Giddy Up, Cowgirl!
Ever feel a secret desire to ride off into the sunset? Before you don your Stetson and do the boot-scoot boogie, check out these four dude ranch retreats -- ranging from the real deal (where you'll get down and dirty) to "ranch lite." All boast fitness options that will burn calories and tone your muscles in wide open spaces reminiscent of a wilder West.*Prices do not include transportation and are subject to change.
The Real Deal at the California Ranch, Elk Creek, Calif.
Lay of the land No two guests' experiences are quite alike at this 51,000-acre Mendocino National Forest-area ranch (California's largest full-service cattle ranch, located 90 miles northwest of Sacramento). But if you have a hankering for some time in the saddle, this is the place to cowpoke around and maybe even earn a "Cowboy Degree" (by showing proficiency in actual ranch work, including feeding, branding and range-management skills). Cowhands-in-training need only sign up in advance and follow a specific curriculum for three days (for an associate degree) or 14 (for a master's).
Bunking down Cowboys of the Old West never had it this good: Accommodations at the California Ranch are more Ralph Lauren than O.K. Corral, with 12 elegant ranch house rooms featuring fluffy pillow-top beds, plush white robes and complimentary wireless Internet access.
Cowgirl power This ranch offers an ideal flavor of real cowboying; guests can choose to participate in horse grooming, cattle driving and/or repairing fences. To get a feel for the wilder aspects of the Old West, try your hand at roping, pistol shooting or fly-fishing (there are 12 ponds stocked with largemouth bass), or take a 4x4 driving excursion to feed the ranch's herd of 65 buffalo (lessons and guides included). There are also plenty of outdoor fitness opportunities, including a 20-mile high-country horseback-riding trip (includes a lunch break) along the ranch's private creek and uphill 4,500 feet past oak groves and tall digger pines that edge into chaparral. Your reward: sweeping views of the rugged Mendocino National Forest
Off the range Stave off saddle sores with a massage ($95 for 60 minutes) or simply stretch out on a hammock overlooking the rolling hills along nearby Stoney Creek, where tenderfoots can soak their feet.
Chuck wagon The ranch chef rustles up three meals a day that can be as gourmet or as simple as you like, including granola with fresh fruit or made-to-order omelets for breakfast; vegetarian or buffalo-meat chili or a grilled vegetable wrap for lunch; and penne pasta tossed with fresh pesto or pan-seared halibut for dinner.
Info From $249 per night includes accommodations, meals and all ranch activities except massages (866-7-SADDLE; thecaliforniaranch.com). -- Ann Shepphird
Tenderfoots' Foray at Homeplace Ranch, Priddis, Alberta, Canada
Lay of the land Just an hour's drive southwest of Calgary International Airport, Homeplace Ranch sits at the base of Canada's rugged Rocky Mountains and provides an intimate setting perfect for city slickers new to the ranch experience. Horses take center stage at Homeplace; they are treated as part of the family, and so are guests. Owner and bona fide cowboy "Mac" MaKenny makes sure that everyone feels at home on his range; communal dining and opportunities to socialize in the cozy main lodge add to the welcoming feeling.
Bunking down Hit the hay in one of the ranch's nine spacious rooms named for MaKenny's favorite horses and furnished with heirlooms from his homesteader ancestors, who came to Canada from Nebraska to sell horses.
Cowgirl power You'll be matched with your own horse (compatibility is based on responses to a questionnaire), and at 6:45 every morning, you'll rise with the real cowhands to feed and groom your new equine friend.
Check in with MaKenny at breakfast to arrange your daily riding itinerary -- a two-hour excursion or a full day in the saddle. Lessons include not only riding technique and safety, but also instruction in humane animal treatment. Guests can lend a hand with ranch chores if they like, baling hay and moving cows to new pastures, all the while swapping stories with Brad McCarthy, the engaging, knowledgeable head wrangler.
Off the range Banff National Park, Canada's first national park, is a hiker's nirvana with 1,000 miles of trails for every skill level just an hour's drive from the ranch. The 3.5-mile Sulphur Springs trail is a three- to five-hour challenging hike to the weather observatory on Sulphur Mountain, which overlooks the park's 2,564-square-mile stretch of valleys, forests, alpine meadows and glacier-fed lakes beneath the jagged snow-capped Canadian Rockies. Relax on the free gondola ride back down.
Chuck wagon All Homeplace Ranch meals are served family-style in the dining room. A typical breakfast might include bacon and free-range eggs, or pancakes topped with fresh berry syrup. Trail riders enjoy lunches of fruits, veggies and sandwiches around an open fire over which wranglers/guides roast marshmallows or brew "cowboy cappuccino" (flame-boiled gourmet coffee). The dinner bell rings at 6:30 p.m. to summon hardworking cowhands to a homemade spread of options such as Alberta strip-sirloin or local farm-fresh vegetable salads, depending on your preference; the cook will even grill or fry the trout you caught that day for dinner. Save some room for dessert: homemade warm, frosted cinnamon buns and chocolate-chip cookies.
Info $566 for three nights includes accommodations, meals, riding lessons and excursions (403-931-3245, homeplaceranch.com). -- Laurie McLaughlin
Ranch Deluxe at Sorrel River Ranch Resort, Moab, Utah
Lay of the land Old West meets New Age at this elegant ranch-themed resort and spa. Set in a green valley surrounded by the dramatic red rock of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Sorrel River Ranch Resort offers an elegant backdrop worthy of a John Ford Western -- in fact, the director shot classics including Wagon Master, Rio Grande and Cheyenne Autumn nearby.
