Cowgirls have often forged friendships at ranches across the American West. Whether they were part of a multi-generational ranching family or 1920s rodeo competitors, the women always looked forward to their gatherings.
Now that everyday folks can experience the ranch life, women from all over the U.S. and around the world are seeking out their dreams through “cowgirl getaway” adventures. “Women make up 70 percent of our clientele,” says Don Guglielmino, owner of the Bull Hill Guest Ranch, located in northeastern Washington State at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The Bull Hill is among the 15 getaways shared here, where women can embrace the ways of the West.
Fresh off a cattle drive, Isabella Bird wrote, “So we’ve been driving cattle all day, riding about twenty miles, and fording the Big Thompson about as many times. Evans flatters me by saying that I am ‘as much use as another man;’ more than one of our party, I hope, who always avoided the ‘ugly’ cows.”
Isabella had been pleased about her experiences herding cattle in Long’s Peak, Colorado, in the fall of 1873. Some had dismissed this woman in the saddle as a tourist, but Griffith Evans and his drovers saw her as a capable ranch hand. She rode like a man and covered more than 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains during her stay. Yet, ultimately, she was a tourist, as she returned home to England. That did not make her any less of a cowgirl.
The quest for adventure in the American West is as much a welcome escape for women today as it was for Isabella. “Life on a real ranch is sure a fantasy life for me, and yet, for the time that I’m there, I really feel a part of it all and enjoy every minute…even if it’s cleaning up after the horses,” says Pam Sherburne, of Chicago, Illinois, after yet another stay at the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, with a friend from New York whom she had first met at the ranch.
Many guest ranches are now offering “cowgirl getaway” vacations that consist of riding and roping, gathering and gabbing, rejuvenating and relaxing. Designed specifically for ladies, these packages offer a variety of activities and services, from the “true cowgirl” experience at Running-R Guest Ranch in Bandera, Texas, including cattle drives and cattle sorting, to the customized “Cowgirl Divas Getaway” weekends offered at BlissWood Bed & Breakfast at Lehmann Legacy Ranch in Cat Spring, Texas, where the women design their own package to suit their needs. Trail rides, stargazing, horse meditation, campfire cookouts and chuckwagon breakfasts are among the options at BlissWood.
Friends, family and sometimes even children can participate in these getaways. “I have met everyone there, from mothers with their college-age daughters to grandmothers with their adult grandchildren…. Many people meet up there with friends who they have not seen in awhile, just to have a great time,” says Lori Wayne, who vacationed at Sylvan Dale.
The reasons women seek out these adventures vary as much as their personalities. “We have several women groups who plan a getaway each year to the ranch for a girls’ weekend—they horseback ride, spa, go to Sisters—whether it be a bachelorette party, a group of mothers of twins and triplets or local women’s business groups,” says Charles Kingbaker, of Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon.
“My ‘bucket list’ needed one more item to be completed before my 50th birthday—my lifelong dream to be part of a cowboy lifestyle. To ride the range with purpose and work up a good sweat,” says Robin M. Star, who vacationed at Runamuk in Roundup, Montana. She had originally planned to go alone, but she ran into an acquaintance who said she also needed to get away and wanted to join her. “I was quite surprised,” Robin admits. “We ended up going together, really not knowing each other, and became great friends.”
By the end of the getaway, women, like Robin, oftentimes find they have developed new friendships that continue for years to come. Karen Jeppi also experienced this during her stay at the Sylvan Dale Ranch. She is from Las Vegas, Nevada, and the four other girls she meets up with every year are from Maryland. “The funny part is that I only knew one of the girls in the group. By the end of the week, we were all close, and we remain in touch, even visiting each other!” she says.
Yvonne K. Markwardt of Hartland, Wisconsin, remembers the trick that helped her and her sister Cara Lynn bond with the other women at the Double E Ranch in Gila, New Mexico. She was known as Chili and her sister was known as Peppa, “ ’cuz together we made one hot Chili Peppa,” she says. “Almost every attendee ended up with some type of handle…. It actually made for more of a comrade spirit and bonding; for instance, a gal from New York, who came alone and became part of my sister and my team penning team, ended up being called Salsa!”
Bonding doesn’t just occur among the women who traveled with you and who you meet along the way, but also with the horses. “Women go on these trips to better understand horses and themselves, because the horses mirror their feelings. Some come to better understand how others see and relate to them,” says Mac Makenny, owner of Homeplace Ranch in Priddis, Alberta, Canada.
A guest of Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, Arizona, took a shining to her horse. “Even my horse, Shoshonie, was perfect. Being a beginner at loping, I wasn’t afraid at all with him. It was like he understood everything I wanted to do,” Phyllis T. says.
Women who attend these events enjoy horseback riding, or the idea of it at least. Some ranches prefer riders to be experienced. “Our cattle work weeks, fall cattle drive and the Big Fall Gather are geared toward intermediate and advanced riders,” says Betsy Hunewill Elliot, of the Hunewill Guest Ranch in Bridgeport, California. But, like a lot of the ranches, Hunewill also offers guidance to riders of all levels, even first timers, for other types of cowgirl getaways.
“Every level of rider can go to the Double E. I started when I had just begun riding, and I am still going, even now that I own three horses and run the mounted unit for the state parks,” JoDean Nicolette says.
