Beyond the Dude Ranch

For many Americans, particularly Baby Boomers, dreams of dude ranch vacations were a quintessential part of childhood. Today, the American southwest is home to some of the best dude ranches in the world, but the very idea of what constitutes “dude ranches” is shifting. What do luxury, eco-consciousness, and concierge service have to do with the dude ranch of the 21st century?

America’s Best Luxury Dude Ranch

Vermejo Park Ranch is, in a nutshell, the epitome of the modern luxury “dude” ranch. The property, owned by noted philanthropist Ted Turner, offers dozens of private lodgings, haute localized cuisine, and on-site guest experiences such as sport shooting and brown trout fishing. Today’s traveler, as it turns out, is looking less for the opportunity to shovel hay and rope calves, and more for an immersive western experience. If authenticity is what elevates a family dude ranch to a Southwestern resort, Vermejo Park Ranch has it in spades.

“Today’s traveler is really looking for an out-of-the-box experience,” says Jane Smith, VP of Tourism at Vermejo. “Our guests are nostalgic about the traditional “dude ranch family vacation” of yesteryear, but they want to experience the culture – from food to accommodations – of the American southwest in a more nuanced, luxurious way.”

Today’s Dude Ranch Resorts Are Different

As is true at Vermejo Park Ranch, many of the best family dude ranches are spending more time thinking about their impact on the wilderness around them. Explains Smith, “If tourism ultimately does more harm than good to the natural surroundings, it’s not worth the trade-off. Our goal is to minimize impact on the flora and fauna here as well as to educate our guests on the vivid culture and unparalleled wildlife to be found on the ranch.” Many dude ranches today take extra steps to ensure guests’ stays are as green as possible, from incorporating sustainable materials into a lodging’s décor to offering private guides for nature hikes to ensure no disturbance to local species.

In addition to a more eco-friendly outlook, resorts offering luxury dude ranch vacations are paying closer attention to the details of experiential travel. At Vermejo, for example, guests can expect to dine on garden-grown fare prepared by an award-winning chef, or take in a hot stone massage at the lodge’s state-of-the-art spa. “We find that our guests are best able to enjoy outdoor adventures here when they know their accommodations have all the comforts of home waiting for them when they return,” says Smith.

The Family Dude Ranch Experience

Although millennials are one of the fastest-growing client bases at America’s southwestern ranch properties, family dude ranch vacations are still a rite of passage. “So many of our guests bring their whole families here to experience something together,” says Smith. “People who grew up with images of the majestic southwest or have always romanticized America’s national parks find our property to be the best of both worlds, offering bucket-list expeditions in a luxury, resort-like setting.” Vermejo Park Ranch, in fact, plays host to multiple family reunion destination vacations each year.

“People really love the idea of free-ranging bison and educational experiences for their kids,” says Smith. “It’s why Ted Turner has been bringing his family – including his children – to Vermejo for so many years. There’s just something really life-changing about being so immersed in nature.”

There are, of course, many variations of western ranches in operation today. Travelers can choose to stay at working dude ranches where they’re asked to contribute with chores and meals, or on cattle ranches where they’ll participate in herding and branding. The best family dude ranches, though, are those that connect everyone through the common thread of experience; resorts like Vermejo insist this happens best when everyone is comfortable, happy, and relaxed.

Says Smith, “We get a lot of return guests. It’s so gratifying to see the same family come back year after year to experience a different outdoor adventure together, or even just to turn off their phones and reconnect in a private, natural environment. There’s really no substitute for spending time together as a family, and it’s our job at Vermejo to facilitate that in as memorable a way as possible.”