Dates - June 27 through July 4, 2010.
Background - We are a family of 4, with two boys (13 & 11), living in the VA suburbs. My wife is not an outdoors(y) type, and, literally, none of us had ever been on a horse. We decided on a Dude Ranch because it was completely different from our normal beach trip. We wanted a traditional ranch without a lot of bells and whistles, where we could focus on learning to ride a horse, hike and explore terrain completely different from where we live. Doing online research, I first settled on a region (Yellowstone Park), and, using tripadvisor, ranch web pages and some dude ranch associations, narrowed it down to 4 or 5 ranches. Follow-up phone calls resulted in selecting the Elkhorn. I have never written a review, so I will try to organize as best I can. The Elkhorn's website is not flashy, but does have a lot of useful information which I won't duplicate.
Arrival - We flew into Bozeman Airport. A ranch hand met us at the baggage area, assisted us to his van, and filled us in on many ranch details during the hour ride to the ranch. At Elkhorn, we were greeted by Linda (the ranch manager), who escorted us to the dining room while our bags were taken to our cabin. The owners' daughter walked by, introduced herself, and asked if we would like to join her for an afternoon hike. We did, and got a personalized history of the ranch.
Cabin - we stayed in Highpoint (there is a map of the ranch layout on the website), which has 3 bedrooms and a bathroom all off a living/sitting room that had a table, chairs, desk and wood stove that was lit for us every morning before we awoke. It was clean, beds were comfy, and the maids came by every day. It got very cold at night, but a heavy comforter kept us warm. It's a log cabin, so don't expect a luxury suite, and it suited our needs just fine. We spent many hours reading on the porch. A bonus of this cabin was that it overlooked the horses being brought in from pasture each morning and led out to pasture each night.
Grounds – Website covers it pretty well. I should say that the dining room has a large, very comfortable sitting area off of it, and there was a rustic charm that made one feel at home.
Riding - Jim, who probably has some official title but, at a minimum, ran the stables and the horses amongst numerous other responsibilities, selected a horse for each of us based on our personalities and experience. After some basic instruction (left, right, forward, backward, stop), we went as a family on our first ride. During most rides, we were bookended by two experienced wranglers, who instructed us throughout. We were trotting on the first day, and loping/cantering by the second day. The ranch is set up so that you ride as much or as little as you want, you select the type and duration of your rides each day, and we took full advantage with several full day rides (they pack lunches for you and also meet you on the trail with dinner on some rides as well), and three days were we did both morning and afternoon rides. Under their instruction, we improved pretty rapidly, culminating with a final 20 mile ride that went up in elevation almost a mile to a place called Monument. Nobody, including my wife, would have thought a week earlier that she could have done it. The patience and guidance of the wranglers can’t be overstated.
People – As I now understand it, many of the ranch guests repeat year after year, so they know each other. Have to admit I wasn’t initially fond of the idea, especially given we weren’t “horse people” and might not fit in. In fact, it was the friendliness of the guests, wrangler, workers, etc. that helped to make the trip so amazing. Guests and workers alike took great pains to get to know us, to give us riding and trip tips, and to make us feel welcome. You eat and ride with other guests (I saw rides of a couple people up to a ride with 10 people), so enjoying their company matters. Several evenings or afternoons found us on a neighboring porch enjoying a refreshing beverage and wonderful company.
Food – Very good and plentiful. One highlight was a horse-drawn chuckwagon meeting us on a ride, where we enjoyed fresh trout and steaks grilled on a fire. If you like a cold beer, cocktail or wine in the evening, make sure you stop in town and bring it with you. There are coolers in each cabin to keep things cold.
Kids – While the website indicates there are two groups (Jets and Peanuts), in reality it’s a starting point for grouping the kids. My boys ended up together despite their ages technically putting them in separate groups. This had been a concern of mine, as I wanted them together, but I need not have worried. Kids are put together based on age, experience and what works best for all. There were two women assigned to supervise all the kids, and they were wonderful (and so patient) with them. My boys also received excellent riding instruction, and, in fact, were loping/cantering by the end of the first day. We rode together four days after our first family ride, and seeing the transformation during just one week was amazing. They both are begging us to go back.
1) Linda, the Mgr, is one of the most energetic and amazing people I have ever met, and never stopped making sure we were enjoying ourselves and our trip was going smoothly. She runs this ranch, and her imprint is all over it. Every one of the employees and guests spoke well of her.
2) Do not expect to always ride with your children. The ranch’s philosophy seems to be that kids should have the chance to be with kids and do “kid stuff” as well as family stuff. Kids rides are geered to them. We all ate in the same dining room, but the kids ate at the kids’ table. Initially, our boys wanted to hang with us, but it took only a day for them to prefer playing with the other kids, swimming in the pond, or hanging in the rec hall. The end result was a nicely balanced family vacation, where we had lots of family time, but also where we all were able to do things we wanted to do.
3) Go to Yellowstone. After a morning ride on Wednesday, the horses were given the afternoon off to rest. We told Linda we wanted to go to Yellowstone that day/evening, and she arranged for a packed dinner, a car, maps, etc. Yellowstone itself is singularly amazing. Other juests went rafting and fishing during the week, and spoke well of those activities. We chose to mainly ride.
4) Wildlife is abundant. A bald eagle circled us during our very first ride. We saw two bears, elk, deer, hawks, bison, hawks and even a mountain goat. The mountains and scenery are incredible.
5) You will be sore. During the rides, my wife’s knees were sore by the fourth day and my back hurt by the fifth day. Take Motrin or whatever BEFORE, as well as during the ride if you get sore during the week. (Medicate in advance of the pain). ALso, tell your wrangler what is sore. I understand that a simple stirrup adjustment solves knee issues. My older son had some chafing, didn’t admit to it, and it was pretty tender by the time we figured it out. Wearing tight (but comfortable jeans) alleviates chafing.
6) The website doesn’t (I don’t think) tell you what to pack. Ask them. Also, there is a washer/dryer there that guests can use. During our week, temperatures ranged from a low of 38 to a high of 84.
7) Including airfare, this is not a cheap trip. However, the prices at Elkhorn were very reasonable compared to other ranches. Be careful, as some ranches limit riding or have pay as you ride pricing. I didn’t want to have to deal with that.
8) Drink lots of water until you get used to the altitude. My older son was a bit lightheaded after running around that first day.
9) This ranch takes pride in teaching people to ride, so having little or no riding experience shouldn’t stop you from going if this is something you want to try.
Hope this helps you all!
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- A traditional Montana Dude Ranch started in the 1920's. We specialize in family vacations that include horseback riding, fly-fishing, and outdoor activities. ... more less
- Also Known As:
- Elkhorn Ranch Montana/Gallatin Gateway