Dude, where's my horse?
Free spirit ... horses run on Paradise Ranch. Established in 1907, it is one of the original dude ranches. Photo: Julie Miller
Julie Miller dons cowboy hat and boots at one of Wyoming's oldest 'dude ranches', where Wild West traditions endure in a place called Paradise.
Long before The Big Lebowski, and before Ashton Kutcher lost his car, the stoner/surfer term "dude" had vastly different connotations. A "dude" was a city slicker, a wannabe urban cowboy prepared to travel far and wide for a romantic Wild West experience. By the turn of the 20th century, entrepreneurial ranchers in the Rocky Mountain states started supplementing their incomes with paying guests — and the concept of the "dude ranch" was born.
Established in 1907, Paradise Ranch, 25 kilometres from the town of Buffalo in northern Wyoming, was one of the original guest ranches of the US, luring wealthy visitors from the east with evocative brochure descriptions of a better, purer life: "... one can have trees instead of chimneys, blazed trails instead of streets, mountains instead of houses, crystal water teeming with trout, air charged with life, cooled by eternal snows and vitalised by your share of the blue heaven."
In the saddle ... wranglers on the chase at Paradise Ranch. Photo: Julie Miller
Back then, it was a somewhat torturous road to Paradise, with guests from Chicago, Omaha and St Louis taking a long train trip before a seven-hour stagecoach ride from Clearmont to Buffalo. Today, the trip is much easier — a one-hour drive from Sheridan County Airport, which has frequent flights to and from Denver, the main hub of the Rocky Mountain states.
Others choose to drive from the west of the state, combining a ranch holiday with a visit to the geothermic and wildlife wonders of Yellowstone National Park. It's about a four-hour drive from the park's eastern gateway of Cody, through the spectacular scenery of the Big Horn Mountains.
Nestled into a verdant, lupin-strewn valley bordering the Bighorn National Forest, and flanked by a tiara of soaring snow-capped peaks, Paradise Ranch is aptly named, unequivocally, mind-blowingly beautiful, and as unspoilt as it was 100 years ago.
And it's this incredible mountain scenery that continues to entice visitors from all over the world, as well as the faux-Hollywood cowboy traditions: horses and mules, Stetsons, chinks, spurs, chuck wagons, rodeos and square dances in the saloon.
It's cheesy, all-American, totally wholesome — and couldn't be more fun. In fact, "fun" is not only the motto, but also the brand at Paradise Ranch, seared onto the rumps of their horses. For a week, "dudes" are encouraged to leave their real lives behind and embrace western traditions of history, Hollywood and the imagination. Cowboy dress-ups are de rigueur: little girls proudly show off new pink boots, while teenage boys don the black Stetsons and fringed leather leggings (called chaps or chinks) of movie heroes and villains. Even the adults can't help themselves — this is one place where you can cast off all notions of sophistication and subtlety, and go for broke!
The ranch itself is as perfect as a Hollywood movie set. A cluster of one- and two-storey log cabins — some dating back to the ranch's early years — occupy a hillside overlooking lush pastures where herds of elk and the occasional boofheaded moose graze peacefully. The rustic exteriors of the cabins bely luxurious, well-appointed living quarters featuring separate bedrooms (no bunks here!), kitchenettes, laundry facilities, cosy lounges with open fires, and wooden decks with views of the ranch's most prominent geological feature — Fan Rock, a pleated cliff face that concertinas like a peacock's tail. Down a driveway, there's a dining room, a rec room with pool tables and hot tub, a swimming pool and even a good ol'-fashioned saloon, complete with its own ghost.
Beyond burbling French Creek, where fly-fishermen patiently try their luck for rainbow trout and cutthroat, lies the corral, where chaps-clad wranglers hoist western saddles onto the backs of trusty steeds, halter ropes looped around a hitching post. As well as looking the part, Paradise's cowboys are the real deal: experienced horse people with a deep knowledge of western traditions and the land. Not to mention a western drawl and a polite tip of the hat that will reduce any red-blooded woman to butter!
Horses are at the heart of Paradise's guest program; but unlike many outfitters in the US where liability issues result in boring nose-to-tail trails conducted exclusively at a walk, here riders can travel at their own pace, depending on their ability. Raw beginners are led through the basics and encouraged to push their boundaries, while experienced equestrians can explore 500,000 hectares of wilderness, forging streams, making perilous descents into hidden canyons and loping across open mesas.
Children are also catered for, with shorter rides, lessons in the arena and even overnight pack trips where the kids live out their cowboy fantasies in a supervised tented camp. There are also barrel-racing lessons, pole bending and "calf-penning" sessions, where teams of riders cut off feisty little calves from a herd and shepherd them into a holding pen. It's great fun, as well as a test of riding skills and patience.
At the end of the week, the children get to show off their newly forged talents in a colourful kids' rodeo, complete with goofy, water-balloon-throwing clowns who entertain the crowd between events. From the national anthem and flag-carrying entrance, to crazy races where the wranglers show off their horsemanship, it's a slice of Americana and a salute to the transformative nature of the ranch's activities.
