Saddle Up for a Once in a Lifetime Dude Ranch Vacation

You'll enjoy a variety of activities sure to suit everyone in your family

By Holly Christy, Publisher Macaroni KID Mt. Airy - Damascus - Urbana, MD April 4, 2023

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of a dude ranch vacation. It appeals to me because it’s just so different. Different from day to day life here in the suburbs, and different from any other kind of family vacation I can imagine. I like the idea of making memories doing outdoor activities surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery our country can offer. Turns out a dude ranch vacation was everything I’d hoped it would be – and so much more I hadn’t expected!

All opinions are of the author. The author and her family were provided a complimentary stay to facilitate this review.

My husband and I recently traveled to Colorado to check out the dude ranch scene at two premier destinations - C Lazy U Ranch and Vista Verde Ranch. As soon as we left the Denver airport and headed west, I knew we were in for a treat. Snow on the Rocky Mountains gave me a hint about the surreal backdrop where we’d be spending the week making memories.

C Lazy U Ranch was our first stop, and we felt like kids in a candy shop as soon as we arrived. There was so much to see and explore! We started with our private cabin, of course, and I couldn’t get over how cozy it was with its wood burning fireplace in the sitting room, enormous pillowy bed, and well-stocked luxurious bathroom. From there we toured the property, building our excitement for all the adventures in store for us.

Top on my priority list was snowmobiling. What a thrill! After a helmet fitting and some basic instructions, we were off on an hour and a half ride. And it was something I will never, ever forget for as long as I live. Not only was it exciting and fun, but to be riding through powdery snow in breathtaking mountains, seeing deep forests and wildlife like moose and coyotes – I was overcome with gratitude for this once in a lifetime opportunity. I savored every minute of that ride. It felt like another world, so far removed from the stresses and worries of normal life.

We followed up our snowmobiling adventure with trap shooting and snow tubing. Our guide, Paris, was a hoot. His knowledgeability was reassuring, but his humor and charm made the afternoon even more fun. Hospitality is everywhere at C Lazy U Ranch.

Punctuating our day full of adventure, led by wonderful guides, we enjoyed delicious meals and fun company. This is one of the things that surprised me the most. When I pictured meals at a dude ranch, I envisioned baked beans and BBQ. But I couldn’t have been more wrong! The food was not just upscale and imaginative, it was also a great combination of comfortable favorites and mouth-watering new dishes.

Meals are also enjoyed family style, where you sit with other ranch guests. As a more introverted person, I was prepared to "fake it till I make it." But I was pleasantly surprised, again, by how much I enjoyed it. We chatted with some of the most interesting down to earth people, and it was fun to compare notes over every meal (and at happy hour!) about the various outings and activities we’d all be doing.

For our final activity at C Lazy U Ranch, we knew we had to go horseback riding. We’d seen the herd of 200+ horses several times, as they rode through the property each morning and evening headed to and from pasture. That event, called “the jingle,” is definitely a must-see. So when we saddled up on Mongo and Jackson, we knew we’d be having yet another unforgettable dude ranch adventure.

It was hard to leave C Lazy U, but we had to get ahead of some snow coming in, so we hit the road early and headed to Vista Verde Ranch. And I’m glad we got there early because we made it just in time! We sat by the enormous fireplace, eating the pastry chef’s freshly baked afternoon cookies, while snow fell fast and furious outside. Talk about cozy! I didn’t think any room could feel as good as that great room did, but then we saw our cabin. Wow!

Not only was our cabin a spacious two-bedroom, two-bathroom with fully stocked snack basket and mini fridge – it had a private hot tub overlooking the herd of horses. We got in the hot tub as quickly as we could, and pinched ourselves over and over because we couldn’t believe it was real. Sipping champagne in a bubbly tub, with heavy snow falling all around, and a hundred horses grazing a few yards away was – once again – something I will never, ever forget.

What we realized later that evening is that the dining scene at Vista Verde is worth the trip all by itself. They serve made-to-order meals, with hearty portions, healthy options, and truly special experiences like king crab legs on formal night. One of the activities we weren’t able to do was a cooking class with the Head Chef, but that will definitely be on my to-do list next time. Everything we ate at Vista Verde Ranch was absolutely scrumptious, and it’s all included in the price – even the impressive wine and beer list.

We stretched ourselves a bit and signed up for ice fishing on Steamboat Lake. Neither my husband nor I are into fishing, but we figured “when else will we have an opportunity to go ice fishing?” And I’m so glad we went! Our guide, Luke, took exceptional care of every detail from fishing licenses to setting up our spots to offering hot chocolate with Bailey’s while we fished. It was simply fun to try something so new and different! 

Only one person in our group caught a fish, but it was well worth going anyway because of the pair of bald eagles that kept us company. Two enormous bald eagles flying back and forth right over us, hoping to snag a fish – it was yet another unforgettable moment. We were really racking them up!

After a gorgeous, chilly morning of ice fishing we had a nice hot lunch and another soak in that awesome hot tub. Then we tried out a fun little experience that really put the dude ranch experience in perspective – we rode the feed sleigh out into the pasture to spread hay for the horses. It was a small glimpse behind the scenes to see what it takes to run a real ranch, and it was a total thrill to be that up close and personal with the horses!

There’s something to be said for a tropical vacation. But for a family vacation filled to the brim with unforgettable moments that truly take your breath away, take a dude ranch vacation. One beach trip will blend into another, but the things you’ll see and do at a dude ranch like C Lazy U Ranch or Vista Verde Ranch will stand out as some of your most magical moments ever.

Part of The Dude Ranchers' Association, C Lazy U Ranch and Vista Verde Ranch are two of over 90 dude ranches across the western U.S. and Canada offering an all-inclusive vacation experience like no other destination. Member ranches endure a rigorous inspection and approval process that ensures guests are treated to genuine western hospitality combined with the lodging industry’s highest standards. To learn more about the Dude Ranchers’ Association and plan your next dude ranch vacation visit!