SO YOU WANT TO BE A COWPOKE BUT YOU’RE NOT READY TO QUIT your day job? A ranch vacation might be just what you need to quell those longings to saddle up and eat trail dust—in other words, to get in touch with your inner buckaroo.

Stock ranches in the Western United States began wrangling greenhorns for fun and profit around the 1880’s. Theodore Roosevelt was first introduced to the West at these ranches, where dudes—a term that originally meant someone from somewhere else—were promised, as one vintage brochure put it, “a healthy environment and the chance to participate in the vigorous life of shepherds.” Dude ranches didn’t straggle into Texas until around 1920, when Bandera’s now-defunct Buck Ranch began welcoming paying guests for $10 a week. Ebenezer Buck and his wife, Katie, whipped up picnics and ran the place. Uncle Frank Buck led trail rides and, at night, would teach guests the cotton-eyed Joe and the schottische. “You can run more dudes to the acre in these hills than you can cattle,” one of the Bucks’ neighbors reportedly quipped. By 1947 at least 25 dude ranches dotted the state, many of them clustered around Bandera—a situation that hasn’t changed to this day. These tourist enterprises were prosperous enough to briefly support The Dude Wrangler, a quarterly newsletter devoted to work and play in this great resort area, as well as a Saturday-morning radio show that featured the goings-on at area ranches.

Over the past seventy years the dude ranch concept has evolved into more types of guest ranches than there are wrinkles on a Brahman bull. We’ve got resort ranches, working ranches, day ranches, hunting ranches, executive-retreat ranches, and ranches with nary a horse, a steer, or even a goat to their name. (Those hooves can be hell on the putting greens and sand traps.) Initially, I was looking for cattle-driving dude ranches, like the one in the movie City Slickers. I soon discovered, however, that despite Texas’ Chisholm Trail legacy, true roundups in this state—at least those that are open to weekend cowpokes on a regular schedule—are extremely rare. (The Y.O. Ranch in the Hill Country and the Bar H in the Panhandle town of Clarendon offer annual and twice-yearly roundups, respectively.) So I settled for places that met my minimum defining criteria for a ranch vacation: overnight accommodations, horseback riding, and no matter how contrived, at least a glimmer of the spirit of the West. I’d be horsewhipped if I didn’t warn you that the grub at some of these places is just that, and you might be bunking in a room that would give Martha Stewart seizures. But if you’re dying to holler “Head ’em up and move ’em out”—if you want to see the herd, be the herd, or leave the herd behind—you’ll find a guest ranch below where you can hang your hat.

Puttin’ on the Dogie

IF GUEST RANCHES WERE CARS, THE CIBOLO CREEK RANCH, a bona fide oasis on 25,000 acres in Big Bend’s Chinati and Cienega mountains, would be a fully loaded Range Rover—towing a Ferrari. As I approached the adobe grandeur of the largest of the ranch’s three nineteenth-century forts, El Cibolo, I was struck with my first case of architecturally inspired goose bumps. Was it the thick earthen walls, the shady portales (porches), the surprising jolt of green from the spring-fed landscape, the gravel paths leading through courtyards and over stone-lined irrigation canals, or the handcrafted wooden doors and rough cottonwood beams? In the midst of my rapture Arthur Ahier, who co-manages Cibolo with his wife, Lisa, greeted me warmly and led me to the screened-in dining room overlooking the pond, where I was seated with four guests, all from Dallas. (One couple were on their third visit in twelve months.) I scarfed down the freshest, tastiest lunch I’ve had west of the Pecos, thanks to Lisa Ahier, who is the ranch’s chef: cayenne-tequila-dill shrimp and Maytag blue cheese on a bed of butter-leaf lettuce, with homemade honey-oat rolls and, for dessert, pineapple-mango sorbet.

