Here’s why you need to visit a dude ranch for your next vacation
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There’s something undeniably romantic about horseback riding a horse through a cactus-laced desert: the fresh air, the array of colors in the unpolluted sky, and the rugged sense of adventure only a horse can offer.
At the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, guests from around the world come to immerse themselves in the traditions of the American West.
During a recent trip to the ranch, I swapped out my cell phone in favor of horse reins and donned a cowboy hat and boots for the first time. Like many, I was hoping to leave the chaos and technology of the modern world behind.
Not only can guests of all skill levels go riding along various trails through the bordering Sonoran Desert – the only place in the world where the iconic-looking Saguaro Cacti grow – they can also partake in authentic rodeo activities such as cattle sorting and team penning.
When my trip ended, I was about ready to ditch everything and become a cowgirl.
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Dude ranches offer a unique all-inclusive vacation experience for the growing number of travelers who want something more adventurous and outdoorsy than lying by the pool (don’t worry, there’s still a pool and spa at the White Stallion Ranch).
In a Forbes Advisor survey, 24% of Americans said they planned to take an outdoor adventure trip this year, compared to 20% and 17% who said they were going to take a resort vacation or city vacation, respectively.
“The cowboy way of life was so romanticized in movies and film, that’s what a lot of people, especially foreigners, come and see,” Bryce Albright, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, told USA TODAY. “They come for the horses, honestly, but when they leave it’s for the people. Essentially, these people are welcoming them into their home.”
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Supporting a small business
The award-winning White Stallion Ranch stands as one of the last two surviving dude ranches in Tucson – in the 1950s, the area was home to over 120. The number of dude ranches in the U.S. has been dwindling over the past decade as the high fixed-costs become more expensive for families to manage and more difficult to pass onto younger generations. Others get pushed out by development.
Although on the decline, dude ranches have been around for over a century, Albright said.
The heyday of dude ranches dates back to when the railroad connected the east coast to the west in the late-1800s, shortly after people went west to follow their manifest destiny, Albright said.
Dude ranches saw an uptick in visitors during the pandemic as many people sought to get outside, Albright said. Popular television shows like “Yellowstone” and “Westworld” only add to the dude ranch allure.
These days, choosing to stay at a dude ranch is also supporting a small business as most are family-run – you get a taste of hospitality that you can’t find at big-name resorts.
The White Stallion Ranch has been operated by the same family, the Trues, since 1965. Over three generations now take care of the property, which dates back to 1900. It’s common to spot one of the Trues tending to the horses or leading an activity, or even to see the fourth generation of the True family, a young girl, running around the property.
For a weekend-long stay for two people under the All American Plan, rates start at $350 per person a night. This plan includes lodging, three daily meals and ranch activities. If you stay for longer than four days, you can get free airport transfers from Tucson International Airport.
“To people like me, we’re a window into that past,” Russell True, the second-generation owner of the White Stallion told USA TODAY. True grew up on the ranch since he was around 5 years old.
A unique vacation
The White Stallion Ranch focuses on “beautifuly country, western hospitality and horses,” as True put it. (There is still a pool and spa, don’t worry.) For families, especially, dude ranch trips offer the ability to explore unspoiled nature – just five minutes out in nature can boost your mood.
The White Stallion Ranch is home to 175 horses – one of the largest private herds in Arizona – and there’s a horse to match every skill level. You get paired with the horse for your entire trip – and yes, parting is sweet sorrow.
The riding program at the White Stallion Ranch is varied, with fast and slow rides that traverse both mountain and flat terrain. No two rides during the week will be the same either. Each ride is guided by at least one wrangler, who can help answer any questions and guide the horses so you can rest assured.
“There’s no better way to see the country than horseback,” True said.
There are mental health benefits to jumping on a horse’s saddle. Riding a horse has been shown to decrease stress and help improve feelings of relaxation and wellbeing.
The most popular activity is the once-a-week cowboy breakfast. Guests ride for about an hour and a half to a rustic cookout location, where breakfast including eggs, sausage and cowboy coffee is served. “Anybody who can get on a horse can do that,” he said.
There are non-horse-related activities at the ranch, such as e-biking, hiking, rock climbing, shooting range and more.
Stewards of the land
Dude ranches are not only “preserving a way of life that isn’t heard of anymore,” as Wright put it, they’re also stewards of public land. Without the land, there is no ranch.
“Just inherent to the dude ranch is the need to keep the land…as undisturbed and natural as humanly possible because that’s the core experience of the dude ranch – getting out on unspoiled country, theoretically, and almost always beautiful,” said True.
Most ranches are in rural areas or near national or state parks, and they give guests easy access to these natural wonders “in a very safe and controlled, managed way,” True said.
“We also serve as a buffer to Saguaro National Park West and provide vigilance over its far northern boundary,” he added.
Dude ranches also work closely with entities such as the Bureau of Land Management or the Game and Fish Department to follow the rules of the trails and designated areas.
“They have a very high respect for the land,” Wright said. “This land provides for them. They try their best to keep it in return.”
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