This isn't my first rodeo. Well, actually it is. Maybe that's why I'm having so much fun living out my cowgirl fantasy on our family's dude ranch vacation!
Prime rib, Caesar salad, shrimp and a dessert table? Whatever happened to franks-n-beans? Apparently, they're long gone, like much of what I expected to find at a dude ranch. Thankfully, some of the iconic images are still here. There's a lot of horseback riding, as well as an occasional old-fashioned chuckwagon cookout, complete with a country-western crooner and cowboy doing incredible rope tricks. But you'll also get to indulge in spa treatments, a luxurious pool, wine tastings and cooking lessons.
Most importantly for our family, Tucson's Tanque Verde Ranch has plenty to keep every age group happy. Tweens meet up at the basketball court, while teens have their own dining table in the restaurant. Since the ranch is all-inclusive, our kids were pretty much free to get their meals whenever they felt like it, and the terrific kids club took my 4-year-old on pony rides in the corral, allowing me to horseback ride and mountain bike with my 12- and 14-year-old sons.
We ended up enjoying the mountain biking as much as the horseback riding. Tanque Verde sets you up with top-of-the-line mountain bikes, helmets, gloves and a friendly guide who takes you through trails in the surrounding Saguaro National Park. At the end of the day everyone's exhausted, which, of course, has plenty of benefits for mom and dad.
When we were done horsin' around, we'd head over to the pool, with its waterfall and postcard-perfect view of the surrounding mountains. The cute cowboy saloon right next to this sophisticated swimming hole has a pool table or you could just pick up your drink and lounge by the water.
Not all dude ranches are as luxurious or kid-friendly. Some ranches have incredible kids' programs, making vacation feel like summer camp. Want to really immerse yourself in the great outdoors? Consider Montana's Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park.
When you're visiting matters as well. We wanted a warm spring break escape-Arizona was an obvious choice. But you can visit ranches in the winter-Vista Verde Ranch and The Home Ranch, both near Steamboat Springs, Colo., allow you to spend time skiing while also making yourself at home on the ranch.
The Dude Ranchers' Association, representing more than 100 of the best dude ranches in the United States and Canada, will steer you in the right direction. Its website, duderanch.org, allows you to search ranches by size, location and activities.
Chicago-area families looking for a sunny adventure will not be disappointed at Tanque Verde Ranch. Besides the horseback riding and mountain biking, daily guided hikes allow you to comfortably explore the desert landscape of Saguaro National Park, so exotically different from our own. As you plan your family's next vacation, consider saddling up at a dude ranch.