It was one of those surreal experiences, where before you know it (we had just checked in only a half hour before at the Roaring Brook Ranch), you find yourself galloping through the woods on a narrow little path, assuming that the horse knows what to do and realizing that you are supposed to be controlling the animal. Man, I can barely drive a stick shift! I quickly learned the hard way to pull the reins to prevent the horse from racing between two trees just wide enough for his girth, but not for my foot, while holding on for dear life with my other hand to the horn (thank goodness for Western saddles). It was at that point I questioned why I was here and how I got here. I remember now: our 12-year old, who proved he was more than capable of doing a fast-trot ride a year before, at the 1000 Acres Dude Ranch, just around the bend in Stony Creek, said he could tackle the advanced ride, and of course, I couldn't let him go alone. I've cantered before (now that I recall, that was by accident, when the horse ran away with me) but had never galloped, and riding a horse is certainly not something I do on a regular basis. I am thinking all these things as the horse is traveling at what seems 30 miles an hour through the woods, muddy with rain, now through a stream and up the side of a hill.
But, by the time I got off that first fast ride, I said, "That was amazing. I can do that." So the next day, I did it again, and this time, anticipated the spot in the woods where my horse would attempt to go through the two trees, as well as the sign he tried to knock me against, and skillfully pulled his head. Wow that felt great.
The Roaring Brook Ranch and Tennis Resort, located on Route 9N in the picturesque and eminently popular town of Lake George, dates from 1946. It sits along what is called the Dude Ranch Trail--a 40 mile loop, focused around Lake Luzern, which in its heyday, had about 20 dude ranches in this section of the Adirondacks (indeed the term "cowboy" originated with General Washington's soldiers who were sent off to enemy territory in the Revolutionary War to steal cows from the Tories to feed the troops). There is still much of that adventuresome spirit--not to mention a half dozen dude ranches--to enjoy, including authentic rodeos, river rafting, fishing, boating, hiking, biking, and exploring caverns amidst the splendor of the Adirondack Mountains.
Roaring Brook Ranch is a conference-center resort which happens to have horses (the minimum age to ride is eight; younger kids can ride a pony as part of the children's program), as well as five tennis courts (two are lighted), resident pro and free clinics; two outdoor swimming pools and a small indoor pool, sauna, fitness room. There is family-oriented evening entertainment in July and August and a lounge area which offers pool tables and a television. A free activity program for 4-7 year olds is provided in July and August during specified periods of the day. The riding here is absolutely fantastic--if you're up to it, you can gallop through wooded trails, over streams. There are 18 horses, and you can ride again if there is a spare horse (they could do better about providing helmets that fit). The atmosphere is fairly low-key, but there is so much in the area: including river rafting, rodeos, bike trails, golf, and all that Lake George offers. The food (breakfast and dinner are included in the rate) is outstanding and pleasantly served in a beautiful dining room. The accommodations are motel-style units, each with two double beds. Roaring Brook shuts down mid-October and reopens the third weekend of May. (Daily rates in summer start at $81 per adult (for the first two people in the room); additional person is $50, children 4-7 are $25. Roaring Brook Ranch and Tennis Resort, Lake George, NY 12845, 518-668-5767; in NY 800-88-BROOK, www.adirondack.net/tour/roaring.
Dude ranches weren't invented in New York State, but between the 1940s and the 1960s (not coincidentally, coinciding with the Roy Rogers craze) they grew up in such numbers to cater to "urban cowboys" from the metropolitan areas that a stretch of road just up from the Lake George area in the Adirondacks came to be known as the "Dude Ranch Trail," with as many as 30 of them. Today, only a handful remain.
1000 Acres Ranch Resort, in Stony Brook, is more of a ranch than a resort in its attitude--it is much more regimented (there is an appointed hour for meals, there is limited choice of entrees, you are assigned a table as well as an hour to ride, and they are not very flexible). The trails are magnificent, but there are few extra horses to get any extra riding time; if you have to miss your appointed hour you're pretty much out of luck. The ranch hosts a fantastic Saturday night rodeo in its own arena and superb country/western bands entertain in its saloon, which is the gathering place for all the cowboys after the rodeo. There are also a few outdoor tennis courts, a pleasant outdoor pool and a small indoor pool, plus indoor ping pong. There is also golf on the premises. The resort replaced some aging buildings with new ones decorated in a Southwest motif. Open year-round. Peak season weekly rates from $630/adult, $414 child 6-12, $450 child 13-16). 1000 Acres Ranch Resort, 465 Warrensburg Rd., Stony Creek, NY 12878, 518-696-2444, fax 518-696-5649, 800-458-7311; www.1000acres.com.
