Iris' ranch adventures in the US
"What's the plan, you say? Well, ride on, and see what happens!"
It is a beautiful spring day in Wyoming. The snows have finally subsided and given way to warm sunshine and lush green grass. Working cattle ranches across the US are gearing up for their busiest season: in the next few months, they will be gathering cattle and moving them to their summer pastures, as well as branding, vaccinating, and castrating the youngsters.
RANCH #1 - KARA CREEK RANCH, WYOMING.
I have just arrived at Kara Creek ranch, an authentic working ranch near Sundance, Wyoming. After a short night in Rapid City, and a quick drive to the ranch, I am ready to get my bearings and get stuck in. I'm given a horse, a saddle, and basic instructions on how to work out all of the different cinches and buckles and straps, and I'm ready to go. And like any newbie to the ranching world, full of naive enthusiasm, I find myself asking: "So... what's the plan"?
There is one thing to know about a working cattle ranch: there is rarely a plan. Oh, you might have a general idea of what you are supposed to do for the day - check on fences, move cattle from one pasture to another, round up cattle before a branding day... But the "how’s" and "what’s" and "whens" aren't always clearly answered. Don't get me wrong: it is not that the ranchers don't know what they are doing. It is actually quite the opposite. You have to realise that things on a ranch have a tendency to never go according to plan. The cows are never where there are supposed to be, there is always something to get in the way, and Mother Nature rarely cooperates. Thankfully, things usually quickly fall into place!
Kara Creek was the first of five ranches I visited on a big US ranch tour in June 2019. This Wyoming ranch is the real deal: they have around 4200 heard of cattle, grazing freely over 70 000 acres of land and guests are able to participate in all aspects of the ranch life. I helped move heavy corral gates, rounded up cattle, checked on fences... But the highlight of my stay with the Snook family was undoubtedly the big branding day. I went into it with a fairly good idea of what to expect, but I wasn't sure how to feel about the whole thing. Branding is mandatory across several states in the USA and is a massive part of the ranching traditions. I will be honest with you: it is not for the faint hearted. Calves are temporarily separated from their mums for the first time, they are branded, vaccinated, and get an ear tag. The ladies are the lucky ones - the bull calves are castrated right therein the middle of the pasture. All things considered, it is done as swiftly and efficiently as possible, but it makes you think how lucky you are to be at the top of the food chain yourself.
A branding day is not just about smoking irons and bloody scalpels. It is a big event in the life of the ranch, with guests, ranchers and neighbours all coming together for the occasion. That day, there were probably around 30-40 of us on horseback, rounding up the cattle before most of us dismounted. Most of the chores are done on foot. The more experienced ranchers stayed in the saddle and roped the calves, an activity that requires a certain amount of skill and that is usually not offered to guests, to avoid any accidents. I certainly didn't volunteer and was quite happy to stick with more mundane (and safe) tasks. The whole thing had an amazingly festive feel to it. We had lunch sitting at the back of the pick up trucks, enjoying Shanna's delicious cookies and a cold beer, and I had great conversations with some of the cowboys, learning about their ranching traditions and horses. Some of the guests had already done a branding day before, but it was a first for me and I was quickly thrown into the fray. Andrea gave me my first task for the day, a relatively easy one - injecting shots. Later that day, Jasmine and a couple of local cowboys taught me how to wrestle calves. This means I was one of the two people holding the calf down while it was being branded/vaccinated/castrated. Not an easy job when you are half the size of the usual cowboy and not much heavier than the calf itself, but I think I managed not to make an utter fool of myself. I'll take that!
The days at the Kara Creek are a very informal affair. Riders can engage in whatever they feel like doing, and can even take a day off to do some sightseeing (Mount Rushmore is just two hours away and there’s plenty to see around the ranch). The springtime is usually busy and guests can enjoy cattle round ups and branding days. The summers are pretty relaxed and there is less cattle work to be done, with the chance to experience a local rodeo in the evening. The team do not brand in the Fall, but there is a lot to be done in preparation for the winter and the big market sales. Whatever the season, the evenings are a joyous and friendly affair, and the saloon is always open for a drink, a game of pool, and rodeo circuit stories.
The Kara Creek is the real stuff - a real working ranch, where guests can actually participate in pretty much everything that is going on. I had a similar experience at the Dryhead Ranch, another working cattle ranch located on the border between Wyoming and Montana.
