When I was I child, my family vacationed several summers at a dude ranch. I made many happy memories and hoped some day to replicate those experiences with my own kids. At ages 8 and 4, my kids are still pretty young and I must admit that dude ranch vacations were not really on my radar for them just yet. I thought my kids were too little for a ranch trip to be a fit for a least a few more years.
When the opportunity arose to pay a visit to White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, however, we jumped at the chance. So what if it was a little too soon? We are always up for an adventure.
Ultimately, it was worth the leap of faith. We found out that my kids were ready for ranch travel earlier than we thought. My 8 year old daughter was absolutely in the sweet spot. She was old enough to ride and was independent enough that I could give her free reign to roam on the property. Although my 4 year old was still too young for trail riding, he really enjoyed the activities and family time together.
If you have younger kids, they might be ready for a ranch vacation earlier than you think! And if you have a wide range of ages in your traveling family, definitely do not wait until the little one is old enough – you may miss some prime years with the rest of your family.
The key, of course, is picking the right ranch and preparing accordingly. It helped immensely that the ranch we chose was well-suited for families. Here are our tips for making a ranch vacation successful if you have babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and young kids in tow.
Tips for Dude Ranches with Young Kids
1. Look for Family Accommodations
One thing ranches have is a lot of land. That usually translates into larger lodging options that work for families. I found in my research that a lot of dude ranches offer family suites or multi-room cabins that give everyone in the family their own space. Having separate rooms is especially key if you have a young child with an earlier bedtime. No one likes to have to tiptoe around a dark hotel room so the little one can stay asleep.
We stayed in a two room family suite at White Stallion Ranch in Tucson that worked perfectly for our family. With a king bed in the master and a pair of twin beds and a daybed in the second room, the suite slept 5 comfortably. My 4 year old was wiped out after a full day of activity at the ranch, and we all loved that we were able to put him to bed earlier thanks to this setup.
2. A Wide Variety of Activities are Key
In choosing a ranch with young kids the most important thing to look for is activities. Will your children have enough to do? Many younger kids, even if they are old enough to ride, probably do not want to ride all day. We picked White Stallion Ranch in part because of the multitude of non-riding activities offered. These activities were still very much in keeping with the ranch spirit of outdoor adventure and family togetherness. During our 4 day stay, the kids spent a ton of time in the pool, hit up the impressively stocked game room, played on the playground (even in the mid-day Arizona heat!), went country line dancing, painted, listened to a cowboy singer, and hiked in a nearby national park. Needless to stay, they were not bored at all.
3. Ask about Kids Clubs and Babysitting
Like many resorts, dude ranches are increasingly offering kids programming. These programs give parents a chance to ride together or maybe hit the spa knowing that the kids are safe and having fun. The offerings vary from ranch to ranch, but quite a few offer a kids club for kids ages 3-5 or supervised riding programs for the younger elementary age crowd. Just be sure to inquire about seasonal availability as these programs are often only offered when kids are on school and summer breaks.
Even if there is no supervised regular kids programming, call the concierge in advance to see if there are babysitter services recommended nearby. Alternatively, consider making a ranch vacation a multigenerational adventure for some built in babysitting. My family regularly brings grandma and grandpa along for our travels. We might just invite them along on our next dude ranch getaway
4. Check the Riding Cutoff Ages
If you plan to visit a dude ranch with younger kids, it is vitally important to check the ranch’s cutoff ages for riding to avoid disappointment. It varies quite a bit from ranch to ranch! White Stallion Ranch had one of the younger cutoff ages I saw in my research at age 5 (for slow rides only; kids have to be 8 to be eligible for fast rides). Other ranches may set minimum ages at 6, 7, or even 8. Even if younger kids are not eligible to trail ride, the ranch may well offer them the chance to ride a horse on a lead, as our 4 year old got to do.
5. Go During Peak Season
I’m usually all about avoiding the crowds and going to destinations during shoulder or off season. I think dude ranches may be an exception to that rule. During peak periods like summer vacation or the Christmas holidays (for the ranches in warmer climates), ranches are full of families with kids out of school. Most kids will have more fun and enjoy a ranch vacation even more if they are surrounded by a lot of other kids of their own age. If you go mid-week during shoulder season they might not find that same camaraderie. Just be sure to book early – up to even a year in advance for the most popular ranches at peak times!
6. Go for Accessibility
A lot of ranches are in truly remote locations, which is part of the appeal for many travelers. If you are headed to a ranch with young children, however, extensive travel time on back roads may not be your idea of fun. Look for ranches that are easily accessible where logistics of getting there are not too challenging.
One of the reasons we picked White Stallion Ranch on our own vacation was that it was just outside of Tucson, Arizona. We could easily fly non-stop to Phoenix and drive (or we could have booked an easy connecting flight straight into Tucson’s airport). The location put us within reasonable driving distance of other family-friendly things to do, which came in handy. We took advantage of the horses’ day off on Sunday to take a day trip into Tucson and visit the Pima Air Museum as well as Saguaro National Park.
Yesterday was the horses’ day off on our dude ranch vacation in Tucson, so we seized the opportunity for a quick visit to @saguaronationalpark. The little guy loved taking pictures of all the cacti 🌵and we found the short .5 mile desert loop to be an easy hike he could do all on his own. Used our annual national parks pass which has already more than paid for itself in just a few months as many parks as we visit in our travels! #tmom #ranchvacation #findyourpark #travelwithkids #familytravel #takeyourkidseverywhere #saguaro #nationalpark #nationalparks #saguaronationalpark #cactus @whitestallionranch @duderanchvacations
7. Get the Gear
Speciality travel gear is expensive, especially for kids who outgrow things so fast. (I know this well, given how much we love to ski with our kids!). But if you are going to go to a dude ranch, it’s important to have a few items. Your kids are going to want to look the part and you are going to want to make sure they are safe when riding. The Dude Rancher’s Association has a complete dude ranch packing list to help, but we found that good cowboy boots (with long socks) and a cowboy hat were absolute necessities.
Have you taking your kids to a dude ranch? Share your tips and experiences in the comments.