Dude Ranches Offer Riding, a Taste of the Old West and Relaxed Family Fun

When I received my horse assignment at the 63 Ranch, I drew "Tough Luck." If I’d been a betting woman, this might have made me nervous. But, in fact, Toughie (as I fondly called her), turned out to be just what this cowgirl needed: a surefooted, scrappy little quarter horse who took me through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I’ve ever encountered.

I spent a relaxing week last July at the 63 Ranch in Livingston, Mont. The 63 is one of Montana’s oldest dude ranches and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The land was homesteaded in 1863 (hence the ranch’s name), and became a dude ranch in 1929, when Paul, Elmer and Johanna Christensen bought the original 420-acre spread and opened their picturesque lodge to visitors. Today, the family continues the tradition, operating their 2,000-acre cattle and guest ranch 12 miles east of Livingston in the rugged Absorka Mountains.

The ranch is intimate, accommodating just 30 guests a week in rustic log cabins. Because it’s small and many guests return each summer, folks are quickly on a first-name basis.

Monday morning we gather at the corral, where Jeff Cahill offers Horse Psych. 101, a helpful explanation of how these animals are wired. He also reviews useful safety basics, like starting, turning and stopping one’s steed. Guests are then assigned their horse for the week, based on riding ability. But I soon realize you don’t have to be an equestrian to enjoy your stay here; visitors come with all levels of experience and judging from my week, few leave disappointed. Even our 5- and 8-year-old riders came back grinning from the trail. I worried about becoming saddle sore, but never had a problem.

Which is a good thing, because I would have hated missing the morning or afternoon rides when wranglers lead riders up mountainous trails that meandered through forests thick with lodge-pole pine and quaking aspen. We’d often come over a rise to discover a spectacular view of a neighboring valley, or stop to relax in lush, alpine meadows laced with wildflowers like the fiery Indian paintbrushes and dainty Sego lilies.

Back at the ranch, the dinner bell summoned us for hearty meals, served family-style in the lodge. Rustically furnished with overstuffed Molesworth couches and colorful woven blankets, the lodge reflects its early Western roots – right down to the mountain goats and elk that peer at us from their roosts. Of course, there’s plenty of wildlife outdoors, too. During my stay, we came upon a black bear and cub as they scampered into the woods, and later shared a meadow with white-tailed deer.

The 63 emphasizes horseback riding along with low-tech relaxation. You won’t find TVs or computer games here, but families don’t seem to miss them. There was live music one evening, a square dance another, and the kids spent lots of time in the recreation room. Folks also made a point to check out Livingston, or Yellowstone National Park, just 50 miles south of the ranch.

As for this cowgirl, I whiled away my nights at the pool table – but that’s grist for another story. Let’s just say old Toughie hasn’t seen the last of me yet.

63 Ranch – 406-222-0570, – Rates: $1,250 per adult, includes food, lodging and riding; reduced costs for children under age 11.

Dude Rancher’s Association – 307-587-2339. Dude ranches are located in most Western states.

Travel Montana – 800-VISIT-MT(847-4868). Find more information on Montana vacations. 

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