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It occurred to me not when I was flying in over the jagged mountains of Montana… Not when driving along the freeway toward my ranch vacation destination…. Not even a week later as my plane touched off the runway at Billings airport. No, it occurred to me a full three weeks after I’d stepped back onto British soil and my mind had finally (albeit reluctantly) slipped out of cowgirl mode. “So, what’s America like?” a work colleague asked me in the office one rainy afternoon. I looked up from my computer that stared back blankly. Then it occurred to me. I had no idea.

I knew what Chicago O’Hare Airport was like. I knew what the inside of a United Airlines Boeing 747 looked like. I pretty much had the small part of Billings I’d seen figured out, and I was fairly familiar with the 18,000 acres of Runamuk Guest Ranch. But America? The USA? That 52-state country steeped in a rich and intriguing history? Nope, no clue.

Not that I didn’t have ample opportunity – going on a western ranch vacation doesn’t have to mean tucking yourself inside a cowboy cocoon . Yes, it is actually possible to ride some horses and explore a whole range of attractions, activities and cultures the surrounding areas have to offer. There are many iconic US locations I’d love to visit, but sitting right on top of my list is Yellowstone National Park. Lying in proximity to many US guest ranches, Yellowstone spills out of Wyoming and into Idaho and Montana (a fact I wish I could say was learnt from a Park tourguide, but was in fact carefully Googled). And if you're looking for a beautiful adventure, see Yellowstone horseback with Lone Mountain Ranch!

A bit of a sucker for wildlife, I can’t imagine a day better spent than glimpsing American Bison, elk, deer and coyote from the back of a horse – and all are commonly sighted within the Park. I can’t say I’m as eager to meet black bears, grizzlies and wolves, but apparently these more reluctant animals can be spotted if you know where to look. One local ranch whose staff know exactly where to look is Lone Mountain Guest Ranch, which offers tour-bus style trips through Yellowstone to give guests the opportunity to learn about the geography and history of this famous site. Lone Mountain itself has a long and interesting history, and has even been listed on the National Registry of Historic places in recognition of its importance in both Montana and American history. Dude ranching here can be traced way back to 1927, making for endless intriguing stories to be told around the campfire. Always one to opt for an in-the-saddle experience, I could see myself going for one of Lone Mountain’s day-long horseback trips into the backcountry – but if your seatbones aren’t up to it, there’s always the option of a hike through wildflower-laden meadows or a guided fly-fishing trip. Visit in winter and you can even enjoy Snowcoach trips and backcountry ski and snowshoe tours of the Park, for the ultimate winter wonderland experience.

Something I wish I’d had the opportunity to squeeze into my guest ranch vacation is a trip to a rodeo – the way to immerse yourself in true cowboy culture. And I think I’ve discovered the ideal place to stay for exactly that – Tod Mountain Ranch, located just 50km south of Barriere, home to the historic North Thompson Fall Fair and Rodeo. This annual rodeo event started back in 1950 and is still going strong in its 61st year. Tod Mountain offers a special weekend package that includes tickets and transport to the Fall Fair & Rodeo, so guests can experience what’s described as ‘a celebration of agriculture, livestock, western country living and community spirit’.

If you don’t make it for Rodeo weekend, Tod Mountain offers plenty of other off-ranch activities all year round. The nearby Sun Peaks Resort is best known for its skiing in the winter months, but also provides golf, biking, hiking and water-sport facilities during summer – I can’t think of a better way to rest those riding muscles between cattle round-ups. Ever the thrill-seeker however, my first choice would be a trip to the Kamloops Heritage Railway, a restored steam engine train dating back to 1912 that operates a 'train robbery' tour every summer, featuring Bill Miner and his Gang of Outlaws – guns blazing! Nestled in an area steeped in a rich First Nations history, there’s plenty more opportunity to learn more about western cowboy culture in and around Tod Mountain – museum exhibits, heritage parks, archeological remains and displays of historical culture to name a few.

Then there’s Montana’s Bonanza Creek Country Guest Ranch, where you can not only enjoy an authentic western riding experience on land ranched since the 1870s, but travel just a few miles up the road and you’ll reach Castle Town – an old mining camp and classic ghost town popular with ranch visitors. I’m fast discovering there’s no excuse not to come away from a ranch vacation with a little knowledge of the local history under your studded belt.

Next on my list? Well, you can’t mention ranching without mentioning the Rockies. The Rocky Mountain National Park provides some of America’s most stunning scenery – and what better way to see it than from the saddle? Well according to Latigo Guest Ranch, a steam engine comes pretty close. Located in the Park and close to several old mining towns, Latigo provides ample opportunity to discover more of the surrounding area than your average ranch vacation. And with a history dating back to 1928, you can leave your bedtime reading back at home and listen to some real cowboy stories over a mug of cocoa.

There is, however, a drawback. While compiling my ever-growing ‘USA: to-do’ list, I’m fast-realising that bar packing up and moving to the States (now there’s an idea...), there’s no way to discover all there is to learn about cowboy culture in just one trip. But with a little research and the right choice of ranch, you can make a pretty good start. Time to start saving those pennies...

Mel, Horse & Rider; PONY magazines, UK

Mel Rutherford worked as News Editor for Horse & Rider Magazine in the UK before more recently taking on the role of Website Editor for Horse & Rider and PONY Magazines.

Photo compliments of Lone Mountain Ranch

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