Head West (at least figuratively) by vacationing at a working farm or dude ranch. Your biggest questions answered:
How rough are we talkin'?
Don't stress. Vacationing at a farm or ranch doesn't mean you'll be handed a bucket and a bar of soap at shower time. You'll find every range of accommodation on the roughing-it scale: At the most rustic, the wranglers jingle-jangle into the breakfast hall with you and you're expected to earn your keep with chores. (And your kids thought setting the table was an injustice barely survived.) At larger "resort ranches" and farm stays, you get a massage or play a round of golf while kids are corralled into the highly organized kids' program for hayrides, folk dancing, and animal-grooming lessons. What will most farms and ranches have in common? Lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, hearty home-cooked meals included in the price, and the ability to chill at a slower pace for a while.
Should I choose a farm or a ranch?
Six is the magic age at which kids are allowed to saddle up on a horse independently at most dude ranches (they're physically strong enough then and covered by the ranch's insurance company), so think about farm visits when they're younger. However, there are always exceptions. Gregg and Laura Ross of Austin, TX, have been going to ranches since their 5-year-old was a toddler. "I think my daughter would rebel if we told her we were going somewhere else," says Gregg. "I remember the trips by what new thing she was able to do each year, from pony rides to bucket roping [lasso practice for little kids who can't lasso livestock] and, soon, horse rides on her own."
What makes these trips special?
Farm and ranch regulars say luxury doesn't always mean a fancy-schmancy dinner menu or a marble bathroom. Sure, that resort in the Caribbean was nice, but at a farm or a ranch, "it's different because of the relationship you form with the place and, especially, with the people," says Stephanie Wilson, president of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association. Ranchers and farmers are more or less inviting you into their homes, and that's just what it feels like. Melissa Bland, a mom of two in Missouri City, TX, says she was surprised when someone arrived at her door in the morning with coffee and a schedule of the day's activities; it was touches like that that made the trip special.
Is it expensive?
Rates vary by property, but as a general guideline, expect to pay as much as $350 per night for two adults and two children 3 and older at a farm; $700 at a large resort-type ranch. Those rates will include all your meals and activities. Kids under 3 are almost always free. Some ask that you stay for at least a weekend; others require a week. Aviva Goldfarb, a mom of two in Chevy Chase, MD, gets the most out of her weekend stays by flying in the day before and staying in a cheap motel nearby. She rouses the family early and heads straight for the ranch so they get a full day's activities in. And, she says, the ranch is always worth the price. "Ranches are great because everyone can find his happy place, then come together at the end of the day. It is truly a life experience that you can't put a price tag on," she says.
Paradise Ranch, WY (Paradiseranch.com)
At this stunning, middle-of-nowhere ranch, you get it all: meadows full of gold and lilac wildflowers and snowcapped mountains. The awesome Young Bucks program has the young'uns practicing every day for their own rodeo, and includes other they-can-only-do-it-here pastimes, like a chicken-chasing competition! The minimum weeklong stay is capped off with the kids' performance on Saturday afternoon. C'mon, when did you ever think you'd see your kid as the star of a rodeo? That's got to be the highlight of the trip.
Southern Cross Guest Ranch, GA (Southcross.com)
Southern hospitality meets the Wild West beautifully at this working horse farm (237 mane squeezes and counting!) outside of Atlanta. Though it's open year-round, if you come in the spring, you're bound to see a foal being born. The picture-perfect pastures are great for families who want to vacation on their own terms: There aren't many organized activities except the daily rides. Why? "We find that most people just hide in their room if you try to get them to square-dance," says the owner, Noel Detienne. So if having to hang with families you don't know and a chop-chop schedule aren't your thing, you may want to check this place out. You can even go on an unguided horseback ride if you've had experience and your kids are at least 9 years old. There's a pool, hot tub, and mountain bikes, too.
Weatherbury Farm, PA (Weatherburyfarm.com)
This farm in the charming southwestern Pennsylvania hills is all about getting kids dirty -- in a happy, good way. Marcy Tudor, one of the proprietors, says you simply can't miss waking up with farmer Dale to do the morning chores. "He loves to talk, and little kids especially eat it up," she says. They'll make the rounds: pumping water at the well, bottle-feeding lambs, and collecting eggs. Visit the website for details on folk-music workshops and country jam sessions coming up this summer.
Tanque Verde Ranch, AZ (Tanqueverderanch.com)
This 100-year-old ranch in the sunbaked Sonoran Desert shares turf with huge saguaro cacti and scaly desert reptiles. Riding horses here is like living out that vision of trotting off into the sunset -- and the thorough prep programs will ensure that everyone, even the little beginners, feels comfortable before they saddle up. Aviva Goldfarb says one of her favorite activities is the old-fashioned cookout. "You are out under the gorgeous stars, singing western songs. You're in a different time and place. It is incredible," she says.
Lost Valley Ranch, CO (Lostvalleyranch.com)
The kids' program at this sizable property is led by an enthusiastic, talented bunch, so parents are free to ride, fish, and gaze at the picturesque Rockies in peace. Make and pack a saddlebag lunch (fixings provided), then dine in a meadow on the mountaintop. Wood is delivered daily for the stone fireplaces in the comfy cabins. You'll have to shake your cell phone habit, though: no reception (or TVs) here. Eh, so what. "People soon realize they can laugh and enjoy each other's company without all those digital things that are so pervasive in our lives," says the owner, Bob Foster.