Ranch Vacations: A Family Reconnects in Paradise

by Chris VandenHeuvel

“On your left you’ll see Cloud Peak.” Maddy giggled in her saddle when Kirk gestured in the fog. After finally winding our way to the top of the mesa above Paradise Guest Ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming we could see … maybe 50 yards. All around us rose the aspen- and ponderosa pine-lined slopes of the Big Horn mountain range we had explored all week, but all we could make out was a cold mist. We didn’t care. With a simple kick we were off galloping, and Maddy’s face broke into a delirious grin. She was lovin’ it and so was I.

Maddy and I purchased our first cowboy boots for a week-long stay at Paradise, and we put them to good use, riding twice a day and quickly learning to take our horses to a gallop. (Galloping is called “loping” out here in Western saddle territory. One of our young fellow guests who rides English saddle back home in Virginia insisted it’s called “cantering” – I suggested “canteloping” as a compromise.) After hanging around horses and wranglers all day, those boots became real comfortable. I now understand why my friends back in Texas say that cowboy boots are the most comfortable thing on your feet aside from sand.

There are scores of dude ranches in the western U.S., but Paradise has a well-deserved reputation as being family-friendly. Close to half of the 18 cabins on our stay were taken up by a large extended family on their umpteenth reunion at Paradise. As we all introduced ourselves in French Creek Saloon on arrival Sunday evening, it became clear that many people consider a ranch stay to be an ideal family vacation. And many consider Paradise ideal among ranches.

My wife Pat entered ranch life with much trepidation. Her last riding experience was exceedingly brief, leading quickly to a nearby bar. Our eleven-year old son Jamie had never been on a horse and expressed little desire to change his status. But twelve-year old Maddy had twice been to a riding camp, and I considered myself a pro since my family took care of a pony when I was young.

After a concise and humorous “Horse 101” briefing the first morning (“Horse walks into a bar, the bartender asks, ‘Why the long face?’”), both Pat and Jamie overcame their jitters with some gentle but firm persuasion from Kirk, the lead wrangler. Since guests choose the pace of their rides, Maddy and I progressed throughout the week to join others who were more into speed than scenery. Pat may never join a cattle drive and Jamie’s too big to be a jockey, but at week’s end she advanced to trotting and he joined the children’s rodeo, maneuvering his horse around the barrels and poles (this was after he caught a chicken in the hysterical chicken chasing contest).

Paradise is not all riding. In fact, a river runs through it. Really. French Creek cuts through the property and meanders between craggy Fan Rock and the trail leading up to the mesa. The river is diverted into two ponds on the Ranch and stocked with rainbow and brook trout, where friendly guides provide lessons and embark on renowned fly-fishing expeditions. Children in the kids’ program learn to fish with a reel or fly rod and then go off with a guide or dad to bring home dinner (while catch-and-release is the norm, guests may bring their catch back to the ranch to be served at dinner or breakfast the next morning). Maddy caught the first two fish of her life, and Jamie and I maneuvered around a local moose to pull ten small trout from the creek. All this while Pat enjoyed a personal massage in our cozy cabin (such an outdoorsy girl).

Another major pastime at Paradise is hiking, from low impact flower meadows to rigorous, lengthy climbs with a guide. While Maddy and I spent much of our time on horseback, Pat and Jamie wandered the 180-acre ranch and adjoining 2 million-acre national forest on their own. This is when they experienced a close encounter of the moose kind, leading Pat to scramble over a rough country fence to the safe confines of the ranch chapel, trapped until the large rack was out of sight. Mmmm. That cozy, wood-burning fireplace in the safety of the cabin is looking better all the time.

Maddy and Jamie made friends quickly and enjoyed some time away from mom and dad, hanging out in the kids’ center playing pool and ping pong or swimming in the small outdoor pool when the weather was warm (which was rarer than I had anticipated). One evening they packed their pillow slips and hiked near Fan Rock with their new friends and camp counselors to cook out, tell ghost stories and sleep under the stars. Their wake-up call consisted of a counselor jokingly screaming, “Moose!” at the top of his lungs.

Numerous moose have made themselves at home at Paradise, including one that apparently wanted to shoot a few hoops on the basketball court outside the saloon during the weekly fashion show where willing guests serve as models. The ranch also is home to three big dogs, four calves that think they are dogs, rock chucks (kind of like wood chucks but they hang out on rocks and whistle), the proverbial playing antelopes, an occasional eagle and surprisingly few biting bugs.

