Hankerin' for a little horseback action? Got campfires and cookouts, hay rides and lassos on your mind? Well, even if you're a city slicker dude (or dudette), playing cowpoke in the Southeast has never been easier. Dude ranches, sometimes called by the more genteel term guest ranch, are dotted hither and thither upon the Southern landscape. Peter Askew, dude ranch aficionado and founder/owner of www.duderanch.com, described the appeal of the dude ranch.
"People from all over are enamored of the idea of the West, the idea of becoming a cowboy," said Askew. "The dude ranches in the East are just as popular as those out West. And visitors are going to have food that's comparable to what you get at a resort or a bed and breakfast. Plus, they give you an opportunity to literally unplug from this digital life that we're living in."
Fast Eddie, as one 63-year-old Cowboy Action Shooting champion from the Covington, Ga., area likes to call himself, may not be associated with dude ranches but he sure understands the draw of playing cowboy.
"When I go to shoot cowboy, my world and my problems are left behind," said Fast Eddie, one of the head honchos of the South River Shootists, a club with activities that entail dressing cowboy style and adopting an appropriate gunslinger moniker. "It's an escape to my younger years, growing up with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans."
Not many Southeastern dude ranches offer black powder shooting opportunities but one or two do. Otherwise, they tend to be quite similar in their offerings – horses, trails, cabins, campfires, cookouts, fishing – and all are careful to match riders with suitable horses. There are distinctions, however. Some have truly all-inclusive pricing, others have a basic package complemented by extra-cost add-ons. The lodging at some dude ranches is authentically rustic, some downright fancy-pants upscale, and some ranches have both kinds. Some regularly offer square dancing or musical entertainment, others don't. Some allow horseback riding whether you stay overnight or not, others don't.
Here are five dude ranches in the Southeast that offer good opportunities to satisfy your cowpoke cravings.
This is a true family-owned horse farm only an hour's drive from Atlanta in a nicely secluded spot that offers a year-round guest ranch and a bed & breakfast. There are over 150 Paint and Quarter horses at Southern Cross and the owners have been raising the breeds for more than 30 years. Springtime means about two dozen foals being born on the ranch, a real treat for visitors. It's no wonder this outfit is best known for its horseback riding program and for some of the best opportunities for unguided rides. Southern Cross also has a heated pool, games and other activities.
Southern Cross Ranch, 1670 Bethany Church Road, Madison, Ga., 706-342-8027, www.southcross.com
Another top-notch dude ranch, also only about an hour away from the ATL, is Jasper, Georgia's Seventy-Four Ranch. Centered around the historic Butler-Cape House, built in the 1800s, guests have 1,200 acres to ride, cookouts, campfires, fishing and cattle encounters. For a little extra, you can get hands-on instruction in rope handling, horse tack, horse culture and more. Lodging can range from very comfortable rooms at the inn, all with restrooms, to a luxurious tent. Or, if you wanna get the real buckaroo feel, pardner, there's the Cowboy Cabin, a replica of a mid-1800s cabin made of beams from an 1832 barn. It has a stack-stone fireplace, cedar bed and there's no power or bath, though cowpokes can mosey on up to the main house to use the facilities.
Seventy-Four Ranch, 9205 Highway 53 W., Jasper, Ga., 706-692-0123, www.seventyfourranch.com
Situated in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains about 50 miles from Asheville and the same from Gatlinburg, this riverside ranch has an "old Western Town" layout, complete with a seven-room timber-frame Lone Star Hotel, lodge rooms with the appearance of "Old West" shops, and the Iron Horse Saloon, where the bluegrass band plays and square dancin' breaks out in the summer. Meals at the ranch are served family style with big ol' bowls of homemade Southern fare passed around among the visiting "ranchers" who've worked up a powerful appetite. Horseback riding, cattle drives and team penning are the mainstay activities and a kid's rodeo is popular in the summer.
French Broad Outpost Ranch, 461 Old River Road, Del Rio, Tenn., 800-995-7678 frenchbroadduderanch.com
Clear Creek sits pretty as a picture up in the Blue Ridge peaks north of Asheville at an elevation of 3,200 feet. The ranch has about 50 horses and horseback riding is its main attraction. But there's also a stocked trout pond, cookouts, bonfires with s'mores, hayrides and occasionally live music. If all the ranchin' wears you out there's a heated pool, a hot tub and some hammocks swaying in the breeze to help you relax. Or you can wet your whistle at the Cantina with beer, wine or something a bit more bracing. But Clear Creek is also very kid-friendly. There's a pony and a mule that even small children can have fun "riding," as well as a "Kid's Only Cook-Outs."
Clear Creek Dude Ranch, 100 Clear Creek Road, Burnsville, N.C., 828-675-4510, clearcreekduderanch.com
Another Blue Ridge Mountains ranch surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, this one out by Indian Spring Mountain and closer to Asheville, is a family-owned operation that's been going since 1790 and opened to the public by the Cogburn family in 1941. The 2,000-acre ranch has a variety of more than two dozen rustic guest cottages and cabins and a swimming pool. Horseback rides, nature walks, black powder shooting, campfires, candle making, fishing and nightly entertainment are what you'll find to satisfy your heartfelt wrangler wishes, as well as an intriguing little pioneer museum. Country cooking served family style is available in the ranch's large dining room.
Pisgah View Ranch, 70 Pisgah View Ranch Road, Candler, N.C., 828-667-9100, www.pisgahviewranch.net