The owner of Cibolo Creek, John Poindexter, was holding court at the only other occupied table. (My attempts to eavesdrop on his party’s political debate were thwarted by a discussion at my table about what calendar program each of the men ran on his computer.) After lunch Arthur took me on a quick tour of the main fort before rushing off to drive the Dallasites on a four-wheel trek through the ranch, to be followed by an afternoon of skeet shooting. We breezed through a dream kitchen where Lisa works her magic, an immaculate tack room, a media room whose walls were plastered with framed magazine articles about the ranch, a private dining hall where a beam of sunlight theatrically lit the fireplace, and a group of rooms that had been converted into mini-museums housing artifacts excavated on the ranch and old photos and documents that had belonged to the ranch’s original owner, Milton Faver, who built a cattle and trading empire here in the mid-1800’s. I tried to picture old Faver at Cibolo today, paddleboating on the pond, hiking and birdwatching, or soaking in the whirlpool spa before retiring to a room furnished with Spanish and Mexican antiques, Southwestern rugs and blankets, and collections of Texana literature.

Later, as I explored on my own, I finally managed to overhear a conversation (really, I wasn’t even trying). “Oh, I don’t have time anymore, I’m so involved in the stock market,” said one of the women who’d been lunching at the other table. After several seconds of indecipherable mumbling punctuated by the words “Dell” and “Yahoo,” I heard, loud and clear, “So I put some of that profit into AOL and—boom—I made three million dollars.” Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Wall Street whiz to stay at Cibolo, a retreat that has no equal—frankly, not even any close competition—in the state. In fact, I found the rates so reasonable that I’ve vowed to return on my own dime. And coming from the ultimate tightwad, that’s the ultimate accolade.
Cibolo Creek Ranch, on U.S. 67 four miles north of Shafter (915-229-3737, fax 915-229-3653; Rates $250—$490 double occupancy June through September, $305—$590 double occupancy October through May; includes meals. Two-night minimum on weekends. Trail rides, skeet shooting, and ranch tours extra. AE, D, MC, V, checks.

BANDERA’S BALD EAGLE IS A RETREAT FOR FOLKS sixteen and over. The swanky Southwestern digs, constructed of limestone and cedar, feature log beds and D’Hanis tile floors. A gourmet chef whips up meals that break from the typical ranch’s “Beef Council Cookbook” fare: blackened salmon, jerked game hen. There’s a stable for both the ranch’s and visitors’ mounts right out of the pages of Horse and Garden, a lounge with a pool table and satellite TV, a tiny but stylish pool, and—perhaps best of all after a long trail ride—a whirlpool spa, perched in what looks like a covered bandstand. The Hill Country State Natural Area, right next door, is a pony’s playground with forty miles of scenic trails.
Bald Eagle Ranch, off Ranch Road 1077 ten miles west of Bandera (830-460-3012, fax 830-460-3013; Rates from $462 per per son for a three-night package to $870 for a week; includes meals and horseback riding. AE, MC, V, checks.

Discoverin’ the Classics

AT THESE PLACES, A RANCH HAND IS MORE LIKELY TO SPEND his days teaching line dancing than movin’ dogies. Dudes—and the dawn-to-dusk entertainment thereof—rule.

The Hill Country’s grandest temple to the tenderfoot is the Mayan Dude Ranch, a 334-acre retreat that has been run by the Hicks family since 1951. (Don’t expect a replica of Chichén Itzá: The ranch simply came with the name, whose origins are lost in the mists of time.) When I stopped by one freakishly cool June evening, weaving my way through a gaggle of kids hungrily circling the dining pavilion, a fuzzy memory washed over me: I realized that my senior class had descended on the Mayan 22 years ago. “Oh, yeah,” said the reception clerk when I mentioned my past history with the ranch. “They used to book senior class trips, but not anymore. Not for a long time.” (Not since that fateful weekend in 1977?)

From all appearances, including the fleet of Suburbans in the parking lot, families are now the Mayan’s mainstay. I wandered the grounds, soaking up the over-the-top Western ambience. Of its 68 rooms, I couldn’t decide if I would want to stay in the old stone cabins tucked among the cedars and oaks or on the second floor of the colorfully painted Mayan Lodge, which affords a postcard-worthy view of downtown Bandera.