Experienced riders can find themselves on challenging terrain at times. “They were able to put together daily rides that fit our competitive natures,” says Joan Feely, a guest at Red Reflet Ranch in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, who owns a stable in New Jersey.
The women who sign on for these adventures come to inhale beauty, polish skills and experience something they cannot in their everyday life. Typical cowgirl activities include horseback riding, horsemanship, cattle work and roping. But many ranches offer additional experiences that draw in the ladies.
“Our four-to-five days at Bull Hill are certainly stimulating, from horseback riding (daily, if one wishes) to fishing, hiking, hot tubbing, visiting masseuses and, of course, skeet shooting. Something us girls don’t get to do often!” says Linda Curtis, of Pendleton, Oregon, about her stays at Bull Hill in Kettle Falls, Washington.
“Don’t miss out on the barbecue ride,” Verla Robillard advises for future guests at Hunewill. “Riding through the meadows is so peaceful. I rode intermediate/advance, so we had some loping and jumping creeks…. My daughter and I will continue to return each year because this family-run ranch offers true down-to-earth hospitality.”
“Branding by the fire—that was special. If you have a good hat, boots or leather bag, they will brand it for you,” says Karen Jeppi, about the Sylvan Dale Ranch wranglers.
Another Sylvan Dale fan, Wayne, admits she took full advantage of the ranch activities. “Evening hayride to tour the ranch…, early morning hikes along the river with our resident geologist, morning yoga class, tons of great horseback riding in absolutely gorgeous country on wonderful ranch-raised quarter horses.” And the best part, she adds, “because I was so physically active while I was there, I could take advantage of the great food, guilt free.”
Some ranches give women the opportunity to show off their acquired skills at local rodeos. Guests at the Running-R can participate in a local rodeo as an exhibition barrel racer, or, if they prefer, they can sit in the stands and cheer on their fellow cowgirl friends.
For the “Cactus Cowgirls at Rodeo” adventure held in February at the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, “these gals have a chance to learn and perfect a quadrille maneuver that they perform at the Saturday ranch rodeo,” Carol Moore says.
The Western Pleasure Guest Ranch in Idaho’s Panhandle region includes a spa day and a dinner cruise on Idaho’s largest lake, Lake Pend Oreille.
The Bar W in Whitefish, Montana, helps the girls wind down at the end of a day of cattle work by providing a private vintner’s presentation, a gourmet dinner and two-stepping lessons at the Blue Moon saloon.
The Wilderness Trails Ranch in Durango, Colorado, has found a charitable way for visiting cowgirls to get to know the cowboys better. The ranch auctions off all the wranglers on the property. The plan, for now, is they’ll join the women at a candlelight gourmet dinner and dance. The money the women bid on the men will be donated to the local Spring Creek Horse Rescue.
Enjoying the ride is the reward many of these women take away from their adventures. “I fully believe every woman should attend Cowgirl Camp [at Double E]. To say it was life changing for me is to call it by too little,” Yvonne says.
“I was challenged; I laughed a lot, ate well and shared time with some special people,” Robin says. “Since my objective was to work with the cattle, ride the horses and take in Montana at its best, I expected to be exhausted by the end of the day.… I truly experienced a week of pure cowboy adventure.”
When that week of bonding with your fellow cowgirls comes to its inevitable end, “Goodbyes are said in the same breath as ‘Let’s do this again next year,’” Linda says. “And so we meet again the following year to renew our spirits and build on our friendship.”
BlissWood B&B at Lehmann Legacy Ranch
Cat Spring, TX
Starting at $548
713-301-3235 • BlissWood.net
Bull Hill Guest Ranch
Kettle Falls, WA
All Year, excluding March & early December
$210; group rate of 15+ is $171
877-285-5445 • BullHill.com
Red Reflet Ranch
Ten Sleep, WY
Last week of the month
$1,961.60 for three nights
866-766-2340 • Red-Reflet-Ranch.net
Black Butte Ranch
Starts at $170 per night
866-901-2961 • BlackButteRanch.com
Double E Ranch
575-535-2048 • DoubleERanch.com
Hunewill Guest Ranch
Starts at $589
760-932-7710 • HunewillRanch.com
Western Pleasure Guest Ranch
June 1-Sept 30, 2011
888-863-9066 • WesternPleasureRanch.com
Priddis, AB, Canada
June 10-12, 2011
877-931-3245 • HomeplaceRanch.com
Runamuk Guest Ranch
June 20-26, 2011
406-323-3614 • RunamukGuestRanch.com
Running-R Guest Ranch
July 15-17, 2011
830-796-3984 • RRRanch.com
Wilderness Trails Ranch
August 28-Sept 3, 2011
800-527-2624 • WildernessTrails.com
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch
Sept 29-Oct 2, 2011
970-667-3915 • SylvanDale.com
Rancho de los Caballeros
$820 single/$1,200 double
800-684-5030 • SunC.com
Bar W Guest Ranch
Oct. 9-15, 2011
Starts at $1,645
866-828-2900 • BarWGuestRanch.com
White Stallion Ranch
2012: Jan. 22-29, Feb. 16-19; 22-26
Starts at $825
888-977-2624 • WhiteStallion.com