While a large part of the program is dedicated to riding, those in need of a break from the saddle can fish for trout in a stocked pond, hike the many trails in the national forest, indulge in a massage at the most rustic spa in the west, or just relax by the swimming pool.
Day hikes into the nearby Cloud Peak Wilderness can also be arranged — providing a fantastic opportunity to explore some of the most majestic, unspoilt mountain scenery in Wyoming.
A dedicated children's program includes pony rides on Lightning the Shetland pony, chicken wrangling (basically involving the chasing of hapless chooks), bottle-feeding baby calves, treasure hunts, and arts and crafts. Teenagers ride off to a bog in a forest for a "Cowboys and Indians" mud fight, arriving back covered in filth from head to toe and with grins from ear to ear.
The western theme continues in the evenings, with communal meals in the dining room followed by socialising, singalongs and dancing in the saloon.
A talent night reveals hidden gifts from both young and old; while the wranglers show they are more than just pretty faces as they dance up a storm during swing- and square-dancing nights.
A Friday tradition is the chuck-wagon dinner, where guests either ride or climb on board a hay wagon pulled by matching Belgian draught horses to an alpine meadow, where a cookout dinner of ribs, beans and corn is served from the white canopy of a traditional chuck wagon.
Around an open fire, guests sit and chat in the soft summer twilight, with entertainment by an old-timer cowboy poet another reminder of how traditions live on in this neck of the woods.
But perhaps the most enduring snapshot of this western paradise is the twice-weekly release of the ranch's 150 horses into open grazing land bordering the forest. As the gates to the corral are opened and the whips are cracked, so the horses bolt for freedom in a thundering display of snorting horseflesh. This is the Wild West encapsulated in its purest form; and it really is an amazing sight to behold.
The writer was a guest of Paradise Ranch and Rocky Mountain International.
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles or San Francisco, with domestic transfers to Denver. united.com. From Denver, fly Great Lakes Airlines to Sheridan, or drive six hours north along Interstate 25 to Buffalo.
Paradise Ranch offers family weeks from June to August, with "adults only" weeks in September. Priced from $US1500 ($1455) a week for adults, with children aged six to 12 $US1400, three to five years $US750, and two and under $US400. Includes lodging, three meals a day and all regular activities including the horse-riding program.
Cowboys, quicksand and lassos
Katrina Lobley moseys on down to rein in the cowboys at two other ranches in the American west.
Black Leg Ranch, North Dakota
Jay Doan could easily be the US's handsomest cowboy. With his movie-star looks (he landed the lead role in the 2012 indie film Last Summer for Boys), outlaw ancestry and practical cowboy skills, Doan is reason enough to giddy-up towards Black Leg Ranch, 40 kilometres east of Bismarck, North Dakota.
Black Leg is a working cattle ranch that's been in the Doan family since 1882, before North Dakota became a state. Besides running cattle, it caters to guests keen to hunt coyote and deer, ducks and pheasant (with the help of the resident German shorthaired pointer hunting dogs), or fish the Missouri River for its famed walleye.
Guests bunk down in lodge-pole pine cabins, with stuffed pheasant and antlered stags staring down from the walls. If hunting's not your thing, spend the days on horseback exploring the ranch's 4000-plus hectares, which include buffalo wallows, a ghost town, wagon trails, an old railroad and patches of quicksand.
Jay and his brother Jeremy also show guests, including kids, basic cowboy skills such as how to throw a lasso and apply a brand (on timber rather than cow flesh). Adrenalin junkies can roar around the ranch on one of the all-terrain vehicles.
Wildcatter Ranch, Texas
Wildcatter Ranch, 140 kilometres north-west of Fort Worth, Texas, offers several western cliches: from photogenic longhorn cattle to horses ready to roam 600 hectares of rolling green hills.
The resort ranch, named after the prospectors who sink exploratory oil wells around these parts, also lets guests bring out their inner Annie Oakley. At the sporting clay range, I'm nervous picking up a 20-gauge over-and-under shotgun. Cowboy Jay Brewer shows me how to use my shoulder to take the recoil as I squeeze off my shots. Described as a "skeet range on steroids", six machines spin clay targets across my field of vision. Brewer programs the combinations remotely: "two-three" and "four-three" prove easy but discs that fly low, blending into the distant trees, and those ejected from behind my head, remain intact.
It's all perfect training for hunting birds startled from bushes. Brewer, who hunts doves, works his way through a box of shells to keep his eye in. Does he eat what he shoots?
"Yes, ma'am," he replies in a charming Texan drawl. Favourite dove recipe? "That'd be jalapeno dove," he says (split a dove breast, insert a jalapeno chilli, wrap in bacon and grill).
I'm not sure it'd beat my new addiction: the chicken-fried steak served up at the ranch restaurant.