Ridin' Hy Ranch Resort, Warrensburg, which is open year round, has the best of all worlds. This is a charming ranch which is also comfortable, informal and friendly, set on Sherman Lake where there is also (in season) water skiing (at additional cost), rowboats, paddle boats and speed boating, scenic cruises on a pontoon boat, fishing for northern pike, bass, and trout on Sherman Lake, Burnt Pond and Schroon River. The resort also borders 2 1/2 miles of the Schroon River, and is a quarter mile from Burnt Pond. The main building is a log lodge, and accommodations include chalet cabins scattered through the woods, lakeside main lodge rooms and one-story motel units. In winter, Ridin' Hy becomes its own ski resort, with its own ski lift with a beginner-intermediate slope and instructor, as well as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, horse-drawn sleigh rides, sledding and horseback riding; or, skiers can go to Gore Mountain. There are hay rides, children's activity programs all day long; indoor pool. The food is fantastic and the rate includes three meals daily. There are organized activities and entertainment day and night, including square dancing, parlor games, masquerades, hayrides. Pony rides are available all day long for youngsters, free. There is golf nearby at the Sagamore Resort's championship Donald Ross course six miles away, plus six other courses. There is a guest mini-rodeo each week, plus a professional rodeo weekly. There are free riding instructions for beginners and intermediate riders in the corral. Guests are guaranteed two rides a day in summer (unlimited riding midweek in off-season), with guests getting to sign up the night before for preferred times (minimum age is six; six-year olds must have a lesson in the corral before going out on the trail, and be able to fit in the saddle) There are 60 horses on the ranch; rides are on trails through 800 acres of wilderness; helmets are provided. Ridin' Hy is open year-round, except for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and early April. Rates: eight day/seven night, 21 full meals, with accommodations in the chalet cabins for those riding are $560/adult, $440/child 10-17, $395/child 7-9; $270/child 4-6; one child under 4 goes free in spring and fall; rates for summer (June 27-Aug 21); in summer, $599/adult, $485/10-17; $440/7-9; $295/4-6 for riders. The rates are about $45 less for nonriders. Mini-vacation rates also available. Ridin' Hy is located 220 miles from New York, three miles off Exit 24 of the Northway. Contact Ridin' Hy, Sherman Lake, Warrensburg, NY 12885, 518-494-2742.
Definitely check out the rodeos (part of the Adirondack Championship Rodeo Circuit): Painted Pony rodeo operates July 4th weekend through Labor Day, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., rain or shine. A Texas-style barbecue dinner is served before the rodeo in the Long Horn Saloon; country western music follows (rodeo tickets are adults $8, kids $6). For information, 518-696-2421.
These ranches provide a wonderful advantage: The Adirondacks. The region is spectacular offering fantastic attractions and activities: nearby white water river rafting on the Sacandaga River is tame enough for young children but rafting to rival the West can be had on the Hudson River Gorge and Moose River (check Hudson River Rafting Company, 518-251-3215, 800-888-RAFT, or Adirondack River Outfitters, 800-525-RAFT. Also, there is the fantastic Great Escape themepark (biggest in New York State); and, on the bank of Lake George, historic Ft. William Henry (the site for James Fenimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans") where there are reenactments by costumed interpreters, plus steamboat and paddlewheel cruises on Lake George. Contact the Warren County Tourism Dept, 518-761-6366, 800-365-1050, ext. 5100.
Catskills--Cowboy Style!- Rocking Horse Ranch One of the most pleasant dude-ranches around is actually the closest to the New York metropolitan area (in the Catskills, about 2 ½ hour drive) and because of location as well as amenities is one of the best choices for families with young children (particularly for single-parent families): Rocking Horse Ranch, Highland NY. This is "the Catskills, cowboy-style." Rocking Horse Ranch isn't just a resort which happens to have a good kid's program--here, kids come first and parents come along for an enjoyable and spirited ride. Founded in 1958 by the Turk family which still operates it today, Rocking Horse Ranch is pleasantly old-fashioned, low-tech and just plain fun; it is one vacation place that more than delivers on promise and provides excellent value for money. Activities abound, including those scheduled hour-by-hour, a supervised activities camp for kids 4-12, plus waterskiing, pedalboats, fishing, tennis, miniature golf, racquetball, outdoor and indoor (open late) swimming pools, archery and laser rifle range--all included in the price. You can sign up for times for a guaranteed hour to ride, but you can queue up on a standby line for extra time--and since there are 115 horses, you are rarely disappointed (our son rode four hours one day). There is one wrangler for every eight riders in radio-contact so if a rider has over-estimated his ability, he can be escorted to an easier trail. Helmets are provided. Like other famous Catskills resorts, you can order as much as you like from the menu and the food is surprisingly good (Chateaubriand, mussels, wild rice). Breakfast and dinner are provided and children are given lunch and snack as well. Nightly entertainment is oriented to children (puppeteer, magician) but proves wonderfully enjoyable for adults. A four-season resort, there is riding year-round; a small ski hill (free) and skating on the pond in winter. Peak season six-night rates from $640/adult, $305 for the first child 4-15, $280 for other children; no charge for kids 3-and under; w/e rates are $5 more. Rocking Horse Ranch, 600 Rte. 44-55, Highland, NY 12528, tel. 914-691-2927, 800-647-2624; www.rhranch.com
Ranches Further Afield
In New Hampshire: Chebacco Ranch (Chebacco is Indian for "place where spirits dwell") is the closest in New England to a true Western experience: a 100-acre working ranch where quarterhorses are raised, there are 10 horses (no minimum age to ride but kids have to be old enough and strong enough to control the horse); hundreds of miles of trails go by a lake, into woods and mountains. There are five guest rooms in an old farmhouse. Packages include three meals (country cooking) daily. No activity program for kids (kids can help groom horses); (w/e package is $199 pp/dbl, $149/child). Country-Western entertainment Saturday nights. (Rte. 153, South Effingham, NH, 603-522-3211.)
