A Dude Ranch Vacation at Greenhorn Creek Ranch – Riding, Fishing and Generally “Horsing Around”!

In Event, Family, General, Opinion, Parenting, Review by Michael Sheehan3 Comments

My family and I spent about a week up at a Dude Ranch in Northern California called “Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch“. Since I have 3 girls, their grandparents thought that introducing them to horses and ranching at their age would be great for them. I couldn’t agree more! Earlier this year, we set out looking for a nice dude ranch (that wasn’t too rustic) where the girls could find their inner cowgirls. One night when we were having dinner at their grandparents house, I sent out a tweet asking if anybody could recommend a Dude Ranch in Northern California. Within a few hours, I had my first response and it was from Greenhorn Ranch. Kudos to Sara who runs the social media efforts of Greenhorn Ranch! After a few phone calls, the arrangements were set and were all ready to experience horses, bullfrogs, fishing, horseshoes, BBQs and much more.

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A typical set up is arrival on a Saturday and leaving the next Friday. Greenhorn does have smaller packages available, but in order for full “immersion” into the rancher lifestyle, I think that this period of time of about a week is pretty good. It gives the kids time to really get to know not only the horses that they ride for the full week, but the ranch hands and other kids staying at the Ranch as well.

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Activities are very well planned out for the most part and even the most accomplished rider can find something to do at Greenhorn Ranch. The age limit for riding is 6 years old and up which meant that my 6 year old was finally able to partake after having had to sit on the sidelines for many years while her older sisters went riding on down the trail. Typically there were 2 rides per day, one in the morning and one in the evening. There were various experience levels ranging from beginner to expert. There was even a rodeo at the end of the week where some of the kids could show off their horsemanship.

Another activity was that of horsemanship itself where children learned how to care for their horses and about shoeing, for example. Below, my daughter is learning how to clean a horse’s shoe.

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Another really fun activity was that of a horse swim where the horses were led out into the upper pond and kids rode bareback as the horse swam (briefly) in the pond. It was extremely safe as there was a ranch hand right next to the rider and the horse was very accustomed to swimming as well. Definite this was a highlight for my girls!

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But if you want to take a break from riding, there are two stocked ponds where you can fish. Since I had injured my head the week prior and the doctor had said that I couldn’t do any riding (I was really sad about that), I did try fly fishing in the ponds a bit. The pond closest to the lodge had lots of “hungry” little fish which kids (and I caught) fairly easily. The lower pond had some really big “lunkers” that were a bit smarter and really fat. I was able to hook an 18″ rainbow trout there. While they encourage catch and release, if you do catch a really big trout, you can keep it and they will cook it for you for dinner.

The kids seemed to love watching me fly fish.

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My daughter caught this HUGE fish on worms (which she put on the hook herself!)!

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I caught this nice sized rainbow trout using a dry fly on the lower pond.

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I spent much of my time on the deck near the pool with my dad. It is a fantastic spot to simply sit and take in the amazing scenery. Greenhorn Ranch is located near Quincy, CA and it about a 4 hour drive from San Francisco. The ranch itself is nestled in hills covered with pine trees. The ranch is about 600 acres of the pine-covered hills and neighbors include national forests and utility company-own lands, which the Ranch has access to riding on.

Below is a 360 degree panorama of the view that I enjoyed where I sat writing much of this article.

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Yes, the Ranch does have WiFi and I found the perfect spot to do my work:

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There are a variety of activities apart from the varying levels of horseback riding that you can do. One day, the riders rode to another camp where we had a BBQ dinner. Those of us who were not horseback riding took a wagon over to the camp. Another night, the kids were split from the parents for dinner. The kids got to make and bake their own pizza while the adults enjoyed a candle-lit dinner in the Chuckhouse. There were songs and s’mores by the campfire a few nights as well.

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The Chuckhouse is the big dining hall where all visitors eat in a family-style environment. Meals typically consist of a meat, some vegetables, bread and a dessert. Breakfasts are hearty and you can place your order for any type of eggs, sausages, bacon, ham, hash browns and typically a main item like biscuits and gravy or pancakes or muffins. Lunches are similar to dinners as well. The meals were announced traditionally with a triangle.