MONTANA: THE DRYHEAD RANCH
They say the road to heaven is a narrow and difficult one. Let me tell you the truth. It's boggy, slippery, and definitely not made for hire cars. But what was waiting at the end of the road made it all worth it! After two hours of swearing, sweating and praying that my little rental wouldn’t break down, I reached the figurative gates of heaven. You see, my definition of heaven goes something like this: horses running free, green rolling hills, and perhaps a mountain or two in the background. That's the type of welcome you get at the Dryhead!
I was lucky enough to get there just on time for one of their most popular weeks, a horse round-up. Jenny, whose family owns the ranch, told me about the programme for the week. In June, the mares and their recently born foals have to be rounded up and driven to the ranch, where the team will inspect them and decide which mare should go with what stallion. Before I arrived, the guests had done a brilliant job moving the herd closer to the ranch and it was an easy task to bring them all back to the corrals on my first day. In the afternoon, we were encouraged to get inside the pens to help with opening/closing gates, or even just interact with the foals to get them used to humans. Some of the mums were wary and wouldn't let us get to close, and we spent a couple of hours trying to gain their trust, with varying levels of success. It was a magical experience and a great exercise in empathy and horsemanship.
The horse drives are always hugely popular, for good reason, but the Dryhead also offers cattle drives and cattle work weeks. If you are interested in this, I would suggest you take a look at our website, to check out the provisional programme set out for the season: Horse Drives and Cattle drives and working ranch weeks.
If you are looking to just get away from it all, and aspire to a simpler lifestyle, the Dryhead would really be an excellent choice. At lunchtime, we would watch the children play with their ponies on the lawns, riding around tackless and performing stunts that would have set any other parent on edge. We went for an evening walk as the sun set over the canyons to check on the yearlings. We enjoyed homemade lemonade and cookies on the porch after a delicious dinner. Time seems to stop in the vast scenery of the Bighorns, but eventually you'll have to leave... and face the dreaded Dryhead road/track/mudslide again! Fun times! On a brighter note, transfers are organised by the ranch so you don't need to worry about driving like I did. Fortunately, I reached the good road safe and sound and my little car carried me safely to my next destination.
Both the Kara Creek and the Dryhead were working cattle ranches, where guests are expected to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in with whatever needs to be done. But let's face it: it is not everyone's cup of tea. My journey across the USA also took me to what we call "guest ranches", where the days are a lot more relaxed. I visited three such ranches, each very special and unique in their own way.
A TOUCH OF
LUXURY AT THE HIDEOUT RANCH
First on my list of guest ranches was the Hideout ranch. The Hideout is probably one of the most luxurious ranches we have on offer and certainly offers services on par with a 4* hotel - and yet, it has retained the true authenticity of the west. Beyond the manicured lawns, Nespresso machines and 3-course meals, I found at the Hideout a place to reconnect with nature, with more creature comforts than what you would get on a working ranch. The ranch is located on the edge of the Bighorn National forest, in Wyoming: a place of outstanding beauty, from chiselled painted hills to deep ochre canyons and vast lush meadows. Absolutely incredible and, in my humble opinion, one of the most scenic locations I have seen on my travels.
I arrived on a Monday, and as such I missed the Sunday evening orientation. Marijn was kind enough to spend time with me on arrival and let me know what to expect. After the relative freedom and independence of the Kara Creek and the Dryhead, the list of "do's/don'ts" came as a bit of a shock, but considering it is done with both the guests' and horses' best interests and safety at heart, I had no complaints.
The main attraction at the ranch is trail riding, and there is a fantastic selection of rides. The scenery around the ranch is extremely varied, from painted hills and deep canyons to alpine meadows and pine forests. This is the ideal playground for a riding holiday and guests often comment on how each day is never the same! Day rides and half-day rides are on offer, and the riding is always done in small groups (5 riders max) of similar abilities.
The ranch also has a cattle post and guests can participate in some of the working cattle activities, mainly cattle drives - no branding. I was invited to take part in one of the cattle drives. Did I think it was going to be easy after my working ranch stays? Yes. Was I sorely mistaken? Yes! It is safe to say I was fooled by the clean trucks and shiny chinks: this cattle drive was the real deal. We spent almost 8 hours on horseback that day, ate our lunch in the saddle and our little group of amateur cowboys and cowgirls didn't even manage to get the job done, despite the brilliant guidance of Tom, Lance and Marijn. At the end of the day, it was decided the smallest calves were just too tired to keep up and we left the herd near a water hole for the night before heading home. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the authenticity of the cattle drive: it is not just a show put on for tourists, like you will find in so many "guest ranches" across the country.
