Blame years of pandemic restrictions that kept travelers closer to home—or perhaps the cool factor of that fiery cattle rancher’s daughter Beth Dutton of the hit TV series Yellowstone—but Americans have never been more excited about the American West. This is especially true with multigenerational groups, who are flocking to states including Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and California for the retreats that offer them access to some of the country’s most breathtaking landscapes: green meadows, rushing rivers, snow-capped peaks, and a taste of centuries-old ranching culture. Some of the country’s best properties make up AFAR’s 2023 list of top 10 ranches and lodges in the American West.
Travel advisors have noted a boom in ranch and lodge stays since the pandemic; ranch experiences are defined as retreats where all activities happen on property, whereas lodges have a smaller footprint and offer programming that put guests within easy reach of a surrounding area’s natural wonders.
“It’s an absolute dream for a multigenerational trip,” said Elizabeth Benson, a Denver-based travel advisor with the Virtuoso luxury travel advisor network and an independent affiliate of travel consultancy Local Foreigner. “My clients have been all over the world—the Mediterranean, Europe, Hawai‘i, the Caribbean—but when they come back from a ranch stay, they say it’s the best family trip they’ve been on.”
According to Benson, in 2020, when travel restrictions compelled Americans to seek domestic getaways, ranches and lodges were booked solid—and clients had such a good time they decided to book the following year. Today, 70 percent of her clients on these trips are multigenerational groups; often it’s the grandparents who are doing the booking in the hope that the family can come together for quality time.
Group travel made easy
Benson said even seasoned international travelers find the ranch or lodge-style American West getaway appealing because it’s the perfect combination of easy travel (no passports or big time-zone shifts), streamlined logistics (all-inclusive pricing), and a wide range of activities that allow people of various ages and physical abilities to have a good time, be it horseback riding, trout fishing, or hanging out on a veranda with a book. These vacations also remove the added pressure of getting larger groups into restaurants, a common issue in such regions as the Caribbean or Europe.
“If I were to pick two slam-dunk trips for multigenerational families, it’s dude ranches in the American West or a safari in Africa,” she said. “They’re comparable in that you show up and have these amazing guides, and all your needs are getting taken care of. Some ranches are just as nice as some of the nicest lodges in Africa, but you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to get there.”
Standout kids clubs
A lot of the family-friendly ranches also have kids clubs that are getting great feedback from Benson’s clients. She named Wyoming’s Brush Creek Ranch and Montana’s Mountain Sky Guest Ranch and Ranch at Rock Creek as three shining examples.
“If the parents want to go fly-fishing and the kids aren’t quite into that, kids clubs are a way to introduce younger travelers to those activities in a safer way,” she said. “You drop them off and the staff is covering the kids in sunscreen and getting them fully into the activities, and it helps the parents relax.”
Parents can also go through the ranch to wrangle a babysitter for a younger child who needs extra supervision at the kids club, so the child can spend time with their older cousins and siblings who need less hand holding.
A rise in winter stays
One of the biggest indicators that the American West family vacation is here to stay, says Benson, is that ranches and lodges have begun to extend their seasons beyond summer to accommodate demand. At some retreats, the season is running as late as mid-October. Other places that were only previously open in the warmer months are now opening in winter for visitors. In Brush Creek Ranch, for instance, Benson’s clients reported having enjoyed taking snowcats out for back-country ski excursions, gathering the family for snowmobile rides, or sipping cocktails or having whiskey tastings in yurts surrounded by a snowy wonderland. Cooking classes and wellness programming have become especially popular in the winter months, too.
“The people I’m sending in the winter, it’s mostly groups that want to congregate in a place with fun activities and great meals, and all of the top ranches have fabulous spas as well,” said Benson, who’s been booking a good number of milestone birthdays and anniversaries during winter. “You can put together a super fun weekend, and while the activities are different, it’s the same case as summer where the logistics of a huge group are so much easier. It’s just so much more intimate and relaxing to plan it all there. It’s like having your own private retreat.”