How to Live Like a Cowboy (or Play One on Vacation)

Rope, ride and let your inner cowpoke out.

Imagine saddling up to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Back at the ranch, the cooks are wrapping up breakfast burritos filled with spicy chilies, cheese and sausage. When the day ends, relax by the fire while a cowboy strums his guitar. Even if you can't live like a cowboy every day, you can play one on vacation.

Trail Ride at Zapata Ranch

The key is finding a ranch that lets your inner cowpoke out, while your dude side still gets to enjoy some amenities, like a hot tub under the stars, or a wrangler who'll groom your horse and feed him when you come back to the barn.

Travelers come from across Colorado and around the world for the cowboy experience at Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town. This guest ranch with an Old West feel is tucked into beautiful San Luis Valley, just west of Saguache, Colorado, and about a four-hour drive from Denver.

 Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town

Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town

For most visitors, says Christine Engle, the daughter of owners Lee and Dee Bates, the cowboy/cowgirl life is about horses. Others are drawn by the Western legends and mythos.

 Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town

Lynn Coulter

“It’s a lifestyle they’ve only seen in movies, and they’re fascinated by it,” she says. Guests stay in the ranch's comfortable, rustic-decor rooms or park their RVs on the property. They come to get married in the on-site chapel, hold events in the big dance hall, or just ride and hike out under the wide-open skies.

Stormy Sky, Mill Creek Ranch

Lynn Coulter

For younger cowpokes, the ranch makes a great playground. They rope straw bales rigged up with horns or try their hands at archery, horseshoes and mini-golf. While the kids can’t shoot guns like real cowboys, they can fire the ranch’s potato cannon while the adults go skeet shooting or take target practice at the ranch range.

Serious cowhands use the ranch as a base camp and ride horses or ATVs into the Rio Grande National Forest to hunt deer, elk and other game. Others head for the Rio Grande River to launch drift boats or wade-fish in the cold, clear water.

At night, everybody circles back to the Mad Cow Saloon, where dinner might be hand-cut steaks, grilled to order, or fresh corn on the cob with to-die-for homemade rolls and tender beef brisket that almost falls off your fork. It’s hard to finish the apple crumb cobbler for dessert—but you’ll manage.

 Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town

Lynn Coulter

When you head off to bed, look for deer and rabbits nibbling grass in the meadow and listen for the bugle of bull elks in the mountains.

The next day, venture 30 minutes down the road to soak your tired cowboy feet (and the rest of you) at Joyful Journey Hot Springs, where the mineral-rich waters are kept between 98 and 108 degrees. Spa services are available to cleanse away any trail dust, and massages ease those saddle aches. Visit on a Wednesday night, and shed your cowboy duds to skinny-dip in one of the pools.

Back at the ranch, ask about arranging a chuck wagon cookout, barbeque, or night of Western dancing (Western movie nights are available, too, if you’d rather put your boots up, than boot-scoot).

For a different kind of ranch experience, visit Zapata, a working cattle and bison ranch in Mosca, Colorado. Located about three and a half hours from Denver, Zapata is a 103,000-acre ranch owned by The Nature Conservancy.

 Zapata Ranch

Zapata Ranch/

It’s on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley, bordering the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the country's newest National Park.

Here, you'll see alpine forests, wetlands, high desert grasslands, meadows and sand dunes and creeks; it's one of the most ecologically diverse places in the country.

Book a ranch vacation, and ride out to work cattle, explore the valley or take an overnight pack trip into the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Wake up to a cold breakfast or eggs cooked to order, biscuits and gravy, fresh fruit or hot pancakes.

Zapata Ranch

Guests grab brown bag lunches to eat on the trail (or in the dining room—your choice). Dinners are family-style, served at long tables so you can meet fellow guests. Forty percent of Zapata’s guests come from other countries, so you might chat up someone from Germany or Japan. Ranch-raised bison and other local foods are often on the menu.

Zapata Ranch, Colorado

Duke Phillips

Conservation efforts play a big role at Zapata, where ranch managers are letting native grasses return on the site of a former golf course. The birding and wildlife watching are fantastic here; bring your camera and binoculars.

Horseback riding is popular here, but you can also get your hands cowboy-dirty with ranch chores. Join the hands when they ride out to check the bison or brand cattle. If you’d rather, go fly-fishing, take a photography workshop, or plan some other activity.

Horses at Zapata Ranch

Lynn Coulter

At Great Sand Dunes National Park, just minutes away, sand sled or sand board down the tallest dunes in North America. If you’re there while the snow melt is still coming out of the mountains, you can also cool your tired cowboy feet in Medano Creek.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Kate Matheson/Zapata Ranch/

Before you hang up your spurs and hit the trail for home, go for one last ride at the end of the day. Then tip your hat and ride off into the sunset.

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