by Allen Cox with Web Extras by Myrna Oakley | Photo © Paradise Guest Ranch
Dozens of guest ranches dot the Northwest landscape. Whether you are seeking a rustic, authentically western experience, a high-end luxury retreat, or something in-between, you can find what you’re looking for. Guest ranches span the spectrum of amenities, surroundings and experiences, appealing to many different budgets. Some are working cattle ranches, while others cater strictly to guests. Some offer tightly-organized activity programs, while others customize activities to guest specifications. Most are all-inclusive vacation destinations. What each has in common is the experience of climbing on horseback and traversing the magnificent western landscape, whether in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana or Wyoming.
The 18-mile drive from U.S 395 up to Bull Hill Guest Ranch delivers sweeping views of pine forest and grasslands above northeastern Washington’s Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (nps.gov/laro). The lake, created with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, snakes 130 miles through the valley floor and dominates the magnificent view as you climb to the ranch.
At the ranch’s welcome sign, the road continues to climb to a collection of wooden cabins and luxury tents, a stable and a cookhouse that serves as the main gathering place for guests and staff. The ranch has been in the Guglielmino family since 1903. Like many guest ranches, it began as a homestead. The family uses much of its 55,000 acres, which border British Columbia, for grazing its massive herd of beef cattle. Four Guglielmino men are among the hard-working ranch hands whose jobs flow between moving and managing cattle, tending the horses and, now, since becoming a guest ranch in 1995, hospitality. There is nothing staged or pretentious about the ranch. This is an authentic working cattle ranch where guests can ride, fish (catch and release), shoot skeet, and ride some more—two rides a day for anyone whose hindquarters can handle it.
“Most of our guests are inexperienced or first-time riders,” says Tucker Gugliermino, the marketing brains behind the ranch. “If we have a mix of experience levels, we group our trail rides by level to give everyone the best experience possible. Our horses are very gentle, so it’s easy for inexperienced riders.”
Guests can ride day after day and never explore the same trail twice. During weeks when the ranch hands are driving cattle, those who are up for a more rugged back-country challenge can join in and learn the ropes from professional wranglers.
Gathering for meals in the cookhouse—actually a great room with a large deck overlooking the Columbia River Valley and Lake Roosevelt far below—becomes a social affair where guests get to know one another as well as the staff and are genuinely made to feel like part of the Guglielmino family. Meals are serve-yourself buffets featuring satisfying home cooking, and plenty of it. At evening meals, the ranch hands tend to gather around the bar, and the open bar policy lets adult guests imbibe and enjoy parlays with the genial cowboy hosts.
Bull Hill Guest Ranch is a favorite of families, many returning year after year with the ranch as their anchor vacation destination. Those who want a break from riding can head to the ranch’s Ansaldo Lake for some fishing (bring your own fishing gear), a dip or just floating away the afternoon in a row boat surrounded by wilderness and, if you’re lucky, a black bear or elk appearing at the shoreline for a drink. Bull Hill’s neighbors include China Bend Winery (chinabend.com), located the distance of a full-day’s scenic round-trip ride on horseback or a much shorter trip by car, definitely worth a visit for their fine, organic wines.
In the cabins at Bull Hill, guests don’t find TVs or phones, but they do find a warm, comfortable space to unwind and unplug from the outside world with all the necessary creature comforts at hand and enough space for the entire family. It’s not uncommon to wake up to elk or deer grazing outside the cabin door and the whinnies of the horses getting ready for the day’s rides.
Nearly all guest ranches have several things in common. You’ll likely enjoy rustic log quarters with an old west vibe and comfortable (if not luxurious) amenities. Horseback riding in the great outdoors is the main attraction. You can expect the opportunity to fish, shoot skeet, swim, hike and socialize around a roaring campfire. The meals are typically hearty, plentiful and delicious. The staff, including the ranch hands, are there to make sure you enjoy your stay.
Even with all these commonalities, every guest ranch is different from the next. Location, terrain and surroundings are the obvious differentiators. If you’re looking for what sets a guest ranch apart, examine their website or call and inquire. You’ll discover unique aspects at each. One unique offering that no other quest ranch can claim might be exactly the experience you’re looking for and could keep you coming back year after year.
Here are other Northwest Guest Ranches and some unique aspects of each. Rates vary greatly from ranch to ranch, and are usually all-inclusive, with child rates based on age range. For an all-inclusive, one-week vacation during peak season, you can expect to pay roughly $1700 to $3500 per adult (taxes not included).
