A woman in a black shirt, black cowboy hat, orange scarf, and holding a mug, calmly scratches the side of a horse's muzzle.
All photos by Steven Meckler unless otherwise stated

Know Before You Go

Why Your Next Vacay Should be an Arizona Dude Ranch

If your knowledge of dude ranches is limited to the 1990s Billy Crystal comedy "City Slickers," think of this as your crash course in all things Arizona dude ranches.

Dude ranches boast an impressive history.

In the late 19th century, as the transcontinental expanded and brought people westward in search of an authentic taste of the Wild West, ranchers were facing a struggling cattle industry and looking for ways to drum up more revenue.

Enter dude ranches. Family-operated working ranches opened up to the public and invited guests to eat, sleep, learn and play on their properties for a week or two. This gave owners a chance to share their uniquely Western way of life—and their uniquely welcoming spirit, which thrives to this day.

No ranchin', ropin' or ridin' experience necessary.

Several people on horseback work to corral four cows in an open pen. Behind them are views of the mountains and cacti.
Guests try their hand at team penning

Many first-timers worry that dude ranches require prior Western experience in order to participate. Never ridden a horse before? No problem. The trained cowboys and cowgirls will teach you everything. In fact, Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia takes great pride in selecting horses that match each guest perfectly, no matter their skill level. Have no idea what team penning is? Great! You'll find out at Tucson's Tanque Verde Ranch where you can join in or sit back and watch. The beauty of a dude ranch vacation is that it doubles as an immersive learning experience everyone can enjoy.

Dude ranches are (mostly) all-inclusive.

The best way to take advantage of the wide-open skies and unspoiled rugged beauty of a dude ranch is to let someone else do all the planning. That's why most of Arizona's dude ranches are all-inclusive. Meals, activities, accommodations and amenities all fall under a single fee, usually billed upon check-in or check-out. This leaves you plenty of time to sit back and relax—or pack your day full of activity. The choice is yours, which leads us to…

A turquoise pool shines under a blue sky with white clouds. A peach-colored adobe building stands in the background.
Rancho de los Caballeros, Wickenburg (Credit: An Pham)

A dude ranch vacation is as demanding as you make it.

Before you arrive, you'll likely complete a questionnaire that the owners use to gauge your interest in, and comfort with, ranch life.

At Flying E Ranch in Wickenburg, guests can opt for a thrilling cattle drive, romp through the mountains on an ATV, or keep things light with a dip in the heated swimming pool. Milk a cow at Sprucedale Guest Ranch in Alpine, or help collect chicken eggs at Cherry Creek Lodge in Young. And at Tombstone Monument Ranch, you can put in a hard day's work mending fences or simply kick back with a cup of coffee. Too hands-on? Join a hayride instead. While we're on the subject...

You'll never run out of things to do.

Four adults and a young boy stand in a line and draw their bows as they practice archery.
Archery practice at Tanque Verde Ranch, Tucson

It's true that the main attraction at a dude ranch is horseback riding—most ranches offer multiple rides throughout the day—but guests will have no trouble finding other ways to fill their time. Though you won't want to miss a horseback ride to breakfast or a sunset trot through the desert, these additional adventures offer more fun ways to keep you busy:

Archery
Badminton
Barn dance
Basketball
Bicycling
Bird-watching
Campfire
Cattle drive
Cookouts
Fishing
Foosball
Golf
Hayrides
Hiking
Humvee ride
Movie night
Nature center
Off-roading
Petting zoo
Pickleball
Ping-Pong
Pony ride
Roping
Skeet shooting
Spa services
Swimming
Team penning
Tennis
Volleyball
Yoga

Get ready to eat very well.

Two images: One features a chef cooking a breakfast omelet. The other has several women in Western gear at a cookout

At Stagecoach Guest Ranch in Yucca, about 24 miles south of Kingman, a bell rings to signal mealtime. And when it chimes, guests stop whatever they're doing and stream into the sunlit dining room for tasty food. You'd be surprised how ravenous you feel after a day spent on the range, which is why most dude ranches employ talented chefs to serve up delicious eats. At Stagecoach, you might get fresh-baked cookies still warm from the oven.

Dinner at White Stallion Ranch in Tucson features quality meats grilled over an open flame. And gourmet fare awaits at Wickenburg's Rancho de Los Caballeros—from extravagant brunch buffets to formal dinners complete with a sophisticated wine list. Of course, many ranches still feature the cowboy staple, the evening cookout, where guests can gather over an open fire and swap stories under the stars.

You'll sleep well, too.

Accommodations at dude ranches range from hotel-style guest rooms to hacienda-like lodging. Most include a patio or front porch for taking in the stellar scenery and well-appointed touches such as fireplaces, reading nooks, cozy throws and fine linens.

Dude ranches welcome all ages and abilities.

Because of the volume and variety of activities, dude ranches are particularly suited for multi-generational vacations. And the ability to customize a stay, plus the ease of social interaction among would-be strangers, also makes dude ranches popular with solo travelers. Female guests make new friends during Women’s Week, a specialty offering at most dude ranches, and couples often choose dude ranches as a bonding honeymoon experience.

Even guests seeking a barrier-free experience can find fun. For example, Stagecoach Trails is one of the only fully ADA-accessible ranches in the country. Guest rooms here sport wide doorways and handicap-equipped bathrooms; wheelchair-accessible ramps lead to the entrances of shared spaces and buildings; and, a specially built structure in the corral allows for barrier-free riding. Stagecoach even partners with Wounded Warriors, a veterans services organization, to welcome active military and veterans to the ranch.

You'll find dude ranches all over Arizona.

From the cool pines of northeastern Arizona to the saguaro forests of southern Arizona, dude ranches sprawl among thousands of acres in every corner of the state. For more information on some of Arizona's dude ranches, connect with the Arizona Dude Ranch Association.

About the Author

Jessica Dunham

Jessica Dunham is a travel, food and fitness writer whose work has been published in PHOENIX Magazine, Runner's World, Phoenix New Times, Valley Guide, Phoenix Travel Guide, Modern Luxury Scottsdale and more. She is passionate about all things Arizona, especially spontaneous Saturday daytrips around the state. She can be reached at dunham-media.com.