Red Reflet in Wyoming offers a taste of wild west life, even if today’s dude ranches are more resort than rawhide. Chris McGreal and his boys put on white Stetsons and ride out
It’s not quite the cowboy image thrust on the world by Buffalo Bill’s wild west show back when he performed for Queen Victoria. But Harry Mills, chief cattle hand on Red Reflet – a sprawling ranch within striking distance of Cody, the Wyoming town founded by the great showman – isn’t ashamed to admit he’s abandoned the horse for a quad bike (an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV to Americans).
“I don’t get on a horse any more,” says the ebullient Harry. “A place like this, it’s much easier to get around on an ATV. That’s how we work here.”
My teenage boys, kitted out in white Stetsons for a few days on the range, are delighted. They had arrived at the Red Reflet dude ranch – a working farm that gives guests the chance to play at cowboy and a few other things besides – ready for a taste of the old west. The eldest even bought himself a checked shirt with pearl buttons.
The kids are happier still when, after being fitted for horses and western saddles, they are given the keys to a couple of quad bikes and told they are theirs for the duration. No health and safety executive on hand to scold; only their anxious father badgering them to slow down as they tear off exploring Red Reflet’s 27,000 acres (109 sq km).
Red Reflet got its name from the reflection of the rich colour of the layered rimrock in the natural pools below the vast, upscale guest cabins. It sits in the Big Horn mountains, rising to 8,300ft (2,530m) with aspen forests and rolling meadows. In between lies a mix of rich, irrigated pastures, limestone canyons and an expanse of brush laced with wildflowers and populated with elk, deer and antelope. It’s said that in Wyoming, a state twice the size of England with fewer than 600,000 residents, you can look in three different directions and see three different landscapes.
The myths of the old west are profitable for a whole industry geared to allowing Americans trapped by university loans, healthcare bills and mortgages to delude themselves that they are still free on the wild frontier. But in Wyoming the cowboy life lives on for real. On the drive in we’d stopped for the night in Cody to watch an amateur rodeo with bronco-busting cowboys battling against untamed horses and clinging to the backs of very annoyed bulls. The surprise of the performance was a 12-year-old girl fighting to stay on the back of a bucking steer. It’s quickly clear on Red Reflet that most of the hands grew up in this tradition.
The ranch has around 500 head of cattle. The best time to catch the cattle drive is the spring, when they are moved, for the summer, up the mountain, where the air is cooler. In autumn they are brought back down to the valley again to be more easily fed when the snow comes. In the spring there’s also branding and castration. The mutilated gonads are devoured locally as “Rocky Mountain oysters” and celebrated in the region at “testicle festivals”. And Harry gives an eye-opening lesson on frozen sperm for artificial insemination, with an array of what appear to be medieval torture instruments but turn out to be birthing tools for cows.
We arrive between cattle drives, but there’s still work still to be done. We are led by Clay Trollinger, who runs the horses on the ranch, in search of cows trespassing on a neighbour’s land. Quad bikes are good for getting around the ranch but horses are more effective in chasing down cattle.
Trotting across a mountain thick with wild sage, we find a small group clustered under a tree and herd them back towards Red Reflet. But cows are quicker on their feet than you might imagine and they take off through the forest. The hunt begins.
Trollinger claims to have a sense of where the cattle are headed. I’m sceptical as we work our way through the woods, the horses picking their way through a mass of fallen trees with no sign of bovines having passed. But then there they are in a clearing at the bottom of a steep trail, and the task of steering them back to where they belong begins.
There are dude ranches for the hardcore wannabe cowboy where every waking hour is spent on a horse, wrestling with some animal or chugging beer and beans. But Red Reflet is for those who like their cowboy experience without too many discomforts. The plush, spacious individual cabins with satellite television are at the luxury end of the market. The price reflects that and, as with many US holiday destinations, there are add-ons to the headline price such as a 15% service fee and taxes – although everything is included, right down to all the wine and spirits you can knock back.
The ranch is run by Bob and Laurence Kaplan. He’s from Chicago; she’s a French Moroccan who arrived in the US by way of Australia. They met at a baby-chair convention where they were selling rival products. She had the better chair but he had the contract with Walmart and made a fortune. At dinner it’s clear that the old rivalry is not yet dead.
There are plenty of other activities on offer: zip lines and swimming ponds, fly fishing and horse riding. There are lessons in rodeo, including lassoing and the frustrating pursuit of a steer with a ribbon on its tail. But ultimately it’s the sheer vastness of Red Reflet that proves its greatest attraction. The network of trails across the ranch and into the hills is so extensive that a couple of guys from Yamaha are on hand to map out routes to demonstrate the company’s latest quad bike to the press.
We spend a lot of our time exploring our own routes, bouncing along rutted trails, swerving between thick prickly bushes and then bursting out on to the open range and tearing towards Bigfoot mountain. Just like the cowboys do.
Trip provided by British Airways (ba.com/denver; 0844 493 0758), which offers a seven-night fly-drive to Denver from £739pp in September. Price includes return flights from London Heathrow and Avis car hire.
Red Reflet offers three nights, four days from £830pp, with children at a reduced rate (red-reflet-ranch.net).
For other ranch options, go to the Dude Ranchers’ Association (duderanch.org)
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