As a single mother, taking my two kids on vacation can be a challenge. I am the only one able to keep my eyes (and hands!) on them when we are in crowded places. If one wants to go swimming while another wants to play in the arcade, then I have to make the call and force one to do something they don’t want to do, which always leads to the dreaded, “But, mom!” followed by a number of grumbles and complaints that makes me wonder why I bother to take them anywhere. That was until we visited our first dude ranch.
Trying to find a place that would keep both of my kids happy, I searched for vacation destinations that would give my kids freedom and encourage free play outdoors. In the city, I’m always watching their every move, but in the great outdoors, I can let them run, play and be the kids that once upon a time I had been, and remember so fondly.
That is when I stumbled across the Three Bars Ranch and learned about dude ranch vacations. Not only would a ranch vacation allow the kids to explore and be active, it would be all-inclusive, making it easier for me to budget in advance.
However, our trip wasn’t going to be “City Slickers.” I had no intention of roughing it or riding a horse until my backside hurt. No, I wanted modern amenities while my kids were able to get dirty and truly play. Three Bars Ranch in British Columbia, near the stunning Banff National Park, fit the bill. Offering an array of outdoor fun for all ages in an intimate setting with beautiful cabins, I was thrilled to see family cabins with a king bed, sitting area and bathroom for parents connected to a separate room with two double beds and a bathroom for the kids. With children who go to sleep at 8 p.m., this perk would allow me to stay awake without disturbing them, perhaps watching movies on the flat-screen TV or enjoying the free (and thankfully) working Wi-Fi.
Flying into Calgary, we rented a car and drove through Banff to arrive at Three Bars. As we pulled in, dogs came to greet us and my daughter squealed in delight as she discovered a petting zoo – of course, running right in and hugging a small goat. The Beckley family, multi-generational owners, welcomed us to their ranch and compound, their own children running and playing on the ranch’s great lawn. Showing us to our cabin, centered in a semicircle of cabins that faced the lawn and the main lodge, the family invited us to get outfitted with cowboy boots for the week. (My daughter wore a plaid shirt for the occasion and called herself a cowgirl once she had her boots.)
As stays at Three Bars are for a week, all guests arrive on the same day and spend the week together. During the welcome evening, we met the ranch hands and wranglers who would spend the week with us, a collection of mostly Australian college kids enjoying a summer on a ranch. With guests from the U.S., Canada, Germany and England, the combination created a unique cultural experience, and by the end of the week my son was speaking with a British accent and my daughter was collecting email addresses for pen pals across the globe – an unexpected treat for this international traveler.
At dawn, the ringing of a bell let us know the day was beginning and it was time for breakfast – straight out of an old Western! Following a hearty ranch breakfast, we were paired with the horse just right for our size and personality, keeping that horse for the duration of our visit and allowing us to become familiar with one another. (Also making for teary goodbyes at the end of the vacation.) Meandering through the Canadian woods on horseback, crossing streams and climbing small hills was a thrill for my kids, and we joined every morning ride. They loved having their own horse and the control they were given at ages 9 and 10. I loved seeing their excitement and smiles; I finally nailed a vacation! I was “Mom, the Awesome!”
Returning our horses to the barn each morning, all guests – famished – gathered for lunch together. The afternoons were an array of choices: would we go white water rafting, mountain biking, ATV riding, visit a waterfall, ride the paved Kettle Valley Railway Trail, hike? My kids, like most of the children ranging in age from 6 to 16, choose to ditch their parents and join “kid” rides with the wranglers. Grouped by age, the older kids could ride a bit faster, while the younger kids would often ride for short spurts and stop to make tree forts and other natural crafts. With our kids off exploring, parents found themselves with time to relax, and often we were seated on our front porches in rocking chairs with a glass of wine and a good book and conversation. Rarely was anyone on an electronic device (even the teens!).
The sound of laughing kids always let us know they were back and it was time for happy hour to begin. No need to dress up for the occasion, jeans were still welcome, although the ranch hands often arrived in bedazzled pairs to spice up the nights. Following a communal dinner buffet, families gathered on the great lawn while the kids played. Sometimes, all the kids needed to make them happy was a red wagon and a rousing game of tag, but nights were often filled with hijinks from the Beckleys, such as fire truck battles where kids could go against a real fire hose and get soaked, or wear giant bubble balls for a “game” of soccer, with kids bouncing off each other and rolling around like overturned turtles with their feet kicking in the air until another kid would roll into them and help them get back on their feet. Yes, these were the games the kids played, and watching them have so much fun had us roaring with laughter. If exhaustion didn’t set in by 8pm (a rarity!), we played pool and shared stories around the fire pit beneath a dark sky filled with bright stars.
Spending the week at Three Bars felt like being a kid at summer camp again, meeting new people, playing outdoors, and enjoying nature. It was a wonderful experience to share with my kids, playing with them as well as giving them some independence. My kids claim this vacation was their favorite, and we cannot wait to go again.
My story was originally published in Family Traveller magazine in March 2018.