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The kitchen can accommodate a variety of eating preferences. My youngest daughter has peanut allergies which they were able to work around. As food allergies vary from person to person, we did have to coach the kitchen team a bit more about how severe our daughter’s allergies are (e.g., they had peanut butter out one day but once we fully explained the severity, they were much more conscious of it). Just so that people know, the closest hospital is about 15 minutes away.

In terms of the lodging, Greenhorn Ranch is not a 5-star resort, you have to remember that if you are coming here to be pampered, you probably are going to the wrong place. But it has more than just the basics. There is a main lodge with rooms where my father and step-mom stayed, and then several sets of cabins that are either 1 or 2-rooms. Our cabin, for example, had 2 double beds in one room and then a double and a single in another. There is plenty of room to sleep. And you usually don’t spend too much time in the cabins anyway as you are here to experience nature and the ranch-style of life. Some rooms have bunk beds for kids as well. Many of the cabins have very relaxing swings mounted to the covered front area. The rooms are very comfortable (each has a bathroom so no need to worry about going outside to an outhouse to relieve yourself in the middle of the night). Rooms and bathroom get cleaned and beds made daily.

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After a few days, my kids had made friends their age and were off exploring the various nooks and crannies of ranch. They took me to the Kiddie Coral, a cabin that was converted into a play area for kids and to where there were chickens and other animals (the “petting zoo”). There was also a playground area, which it turns out, was not used that much simply because there were so many other activities to do, there really wasn’t a need. But it is there in case anyone wanted to go down a slide or swing.

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One of the most exciting times is towards the end of the day, when most of the people are hanging out on the deck before or after dinner and the ranchers let the horses out to pasture and they go running up the mountain at a brisk gallop. There was also a very popular pool where kids (and adults) came to get the dust out of their hair and cool down after a long ride. The pool is conveniently located next to the Saloon (which even more conveniently lets you put your drinks on your room tab).

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One of the most exciting nights was that of the bull frog races. The night before, well after the sun had gone down, the ranch’s activity director, CJ, got together the kids who wanted to go and capture the bullfrogs for the next day’s race. This was a “late night” activity in that it started around 9:00. Decked out in dark clothes and with flashlights, CJ and a bunch of the kids who were staying at the ranch went out to the ponds looking for that next “stallion” of bullfrogs. The rest of us enjoyed an outdoor movie on the deck. I must say that watching movies outdoors in the middle of the wilderness (somewhat) is a great experience.

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I later learned that because of the sheer number of children staying at the ranch, that CJ had to go to a secret pond a few miles away from the ranch in order to capture enough bullfrogs for every child to race. The capture adventure lasted well into the early morning (about 4:30am).

That same night of the bullfrog hunt, there was also a movie outdoors on the deck. We all watched an Indiana Jones movie with fresh popcorn being supplied by the Saloon on a regular basis.

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The next day, the bull frog race was one of the highlights of the week for my kids. It was really a fun event. The children were broken up into several heats of about 6 “racers.” They chose the frogs they wanted (I mistakenly thought that it would be a good idea for my daughters to choose smaller ones so my youngest got a tiny frog and middle daughter chose a medium sized one – my oldest did not race as she had met some other girls at the ranch and had become friends and they were watching from afar in their little clique). Prior to the race, people could bid on the frogs. You essentially got an owner and a racer. The owner was typically the parent or grandparent and there was a bidding process for each frog. Frogs were typically bought/sponsored for about $30-40. All of the money would go to the winners (and losers) of the race. Everybody won in the end (racer & owner) but some owners actually made money from the races. We, alas, did not. The race was really fun actually. The kids could not push the frogs but could slap the ground next to them or “kiss” them (yes, both of my daughters did manage to kiss their frog’s butts a few times – which actually made the frogs jump). The race started on the lawn and the finish line was the pond. The frogs raced down hill and crossing the finish line meant they leapt into the pond to freedom.

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There were other activities as well including covered wagon rides to a BBQ/Picnic point in the hills. We actually did this twice. The second time around, there were two wagons, one for kids and one for adults, and for good reason too. Of course, those who wanted to ride horses up to the picnic area could do so as well. On the way up, the kid wagon sang songs and had Otter Pops as refreshment (it was warm that day). And on the adult wagon, we played Texas Hold’em Poker, but in a unique way, each player received a card at various horse resting stops. Cards would be used later to see the winning hand at the campfire during the bullfrog races.

