Back in 2012, on a whim I started entertaining the idea of going to a dude ranch by myself, somewhere with big open ranges and trails, where they made horses’ well-being a priority. I’m no “City Slicker” as I grew up riding and showing horses until college. I eventually found the Bitterroot Ranch in the mountains at 7,500 feet near Dubois, Wyoming, and would highly recommend it for you horseback riders out there! I even made a return trip this summer and met up with friends I made there nine years ago.
The Bitterroot is owned by Bayard and Mel Fox (he’s now 92, she 75 but they don’t look or act it), their son Richard, and his wife Hadley who runs the riding program and even teaches yoga in a yurt. They own 2,000 acres, 200 horses (Arabians, quarter horses, and Belgians), llamas, pigs, a peacock, chickens, cool dogs, and a farm in Riverton with cattle and sheep (which they serve at the ranch). They also breed the horses, so you can visit and groom the gorgeous mares and their foals who live an idyllic life grazing in large pastures surrounded by wooden buck fences.
Getting to the ranch is no small feat–it’s a beautiful 2-hour drive from Jackson, then 16 miles up a dirt road. If you want to surf the internet and watch TV, this is not the place for you. WiFi is available in the main lodge but is spotty. You can disconnect from life and reconnect with nature. You wake up in a rustic but comfortable cabin next to the raging East Fork of the Wind River and quaking aspen trees. Sidle on down to the lodge where you can order a hearty breakfast of your choice.
You’ll be at the ranch for one week with a daily morning ride and afternoon ride. You’ll be assessed by Mel and Hadley, who will determine your riding level and the proper horse(s) for you. You may have the same horse more than once during the week, but never the same twice in a day. They care so much for the horses that after each ride, we stand them in the cold river up to their knees for 10 minutes for a soak to soothe away the day. It’s an equine spa treatment that fosters longevity and happiness in these beautiful animals.
On Day One, Hadley offers a helpful lesson so that everyone can learn to ride in the ranch’s style: neck reining to turn, Western saddle, posting in the trot, and standing (“two-point”) in the canter as well as walking up hills. Hang onto that mane for the fast canters! If you’ve had any riding experience, their methods are easy to learn, and they have both mellow and spirited horses depending on your comfort level. The horses are wonderfully trained and sure-footed in the terrain, which can be rocky. Each ride has two wranglers (one leading the ride, one in back) and from two to eight riders, and they offer several rides based on ability. The wranglers are great storytellers and know the area well, where you can visit Butch Cassidy’s cabin, open fields and trails for trotting or cantering, and an old airplane hangar/runway where Bayard had not one but two crashes in his younger days (and lived to tell about them).
On your horseback ride will be breath-taking vistas, big skies and clouds, snow-covered mountains, wildflowers, pine trees, and all kinds of wildlife: Elk, deer, antelope, wild mustangs, coyotes, the occasional moose, and the remains (bones) of those less-fortunate animals. Saturday is an all-day picnic ride, where we climb to 9,300 feet through the Shoshone Forest up to the “360-view.” You can see Yellowstone, the Wind River Mountains, and more. Each night, they let the horses out of the corral to run up to “The Ledge” for grazing. That “stampede” will provide unforgettable sights and sounds.
Lunch and dinner are served in the main lodge, with produce from the Bitterroot’s garden and beef and lamb from their ranch. They are able to accommodate vegetarians or other special diets. Before dinner, there’s a happy hour with appetizers and wine where you can brag (or commiserate) about your exploits from the day. Interesting and fun people visit the Bitterroot Ranch from all over the country as well as the world, and I made fast friends! I took a day or afternoon off on occasion to hike, fly fish, or just relax with a book and glass of wine on my cabin’s front porch. A rest is especially helpful when you haven’t ridden in a while, as those muscles aren’t used to it!
We drove into Dubois (about 50 minutes away) to attend the rodeo and try square dancing at the local bar. Hysterical and awesome! The town also has some cool shops for jewelry and gift shopping and some restaurants. The town of Jackson near the airport is wonderful with numerous art galleries and delicious food, though can be pricey.
The two times I’ve visited the ranch have been in June (a bit less expensive), but in the fall they offer a full cattle roundup. It’s recommended that you have at least some riding experience to visit the ranch, but they do offer cheaper non-riding visits for spouses who are content to fish or relax on their own while their partners ride. You will come away from the Bitterroot tired, sore, and dusty, but also exhilarated with unmatched photos and lifelong memories of a very unique and magical vacation.