As a solitary female amid the familial chaos, I soon began to feel as conspicuous as a mule at a stud farm. (No doubt I could have taken the edge off my self-consciousness with a visit to the Mayan’s saloon, the only dude-sanctioned watering hole I found during my ranch explorations.) I considered returning with a rented family—my sister and her kids—but the two-night minimum and all-inclusive per-person rates would’ve brought the tab to $760 for the four of us. On the other hand, we would’ve gotten plenty of bangs for those bucks—three meals a day; swimming in the ranch’s stretch of the Medina River; horseback riding; western dancing, hayrides, and other entertainment; billiards, tennis, and shuffleboard.
Mayan Ranch, on Mayan Ranch Road a mile and a half north of Bandera (830-796-3312, 830-460-3036, fax 830-796-8205; Rates $115—$130 per day for adults, $75 for children 13 to 17, $50 for children 12 and under; includes three meals and two horseback rides daily. AE, D, MC, V, checks.

I MUST HAVE BEEN SUFFERING FROM MAD COW DISEASE when I decided, on a whim, to drive out to Fort Davis to see if the Prude Ranch had a room available. Four hundred and twenty-eight miles from my home, it’s not exactly around the corner. But the gods of hospitality sometimes smile on impetuous travelers. Not only was there one room available at the sprawling complex, but I got there just in time for the light show. The moment I stepped onto the porch of my fourplex cabin (No. 9), the ominous sky split open. I poured myself a beer, plopped down on the teak bench, put my feet up on the porch railing, and watched swarms of kids—summer campers—scatter for cover as the storm moved across the mountains, trailing a sweater-weather wind in the middle of June.

The Prude, a 102-year-old ranch that has been courting weekend cowboys since 1921, is a venerable institution and is run accordingly. With several no-frills bunkhouses, a variety of roomy cabins, a stable of trail horses, a huge dining hall, a separate meeting lodge, and close to five thousand acres to explore, the Prude sometimes plays host to more than three hundred guests at a time. It’s great for big groups of kids, amateur astronomers (the McDonald Observatory is nearby), or mountain bikers, and for families on summer vacation who want organized activities like talent shows or geology lectures. It’s not so great if you’re in the mood for romance or solitude—or gourmet food (the meals are about as inspired as the cuisine at my high school cafeteria). But these quibbles melted away during the plodding trail ride the next morning. (I was a little worried when I mounted Tricky Dick, given my voting record, but I soon discovered that the Prude’s horses are gentle enough for dudes who don’t know a saddle horn from a French horn.) About halfway through the ride, one first-time equestrian—who had worn his sullen teenage attitude like full-body chaps as he waited in line to saddle up—suddenly blurted out, “Hey, this is pretty cool.” His parents pulled their hats down low to hide their smiles.
Prude Ranch, on Texas Highway 118 six miles north of Fort Davis (915-426-3202, 800-458-6232, fax 915-426-3502; Rates from $58 double occupancy in the family cabins to $75 double occupancy in the motel-type rooms. Meal tickets are sold separately: $5 for breakfast weekdays and Saturdays, $6.50 Sundays; lunch and dinner $6.50—$8.95 (check to make sure the dining room will be open when you’re there). A one-hour trail ride is $15. AE, D, MC, V, checks.

Goin’ Retro

THESE COMPARATIVELY SMALL OPERATIONS have withstood the test of time, managing to hang on to a kind of nostalgic innocence. Their multigenerational appeal makes them ideal for family reunions.

The Dixie Dude Ranch is a 725-acre spread that has unabashedly embraced cowpoke culture for the past 62 years. The wranglers are sociable, the activities are Old West, and—despite the sad remains of an outbreak of oak wilt that killed the great trees surrounding the cabins, corrals, and dining hall—the atmosphere is decidedly happy. The stone and log cabins, some with fireplaces, are pleasantly rustic, with tile floors and knotty-pine paneling. The afternoon I visited, swimming in the pool and fishing in the pond were hits with the little dudes and dudettes who had just returned from a morning ride; their parents were busy holding down the rockers on the front porch. Owner Clay Conoly says the meals at the ranch are “good, home-cooked Texas cuisine, because that’s what people want”—catfish on Friday nights, fried chicken and yeast rolls on Sunday, breakfast cookouts, and Saturday-night barbecues. With 41 horses to ride and an additional 700 acres next door to explore, you should be able to jostle off some of those home-cooked pounds. And while you’re at it, you might even see some Longhorns and cashmere goats roaming the old Dixie.
Dixie Dude Ranch, on Ranch Road 1077 seven and a half miles west of Bandera (830-796-4481, 800-375-YALL; Rates $80—$95 a day per adult, $60 for children 13 to 16, $45 for children 6 to 12, $25 for children 2 to 5, under 2 free; includes three meals and two horseback rides daily. Two-night minimum September through May, three-night minimum June through August and major holidays. AE, D, MC, V, checks.

