By Rod Gragg
Return visits are not unusual for dude ranch guests. Lots of guest ranches have incredible return rates. People come back year after year. Return guests tend to have preferred cabins, favorite horses and cherished routines.
That’s the tradition at the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, a small, comfortably rustic guest ranch tucked in the splendid seclusion of northern Colorado’s sprawling Medicine Bow Mountains near the lakeside hamlet of Red Feather Lakes. It’s operated by Ellen and Dan Morin, a husband-wife team of professional nurses who jettisoned the hassle of a Texas medical center years ago to pursue a dude ranch dream.
At Sundance Trail, they oversee a dude ranch operation that accommodates approximately 24 guests in seven cabin suites and a main lodge.
Perched in the heart of the 880,000-acre Roosevelt National Forest, the ranch offers warm summer days, pleasantly crisp nights, a relaxed, down-home atmosphere and a parade of dude ranch activities – twice-a-day horseback rides on scenic trails through the national forest, rock-climbing forays with professional supervision, mountain hikes that are as rough or easy as you wish – along with jeep jaunts through the high country, optional target shooting, occasional archery, lake trout fishing opportunities and plenty of down-time for feet-up chilling out on the cabin porch.
As with larger Sylvan Dale Ranch, the children of guests at Sundance Trail can participate in a ranch children’s program that features horseback riding instruction, Western crafts, hiking and games. No swimming pool here, but an equally popular kid’s activity is an optional nighttime tipi campout enhanced by a jackalope “hunt” with marshmallow ‘guns’.
“We talked about going to a dude ranch for years,” said a first-time guest with her husband from Illinois. They take regular vacations, but usually choose resorts in Florida or the Ozarks. “We always wanted to go to a ranch”, she explained while sitting on the lodge porch at Sundance Trail, “but just never got around to doing it before. I really like it here – you can do a lot more than just nose-to-trail riding if you want. I’ve been able to feed and take care of my horse, and I enjoyed that.” She had some childhood experience with horses, but her husband had none. “I’m not into horses,” he said, “but I thought this was a good excuse to come see Colorado – and it’s been much more than I expected. I like the laid-back atmosphere, but I’ve also enjoyed the hiking and the rock climbing. Even if you don’t like the outdoors, you’d have to like it here – the country is so beautiful. I didn’t expect to ride much, but I actually wound up taking every horseback ride that was offered – and I really liked it.”
A dude ranch vacation has obvious appeal for adults and children, but what about senior citizens? Both Sylvan Dale and Sundance Trail cater to the over-60 crowd as well as families and singles. Senior citizens typically find a lot to enjoy in a dude ranch vacation. Some of the optional activities – mountain biking for instance – might not be for grandparents, but most of what you find at a dude ranch is perfect for seniors – beautiful scenery, hiking, fishing, cookouts, the slower pace in a wide-open natural environment. And horseback riding is a great equalizer. Trail-riding is a safe and easy activity, and something that all ages can enjoy.
A lot of seniors grew up with an emphasis on the outdoors, so they really like what they find at a dude ranch. They want their grandkids to put away the video games and experience the outdoor lifestyle – and a dude ranch does that for them. Most don’t have computers and television – the kids actually go out and play – and there’s a whole host of activities. Most ranches are family oriented and families have a pleasant, shared experience together.
Uncomfortable with animals that are larger than you? No problem. Most dude ranch guests quickly lose their intimidation of horses – mainly because of the controlled conditions and the on-site instruction they receive.
The typical dude ranch requires every guest to participate in an orientation program on safety issues, including what horses like and don’t like from their riders. Individual horseback riding instruction is usually an essential part of the package at a dude ranch – and horses are usually selected for their stability and cooperative nature. Trail rides are normally led and overseen by experienced wranglers, and competent staff will always try to match the rider with the horse.
Corral instruction may allow some cantering, and even some easy horseback games, but most trail rides are easy-going, comfortable for even inexperienced riders and are lots of fun. The rides also provide a scenic experience that’s often unavailable from any other kind of vehicle.
The American West is famous for its spectacular scenery – and much of it is best viewed from the seat of a saddle. And what about the cost? A dude ranch vacation is all-inclusive at most places – lodging, dining, horseback riding and a multitude of other activities are available for a single price.
Most ranches also offer optional activities that cost extra – both Sundance Trail Ranch and Sylvan Dale Ranch offer optional river rafting opportunities, for example. Some ranches will negotiate price, and most will schedule less than six days in a package. The Western scenery, the ranch lifestyle, the variety of activities and the outdoor focus make a dude ranch vacation distinctively unique. And it’s one of the few American vacation venues where the entire family may willingly put away computers, television, ipods and video games for outdoor adventure, a genuinely family-focused vacation and a treasure-load of memories.