One option is to make use of a clearinghouse. Given the many ranches that open their gates to guests, we turned to American Wilderness Experience, which offers information about a variety of vacation experiences, including dude ranches.
AWE, a 25-year veteran of the business, will discuss the type of vacation you're looking for and make recommendations. They are well-informed and up-to-date about what a given ranch is up to. Their service is free, but of course they are recommending ranches that are clients, so it's not a bad idea to follow up with your own inquiries.
In our case, we specified that we wanted a very family-friendly ranch where informality was the rule and accommodations were simple but comfortable - and where we'd be in the saddle most of the time. Their recommendation, Triple J Wilderness Ranch in Augusta, Mont., turned out to be an excellent fit.
The organization was also very helpful with the numerous little questions that arise near departure time, and followed up to see how things went. In addition, AWE will help with airline, car, and hotel reservations en route.
Write Old West Dude Ranch Vacations/American Wilderness Experience, 2820-A Wilderness Place, Boulder, CO 80301. Or phone 800-444-2622. The Web site is www.awetrips.com
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Another source of information is the Dude Ranch Association. It lists members who have gone through a two-year approval process. The association has more than 100 members. Officials do not make specific recommendations, but will offer you information and point you in the right direction to make a decision.
Contact Dude Ranchers' Association, PO Box F-471, LaPorte, CO 80535. Phone (970) 223-8440 or visit the Internet site, www.duderanch.org
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To contact Triple J directly, write Triple J Wilderness Ranch, PO Box 310, Augusta, MT 59410 or phone (406) 562-3653.
Cost: Our trip, seven days and six nights at the end of August, cost $1,073 per adult (double occupancy) and $750 per child age 6 to 12, and $450 for children age 3 to 5, in the lower to middle price range of ranch vacations. That included lodging, all meals, entertainment, and, of course, intensive riding and qualified guides. We rented a car to get to the ranch, but Triple J will take you to and from the airport on prearranged days.
Air fare can add several hundred dollars per person to the cost of the vacation. Book as far in advance as possible as the difference in fares can be significant.
The ranch offers a selection of other experiences, such as five- to nine-day pack trips. You should also ask about how the time of the year (early summer, early fall) will affect your visit - for example, in the kind of wildlife you'll see. And carefully read the ranch's list of recommended wardrobe items, paying particular attention to bringing a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen.
If you are taking children, it's worth inquiring about whether other children are expected during your stay.
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