Image: Siwash Lake, Canadian ranch
© Siwash Lake
This secluded Canadian ranch gets a green stamp of approval for using solar energy. But that doesn’t mean only greenhorns will appreciate this place, set 20 minutes from its nearest neighbor. More experienced equestrians can ride without the guidance of a wrangler—a policy not found at most American ranches. Also, children of any age are welcome mid-June to August and on long weekends, or if a family books ranch for a private stay.
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updated 5/15/2007 1:07:05 PM ET 2007-05-15T17:07:05

A cowboy leads a difficult, lonely life. He’s out on the range for days at a time herding hundreds of cattle, and nighttime is a lonely affair, with only the stars and his trusty steed to keep him company.

The good people at Triple Creek Ranch are well aware of these deprivations. Most guests at this small Montana ranch spend the entire day outside, braving the elements and trekking through the Rockies on horses with names like Trigger or Zeke. There’s even a cattle drive for the particularly hardy. And when night falls, it’s just you and the stars...and, yes, your hot tub, big-screen TV, personal masseuse and private cabin’s fully stocked bar.

Triple Creek is merely one of a growing number of dude ranches that cater to a slightly sleeker breed of city slickers. “In terms of luxury, dude ranches are clearly catching up with their brothers and sisters in the hotel industry,” said Gene Kilgore, author of Ranch Vacations and founder of Ranchweb.com, a virtual encyclopedia of dude ranches. Likewise, the luxury travel movement is clearly catching on to the dude-ranch bandwagon, as numerous high-end tour operators like Abercrombie & Kent and Off the Beaten Path now offer bespoke Western trips.

And that, according to Kilgore, is a good thing, mainly because it’s allowed more people to tap into and benefit from the dude-ranch experience. “It’s especially important for everyone to disarm and relax, to remove their cell phones and Blackberries, and find out what sage smells like, what a crystal-clear blue stream looks like,” he said. “In today’s ultra-busy, paranoid world, the West is truly the best medicine out there.”

If you’re looking for less of a relaxed canter and more of a John Wayne gallop, have no fear. Several ranches cater to those who never got over their “Cowboys and Indians” phase. Take Lajitas, for instance. The ranch’s cheekily named “So You Wanna be a Cowboy” package offers, training with all sorts of guns, like single-action pistols, side-by-side shotguns and lever-action rifles (and, oh yes, there’s horseback riding, too). So if your ideal vacation is wherever Swingers meets City Slickers, Lajitas’s “Dudes in the Desert” trip—a weekend of riding, action shooting, Texas Hold 'Em Tournaments and something called “ambush golf”—is for you. And after seven hours in the saddle, who’s going to care that the Old School Cowboys never got their own personal Jacuzzis?

Other ranches on our list strive for a more bona fide Old West experience. When Houston businessman John Poindexter purchased Cibolo Creek Ranch in 1990, his goal was to preserve the Texas property’s 19th-century aesthetic, down to the very last detail. To that end, he brought in adobe specialists to re-create the original exterior, concealed any electrical conduits (he had antique lamp models electrified) and removed all anachronistic features like TVs or phones.

But while the high-end celebrity clients who visit Cibolo might be willing to forgo TV, they certainly have other luxe expectations. Their rib-eye steaks better be Kobe, and as for cowboy coffee, this is more of an espresso-drinking crowd. With calfskin rugs, king-size beds draped with velvet and gourmet cuisine, Cibolo doesn’t disappoint. Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall even liked this place so much they once tried to purchase its La Cienga Lodge. Said Poindexter comments: “Yes, I turned Mick and Jerry down. She was more interested than he.”

© Vista Verde
As the only ranch on our list offering hot-air ballooning, Vista Verde clearly lives up to the first part of its name. During the summertime, little buckaroos are particularly welcome as the ranch has an extensive, supervised children’s program so weary parents can relax in their private cabin’s hot tub after a day of riding, rafting or trekking among the Colorado aspens.
But who says dude ranches are only for cowboys? According to Kilgore—a bona fide gentleman cowboy himself—many high-end ranches are increasingly targeting a female audience, believing that women are the ones most appreciative of quality service and attention to five-star detail. And several are saddling up with the uber-popular “girls getaway” trend.

Starting this May, Montana’s Mountain Sky Ranch is offering a four-day Wild West Woman Adventure, where groups of cowgirls ride throughout the day and two-step with the ranch’s wranglers at night. And starting this Mother’s Day (and ending July 1st), Siwash Lake (the only Canadian ranch to grace our list) offers a three-night Chicks in Chaps package for galloping gals. (A “bridles and broads” deal has yet to be announced.)

But enough of these fancy alliterative shenanigans. In the wise words of Kilgore, “It’s not about gimmicks. Ranches are the real thing. They’re real nature served up in a lot of very exciting ways.”

After consulting with Kilgore and several other experts in the field, we’ve rounded up 10 of North America’s most luxurious dude ranches. Like the horses in a herd, each is sure to have its own unique temperament; i.e. some are better suited for families, while others are ideal for romance. These thoroughbreds, however, are all in the high-end category. And every one of them has a hot tub. Happy trails.

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