Dude Ranch Vacations for the Holidays

Combine horse riding with Western traditions at these five historic ranches.

by Darley Newman, as published in her column in True West magazine

Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you need to put away your riding boots.

Saddling up during the celebratory season is a great way to play outdoors with the whole family. When you can combine horse riding with Western traditions, your holidays can be that much more festive.


Vista Verde ranch horses

Horses romp through the snow at Vista Verde Ranch in Colorado.

When the holiday season comes, you won’t find snow at White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, but you will find plenty of holiday lights to get you in the festive mood. That makes for a unique experience of riding at Rattlesnake Pass, along the Butterfield stage route, or at Movie Pass, with its cinematic desert views that highlight why movies like Winchester 73 were filmed here. You can ride your horse on Christmas Day and attend a fancy dinner that night on the ranch, usually turkey and ham with all the trimmings. Stay during New Year’s Eve for Casino Night, where roulette, poker and a late night buffet await you.

Those looking for the laid back feel of a hacienda may prefer Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, Arizona, an area that did not become part of the U.S. until it seceded from Mexico in 1848. The whitewashed walls, Mexican furnishings, Saltillo tile and colorful Southwest decor accent many of the rooms and buildings, some of which date to the ranch’s opening in 1948. During Christmas, guests enjoy tree trimming, eggnog, caroling and a Christmas Eve Cowboy Cookout of BBQ ribs and chicken. You’ll be serenaded by a cowboy balladeer at the cookout and in the saloon. Instead of putting up stockings on the fireplace, kids put out their boots. Santa arrives on horseback Christmas morning, and you can go on an afternoon horseback ride to burn off calories consumed at the poolside buffet, before a big Christmas dinner. New Year’s also offers a special dinner and entertainment.

Rancho de los Caballeros

Rancho de los Caballeros has festive holiday activities including tree trimming decorating, caroling and a Christmas eve cookout.

For a working cattle ranch transformed into a winter wonderland, head to the Alisal Ranch in Solvang, California. Themed Christmas trees dot the ranch, while Santa makes appearances on his “reindeer” horse. Families can design gingerbread houses and tree ornaments, and even enjoy holiday bingo. On Christmas Eve, Santa picks up the children for an evening of carols and homemade treats around a roaring fire. When the kids return to their rooms, they’ll find a stocking waiting for them. On Christmas day, the family enjoys a traditional holiday meal.

For horse rides in the snow, which are always so much fun, I have two ranches that can give you the best of both worlds, thanks to their heated indoor riding arenas. In Granby, Colorado, you’ll find C Lazy U Ranch, originally homesteaded in the early 1900s before becoming a guest ranch in 1925. Christmas and New Year’s are two of the most cherished weeks at the C Lazy U. You’ll find trees in every cabin. Santa visits. Guests enjoy holiday family dinners, roaring fires and a huge New Year’s party. In addition to horse riding, travelers may go ice skating, sledding and snowcat skiing, and the holidays even offer activities for the kids.

The Alisal Ranch

Every public space at The Alisal Ranch has its own 12-foot-tall uniquely themed Christmas tree that will be on display throughout the property by early December. 

Vista Verde Ranch is set in the historic ranching town of Steamboat Springs, well known for its great area skiing. The town boasts the oldest continuously-running ski area in Colorado, started by the “Flying Norseman,” Carl Howelsen. For Christmas and New Year’s, the ranch puts on many festive activities. Families can trod around the property to pick out their own Christmas tree. Festivities include a night of making homemade decorations, a huge midday Christmas feast and a sledding party. On New Year’s, guests travel around the ranch either on skis or in a horse-drawn sleigh for a progressive dinner. Moving from one destination to the next, guests enjoy a different course served at each special spot, ending in the Great Room for a dessert extravaganza and the ranch’s very own Boot Drop.

Learn more about great ranch vacations in the Equitrekking Vacation Guide, a searchable resource devoted to great dude ranches, guest ranches, cattle drives and riding holidays.