Anyone who’s binged Yellowstone on Stan yearns for that Americana ranch experience, fact. You can’t watch that tv show without belting out “country roooooads, take me hooooooome” and dreaming of a life where you wear leather chaps and a cowboy hat unironically, and ride around on horsies all day.
Well, I didn’t go to Montana, the state in which Yellowstone is set. But I *did* get to Colorado, which has mountains and cowboys. So, same-same. And, most importantly, ranches where you get to BE a cowboy . I was lucky enough to try out two different kinds of ranches in Colorado – the more classic ranch holiday experience of Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, and the full-on, living like Rip Wheeler experience at Chico Basin Ranch.
An American ranch experience is something else. Yes, we have station stays and farm stays here in Australia and if you pick the right kind, you can pat some horses and maybe ride a few. But it’s not the same. Let’s chalk it up to our lifelong consumption of Hollywood films and tv shows, but when we imagine a cowboy experience, we envision a giant stetson hat, line dancing, galloping across the prairies and so on.
That’s what I was after – I wanted to imagine myself as Kayce Dutton’s new, mysterious girlfriend (in this particular fantasy, we’re pretending Monica doesn’t exist) who just got hired at Yellowstone despite having little to no horse-riding experience.
Oh, yeah – that’s definitely one of the main surprises I had about the ranch holiday life – you don’t have to be a horse riding pro to get into it. But let’s recap properly, shall we?
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch
Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch has eye-watering views, my god. You cruise down a dirt road, and you’re just looking up at rocky cliffs and tree-covered mountains on either side. Wowee. The few days I visited, it was raining and even in a downpour, the place was stunning. I’d honestly never seen anything like it. Green, green, green everywhere and then towering red rock cliffs, a rushing stream alongside the road as you drive in, the works. Also, accommodation is in these adorable cabins – mine had a fireplace, old-timey country decor and a patio that overlooked the rest of the ranch.
This is a traditional American ranch experience – American travellers are well-versed in these, where you go with your family or a group of pals and enjoy a mix of riding horses on established trails and relaxing on a beautiful property. It’s like the American version of our farm stays, I suppose, except there’s this real communal spirit where you meet new people, make friends, and have a really wholesome experience.
The first night I was there, we had line dancing lessons (the absolute best fun), and dinner was fried chicken, some sort of potato hash and theeeee best berry pie I’ve ever had in my life, all served up like a big camp dinner. Actually, I would say the American ranch experience like Sylvan Dale offers is also a way to do an adult form of the classic summer camp. It’s like Camp Rock but with horses.
Our horse ride was very organised, and perfect if you’re nervous about riding – as I said, you can go to a ranch and know NOTHING about horses. Before I arrived, I filled in a form about previous riding experience which helped the ranch assign the right type of horse to me, and at Sylvan Dale, we walked the horses up a hill in a line, which they clearly had done before and aside from some sneaky grass-eating, meant no surprises.
At the top, someone was cooking up a hearty brekkie of eggs and boiling a huge pot of coffee on an outdoor fire. See! Wholesome!! The whole vibe was about relaxing and really taking in the surroundings.
Basically, I’d say Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is where to head if you’re an inexperienced rider and looking for a fun and relaxing holiday. It’s also on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park, if you’re looking to knock over two birds with one stone, etc.
Chico Basin Ranch
Chico Basin Ranch was, like, a completely different whirlwind. Firstly, this is not a holiday ranch. Well, not in the relaxing sense. This is where you go if you want to ACTUALLY feel like the new ranch hand hired by John Dutton. It’s a working ranch, and that meant actually working.
Firstly, I was one of just three guests that week. Chico Basin Ranch keeps its visitor list tight – because this is a working ranch, they limit numbers so it’s manageable alongside the actual ranch stuff that needs doing. That may put you off if you’re looking for a more anonymous holiday experience, and while I was a little nervous at first, I grew to love the tight-knit vibe. Everyone was so warm and welcoming, and you quickly become pals with the other guests, which can make solo travel less lonely.
At Chico Basin Ranch, I stayed in a cabin that actually looked like a replica of Rip and Beth’s in Yellowstone. I shit you not:
It was designed like an old-timey cabin but was a new addition to the ranch, so it had the mod cons like heating, cooling and a schmick bathroom without feeling out of place.
The first day at Chico Basin Ranch I headed into their on-site leather workshop. Ranchlands, who run Chico Basin Ranch, are also an up-and-coming American leather company making everything by hand. You can book in to learn the trade – I made a v cute keychain.
My leather teacher Madi was painstakingly sewing some wallets for customers when I arrived, while listening to the entire Taylor Swift back catalogue (immediate best friends). As she told me about her DIY tiered dress idea for the Taylor concert (featuring tiers for each album cover, I told you, immediate best friend), she explained how to soften leather, condition it and buff the sides, resulting in the above masterpiece.
That night, the other guests and I headed to dinner at the home of two ranch apprentices. Yes, this is how intimate the Chico Basin Ranch experience is – you literally have dinner every night with someone who lives and works at the ranch. Brandon and Anja made us tacos in their mid-century-style cottage, and we all sat around their patio table. It felt like hanging out at a friend’s place.
I learned that the day before, the two other guests at Chico Basin Ranch (an equestrian rider from Germany and a fine-dining chef from Philadelphia) went on a SEVEN HOUR COW WRANGLING RIDE. This is what I mean by the real-deal experience. One day, leather workshopping. The next, rounding up cattle.
The following day, we took horses out to check on some yearlings in a far-flung paddock. It was a chill ride with my minimal riding experience, but it was less easygoing than Sylvan Dale – think no paths and some creek crossings, a few rocky bits, and a little trotting.
Basically, you could come to Chico Basin Ranch and know nothing about horses, but it might be a bit more confronting an experience if you were scared of them. I loved it though and I’ve been on a horse like, five times in my life.
On the last night, we literally crashed a big Friday family dinner, which again was just the best. I felt like this was the biggest drawcard for Chico Basin Ranch – I’ve never encountered such an intimate, warm tourism experience. I honestly felt like I was in John Dutton’s big Western home having dinner with the Dutton fam, except without all the dysfunction and frosty silences.
With ranch holidays, it all comes down to the experience you’re seeking. If you want to get down and dirty, go to bed exhausted (in a good way) and feel like you’re *actually* on Yellowstone, Chico Basin Ranch, and other working ranch types are for you. If you want more creature comforts while still immersing yourself in the aesthetic and feel of the show, and more activities like line dancing, Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch is right up your alley.
Either way, you’ll probably be buying a cowboy hat before you leave Colorado.
The writer visited ranches courtesy of Colorado Tourism. Find out more about Colorado here.