THE LAZY HILLS GUEST RANCH LIES IN A PICTURESQUE VALLEY outside Ingram. The sycamores lining the road leading to the stone barn, the manicured lawns, and the rock walls gave me the feeling, despite the heat, that I was in New England. But I’m not sure New Englanders, with their puritanical heritage, would take to leisure pursuits with the same exuberance as the Steinrucks, who have owned Lazy Hills since 1959. The grounds in front of the tidy cedar-and-stone duplex cabins are packed with recreational escapes: a paved volleyball court (take the Band-Aids); shuffleboard, basketball, and tennis courts; and a swimming pool. There are pool and Ping-Pong tables in the game room, thirty miles of trails for hiking and three stocked ponds for fishing, and of course, trail rides that snake through hill and dale over the ranch’s 750 acres. (Don’t worry, lazy wranglers: Rocking chairs await you on the cabin porches.) A huge bell calls hungry guests into the dining room for meals. “We have a lot of casseroles,” said a kid who was setting the tables.
Lazy Hills Guest Ranch, on Henderson Branch Road, off Texas Highway 27 two and a half miles northwest of Ingram (830-367-5600, 800-880-0632, fax 830-367-5667; Rates $78 per adult double occupancy, $45 for children 12 to 16, $35 for children 9 to 11, $30 for children 1 to 8, infants free; includes meals and the use of all facilities. Horseback riding is $12 an hour. AE, D, MC, V, checks.

WHEN I DROPPED BY THE RUNNING-R, I was greeted by a hound dog snoozing in the dusty drive, a strutting rooster leading a hen and six chicks, several barn cats who eyed me from atop a wooden fence, and a taciturn cowboy at the front desk. I felt as if I’d wandered onto a stage set for a Western parody—until I met a handful of the ranch’s towheaded guests, only one of whom spoke English. She was from Austria and was ensconced for two entire weeks in one of the weathered cedar cabins. Two weeks in Bandera? “I ride the horses and I eat,” she said, all grins. “Today we have one great wrangler. And this is best food I have ever had in America.” Guests chow down on cowboy cuisine as well as more highfalutin fare like chicken breasts in orange sauce and fresh berries with whipped cream. By Texas standards, the Running-R is a small ranch, with fewer than 230 acres, but it makes good use of the nearby, rider-friendly Hill Country State Natural Area.
Running-R Guest Ranch, on Ranch Road 1077 ten miles west of Bandera (830-796-3984, fax 830-796-8189; Rates $85 per adult double occupancy, $50 for children 7 to 12, $40 for children 4 to 6, under 4 free (rates slightly lower November through February). Includes three meals and two hours of horseback riding a day; additional rides are $13 an hour. Two-night minimum on major holidays. D, MC, V, checks.

AT THE TWIN ELM GUEST RANCH, the leisurely pace is contagious. When I showed up, two guests, only recently arrived from New York City, were decompressing on the patio, admiring the sunset from the ranch’s perch on one of the area’s highest peaks overlooking the Medina River valley. They were surprisingly serene for big-city folk; even they seemed shocked at how quickly they were unwinding. This relaxed attitude extended to the ranch animals as well. As I walked beneath the oaks in the fading evening light, I came upon a dog and a white-tailed fawn dozing together on the lawn. (I touched them both to make sure they weren’t stuffed props.)