In Vermont: Firefly Ranch, not technically a true dude ranch but is a serious equestrian center for intermediates and advanced (minimum age for children to ride is 10 and must be good riders and "relate well to adults" because there isn't much else to do) offering hourly rides (two-hour min.). A real farm/ranch (there are only three rooms and a rustic cabin), and specialized (riding, mountain biking, hiking, fly-fishing); spring-fed swimming pond, indoor spa hot tub. No supervised activity program. Bed-and-breakfast rates (summer rate $75/night/dbl.; MAP available summer, $140/dbl; riding is $45 for two hours, $20/hour thereafter); weekend equestrian package $750/couple, which include country breakfast, lunch and four-course gourmet dinner, complimentary glass of wine and up to 8 hours of riding. (PO Box 152 Bristol, VT. 05443, 802-453-2223, www.guestranches.com\firefly.htm
Mountain Top Inn and Resort in Chittenden, Vt., doesn't pretend to be a Western dude ranch; but is more in character with New England as a country inn estate on 1,000 acres with an equestrian center (42 horses); minimum riding age is 8 for hour ride, 10 for the five-hour trips. Offers a 35-room inn plus 25 outside units in cottages and chalets; fine restaurant. Spectacularly situated against the Green Mountain National Forest. Also a secluded lake for sailing, canoeing, fishing, swimming; plus tennis, golf and hiking. Peak rates are $226/room plus $50/night for child 6-16, and $60 for 17-and-over (under six stay free). Box 432, Chittenden, Vt. 05737, 802-483-2311; 800-445-2100.
In Pennsylvania: Flying W Dude Ranch in Tionesta in the northwest, is probably the closest to a real Western dude ranch this side of the Alleghenys: it offers horseback journeys and a chance to ride the range like the cowpokes of the old West; they even raise long-horn cattle and grow their own hay. This is one of the largest dude ranches in the East with 600 acres, plus the use of trails through 500,000 acres of Allegheny National Forest. This place offers cabins, 50 horses, trail riding (kids must be 54" tall); riding by hour, day, overnight pack trips. Supervised activities for nonriding kids (fishing, hiking, pony rides) can be arranged. Six-day ranch vacation, with three hours riding/day, all meals, $595/pp, $395 for kids 4-12. Star Rte 2, Box 150, Tionesta 16353, 814-463-7663.
Way Out West
For more ambitious dude ranch vacations in the real Old West, check in with Old West Dude Ranch Vacations, Boulder, a subsidiary of American Wilderness Experience, which provides a booking service for 68 ranches in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming and British Columbia and can offer excellent counsel on choosing the best one. Ranches range from the plush, five-star luxury resort comfort of Colorado's C-Lazy-U (with its own landing strip), to the historic adobe charm of Arizona's Rancho de La Osa, the cow-punchin' action of the Focus Ranch (a working cattle ranch) to the rustic log cabin elegance of Paradise, in Wyoming. Contact Old West Dude Ranch Vacations, 800-444-DUDE, operated by American Wilderness Experience, Boulder, Co., www.awetrips.com.
But, if you looking for the total City Slicker experience, and want to join a real cattle drive and roundup, or a pack trip where you travel by horseback into the wilderness and camp out, or take a covered wagon trip, American Wilderness Experience is the one to call. Trips are available in Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, Wyoming, even Baja, Mexico and Machu Picchu, Peru (800-444-0099, www.awetrips.com).
This story was previously published on FTN in 1998.