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On the way back from the BBQ, the child wagon was “ambushed” and “held up” by a squirt gun wielding masked man (CJ) who then led the kids to a water balloon fight.

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The final night had an awards ceremony. I found this to be a particularly nice touch. Every guest received an “award” and each award had some kind of story tied to it and the reason for it. For example, my wife received a “Dora the Explorer” award because of how she managed to get our minivan stuck between two dirt hills on a railroad access road (the “wrong road” to take according to the map) near the swimming hole she and another mom had taken the older girls. As luck would have it, another parent had come and was able to go back to the ranch to get help. Help consisted of my father and me as well as Marty, the head ranch hand, Marty’s pickup truck, and some chains. We traversed the wilderness and found my wife on the road and eventually I drove our mini van out of where it was stuck with Marty’s truck pulling us out. My father’s award was that of “Lewis” and mine (obviously) was “Clark”. Quite the adventure.

My daughters got the following:

  • “Mustang Sally” went to our youngest named Sally
  • “Sweetheart of the Sierras” went to our middle daughter, because of her love of the ranch-life
  • “Quick-step Cowgirl” went to my oldest daughter, who is quite a dancer

My step-mom got “Walk a Mile in My Boots” because one of the ranch hands lent her some boots for the duration of our visit because she had neglected to bring riding shoes.

Here are some more photos:

The walk down to the stables.

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Our youngest daughter (identified by the pink cowgirl hat) enjoying the serenity of the upper pond.

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Another view of the stables.

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On the left is the Chuckhouse and on the right is the ever important Saloon (a favorite of kids AND adults).

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In the saloon, there was an area to play cards or watch an HD TV, play foosball or pool (there were 2 pool tables), play ping pong or arcade games as well. The sign was the BEST!

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One night, there was even Karaoke night at the Saloon. My youngest lead a passionate rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star which “brought the house down.”

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As you tend to get dirty when you do riding or fishing or bull frog racing, have no fear, there was a coin-operated laundry room available as well. We actually managed to come home from the trip with clean clothes!

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There was also a great volleyball/badminton set right next to the picnic area.

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Overall, the week was quite an adventure. While I was thoroughly disappointed that I could not partake in the horseback riding, I was able to enjoy the scenery and do some fishing. But this vacation was not really for the adults, at least not in our family. It was more for the kids, to give them an appreciation for something outside of what they are used to and to hopefully introduce them to Nature and the outdoors. I really felt that they came away from the vacation in-love with their horse and with an understanding of a life very different than what we currently live. My daughters not only made a connection with Nature through their horses, fishing and riding, but also with other children who were in the ranch as well.

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The people and personalities who work at Greenhorn Ranch are what makes it a fun place to go to. Each person who works there has a different area of expertise and responsibility and they work tremendously hard at trying to make your stay very pleasant. The Ranchers are up preparing breakfast, getting the horses ready, watering down the dusty trails and organizing our days long before we rolled sleepily over to the Chuckhouse for breakfast. And these same folks stay up late strategizing for the next day or preparing for the awards ceremony. It is a hard job and they do it well and it is important that they are recognized for it.

We had a great time up at Greenhorn Ranch. If I can, I would like to return for a few days with my kids to see the horses and the beautiful landscape and say hi to all of the ranch hands who made our stay enjoyable. If you are considering a vacation that you children will remember for a lifetime, put Greenhorn Ranch at the top of your list. I met many people who were back for a repeat (sometimes multiple) visits. One gentleman who we met up there had his life changed by his initial visit. He was completely new to horseback riding when he came up 4 years ago. When he came up this year, he owned 2 horses which he brought, and he now regularly participates in parades where he showcases his horses’ skills. I read some other stories on Facebook where some people were taking their children up to Greenhorn Ranch in much the same way that they attended as children.

While not exactly an inexpensive vacation, sometimes it is hard to truly put a value on the experience. Greenhorn Ranch is definitely a place you will remember for life and it could easily become a family tradition, perhaps not yearly but definitely worthy of a few return visits. I hope that I may be able to go back and actually experience the horseback riding the next time around. One way or another, I would definitely consider Greenhorn Ranch if you are looking to do something different yet memorable one summer.

HTD says: Having a vacation in the beauty surrounding Greenhorn Ranch is a pleasure unto itself. And the immersion into the ranch style of life is unforgettable!