Florida dude ranch offers luxe amenities to weekend cowpokes

Horseback riding is one of many activities available to visitors of Westgate River Ranch in River Ranch, Florida.
Courtesy of Seldon Ink
Caption
Horseback riding is one of many activities available to visitors of Westgate River Ranch in River Ranch, Florida. Courtesy of Seldon Ink

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

When people hear the words dude ranch, images of cowboys, cattle, corrals and campfires come to mind. As do the wide-open spaces of the West. But Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is an authentic dude ranch within a day’s drive of Atlanta.

“Cowboys and the ranch represent the good part about America,” says Ray Duncan, general manager of Westgate River Ranch. “What kid doesn’t grow up with a cowboy as a hero?”

Dude ranches have a long history as vacation destinations in the U.S. Starting in the late-1800s, the word “dude” was used by cowboys to describe urbanites and city slickers. Some forward-thinking entrepreneurs realized that east coasters had an interest in the “western” way of life, and a tourism industry was born. As word spread, it was fueled by famous figures — including Theodore Roosevelt — which gave rise to well-heeled dudes heading West as paying guests of these guest ranches, otherwise known as dude ranches.

The trend continued after World War I, stoked by postwar prosperity, the transcontinental railroad, the invention of the automobile and the growth of the Western movie industry. By 1926, the Dude Ranchers Association was founded, and people were seeking out the unique ranch activities of horseback riding, target shooting, cattle sorting, hayrides, campfires, archery, fishing and more.

Archery, as well as and trap and skeet shooting, are popular dude ranch activities at Westgate River Ranch.
Courtesy of Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo
Caption
Archery, as well as and trap and skeet shooting, are popular dude ranch activities at Westgate River Ranch. Courtesy of Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Today, people don’t have to travel out West to get that ranching experience. Although, most people think of cowboys as a Western phenomenon, Florida has been a cattle state for 500 years, since Ponce de Leon brought cows to St. Augustine in 1521, and it remains the country’s 10th largest cattle producing state. By the 19th century, Florida cowboys — or “crackers” as they were called because they snapped their braided leather whips to herd the cattle creating a loud “crack” — were prevalent. That tradition continues today at Westgate River Ranch.

Located an hour and a half from the theme parks of Orlando, Westgate River Ranch is a world away. Here, thrill rides, shopping centers and residential communities are replaced by prairies and cattle grazing for miles in untouched Florida wilderness.

Once you pass through the gates of the 1,700-acre ranch, platform tents and glamping yurts appear on one side of the road with railcar cabins, tricked-out Conestoga wagons and teepees on the other side. Drive a bit farther and the stables and petting farm come into view, as does the saloon and rodeo arena. On down the road lies the Lodge and Conference Center, the Village Shops, the marina and Westgate Smokehouse Grill.

Visitors come to Westgate River Ranch to engage in an array of outdoor activities, including horseback riding, naturally. Experienced cowboys show visitors the ropes and then hand over the reins for a 60-minute trail ride. There’s also trap and skeet shooting, archery, swamp buggy rides, a petting zoo, pony rides, hay rides with a singing cowboy, cattle drives and nightly campfires complete with s’mores.

The highlight for many, however, is the Saturday night rodeo. Professional cowboys and cowgirls compete in bull riding, trick riding and barrel racing. Other entertainment includes rope tricksters, bull lassoing and a poignant celebration of our nation and military.

The Rodeo Arena at Westgate River Ranch Resort hosts a rodeo every Saturday. 
Courtesy of Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo
Caption
The Rodeo Arena at Westgate River Ranch Resort hosts a rodeo every Saturday. Courtesy of Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“The rodeo is our number one activity,” says Duncan. Following the rodeo, a street party greets guests in front of the River Ranch Saloon featuring live music, games, activities, dancing and the opportunity to test your own cowboy skills on the mechanical bull.

Modern-day cowpokes can hike or cycle along the 1,300-mile-long Florida Trail, an old cattle trail used by the first Florida crackers to move their cattle and now one of 11 National Scenic Trails. But because this is Florida, there are other activities especially suited to the Sunshine State such as airboat rides through alligator-infested waters, tennis, miniature golf, a driving range and fishing on the ranch’s catch-and-release pond. There’s also an Adventure Park with ziplines, rock climbing and bungee jumping.

Activities and amenities that are in limited supply at Westgate River Ranch are televisions, available only in the lodge, and internet, generally only available in the glamping accommodations.

“Part of the goal at Westgate River Ranch is to unhinge and unhook,” says Chief Operating Officer Mark Waltrip. “The magic of the ranch is everything that happens outside your front door.”

Westgate River Ranch offers a wide variety of accommodations. What started in 2001 with traditional lodge rooms in the main hotel and RV and tent camp sites has morphed to include luxury options. Now guests can stay in rail car cabins, one- and two-bedroom cabins and cottages and luxe teepees. New to the resort are glamping tents and Conestoga Wagons, featuring full baths, kitchenettes, front porches, picnic tables and grills.

The modern luxe teepees feature all the amenities of home set in a natural and relaxing setting.
Courtesy of Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo
Caption
The modern luxe teepees feature all the amenities of home set in a natural and relaxing setting. Courtesy of Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The glamping options also come with concierge services, morning coffee service and breakfast delivery, in-room dining options, golf cart access and wireless internet.

For a typical dude ranch meal, visitors dine on steak, barbecue, ribs, burgers and more dished up in cast iron skillets at Westgate Smokehouse Grill. Glamping guests can order steaks, chicken breasts or burgers grilled right outside their rooms.

After an activity-filled day on the ranch, sleep comes easy. By morning, the sun peeks over the horizon, the fog hangs low across the land, the smell of coffee wafts through the air and people stir and step out of their tents, teepees, cabins and wagons to greet the day. In the distance, a group of horseback riders head out on the trail. The cattle in the field are grazing, and there is a palpable anticipation of a dude day ahead.

IF YOU GO

Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo. Accommodations $42-$1,499 per night. Rodeo $25, $15 children 5-12. Westgate Smokehouse Grill, entrees $12-$27. 3200 River Ranch Blvd., River Ranch, Florida. 863-692-1321, 888-779-4104, www.westgateresorts.com.