Saddle Up: Visit a Destination Ranch for Old West Hospitality

By Katryna Vacella

My husband and I arrived at Wilson Ranches Retreat, a destination ranch that sits three miles west of the small town of Fossil, Oregon, early on a spring Saturday morning. We had just enough time to find our room, introduce ourselves over a warm cup of coffee, and find cowboy boots with the perfect fit. Soon after we met our hosts, we were out the door and I was introduced to Blueberry, a Blue Roan American Quarter Horse, and my assigned steed for the day. I warned Brian and Brett, members of the Wilson family that would guide us that day, that the only horse knowledge I had was from my latest binge of “Yellowstone,” the Paramount Network television drama starring Kevin Costner as the rancher John Dutton. Their immediate reassurance in my abilities—or more likely their trust in Blueberry–gave me the feeling I may just be cut out for this ranch vacation after all.

People on horseback.We headed straight into the high desert hills to herd cattle, searching through pastures to locate a couple of month-old calves that needed to be checked. After that task, we trotted throughout the rocky basin, taking in panoramic views and the diverse flora and fauna of the high desert. As we rode we learned about the pioneer history of the ranch, which began when Wilson ancestors arrived in Eastern Oregon’s Butte Creek Valley from the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s. Brian and Brett provided no shortage of wisecracks, keeping us thoroughly entertained while sharing their passion for long days of work caring for the livestock and tending to the land and property. Before I knew it, our two-hour ride was over. After giving Blueberry a sweet goodbye, Brian pulled out a map to set us up with a day trip loop of Wheeler County’s best sights.

Our car’s first stop was in Kimberly, where Brian said it was imperative we stop at Apricot Apiaries stand to buy local honey. We put our cash in a relic of the past, an honesty box, and ate honey straight from the jar as we arrived at Blue Basin, in the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We hiked the 3.25-mile overlook trail to view the brightly-colored blue badlands, the result of 29-million-year-old volcanic ash.

Next, we headed to Dayville to fill our stomachs at the Dayville Mercantile. The journey, following the John Day River, was spectacular, showcasing the beauty of the John Day Canyon with rimrock towers all around. We arrived at a rich-colored landscape we’d only yet seen in photographs—the Painted Hills. Distinct layers of red, tan, orange, purple and black on the hillside paint a sequence of different geological eras from river floodplains over 35 million years ago, to a tropical rainforest to finally the desert we see today. We picked up our jaws and returned to Mitchell, where we completed the full day over burgers at the gem destination, Tiger Town Brewing. The star-lit sky guided us down the empty road, home to the ranch.

Cattle roundup at a destination ranch in Oregon.
A cattle roundup at the Wilson Ranches Retreat in Eastern Oregon.

The following morning after a hard slumber, we woke up to the smell of bacon. Kara and Katelynn had a farm-style meal set up with all the fixings. With a big smile, Kara exclaimed the table was full of nine guests for the first time since COVID changed the ranch’s operations, and she couldn’t have been happier. After a long conversation with Kara and Katelynn, we packed up and headed home content with full bellies and grateful there are still places like Wilson Ranches Retreat in this world.

Triangle X

Moose, Wyoming

Located in Jackson Hole, the fourth-generation outfitter Triangle X sits in the heart of Grand Teton National Park. Enjoy riding while surrounded by vistas of the Teton Range and Snake River Valley through sagebrush flats, wildflower-covered foothill meadows, and along rugged mountains. Other activities include cookouts, square dancing, hiking, swimming, trout fishing, and scenic float trips. Triangle X also offers riding programs for kids and teens, pack trips, and big game hunting packages. Stay in one of twenty log cabins constructed by the Turner family with a story of its own. This destination ranch has unmatched views of the Tetons and porches with Adirondack chairs to take it all in. See trianglex.com.

McGarry Ranches

Rexburg, Idaho

Located ninety miles west of Jackson Hole in southeastern Idaho along the Snake River, McGarry Ranches is a fourth-generation working cattle ranch in a diverse landscape—high elevation, green pastures, mountain peaks, and dense forests with clear river water full of trout. Prepare for the day’s work with an early Western-style hearty breakfast. Perform ranch work from a Quarter horse and enjoy lunch in the mountains. Wind down the day with a homemade dinner, stories around the campfire and a log cabin stay. McGarry Ranch touts a return rate of 75 percent—come as a guest and leave as family. See mcgarryranches.com.

Western Pleasure Guest Ranch

Sandpoint, Idaho

Placed on 1,100 acres in Idaho’s scenic panhandle, Western Pleasure Guest Ranch is a Pacific Northwest mountain vacation hideaway. An all-inclusive stay at the fifth-generation cattle and destination ranch in a lodge room or log cabin includes a weeklong itinerary, although shorter stays are also available. Activities surrounding daily horseback rides include archery, clay pigeon shooting, movies on the lawn, huckleberry picking, cattle sorting competitions, hikes, canoe trips, mountain biking and wagon rides. After a day of activity, a soak in the hot tub is a great way to unwind. Evenings include happy hours, dutch-oven dinners and entertainment around the campfire. See westernpleasureranch.com.

K Diamond K Guest Ranch

Republic, Washington
horseback riders at a destination ranch in Washington state.
K Diamond K Guest Ranch in northern Washington state offers dude ranch vacations year-round.

Near the Canadian border in Eastern Washington, K Diamond K Guest Ranch is a 1,600-acre guest dude ranch that offers year-round vacation activities with four distinct seasons. While on a horseback ride, look out for the abundant wildlife, including elk, deer, moose, and bears. Other activities include fly-fishing in nearby lakes and streams, hunting, trapshooting, winter snow activities, mountain biking or floating the river. Guests stay in a handmade log lodge with twelve guest rooms, complete with a game room, hot tub and saloon. This ranch is a destination that brings the old west to life. See kdiamondk.com.

Plan your Destination Ranch Vacation with AAA

Download the AAA Mobile app for mapsdiscountsrestaurants, and lodging at AAA.com/mobile. For help planning your next adventure, find a local AAA Travel Agent or call AAA Travel at 800-529-3222.