Twin Elm has been honing its cowboy character since it opened as a dude ranch back in 1939. The lawn is adorned with an old buckboard, wagon wheels, and freestanding hammocks. The cabins and rooms are clean and cozy, with knotty-pine paneling, quilts on the beds, and campy Western art on the walls. I especially liked the stables and the corral, which look as if they’d been plucked from a John Ford western. All-you-can-eat meals—fried catfish, pork roast, chicken, brisket, salads, vegetables, homemade desserts—are served in the long stone dining hall. “Everyone who comes here falls in love with our cook, Josie,” says owner Charlsie Browne. While the adults unwind, there are plenty of adventures for the kids: Friday-night rodeos during the summer months, a recreation room with Ping-Pong and pool tables, swimming in the pool, tubing on the Medina, and of course, trail rides.
Twin Elm Guest Ranch, on Texas Highway 470 three miles southwest of Bandera (830-796-3628, 888-567-3049; Rates $90 per adult, $60 for children 13 to 17, $50 for children 3 to 12, under 3 free. Includes meals and horseback riding. AE, MC, V.

IT’S SEVEN AND A HALF MILES FROM THE FRONT GATE to the headquarters of the Y.O. Ranch, a drive that took me past herds of white-tailed deer, several spotted axis deer, and a huddle of Longhorn cattle, a sampling of the ranch’s fifty native and exotic species. I had hoped to spot one of the resident zebras or giraffes, but with 40,000 acres to roam, I felt lucky to have stumbled on the animals I did. (I chose to ignore the future fate of some of the creatures as hunters’ targets.) If you’re looking for authentic Wild West accommodations, look no farther: The Y.O.’s five cabins, some more than a century old, are blessedly free of that rough cedar-plywood siding that modern cabin builders seem addicted to. They boast thick walls of split cypress chinked with mortar, stone fireplaces, wood floors, and Dutch doors. (Work should be finished any day now on four new log cabins—actually, old log cabins, two of which once served as Kerr County’s first post office; they were dismantled and moved to the ranch decades ago and are currently being reassembled.) The weekend I visited, the ranch—which can currently sleep at least 35 people comfortably—was booked up with a wedding party, most of whom were cooling off in the handsome swimming pool edged with limestone boulders and surrounded by persimmon trees, oaks, and yuccas as tall as Florida palms. The Y.O. hosts a herd of programs, from camps for kids to trail drives and corporate team-building events. And if you’re looking for a custom adventure, tourism manager Gus Schreiner, a great-grandson of the Y.O.’s original cattle baron, Charles Schreiner, says, “We can organize anything, no matter how crazy . . . within the limits of the law.”
Y.O. Ranch, on Texas Highway 41 West fifteen miles west of Mountain Home (830-640-3222, fax 830-640-3227. Rates $125 per adult, $83 for children 12 and under; includes meals, a one-hour horseback ride, and a ranch tour. The annual three-day roundup in May is $200 a person, plus $150 if the ranch supplies your horse. AE, MC, V, checks. 2005-07-21 Update: The URL for website shown in the magazine is no longer active.

Gettin’ Real

STRIP AWAY THE CHUCK WAGON COOKOUTS, the cowboy-in-a-can personas, and all the group hoopla, and you’re left with ranch essentials—land, horses, cattle—and the families who’ve spent generations squeezing a living from them.

The story of the X Bar Ranch, located in the rugged hills north of Sonora, reads like a Michener saga. Three generations of the Meador family still run the cattle and sheep operations on the seven-thousand-acre spread: the grandfather, Ed, who was born on the ranch, educated in journalism at SMU, and once owned the local newspaper; the gregarious father, Lynn, who has worked the ranch on and off his whole life; and his two sons, Chris, who inherited the family love of ranching, and Stan, a world traveler who was drawn back to the X Bar three years ago from his home in Spain, bringing with him the notion of recreational ranching. (Grandfather Ed likes the tourist venture so much now, Stan says, he claims credit for the idea.) Add a twelve-mile trail ride to an oak-lined arroyo, an eye-popping night sky, and if you get lucky, an authentic “sorting” of one of the herds of cattle—complete with little bulls being turned into little steers with a flick of Chris’s knife—and you’ve got one of the most memorable and reality-based ranch vacations around. You swim in a real stock tank. Real cattle bleed real blood. And the horses, especially my new buddy, Pilgrim, have real personalities and leadership disputes, unlike the nearly catatonic trail horses at some dude ranches, which plod behind one another, nose to tail, like a string of furry pearls.

