Who hasn’t dreamed—at least once—about living a simple life out on the range? You don’t need to trade in your educator credentials for cowboy boots to experience the rancher life. Instead, consider spending a few days at a guest ranch near you. Winter is an especially good time to visit as rates are typically lower in the colder months. And, while you can expect fewer crowds than in the summer, you won’t lack for activities. Most ranches have horseback and sleigh rides, while some offer ice fishing, snowmobiling, spa treatments and discounts for local ski areas or dog sledding. Summer packages are usually seven days and are all-inclusive, whereas winter bookings can be for 1-3 nights, although they may only cover lodging and meals with an á la carte menu of options for activities.
When planning a ranch vacation, consider these five properties that offer good value. Rate key: $=200/night and $$=$201 to $399, double occupancy/lodging and meals; $$$=$400/night and up, double occupancy/all-inclusive.
1. Malibu Dude Ranch, Milford, Pennsylvania $$$
Photo courtesy of Malibu Dude Branch
Unlimited horseback riding is complimentary at this historic Pocono Mountain ranch that offers guided trail rides on its 800-acre property. Bring your ice skates and ice fishing gear as Malibu Lake is only steps away from the main lodge with its 12 spacious, Western-themed rooms. Cabins are also available. The ranch offers snowmobile excursions for an extra fee, and it can arrange for discounted lift tickets at nearby ski resorts. (You can rent equipment at most ski resorts.) After a day on the trail, cozy up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate or swim in the heated indoor pool. Unwind at the Malibu Saloon before dinner, at which you might have trouble deciding between the ranchero pulled pork, bourbon-glazed brisket or wild mushroom ravioli. Photo courtesy of Malibu Dude Branch
Lesson-plan resources: Teach your students about horseback riding.
Driving distance: 1 hour 30 minutes from New York, New York | 2 hours 30 minutes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Hartford, Connecticut | 5 hours from Buffalo, New York and Washington, D.C.
2. Woodside Ranch, Mauston, Wisconsin $$
Photo courtesy of Woodside Ranch
This family-oriented ranch is within easy driving distance of several Midwestern cities, making it the perfect place to stay and play when snow is in the forecast. The ranch offers several activities for kids from crafts and pony rides to a hill for sledding. Sleds and snow tubes are provided. Cross-country ski trails wend through the wooded property, although guests can also ride horses or take a sleigh ride. The fun continues with line dancing lessons, family board game nights and talent shows—although you may be reluctant to leave your homey cabin with its wood-burning fireplace. Cabins sleep from two to 15, with additional lodging in the main ranch house.
Lesson-plan resources: Teach your classroom about cattle drives and the Westward Expansion.
Driving distance: 1 hour 20 minutes from Madison, Wisconsin | 2 hours from Milwaukee, Wisconsin | 3 hours from Minneapolis, Minnesota | 3 hours 15 minutes from Chicago, Illinois
3. Dixie Dude Ranch, Bandera, Texas $$
Photo courtesy of Dixie Dude Ranch
Winter doesn’t have to mean cold and snow. For a different winter ranch experience, head to Bandera, Texas: Cowboy Capital of the World. This century-old working stock ranch offers plenty of Western-style fun including trail rides, hayrides and campfire sing-alongs and storytelling. You can hike, fish or unwind with a massage. When the dinner bell rings, join other guests in the chow hall for all-you-can-eat, family-style meals of barbecue ribs, brisket, fried chicken and other hearty cowboy fare. The ranch also hosts outdoor barbecues and occasional breakfasts on the range. A mix of accommodations suit every budget.
Lesson-plan resources: Develop a lesson on cowboys through the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Driving distance: 1 hour from San Antonio, Texas | 2 hours from Austin, Texas | 4 hours from Houston, Texas | 5 hours to Dallas, Texas
4. Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, Red Feather Lakes, Colorado $
This high-country getaway borders the Roosevelt National Forest, which has a number of trails for horseback riding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. With a limit of 24 guests, you’ll feel like part of the family here. The personalized attention extends from the home-cooked meals to the well-appointed rooms in the mountain lodge and cabins to the staff, including the wranglers who’ll help you feel comfortable in the saddle for that winter trail ride. Enjoy a massage or the Jacuzzi, and don’t leave Fido home. He’s welcome here. Ask about the murder mystery packages, offered only in winter, which include two nights’ lodging, three squares, riding and, of course, a fictional murder mystery to solve.
Lesson-plan resources: Explore the U.S. Forest Service’s resources for teachers.
Driving distance: 1 hour from Fort Collins, Colorado | 1 hour 20 minutes from Cheyenne, Wyoming | 2 hours from Denver, Colorado | 3 hours from Colorado Springs, Colorado
5. Bar W Guest Ranch, Whitefish, Montana $
Photo courtesy of Donnie Sexton/Bar W Guest Ranch
When the snow flies, the fun begins at this northwestern Montana ranch. Go horseback riding, take a sleigh ride or try your hand at ice fishing on Spencer Lake. Snowmobilers will find a number of great trails near the lodge. Cross-country, alpine or backcountry skiing can be arranged as can dog sledding. The ranch is only 3.5 miles from the shops and day spas in Whitefish, although no one will blame you if you opt to settle in with a good book or soak in the hot tub. Accommodations are in the main lodge and cabin suites and include three hearty meals served family-style.
Lesson-plan resources: The Montana Natural History Center helps educators introduce nature into the classroom.
Driving distance: 2 hours 30 minutes from Missoula, Montana | 3 hours 45 minutes from Helena, Montana | 4 hours from Butte, Montana | 4 hours 20 minutes from Spokane, Washington