Aspen Ridge Resort, in the scenic high country of southern Oregon, near Bly, is on the site of a century-old cattle ranch, family owned and operated. A summer concert series sets this ranch apart; performers are listed on their website. This ranch, unlike most others, is not all-inclusive. The nearest city with daily flights is Klamath Falls, a 2.5-hour drive from the ranch. aspenrr.com, southernoregon.org
Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, near Sandpoint, Idaho, offers guests rustic luxury in the main lodge or in a cabin with full kitchen facilities, perfect for families or small groups vacationing together. The ranch has a rich program of organized events for guests: a dinner cruise, dutch oven dinner at the campfire and competitive cattle sorting. The ranch is a 2-hour drive from the nearest airport in Spokane, Washington. westernpleasureranch.com, visitsandpoint.org
Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, Stanley, Idaho, is located in one of the west’s most stunning settings near the Sawtooth Range and Salmon River. A natural hot springs pool on the property soothes aching muscles after a long day of riding. Special evening events and a summer concert series keep guests well entertained. Nearest flights are to Boise, a scenic three hours from the ranch. idahorocky.com, centralidahorockies.org
Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge in western Montana sports a waterfront location, giving it a unique character and a broad menu of activities for guests. Horse programs allow beginning riders to learn to handle their mount in the arena before heading to the trail, and kids’ programs let children spend time with a wrangler to learn how to properly care for a horse. This ranch is perfect for families, with its organized activities, such as the nightly tipi camp out for kids. Accommodations include historic log lodges and rustic cabins set along the shores of the lake. Amtrak offers service to Whitefish, MT, 45 minutes from the lodge; flights are available to Kalispell, 30-minutes from the lodge. flatheadlakelodge.com, glaciermt.com
Lone Mountain Guest Ranch in the Rocky Mountain terrain of Big Sky, Montana, was originally a cattle ranch, and today is on the National Register of Historic Places. This all-inclusive family ranch offers an Outdoor Youth Adventure Program to get younger guests in touch with nature. Guests also can enjoy tours of Yellowstone National Park (only 18 miles from the ranch). Chef-prepared meals at Lone Mountain Guest Ranch are gourmet creations using locally-sourced ingredients from Montana producers. The closest airport is in Bozeman, MT, one hour from the ranch. lonemountainranch.com, visityellowstonecountry.com
Paradise Guest Ranch near Buffalo, Wyoming, is a century-old ranch that includes guided 4-day wilderness pack trips and guided hikes on their menu of activities. The ranch offers instruction in horseback riding and the finer points of fishing, making this a favorite of guests with no prior experience. If you’re vacationing without kids, check the website for autumn weeks set aside for adults. The nearest airport is in Sheridan, WY, about one hour from the ranch. paradiseranch.com, buffalowyo.com
New to Guest Ranching?
Web Extra by Myrna Oakley
You’ve occasionally fantasized about getting in touch with your inner cowboy or cowgirl, but ranch life is new to you. You’ve considered saddling up at a guest ranch but you’ve never been on horseback. You don’t want to admit it, but you’re a little intimidated. Is everyone else going to be an experienced wrangler, leaving you in the dust? You find scenes from “City Slickers” replaying in your mind.
Not to worry. Not only can you learn how to mount your steed, you can also get acquainted with your horse. Horses will know if you like them, and they want to like you back. Most are curious about new riders.
I won’t take long to relax and enjoy the sound of clopping hooves, squeaking saddles and horses’ whinnies as you traverse the scenic trail. But, first, here are a few tips to get you started:
Meeting your horse:
Request a gentle horse that works well with new riders. Clues to your horse’s disposition are a soft whinny and ears that are positioned up and slightly forward rather than laid back.
Begin to bond with your horse. Carefully and gently stroke the horse’s neck. Allow the horse to sniff your hand.
Nobody expects you to be the horse whisperer, but speak gently to the horse, letting him become familiar with your voice.
Don’t ever accept a horse that is jumpy or edgy. Be firm about not riding Tornado or Hurricane, the steeds who love jumping across creeks or galloping ahead of other mounts.
Ranch hands work with new riders every day. He or she will saddle your horse and assist you with mounting and sitting astride western style-saddles.
The ranch hand will adjust the stirrups to your height and leg length.
The ranch hand will teach you how to guide and turn your horse using the reins, so sit tall but relaxed and hold the reins gently.
After the ride, the ranch hand will take care of the removing the saddle and gear and release the horse to the stable or pasture.
When you hit the trail:
Wear sturdy shoes or cowboy boots and jeans, and dress in layers appropriate for the weather.
A ranch hand will lead the ride.
Choose short rides at first, a few hours or less, especially for the first couple of days. Your back-side and leg muscles definitely will talk to you.
Don’t ever head out on the trail alone, and leave the 6-hour forays into the higher hills and craggy mountains to the veteran riders.
Check out these two guest ranches for a taste of the Old West
Web Extra by Allen Cox
Long Hollow Ranch, near Sisters, Oregon, is a historic property with a long ranching tradition. A working cattle ranch, it welcomes guests to share the experience of life on the ranch. While the main event is horseback riding, guests can also experience all the activities this central Oregon outdoor recreation hub has to offer: hiking, rafting, fishing and much more. Guests stay in civilized fashion in the ranch house B&B or can rent the rustic and fully-equipped bunkhouse for the entire family. Long Hollow Ranch is a 30-minute drive from the nearest airport in Redmond, Oregon. lhranch.com, visitcentraloregon.com. Absaroka Mountain Lodge, located 12 miles from the east gate of Yellowstone National Park, lies in a mountain canyon (Gunbarrel Canyon) that Teddy Roosevelt called “the most scenic in the America.” This historic property, in the nation’s first national forest (Shoshone), offers an authentically western setting that looks like the backdrop for a John Wayne film. Wrangler-guided trail rides head up the magnificent valley surrounded by rugged rock pinnacles standing like fortresses. Meals are served in the lodge’s quaint restaurant or at the campfire up the trail, and lodging is in several rustic cabins. The nearest airport is in Cody, WY, less than an hour from the ranch. absarokamtlodge.com, codychamber.org