I was stuck staying in one of the ranch’s six former hunting cabins—comfortable but very basic—which flank a communal kitchen and dining room. Luckily, no one else was around to watch me whip up a disgusting mess of black beans and Velveeta I’d bought at the grocery store in Eldorado. (Had I known how well equipped the kitchen was and that I’d have it to myself, I would have chosen my dinner ingredients more carefully.) But even my cooking tasted fine in the cool solitude, by the light of a zillion stars.

The X Bar’s only other guests, a couple from Berlin, were housed in the ranch’s more gentrified Round House. Built in 1967 as a weekend retreat (I love it that a family likes their ranch so much they build their vacation getaway there), the two-story stone house has a wall of windows, a fireplace, a kitchen, and upstairs, two bedrooms that share a bath. It’s perfect for close friends or family members—but they’ll have to get used to the deer that paws on the screen door and begs for food.

When I met Wolfgang Luedecke, he was literally aglow after his second day in sun country, his fair skin scorched to a bright pink. “Now you can say you haf met a German redneck,” he joked. Europeans, particularly Germans, are drawn to the Texas ranching mystique. They marvel at two simple things we take for granted: horses and space. When Wolfgang’s wife, Mary-Anne, told me her horse-crazed countrymen pay $600 a month to stable a pony in Germany, where there’s little open land to ride on, I began to understand how exotic Texas ranches might seem.

The Luedeckes crave authenticity. “We were at another ranch a couple of years ago,” said Mary-Anne, “and a giraffe looked over the wall at me when I was by the pool. It didn’t feel right.” Wolfgang concurs: “We like the X Bar much better. It’s not the fancy resort-type facility like some ranches in Bandera.” He was in hog heaven one morning during the X Bar’s dusty, bloody cattle sorting where bawling calves are separated from their bellowing mothers and gently—well, as gently as possible—clamped into a cattle cradle so they can be vaccinated, de-horned, and . . . other stuff. Mary-Anne and I spent a fair amount of time with our backs to the operation. Wolfgang, however, worked side by side with Lynn and Chris throughout the grim process, turning from pink to green at the sight of his first castration and cringing involuntarily every time the knife flashed, but thrilled to be there.
X Bar Ranch, 5 North Divide, Eldorado (915-853-2688, 888-853-2688, fax 915-853-3131; Rates $70—$90 per person double occupancy for the Round House, $40—$60 per person double occupancy for the cabins, including continental breakfast. Horse back riding is $20 an hour. AE, D, MC, V, checks.

THE SETTING OF THE LH7 RANCH AND RESORT IS PURE HILL COUNTRY: 1,200 acres of rolling pastures, limestone bluffs, thickets of cedar and live oak (although oak wilt has left its mark), and huge pecan and cypress trees along the Medina River. From the screened porch of my stone cabin, one of ten, I could look across the ranch’s 46-acre lake to distant hills. The classic landscape, however, isn’t the LH7’s most impressive feature. That would be Maudeen Marks, the ranch’s witty, 81-year-old proprietress, who breeds an elite strain of Longhorn cattle that are blood-typed for purity. Miss Marks doesn’t just breed Longhorns; she loves them, particularly an old one-eyed bull named Coronado, who prowled around the cabins waiting to be fed when I visited. “He’s a magnificent, intelligent beast,” she said. “In his day he worked his harem of cows like a man on a quarter horse.” Other members of her herd of two hundred—protective cows and their wide-eyed newborns—gave me the bovine once-over during a scenic two-and-a-half hour (ouch) trail ride led by Belle Meeks, a weathered wranglerette who rolls her own and commands respect despite her diminutive size.

With old Coronado grazing nearby, I didn’t have the heart to cook up the steak I’d brought in the cabin’s cheery little kitchen; so, after a revitalizing dip in the hilltop pool-with-a-view, I hobbled into Bandera for dinner. Steak, of course, but Coronado doesn’t have to know that.
LH7 Ranch and Resort, off FM 3240 three and a half miles northwest of Bandera (830-796-4314, fax 830-796-7156). Cabins $65 double occupancy; $5 for each additional person. No meals (except for large groups), but cabins are equipped with kitchenettes and some grills. Horseback rides, arranged through Belle Meeks (830-796-7292), are $16 for one hour. Checks accepted; no credit cards.