Sandi Fellows' idea of a good vacation is sitting by the pool with a book--certainly not bumping up and down on a horse all day.
"I know what it's like to be around smelly animals. I grew up on a farm," the 44-year-old San Diego resident said. "To me ranching and farming is work."
But good mom that she is, Fellows gamely went along to a Colorado dude ranch with her husband, an airline pilot, and two kids. "I thought I'd get through it," she said. "I didn't equate ranching with fun."
She couldn't have been more surprised. "I had the time of my life. It was the best family vacation we ever had," reported Fellows, whose daughter was 12 and son, 7, when the family visited the Latigo Ranch in Kremmling, Colo. Her son even wrote a six-page report for school about the experience. Two friends they made there even joined them afterward at Sandi Fellows' mother's farm.
"It was perfect for city slickers and old farm girls like me who didn't want to rough it anymore," she said.
Dude ranches have been around for nearly a century, started when adventurous Easterners asked for a chance to experience life on a Western cattle ranch, according to a spokesman for the Dude Ranchers' Assn., which now numbers more than 100 members.
Those first turn-of-the-century guests paid just $10 a week to ride and relax far away from their homes. Today's visitors spend nearly 10 times that. But ranching has never been more popular, as growing numbers of families discover it can be an antidote to the pressures of urban and suburban life that also teaches kids about working with nature.
It's an easy vacation to plan. "You know ahead of time exactly what you're going to spend," said Dave Wiggins, whose company American Wilderness Experience arranged the Fellows' trip and books ranch vacations for families at more than 50 properties across the West (call 800-444-Dude).
Today's ranches offer fishing, rafting, swimming, hiking, nature lessons, even sightseeing, and at some places, tennis and excellent food. The price is moderate: typically $3,000-$3,500 for a family of four, including meals, accommodations and activities.
(For a $5 national directory of ranches, call the Dude Ranchers' Assn. at 303-223-8440. A directory of more than 40 Colorado Ranches is available free from Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Assn. Call 303-724-3653. The Arizona Office of Tourism also will provide a list of ranches. Call 602-542- 8687.)
My daughter Reggie and I spent a wonderful two days at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch in Tucson in November, joining another family at dinner (the food was plentiful and tasty) and a group of parents and kids for an early-morning ride up the hills filled with huge saguaro cacti. "My favorite part was the pool and going up the rocky mountains," Reggie said. Mine was the dramatic scenery seen from horseback. (Call Tanque Verde at 602-296-6275.)
"There aren't too many places in the country that offer a safe haven where mom and dad can relax and not have to worry about the kids," said Gene Kilgore, author of "Gene Kilgore's Ranch Vacations," (John Muir Publications, $19,95), noting that growing numbers of ranches now offer children's programs. "What's important is the value--the whole family being together and enjoying the experience."
Potential visitors should remember that ranches are usually small, hosting fewer than 50 guests, and that they're not all alike. That's why it's important to find out in advance if the one selected can fulfill family needs. Call and talk to the ranch owner. Ask how old the children must be to ride. (Most programs start at age 6, although some offer programs for younger children.)
Alice Mishkin was disappointed with the difficult time she had finding care for her 13-month-old at Tanque Verde Ranch. Mishkin, who lives in Old Chatham, N.Y., nonetheless had a good time, as did her husband and two older children. "The naturalist was the best part of the week," she said. "The kids even learned how to track wild animals." Yet Mishkin advises prospective families, "Wait until the kids are old enough to ride."