How does a Dude Ranch Holiday with kids work?

It’s interesting to me to see the variety of approaches to traveling with kids to dude ranches. As I survey the various ranches, and explore their program offerings, I see several general trends and approaches to handling children while on a ranch holiday.

The first approach – Get a sitter, and go ranching without the buckaroos! I got a good laugh out of one ranch that candidly remarked “We don’t have a kids program and our activities are aimed at adult participants.” While the honesty is refreshing, it surely limits the targeted travel audience. Most ranches do a work-around of sorts for those wanting time away from the little buckaroos. They offer an “Adults Only” schedule during their shoulder seasons. The fall months, when the kids are back in school, provide the most commonly scheduled season for an adult oriented ranch stay. During the programed adults only weeks, the social bar scene is emphasized, the cuisine is targeted to a more sophisticated palate, and the riding is focused on mature riders with typically better riding skills.


family travel to a dude ranch allows kids to bond with animals

Kids love the dogs at the California dude ranch

The second approach – Hire the on-site ranch babysitter and park the older kids with the ranch youth counselor. Some parents want to travel to the ranch with the kids, but then have adult and couples time while at the ranch. By far, the majority of ranches operate some sort of program aimed at keeping younger participants engaged. Ranch based activities in these programs are choreographed to match the capacity of the kids. Toddlers may simply be at an in-house day care with a western theme, while the 5 – 12 year olds may be painting horses, going on “snipe hunts”, swimming at the pool, and learning horsemanship ground-work. The opportunities for children to free range and explore a more natural ranch setting are remarkable and should not be lightly dismissed. This is also the perfect opportunity to help techno-addicted kids to disconnect from the digital world they live in. Rather than further bonding to their digital devices, the kids can practice some old school communication with family, they can immerse in the natural wonders of the ranch setting, and they can connect with horses, dogs, and the other ranch animal life. In my opinion, the ranch experience may be one of the best opportunities for younger minds as they experience an unfamiliar outdoor lifestyle and the realities of ranch culture.


Children and horses programs

Dude Ranches enable city children to expand their horizons and connect with horses

The third approach – Engage the complete family unit in as many ranch events as possible. As my Grandma would say “bring the whole fam-damily!” This approach choreographs the ranch activities so that they are shared with a complete and intact family. Obviously safety for the smaller bodies is the critical path here. Activities will need to be dialed down to suit the least capable participant, or the risk of injury will be accelerated. This approach also presumes that the parents are willing to forgo the more adventurous ranch events to give preference to time spent with their younger offspring. Grandparent travel is the perfect example of how this approach successfully places cross-generational participants in shared adventures and enables generational bonding. The joint participation in new and engaging adventures, will foster long term memories for the participants to share and re-visit during following years. It also strengthens immediate relationships as participants interact together through the course of the adventures.  The expanded version of this concept grows into the market niche of building family reunions around a dude ranch holiday

At California’s Marble Mountain dude ranch, we strongly emphasize the third approach of shared family adventure.   However, we also operate a “young buckaroo” program. We have many of our trail rides, raft trips, and shooting range events that are beyond the capacity of most children under the age of 6. Our answer is to provide our early week rides and rafting trips at an easier level that can accommodate more youthful participants and possibly allow a complete family to participate. As the week progresses and the trail rides and river excursions increase in exposure, we move the younger children to our buckaroo program. The young buckaroos then get private time at our small animal area, they get age appropriate horse exposure, and they participate in ranch related craft projects. If the kids are just too young to even start in the main activities, they start immediately in the buckaroo program. The placement of children at a specific program is done in consultation with the guardians, and is managed in a way that preserves safety as our prime directive.


Opportunities for new adventures await kids at a dude ranch

Toddlers getting to know horses

Even with a break-out buckaroo program, we still have complete family participation at all meals, at evening campfires, on our Thursday fish-lake outing, and on our Tuesday beginner rafting trip.

So, what is right for your family? When prospective ranch guests call us and disclose that they are traveling with kids, we review our program and make every effort to disclose the realities of our family ranch offerings.

youth programs at California's Dude Ranch

Mom and Daughter enjoy spring rafting at California’s dude ranch


If you just need a break from the kids, then consider joining us prior to June and after the middle of August. You just might enjoy an adult culinary retreat, or a customized riding program suited to your adult skill sets.

In all cases, we hope you can join us, whether as a single, an adult couple, or a complete  and extended family.  The buckaroo program counselors are ready and waiting for your little darlings here at California’s dude ranch.

Doug Cole