5 Things You Never Knew About a Dude Ranch Vacation
Every time I told someone we were spending our summer vacation at Flathead Lake Lodge, a dude ranch in Bigfork, MT, I either got a Big Lebowski quote in response (“The Dude abides, man!”), some version of “So what are you going to do, drive cattle with Curly from City Slickers?” or just a straight-up duuude. No one seemed to a have clue that we were headed to a place that would stay with us forever. And frankly, until we arrived, neither did we. My family spent seven magical days at the ranch, and I hope it’s something everyone can experience at least once. Here’s why:
1. You can relax, actually and truly.
The ranch sits on lush, rolling hills right on the edge of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of Mississippi. Look in almost any direction and you’ll see purple mountains on the horizon. If you need the world to melt away for a while, all you have to do is cozy up on one of the bench swings, gaze out over that gorgeous view, and take a deep, deep breath. Whatever anxiety or stress that followed you, will be gone. You can stay there all day if you like, or you can move your relaxation station over to a poolside chaise or snuggly fireside couch. You can read your book, snooze, chat with the guests, or just stare at the clouds.
Some vacations are meant to be busy—take amazing days-long adventures biking/hiking/whatever-ing that leave you fulfilled but also exhausted, for example. At the ranch, there’s zero pressure to do anything other than what you want at the moment, and that’s heaven for any harried parent (or kid for that matter).
2. The ranch is a free-range-kid heaven!
After about the first three hours, your kids will find their people and start running in packs. They’ll play corn hole, ride bikes, make cute ranch crafts, and play pool in the game room. They’ll jump off the lookout tower into the lake about 100 times in a row and hang with the staff for special outings to pick cherries or do a ropes course. You'll have your aforementioned bliss-out and then you’ll start to miss them—when this happens we suggest scheduling board-game time or a family ride. Your kids will fit you in and then go back to their new friends. They'll love it, and you’ll love watching them literally stretch their wings. But, lest you worry about supervision, here’s the thing: There are eyes everywhere. On top of the 90-plus staffers who roam the grounds, most of the adult guests are moms, dads, and grandparents, who gladly act as default parents for all. That sense of community was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on vacation, and it’s one of the things that I miss most.
3. You can be super into horses—or not.
Naturally, a dude ranch is going to have horses and lots of opportunities to ride. What’s great is that you don’t have to be an experienced rider to join in. At FLL, children, teen, and adult rides are scheduled everyday—and P.S., there’s no cattle involved. You’re matched with a horse, then the group heads out onto the wooded trails single-file. Those who want the opportunity to trot and lope can split off with a wrangler, leaving the slow-pokes (hi! hello!) happily behind. Plus, there are several longer rides scheduled throughout the week for anyone who’s up for it. Also: lessons. They’re included, you just have to sign up early in the week to get your spots.
But say horses just aren’t your thing. That’s ok! You could go sailing, paddle-boarding, or out on a canoe. You could play tennis, hike, or do yoga. Or, you could sign up for an off-ranch adventure, like white-water rafting, fly-fishing, or mountain biking. (Some of these tours cost extra, but everything run by the ranch is included.) And because there is literally so much to do, dude ranches like FLL are perfect destinations for multi-generation trips. In fact, our family of four was in the minority among the guests. There were several large clans consisting of grandparents, their adult kids, and countless cousins celebrating special events like a 50th anniversary or a 75th birthday. Special memories on top of special memories right there!
4. There are mouse races (for real).
Each night, the whole lodge comes together for a little event. One night there’s a cool steer-roping demo, where you can see cowboys do their thing (which is only made more impressive when you try to throw a lasso around a stationary “bull” while standing with your two feet on the ground). There’s also the steak fry, where half the group rides on horseback up to a chuck-wagon campsite and the other half (including all the kids) go up in antique fire trucks. But the night of the mouse races is something else.
First, the kids go, and by go I mean they wildly wave their dollar bills in the air hoping to snag one of 20 numbered spots that correspond to openings on a large metal disc (kind of like a garbage can lid). The mouse gets placed on the center and the first hole he hides in wins the pot! After a couple of rounds, it’s the grown-ups’ turn who bid auction-style on one of six ropes. (Competition is fierce so prepare to team up!) Once the “lanes” are sold, the mice are let loose to scoot across. It’s over in about one minute but I swear you’ll never laugh and cheer so much in your life.
5. It’s a bucket-list trip for most of us (and one worth aiming for).
One of the many things that sets Flathead Lake Lodge apart is that many families return year after year. And because of that connection, new guests often have to book at least a year or two in advance. Don’t let that get you down though. Dude ranch vacations tend to be pricier than other types of trips, and many like FLL are all-inclusive. It’s not a bad thing to have some extra time to plan for it, especially if your goal is to have your extended family join you. This is a trip where new family legends will be made—and that’s something that’s worth everything.