This year, Yellowstone National Park turned 150 years old, and to add to the luster of its sesquicentennial, “Yellowstone,” the Paramount Network hit television drama starring Kevin Costner as rancher John Dutton, was renewed for a sure-to-be exhilarating fifth season.
One measurable effect of the limelight cast on the nearly 3,500-square-mile park by both the historic anniversary and the show is an increased interest in dude ranch vacations.
Bryce Street, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, told Global Traveler in 2020 that City Slickers, the 1991 American West comedy starring Billy Crystal, was “a huge boost to dude ranching,” when it hit theaters 30 years ago. Now, he explained, it’s “Yellowstone” that’s contributing to record-breaking seasons.
From Nebraska to Montana, these six dude ranches offer a chance at being a real live ranch hand.
Rowse’s 1+1 Ranch (Burwell, Nebraska)
The Rowse family has been ranching in Nebraska since 1884. They share that experience at Rowse’s 1+1 Ranch in Burwell, about 200 miles west of Omaha in the Sandhills, where Rowse family members Jerry, Kyle and Tammy run the more than 7,000-acre working ranch and host vacation stays. Guests are assigned horses at check in (the ranch has an award-winning quarter horse breeding program), and then participate in several hours of dude ranch activities every day, including horseback riding, driving cattle, roping, checking pastures and sorting livestock. Rowse’s has 800 cow and calf pairs.
“Guests join us in our everyday life,” Tammy Rowse told Cowboys and Indians. “We don’t expect them to do the manual labor but want every guest to experience and enjoy the riding and cattle work we do.”
Accommodations include log bunk houses or the main lodge, where all six rooms are appointed with Western design and handmade headboards, and visitors enjoy home-cooked (and beef-heavy) meals. Every day at adults-only Rowse’s is different—and cowboys and cowgirls lead their own charge. Don’t want to work?, Don’t have to. But then, what’s the fun in that? For the most authentic cowboy experience—including roping and sorting cattle—plan to be there in the summer.
Vee Bar Guest Ranch (Laramie, Wyoming)
At Vee Bar Guest Ranch, an 800-acre expanse about two hours north of Fort Collins, Colorado, third-generation owners Kari and Brent Kilmer strive to give you an authentic western experience on a working ranch. Visitors have camp-outs and learn to trap shoot, horseback ride, work with cattle, and shoot a bow and arrow. The property offers private fishing in a stocked lake and tubing on the Little Laramie River. The stay—usually three or six days—in rustic cabins or suites is all-inclusive, so the cost covers all meals, which are made from scratch by guest chefs and served buffet style. Kari Kilmer says that many guests are drawn to the ranch because of horseback riding (daily rides are done in small groups and progress to more difficult terrain in and around the ranch), but they can participate in much more. Guests start with simple tasks like grooming and learning how to saddle their horses, which leads to working with cattle by the end of the trip. At Vee Bar, the ranching program only operates in the summer. The rest of the year, the property is a bed and breakfast.
McGinnis Meadows Cattle & Guest Ranch (Libby, Montana)
McGinnis Meadows Cattle and Guest Ranch in Libby, Montana, is one of a few that let you bring your own horse. The 75,000-acre ranch, tucked in between a meadow, a creek and mountains, hosts 10-day trips, with a program prescribing to the Buck Brannaman horsemanship and cattle methods. Horse trainer and clinician Brannaman’s techniques focus on working in-line with a horse’s nature to understand how the animal thinks and communicates. One of the goals in the program is to make the horse feel safe around humans. For the stays at McGinnis, where guests sleep either in the main lodge or in Amish-built cabins, that means daily horsemanship clinics in addition to working with cattle, doing cattle drives, roping and sorting cattle, and taking leisurely rides. The ranch sits at 3,300 feet elevation and includes terrain ranging from small creek ecosystems to massive timbered mountains.
Kara Creek Ranch (Sundance, Wyoming)
A dude ranch experience at Kara Creek Ranch in Sundance, Wyoming, will look different depending on the time of year. The 70,000-acre ranch runs for three seasons, so while guests may brand cattle or repair fences on one stay, they might drive cattle to winter pastures or attend a local rodeo during another stay, like the Ranch Rodeo at the Crook County fairgrounds. The ranch trips are all-inclusive, and everything is an educational opportunity—even meals, where diners learn about traditional western-style cooking, including trail lunches and BBQ nights. When visitors aren’t roping and riding, they can take nature walks amidst aspen trees and free-roaming ranch horses, or visit nearby Indigenous American rock carvings along Inyan Kara Creek.
Eatons’ Ranch (Wolf, Wyoming)
Brothers Howard, Willis and Alden Eaton founded Eatons’ Ranch, then called the Custer Trail Ranch, in 1879, near Medora, North Dakota. Friends stayed for months at a time, urging the Eatons to charge for room and board. By 1904, the ranch was growing in popularity, and in order to provide more varied terrain and a longer stay for their guests, the brothers left North Dakota and moved to the ranch’s present location in Wolf, Wyoming. Now run by the fourth and fifth generations of Eatons, the Eatons’ Ranch complex is extensive—with a guest house, a store, a café and a dreamy 7,000 acres of land.
“We’ve had so many guests, or ‘dudes,’ as we call ’em, that are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation,” part-owner Frank Eaton told Cowboys and Indians last year. “And they love it and keep coming back, and their kids come back.”
Guests at the ranch participate in day rides, overnight pack trips, fishing, biking, softball, horseshoes, weekly dances, and more. A children’s program teaches dudes and dudettes three and older about life on the ranch, and Eatons’ even has babysitters on-site.
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch (Loveland, Colorado)
Just an hour outside Denver, visitors to the 3,200-acre Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch can have a true dude ranch experience while staying close to the city. The horse and cattle ranch has been in operation since the 1920s. Today’s guests spend time riding, trapshooting, fishing, doing ranch chores, and, of course, sitting around a campfire and eating s’mores. Trips include daily riding lessons, twice-daily trail rides, and opportunities to work with the cattle. Post-work massages on site are a perk. Sylvan Dale has a children’s program to get the kids involved in ranch work as well, like horse grooming, ranch chores and trail riding. Ranch stays last five or six nights, and in addition to the standard dude ranch vacation, Sylvan Dale offers adults-only or women-only weeks.
“Sometimes it is hard to put into words the transformation that takes place in the individuals and families who stay with us,” co-owner Susan Jessup told the Loveland Colorado Chamber of Commerce.