Dude Ranches Offer a Family Reunion Bonanza


When I was young, my family watched the great television westerns like Bonanza, Rawhide, Wagon Train and Maverick.

Although we lived in Akron, Ohio at the time, those programs about the Old West put us in touch with an entirely different part of the country and a lifestyle we could only dream about. Those shows, and America’s fascination with the Old West, have endured the test of time and are still seen today on cable channels all over the world.

Today, your family doesn’t have to watch television to dream about the Old West. They can be part of it!

Families hold their reunions at dude ranches every year to experience that Old West living. Dude ranches are spread across the mountains, deserts, and rivers of the Old West from Idaho to Arizona. Here’s a little help in choosing a dude ranch for your next family reunion.

“A select group of dude ranches are part of The Association of Dude Ranchers which was started in 1926, “said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the association. “These select ranches have met strict criteria to become part of the association. They work together to bring you and your family exhilarating experiences in mountains, on rivers, and, of course, on the ranch. In addition to the traditional activities like horseback riding, rafting, fishing and hiking, today’s association member ranches offer kids programs, hot air ballooning, lake dinner cruises and dozens of other activities that will bring families closer together, all while experiencing the grandeur of nature.  Even better, you can leave your wallet at home because most Dude Ranch Association member ranches operate as all-inclusive vacations with plentiful and friendly staffs dedicated to helping you enjoy your stay.”

That’s right, these dude ranches are all-inclusive vacations, usually lasting from a Sunday check in to a Saturday check out. Three hearty meals a day, all the horseback riding you want, and dozens of other activities all included in the one price. Families enjoy the beauty of the outdoors free from the stress of their everyday lives.

In addition to the convenience of the all-inclusive experience, you’ll find that most dude ranches are steeped in history and tradition.

Look at Janice and Roley Schoonover’s Western Pleasure Guest Ranch in northern Idaho. Just 60 miles south of the Canadian border, the Western Pleasure Ranch was founded by Janice’s grandfather, a sharecropper from Colorado.

“Grandpa made his way in 1940 to Idaho with $600 in his pocket to buy 360 acres. In 1958 my parents expanded it to 600 acres,” Janice said. “When I was young, my four older brothers and I lived on the ranch with over 1,000 chickens.”

In the mid 1990s, Janice and her husband, Roley, began entertaining guests at the ranch. At first, they only offered log cabins, but in 2007 they built a lodge to accommodate even more guests and a dining hall. In the week you spend at the Western Pleasure you will horseback ride through pastures and mountains, have a dinner cruise on Lake Pend Oreille, take in some archery or clay pigeon shooting, ride a chairlift up Schweitzer Mountain, visit quaint downtown Sandpoint and much more.

I visited with several Association members to get their ideas on why they believe dude ranches have become so popular for family reunions.

Zip line

Zip line at Bar Lazy J Ranch.

Jerry and Cheri Helmicki, of the Bar Lazy J Ranch in Colorado, left the corporate world to buy a ranch back in 1995 and never looked back. “Watching a child having a good time, building memories, and discovering nature without having a device in his hand is gratifying.” Cheri said. She repeated a line she heard from a grandparent, “Rather than leave my family money, I would rather leave them memories.”

Kari Kilmer, of the Vee Bar Ranch in Laramie, Wyoming, shared a little of the ranch’s history. “In 1891, it was a stagecoach stop to serve the many miners in the area,” Kilmer said. “Later it became a post office. From there, it evolved into several businesses, but in 1995, my dad started the operation of the dude ranch. Today, my husband, Brent, and I manage it with our children. We are involved with all aspects of the operation including cooking, music making and storytelling. Our family reunions love all the activities we provide like trapshooting, fishing, hiking, tubing,  wagon rides and Friday night sing-alongs.” You can read more of the history of the Vee Bar here: Vee Bar History.

Vee Bar

Kids ranch at Vee Bar Ranch.

“The experience touches lives like nothing else. We’ve had fathers create ongoing funds to ensure their families can continue to return because they valued the experience and time together so much. Grandparents have unique opportunities to bond with their grandchildren. We see it all the time,” said Jeanne Ross from Colorado Trails Ranch in Durango Colorado.

“We’re lucky to be one of the few ranches that border on Yellowstone National Park,” said Kameron Kelsey of the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in Montana. “To be able to have your family reunion and take a horseback ride into one of the most magnificent parks in the world is just … well, a bucket list opportunity. We’re grateful to be able to give families this incredible experience.”

Rita Cote, president of the Dude Ranchers Association and owner of the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch in Arizona summed it up with one phrase, “When families arrive at our dude ranches they bring in an idea, a concept of what they believe ‘family’ means, but at the end of the week they discover a very new concept of the word. Dude ranches have a unique way of bringing families together … which is why so many of them have their family reunions at them year after year.”

Book a dude ranch family reunion this year. You’ll create cherished memories for all generations of your family and it may even become a tradition your heirs will maintain for decades to come.

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