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Want a Galloping Good Time? Dude Ranches Cater to Cowgirls

June 07, 1998|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

It doesn't take much to get me planning a vacation.

Recently, it was cowboys--beginning with the anti-Marlboro Man pictured on billboards around town, saying to his partner, "I miss my lung, Bob." Then Robert Redford in his new movie "The Horse Whisperer," a gentler sort of cowboy who stays clean and empathic even in a muddy corral at branding time.

These guys set me dreaming about mountains, prairies, flapjacks, horses and all the other ingredients of Western-style vacations. I started making calls to guest ranches across the West and found them catering to female guests in increasing numbers and surprising ways. There were special women-only ranch weeks and pack trips such as those offered by the Hargrave Cattle and Guest Ranch near Kalispell, Mont., and the Bar H Ranch on the western flank of the Grand Tetons.

I ran across an outfit called Rainbow Adventures in Bozeman, Mont., that offers seven-night "Cowgirl Samplers" in August ($1,595 per person, double occupancy), based at the 320 Ranch near Big Sky, with white-water rafting, horseback riding and forays into Yellowstone National Park.

But they prefer that you be 30 or older, and no men are allowed--which, as the tour company's founder, Susan Eckert, explains, tends to make participants more willing to challenge themselves and try new things than they might be if men came along.

Women have long found Western-style ranch vacations attractive for a variety of reasons. Gene Kilgore, a former wrangler and the author of "Ranch Vacations" (John Muir Publications, 1996, $22.95), says that dude ranches are safe, easygoing places where women "can meet interesting people, relax and enjoy the beauty, romance and freedom of the great outdoors."

This is particularly true at small ranches, where making guests feel like part of the family has always been an integral part of the tradition. Then, too, a fair number of ranches are run by women, and often the tough, independent, hospitable breed of them. So even though families and couples are still in the majority at guest ranches, single women also have a good chance of thriving there. So do single moms because more and more ranches have added children's programs to their roster of amenities.

Three years ago, I wound up alone at the White Stallion Ranch northwest of Tucson, where the rest of the guests were part of an Elderhostel group. But the wranglers took special care of me on rides over the bone-dry, saguaro cactus-studded mountains.

A year later, Deb Bitton of Mystic Saddle Ranch set me up on a pack trip into the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho with two couples from Boise I'd never met. Three exceedingly courteous young cowboys did the cooking and pitched the tents by Toxaway Lake, while the folks from Boise showed me how to fish. I never once felt like the odd woman out, because the wildflower-dappled meadow where we camped was too lovely for dejection, and there were those cowboys to fantasize about.

Even on pack trips open to both sexes, women seem to predominate, as the horseback-riding vacation specialists at Wyoming-based Equitour have found. After all, women are great equine enthusiasts, willing to trek in Mongolia

'Guest ranches have been attending to creature comforts and features that appeal to women.'

or Namibia, provided a horse is involved. On the other hand, women may simply be more willing to travel solo than men, as Pam Bryan, co-owner of the Montana-based custom travel service, Off the Beaten Path, has observed. Many of her company's small-group journeys--following the Lewis and Clark Trail or bird-watching in the canyons of Arizona--are filled largely by women.

Meanwhile, guest ranches and outfitters also have been attending to creature comforts and features that particularly appeal to women. Ricochet Ridge in Fort Bragg, Calif., offers weeklong riding vacations along the coast north of San Francisco, with overnights in historic hotels and evening concerts. At Hidden Creek Ranch in northern Idaho, the program includes yoga, meditation and a "Centered Riding Program" that taps the Chinese practice of tai chi to help riders find balance and "become one" with their mounts.

But it was the approaches at two very different ranches in Kansas and Colorado that impressed me most. At the Homestead in the tall grass prairie that carpets the Flint Hills of Kansas, the owner, Jane Koger, runs a program called Prairie Women Adventures and Retreat. It allows small groups of women to participate in a whole new sort of ranching that has nothing to do with cattle prods, hot-iron branding or spurs. Jane uses less traumatic freeze-branding, does roundups on foot, and is present during calving.

"If we treat them more kindly," she says, "we can handle them better--because, after all, a woman has no chance against a 1,000-pound cow." Accommodations are in a clean rustic bunkhouse and meals aren't gourmet, but prices are low (about $300 for a weekend).

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