Bunking down Most of the 57 guest rooms have window views of the winding Colorado River or the red-rock mesas, each featuring a classic Southwestern motif and luxury amenities like hydrotherapy tubs, satellite TVs and wireless Internet connection.
Cowgirl power Sorrel River Ranch Resort offers two-hour morning or evening group or private guided horseback rides through canyons, desert washes and winding trails (from $75 per person). Back at the ranch, there are tennis and volleyball courts, a small but well-equipped fitness room, a pool and a hot tub. Cowgirl (and cowboy) wannabes can sign up for award-winning cowgirl-for-real and owner Hope Levin's "Horse and Soul" program ($750 for three days), which pairs up guests with a compatible horse they'll learn to groom and ride. The program is ideal for anyone who wants to overcome a fear of horses or is thinking of buying or leasing a horse.
Off the range When in Moab, it's nearly impossible to avoid climbing onto a mountain bike. The region offers some of the most challenging and elaborate slick-rock and backcountry bike paths in the United States. But if you're simply looking for a breezy scenic hiking and biking trail, ride two miles from the ranch to the Onion Creek path, a 13-mile stretch of dirt road that leads to Fisher Valley.
After all that riding, you might crave more than the Spa at Sorrel River's fabulous 25-minute "Teaser" massage ($50). Luckily, there are plenty of other invigorating treatments, like the signature Desert Stone Massage ($135 for 75 minutes) or the Mango-Ginger Body Glow ($145 for 80 minutes).
Chuck wagon The ranch's River Grill offers healthful "French-Tex-Mex" gourmet options ranging from breakfasts of granola parfait and seasonal fruit ($9) or eggs Benedict, with country ham and buttermilk biscuits with green chili-lime hollandaise ($12), to hearty dinner choices such as a roasted vegetable platter with Israeli couscous ($18) or a Cajun sausage-stuffed pork tenderloin topped with mango-jalapeño sauce ($29). Full-day riders can take along a trail-ready picnic basket filled with a sandwich -- ranging from grilled chicken to vegetarian -- fresh fruit, a beverage and a granola bar ($13).
Info Room rates start at $149 per night (877-359-2715, sorrelriver.com). -- A.S.
Ranch Lite at Devil's Thumb Ranch, Tabernash, Colo.
Lay of the land Located 67 miles west of Denver International Airport, this vacation ranch is named for the storied, 200-foot granite spire that juts from a Rocky Mountain ridge above the resort. According to legend, battling Native American tribes declared peace by burying the devil there, leaving his thumb exposed as a reminder that good conquers evil. Today, the rock towers above the ranch's secluded 3,700-acre open meadow and aspen forest at the foot of the Continental Divide that in winter months serve as a snowy playground.
Bunking down The resort's Elk Lodge offers rooms with private or shared bathrooms, plush bathrobes and Aveda amenities. There are also 24 rustic and luxury cabins set in clusters surrounding the ranch. Each cabin's décor reflects a theme -- fly-fishing, the Native American Ute culture and, of course, the Western ranch.
Cowgirl power Ranch guests can schedule activities with Devil's Thumb Outfitters (devilsthumboutfitters.com) before they arrive. Seasonal recreation options include unguided bird, wildflower and leaf-peeping hikes; fly-fishing on Ranch Creek ($60 per hour lesson); and guided raft trips on the Upper Colorado River ($45 for a half day, includes transportation, gear and equipment rental, a snack and juice and water) in warm-weather months.
Winter lends itself to cross-country skiing ($42 for a half-day's instruction and gear rental) and snowshoeing along the ranch's groomed trails ($9 for half-day snowshoe rental) or ice-skating on the frozen creek ($3 for skate rental). Guided horseback excursions run year-round. Riding in the snow requires trust in the sure-footedness of your horse, but, as guide Dale Lind reminds novice riders, "If one foot slips, don't worry, the horse has three others." A leisurely, hour-long ride in the white-frosted forest is punctuated with Lind's stories about the region's colorful history and impressive topography ($25 per hour).
Off the range The resort's Broad Axe Barn activity center, opening in December, will have an indoor/outdoor pool and hot tub; a spa (debuting next spring) will offer massages and facials (treatments from $60 for 60 minutes).
Chuck wagon The Ranch House Restaurant & Saloon specializes in all-organic and locally farmed "mountain-hearty" cuisine including lean, free-range antelope steak and vegetable stir-fry (entrees from $17; daily continental breakfast is free). Take your lunch with you on a trail ride, or circle back to one of the ranch's heated yurts for hot homemade soup and sandwiches ranging from smoked turkey to veggie wraps ($7-$15) and a complimentary afternoon wine-and-cheese reception back at the main lodge.
A horse-drawn sleigh or hayride (depending on the season) with a picnic lunch of sandwiches and hot cocoa ($25 per person) or dinner of barbecued ribs and chicken with salads and nonalcoholic drinks (from $40 per person) is the perfect outing for friends (or a romantic escape with your cowboy).
Info Lodge rooms start at $79 per night; cabins begin at $149 (double occupancy) per night (800-933-4339, devilsthumbranch.com). -- L.Mc.