Chicago travels: Family Dude Ranch adventure

This past summer, our family set off on the adventure of a lifetime: we rented an RV and drove from Chicago to Gallatin Gateway, Montana, stopping at all the must-see classically American destinations along the way: Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Old Faithful. The capstone and highlight of our trip, however, was our final destination: Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, a family guest ranch overlooking the northwest corner of Yellowstone Park on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide. Stunning vistas, beautiful horses and challenging trails brought our family closer together as we made memories to last a lifetime. For one unforgettable week, we became a family of cowboys and cowgirls, living the good life on an idyllic Western dude ranch.

With its secluded mountain location at 7,000 feet, surrounded by millions of acres of National Forest, Nine Quarter Circle Ranch pretty much seemed like paradise on Earth for our city family. This guest dude ranch is a Wild West style all-inclusive “resort,” where families live in cabins on the extensive ranch property. All meals are included and served family-style in a magnificent lodge and “resort” activities include horseback riding, hiking, taking dips in a swimming hole, square dancing, fishing and more.

My kids, ages 12 and four, loved running free in the grassy plains, splashing on the banks of the Gallatin River and chasing the bunny rabbits. We all loved donning our cowboy boots and hats every morning and opening our cabin door to gorgeous mountain sunrises. But more than anything, we all fell in complete and utter love with the herd of 120 beautiful Appaloosa horses that live on the ranch.

Our family has some experience with horseback riding, but we still fell on the beginner side of the skills range. Nine Quarter Circle arranges 2 two-hour morning and afternoon trail rides, for beginning, intermediate and advanced riders, into the timbered forests and through the grassy meadows. Since the horses are all raised and trained by the ranch owners – the Kelsey family – they know each horse’s temperament and stamina in the mountains; you can be sure that your skills and personality will be perfectly matched with the right horse, who will be “your” horse during your entire stay.

In addition to the trail rides, two all-day rides are offered during the week for the intermediate to advanced riders, with one of the all-day rides following a trail through Yellowstone Park. The weekly overnight pack trip, for intermediate to advanced riders ages 13 and up, will take you into the high country by horse, where you’ll camp for the night near a mountain lake or stream.

The entire family will enjoy participating in the Gymkhana (games on horseback) held on Saturday mornings, where ranch guests have a chance to show off newly- acquired riding skills.

My 12-year-old son honed his horsemanship skills over the length of our stay, gathering confidence and pride as he steered his magnificent horse over streams, alongside mountains and through deep forests. It was such a treat to watch him ride, while I steered my own horse, on several trail rides.

Meanwhile, my four-year-old daughter was able to ride a horse for the very first time, thanks to the expert wranglers. I won’t ever forget the look of pride upon her face as she first sat on a horse’s saddle, wearing her pink cowgirl boots, looking towards the mountains, ready to hit the trails.

Nine Quarter Circle Ranch also has “Kiddie Wranglers” and babysitters on staff. The Kiddie Wrangler helps out with the the kids ages six to nine, teaching them to ride and leading them on daily kid-friendly trail rides. The babysitter looks after children six and under on the playground or at the barn with a short lead ride around the pasture. As the mother of two kids with quite a wide age gap, it was nice to be able to go on more advanced rides with my son while my daughter played with her new friends at the park or on a pony ride.

All meals are served family-style in the log constructed Main Lodge with it’s huge stone fireplace. The hearty, home-style cooking was so outstanding and our days so packed with refreshing outdoor activity that we usually filled and then emptied our plates with relish.

Several outdoor meals are scheduled each week including a late afternoon ride to dinner on the farther reaches of the ranch. Families can opt to be seated together, but most of the kids ended up sitting with their peers. The little kids enjoyed a “small fry” table where the Kiddie Wranglers and babysitters were on hand to keep everyone well fed and entertained. Dinner is also served early to the children so mom and dad can relax and enjoy happy hour in the rustic lounge. I enjoyed meeting the other ranch guests from around the world, and because guests are limited, we all had a chance to truly get to know one another over evening cocktails.

The log cabins were cozy and comfortable, furnished with forest furniture and handmade quilts. Single bedroom cabins are available, but our family opted for a two-bedroom cabin so the kids could bunk in a room of their own. There are also several three and four bedroom cabins to accommodate larger family groups. Best of all, the cabins are wonderfully technology free: no one in our family missed TV and technology for our week at the ranch.

Wifi is available at the main lodge and cell phone service is available but may be spotty. Trust me, you won’t miss any of it at all. At night we nestled into our little log cabin, heated by a cozy wood burning stove and enjoyed quiet evenings reading or just talking while rocking on the wooden chairs on our porch.

Many of the Nine Quarter Circle guests have been literally coming for generations. I met one extended family that has been coming to the ranch yearly since the 1970’s, with new family members tagging along each year as more children and grandchildren are added into the mix.

Our family had such a wonderful time, too. We will no doubt be returning.

While we chose to drive via RV from Chicago, you can also fly to Bozeman, MT where you’ll have to rent a car for the scenic one and a half hour drive to the ranch. Some guests also opt to fly into Salt Lake City, rent a car and then drive. Salt Lake City is only six hours from the ranch. Other more adventurous guests fly directly to the ranch thanks to its 4,000 foot long airstrip.

For more information on this amazing family travel experience, visit Nine Quarter Circle Ranch online at

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