In spite of all its beauty and slow pace, the most captivating aspect of Paradise was its people. I simply didn’t realize that cowboys are alive and well in America – people who shoe horses, herd cattle, whisper to your horse and ride from ranch to ranch when there’s work to be done. Unfailingly polite and patient with us city folk (OK, suburbanites) and all business in the saddle, the long-time ranch hands and wranglers have a look in their eyes that I don’t see much out east, a look that understands the discipline of managing a large animal and the simple pleasure of swinging a dance partner in the saloon. They got to know our names, asked us to dance and helped us pick out our steaks at dinner (“Kicking, mooing or dead?”).

The brains behind Paradise belong to owners Leah Miller who clings to her Minnesota accent and her husband Clay from Eastern Washington State, whose dry sense of humor kept guests amused throughout the week. They took turns making announcements, playing guitar and emceeing the humorous weekly talent show (“variety” show may be more apt) that involved wranglers, shaving cream and feeble jokes, along with guest participation. (My darling daughter performed “Dancing Queen” on piano, accompanied by my lunatic son’s interpretive dance, including pirouettes and break dancing – mom and I were so proud.) On the final evening they called a square dance that had nearly all eighty guests – kids, and adults – plus ranch hands and wranglers Virginia reeling across the saloon. They do know how to run a ranch.

After a few days at Paradise I found my speech had slowed a bit and developed a twang, blackberries had become fruit once again (my electronic version thankfully was useless there) and I eventually made peace with the lack of riding helmets, something we would never see where we live in Virginia horse country. Kirk matter-of-factly pointed out: that’s what we do out West. Perhaps there simply are fewer lawyers in Buffalo, Wyoming.

Regardless, Paradise Guest Ranch simply was one of our best family vacations.

About Paradise Guest Ranch

Paradise Guest Ranch accepts guests from late May through late September for Sunday to Sunday stays. Rates are $1675 per adult, $1575 per child ages 6-12, $875 per child ages 3-5 and $575 for ages 2 and under. Rates include 3 hearty meals per day, lodging in your private 1, 2 or 3-bedroom log cabin and all regularly scheduled activities, such as the twice daily riding program for ages six and up, fly-fishing clinics, team penning and barrel racing, kids’ program and nightly special events (see Paradise web site for weekly calendar). Rates do not include a 15% service charge, sales tax (5%), lodging tax (2%) and any bar charges and general store purchases. The ranch offers a discounted family week early and later in the season – a good value.

The daily kids’ program is segmented by age. Activities include fishing, hiking, learning to rope, pony rides for the younger ones, crafts and even practice for the Wednesday night talent show and Saturday’s kids’ rodeo. Teens enjoy special trail rides, prepping for Friday rodeo, strenuous hikes and cavorting in the pool, around the pool table or over ice cream and a movie. For more information, go to www.paradiseranch.com or call 307-684-7876.

Before You Go:

  • Bring plenty of layers for cold weather, even in August – our first day hit 85 degrees, our last only 36.
  • Be flexible. Our Monday night Picnic On The Hill and Campfire Sing-along was moved to the saloon due to iffy weather, as was our Friday all-camp ride up the mountain to the Chuckwagon Dinner.
  • Either bring a riding helmet or request one (small fee) at least a week prior to arrival.
  • Silver Dollar cabin has unobstructed views from its large wood porch and is convenient to all activities.
  • Book far in advance – guests often reserve the following year at the end of a stay.
  • Commuter flights are available from Denver to Sheridan, Wyoming (Ranch staff will pick you up). Otherwise fly into Casper, Wyoming or Billings, Montana.
  • Order snacks or drinks through the Ranch early in the week to stock in your cabin’s mini-refrigerator. But not too much – meals are plentiful, fresh and satisfying.
  • Pack shampoo, conditioner and a blow dryer. Laundry detergent for your cabin’s washer/dryer, soap and towels are replenished with daily maid service.

Chris VandenHeuvel is public relations executive who began freelance writing on family travel after his daughter Maddy was born in 1992. He and his wife Pat take their two kids (including son Jamie) everywhere they can, including villas in Jamaica, high end resorts and the Galapagos Islands.

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