the true life of a working cowboy. Awaken to the sound of roosters crowing and begin saddling your horse after a hearty breakfast. The rest of the day may include riding through the Longhorn herd, herding Longhorns to a new pasture, riding over the prairie while moni- toring wildlife, learning to rope a calf, and even branding. In the evening, you’ll enjoy a delicious meal, relax around the fire, and watch stars come out over the prairie. Contact: Moore Ranch, (620) 826-3649; www.moorelonghornranch.com TTR
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www. superstock.com, and type “supplier:1314” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at kentandcharlene@ gmail.com.
On a working ranch, you’ll learn such skills as cutting, roping, driving, and herding. Shown are working cowboys cutting cattle for a sale.
At the Bar W Guest Ranch in Whitefish, Montana, you may choose to stay at the luxurious ranch or head out on the range for one of the ranch’s specialty cattle drives that generally take place twice per year.
The inviting entrance to the Bar W Guest Ranch, located in Flathead Valley on Spencer Lake in Whitefish, Montana.
If you really want to get away from it all, look no further than the remote Dryhead Ranch on the Wyoming/Montana Border, where you’ll have an opportunity to do a full spectrum of cattle work.
Some working ranches allow you to ride your own horse. Shown is Charlene Krone on a cattle drive in western Montana aboard her Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, Nate.
Before you book your working ranch vacation, find out all you can about the ranch and the experience it offers. Ask about the ranch’s main focus, such as ranch work, riding, or a cattle drive. Shown is a cattle drive in western Montana.