Guests can also take a break from all the riding and enjoy a variety of activities: shooting, 4x4 drives, hiking, mountain biking, visits to Cody and the Cody Nite Rodeo in the summer... Or just relax by the pool or enjoy the hot tub! I found that the Hideout offers exceptionally high levels of service, where nothing is too much trouble and everything has been thought of. This really is an excellent place for riders looking for a more "upscale" western ranch holiday, without compromising on the quality and authenticity of the riding experience.
WILD, WILD WEST AT THE BITTERROOT RANCH
After a couple of days at the Hideout, my next adventures brought me further west and closer to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, to the small town of Dubois, Wyoming, and Bitterroot Ranch. The weather took a quick turn and I arrived to much colder temperatures and snow on the surrounding mountains. The welcome by the owners and staff was, however, warm enough to make up for the weather, and the roaring fire was a lovely touch.
Now if there is one thing to know about Bitterroot, is that they do things a little bit differently from most guest ranches. They breed beautiful Arabian horses and ride in endurance saddles for the most part, and helmets are compulsory. The trail rides are truly spectacular, especially if - like me - you enjoy mountainous scenery. The ranch is located between the Wind River and Absaroka mountains, and bordered by the Shoshone National Forest in the west. You are not far from Yellowstone, and I could spot traces of volcanic activity and an abundance of fauna. This makes for excellent riding terrain with endless opportunities for exploration! A day at the ranch is usually split into two half-day rides, with a full-day picnic ride on the Saturday (weather permitting), followed by cocktail hour and a yummy, home-cooked dinner.
Trail riding at the Bitterroot is a most enjoyable experience. The horses I rode were beautifully behaved but still sensitive and fun to ride - a testament to Mel's breeding programme and training routine. Our guide Ross was excellent and seemed to know everything there is to know about the area, from flora to fauna and local history! He was great at assessing our riding skills and took us on invigorating rides, with many short canters, and longer ones whenever the terrain allowed. In the summer the ranch can also organise an overnight pack trip in the mountains, which I am sure is a lot of fun. I'll admit it was too cold for me to want to try it out on this trip.
Undoubtedly the highlight of my stay at the Bitterroot was a ride on my second day there. We were riding in the hills north of the ranch, with Ross recounting stories about the local Indian tribes when our horses suddenly pricked their ears and looked up. Ross pointed to a few distant figures - a herd of wild horses! We set out in their direction with not much hope to catch up with them. To be honest, I was already pretty chuffed to have seen them from a distance and didn’t have more expectations. Half an hour later we reached a valley and we heard a thunder of hooves coming from our right. A small herd of 5 or 6 adults and a foal burst from behind a hill, maybe only 100-150m ahead of us. What a sight! They seemed quite curious to see us and observed us quietly from a safe distance. They were obviously in a playful mood and kept looking back, almost waiting for us to keep up. After a little while, we let them go and headed back to the ranch for lunch (priorities, am I right), but it really was a magical, unexpected moment.
Although trail riding is the main event, the ranch also has a small cattle post and guests have the opportunity to help drive cattle on certain weeks throughout the year. On Fridays in the summer, riders can also join a friendly team sorting competition. Non-riders are welcome and can enjoy fly fishing with Bayard (the local trout is excellent!), yoga with Hadley (to stretch those sore muscles), or walks around the ranch.
There is something to be said for the warm hospitality you get at the Bitterroot. The little cabins are quirky and comfortable, bringing to mind the old log cabins from the early settlers. The food, like everywhere else, was excellent in quality and plentiful in quantity. I really enjoyed the friendly, relaxed atmosphere at the ranch, where everyone is truly made welcome, from solo riders to families. It may not be your usual cowboy ”yeehaa” ranch holiday but if you are looking for excellent riding and stunning scenery, look no further.
LAST BUT NOT
LEAST - ROCKING Z RANCH
Last on my list of ranches to check out, I drove across Yellowstone (more on that later) and reached Rocking Z ranch, located near Helena, Montana.
Let's start with a little bit of context. Rocking Z has been in the Wirth family for over 150 years; since 1864 to be exact. It truly is a family-run operation, managed by owners Patty and Zach and their daughters Ana and Maria, along with their own families. The ranch is located on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and is everything one might expect from a ranch stay after watching "the Horse Whisperer". I arrived in the middle of a busy day, just catching a group of riders back from a ride. Looking at the big grins on everyone's faces, I knew I could expect a fun few days ahead.
