City families find dude ranches ideal for relaxing, riding and learning about nature


March 13, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Sandi Fellows' idea of a vacation is sitting by the pool with a good book -- certainly not bumping up and down on a horse all day in the wind and rain.

"I know what it's like to be around smelly animals. I grew up on a farm," the 44-year-old San Diego, Calif., resident explains. "To me, ranching and farming is work."

But good mom that she is, Ms. Fellows gamely went along to a Colorado dude ranch with her husband, an airline pilot, and their two kids.

"I thought I'd get through it," she says. "I didn't equate ranching with fun."

But she couldn't have been more wrong.

"I had the time of my life. It was the best family vacation we ever had," reports Ms. Fellows, whose daughter was 12 and son 7 when the family visited the Latigo Ranch in Kremmling, Colo. Her son wrote a six-page report for school about the experience. Two friends they made there even joined them afterward at their parents' farm.

"It was perfect for city slickers and old farm girls like me who didn't want to rough it anymore," she says, laughing.

Dude ranches have been around for nearly a century, stemming from the time when adventurous Easterners asked for a chance to experience life on a Western cattle ranch. They didn't want to accept the hospitality free, though, and asked the ranchers to charge, according to the Dude Ranchers' Association, which now numbers more than 100 members.

Those first guests paid just $10 a week for the privilege of riding and relaxing far away from their homes. Today's visitors spend a lot more than that. But ranching has never been more popular. Growing numbers of families are discovering that it provides an ideal antidote to the pressures of city life, teaching kids about the outdoors in the process.

"We expect '94 to be a record year," says Dave Wiggins, whose company American Wilderness Experience arranged the Fellowses' trip and books ranch vacations for families at more than 50 properties across the West (call [800] 444-Dude).

The popularity of ranch vacations certainly has been helped by Billy Crystal's hit comedy "City Slickers." These days, though, non-riders will find plenty to do, too. Today's ranches offer fishing, rafting, swimming, hiking, nature lessons, sightseeing and, at some places, tennis and gourmet meals. The price isn't bad either: typically $3,000-$3,500 a week for a family of four, including all meals, accommodations and activities.

(For a $5 national directory of ranches, call the Dude Ranchers' Association at [303] 223-8440. A directory of more than 40 Colorado ranches is available free from Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association. Call [303] 887-3128. The Arizona Office of Tourism also will provide a list of ranches. Call [602] 542-8687.)

Reggie and I spent a wonderful two days at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., (call [602] 296-6275) last November, joining another family at dinner (the food was plentiful and tasty) and a group of parents and kids for an early-morning ride up the hills amid the huge saguaro cactuses.

Stephanie Slade, a mother of four, teaches the kids riding at Tanque Verde, which has been a ranch for more than a century and a guest ranch since the 1950s. Her tips: Make sure the kids come with shoes or boots with heels. And don't forget sunscreen and hats.

"Being with an animal like this is an experience you don't get in L.A. or Philadelphia," says Ms. Slade. "There's a lot of growth here."

"There aren't too many places in the country that offer a safe haven where Mom and Dad can relax and not have to worry about the kids," adds ranch authority Gene Kilgore, noting that growing numbers of ranches now offer children's programs and activities. "What's important is the value -- the whole family being together and enjoying the experience." The new edition of his book, "Gene Kilgore's Ranch Vacations" (John Muir Publications, will be in bookstores in April. It lists some 250 ranches and can be ordered by calling (800) 472-6247.

Remember that ranches typically are small, accommodating fewer than 50 guests, and they're not all alike. That's why it's important to make sure the one you pick has what your family needs. Call and talk to the ranch owner yourself. Ask how old the children must be to ride. (Most programs start at age 6.) If you've got younger kids, see what programming is offered for them -- and if it's available the week you plan to visit. Also ask if guests stay in cabins or single rooms. Another question: Do children eat with their parents or separately with counselors? Are sitters available for the baby?

Alice Mishkin was disappointed with the difficult time she had finding sitters for her 13-month-old at Tanque Verde Ranch. Nonetheless, Ms. Mishkin, who lives in Old Chatham, N.Y., had a good time, as did her husband and two older children. "The naturalist was the best part of the week," she says. "The kids even learned how to track wild animals."

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