Both Ana and Maria are qualified Parelli instructors and natural horsemanship is at the heart of everything they do at the ranch. Guests are given a demo on the first day and a chance to interact with their horse with a join-up session and by practicing Parelli's 7 games. After that first introduction, it is for you to decide whether or not you would like to learn more.
The herd of around 90 horses is a very friendly bunch. You just have to walk inside their day paddock to realise how amicable they actually are. I had not taken two steps in before the first inquisitive horse came to say hi, nudging me gently to see if I had brought them a snack, or to ask politely for a scratch. There aren't many places where horses are genuinely happy to see a new face disturb their mid-day snooze - Rocking Z is one.
Ana and Maria took great care to match me with my horse. Eventually, I was trusted with Sativa, a gorgeous paint mare that was everything I asked for: forward-going but polite and not too big. She was a splendid four-legged partner!
Every day brings new adventures at the Ranch. I enjoyed half-day rides around the ranch and an excellent full-day ride for which we had to trailer out the horses for about 20 minutes before we got in the saddle. The terrain is very hilly with some steep trails and vast plateaux ideally suited for faster paces. We were encouraged to actually ride at our own pace and to set out and explore -there is no "nose-to-tail" riding at the ranch, and we really enjoyed having the chance to ride independently. The horses were all very respectful of their riders and Sativa always listened to me, even if I decided to keep her at a walk while other riders went for a canter - or the other way around.
On another day we enjoyed western games - on this occasion, barrel racing. Fun to do and fun to watch, I'll have to say it did bring out our most competitive side...
Guests can also enjoy a little bit of cattle work, moving cattle from one pasture to another or engaging in a game of team penning. There are activities for non-riders or those who just want a break from the saddle, with archery, clay shooting, fishing and hiking available. All in all, this makes it an excellent ranch holiday for families with children/teenagers or non-riders – there is something for everyone, and everyone will be looked after well by the Wirths and their team (two-legged and four-legged!).
I could not end this blog post without a note on Yellowstone, which really is the ideal extension to any ranch holiday in Montana, Idaho or Wyoming. Bordered by the equally jaw-dropping Grand Teton NP in the south, Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the U.S. It is known for its many geothermal features and varied ecosystems; in fact, half of the world's geysers are located in Yellowstone, which is still volcanically active.
It is hard to describe Yellowstone . It certainly is a busy place, but I was lucky to get there before mid-June, when the crowds really start to hit the park. Even then, I was far from having the place to myself! Tourists aside, it is a very special place, that has remained truly wild at heart. Animals roam freely throughout the park: visitors can easily spot birds, elk and bison, and more rarely bears and wolves. I was lucky and spotted brown bears on two occasions. Some visitors seem to think that it is their privilege and prerogative to enjoy the local wildlife. It is not. We are but guests in their home.
(Please read more information on the Yellowstone Pledge on the NPS website) .
The park itself is a grandiose wilderness area, bringing together scenery of contrasting landscapes from meandering rivers and thundering waterfalls, to lunar basins and vast grassy meadows. Each part of the park is unique in its own way, and adventure waits at every corner. Outdoor enthusiasts will find themselves right at home, as the park offers an incredible variety of outdoor pursuits such as hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, white water rafting, etc.
In just a couple of days, I managed to see quite a lot of the park: the ever popular Old Faithful geyser, the impressive falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the colourful rings of the Grand Prismatic Spring (sulphur smell included), the open grasslands of the Lamar Valley and its herds of bison... The only attraction that left me slightly underwhelmed was the travertine terraces of the Mammoth Hot Springs. Each attraction comes with well-maintained boardwalks and paths: the area being geologically active, visitors would be ill-advised to leave the marked paths. Rangers are here to keep an eye on everything - including shutting down parts of the walks to keep guests away from the occasional wandering bison.
I stayed in small hotels by the park entrances – West Yellowstone, Cooke City/Silver Gate, Gardiner, Cody... It is also possible to stay in lodges inside the park, but I find that they are quite expensive and they tend to have little to offer in terms of evening entertainment. The more adventurous will enjoy camping - but be warned that campsites are on a first come, first served basis! We will be pleased to advise on options and can easily create an extension package to your ranch holiday, including accommodation/rental car/directions in Yellowstone National Park.
Please take my word for it: a ranch holiday, and especially combined with a non-riding trip to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, or any other U.S. National Park, really should be on your bucket list. Here at Equus Journeys, we will be happy to help you chose the right ranch holiday, so please do feel free to contact us for advice.
For more information, please visit our ranch holidays on our website.
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