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Get Your Cowboy on at a Texas Dude Ranch

Rediscover your roots on a hayride, catching lightning bugs or simply toasting some s'mores.

By Bill Wiatrak July 5, 2016

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The Silver Spur Guest Ranch in full bloom during the spring

Dude (noun): 1. a man excessively concerned with his clothes, grooming, and manners.

I'm sitting at a dude ranch near Bandera, Texas and ironically enough, no one seems to be concerned about their grooming. The meaning has obviously changed over the years. Bandera is known today as the Cowboy Capital of the World, its origins stemming from being the starting point of the Great Cattle Western Trail that brought longhorns from Texas to Dodge City, as well as boasting a large number of ranches scattered around the town. Nestled in the Texas Hill Country, it gained popularity in the 1920s when dude ranches began popping up as an alternative vacation option. Almost a hundred years later they're still going strong.

We stayed at a place called The Silver Spur Guest Ranch, about 10 minutes southwest of town—or, to a city slicker, five minutes drive to a phone signal. (Not getting calls can be a good thing when you're trying to relax, but there is WiFi available if you can't give up civilization completely.) I picked The Silver Spur for a few reasons. First, it had great reviews on TripAdvisor. Second, it was right next to the Hill Country State Natural Area and I hoped there might be a few wild animals running around. Third, John, who runs the place, is a relocated Austrian and speaks five languages. That just seemed interesting.

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There's a horse for every rider and personality here.

So, what does one do on a dude ranch? The first thing you do is slow down. Like a slow talking Texan, you've got to put the brakes on and take the time to smell the wildflowers. Most of the ranches near Bandera have a two-night minimum, but it's possible to do a day trip or just stay for one night if you book during the week or off-peak. We opted to spend one night, which included three meals and two horse rides a day.

Horse riding is probably the most popular activity at The Silver Spur. Some of the guests at the corral hadn't been on a horse in decades, but the guides were patient and explained the proper way to turn right, left, stop and get the horse in reverse. I've ridden horses in lots of places around the world, but I must admit, the guides' simple five-minute explanation was the best I've heard anywhere.

Each horse has its own distinct personality and is put in a particular place in the lineup. I'm a big guy and the ranch hands apparently didn't want to wear out their smaller horses, so I got Tucker, the biggest horse of the bunch, as well as the stable bully. Tucker liked to randomly bite other horses, so he usually got put in the back of the line with enough space to keep him on his best behavior. Our trail that day was a scenic one-hour ride through some pretty Hill Country terrain. It was slow-paced since we had about 10 riders and a narrow trail, though it's possible to set up a more intimate ride to give the horses a chance to show off their speed.

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Relax and unwind in the ranch's main lodge.

Back at the ranch, we were greeted with a herd of goats and a couple of donkeys with an appetite for day-old toast. The goats roamed around curiously eyeing us, grazing on weeds, seemingly used to being petted by guests. The two baby goats were ridiculously cute. A few of the younger guests tried catching them, but goat kids are faster than human kids. I've never had so much fun with barnyard animals; it was like a giant petting zoo with no fence. We took lots of goat pictures and had ramming contests with them. All in all, they were way more fun than the boring chickens nearby.

There was a large pool to cool off in while the main building housed a pool table, foosball table, piano, dominoes and even a reading area. There was plenty to do even if you didn't feel like doing anything, except for television. Here, there are no TVs blasting sports broadcasts were anywhere to be seen. Come to think of it, I don't even think there was a TV in the bunkhouse.

Meals were served in the adjoining room and were fairly simple, but delicious and filling. The Silver Spur had the foresight to maintain a seemingly endless canister of home-baked chocolate chip cookies with 24 hour access. There were a lot of kids during my stay, so I didn't see a lot of drinking, but there was a couple of bottles of self-service wine and a full cooler of iced beer—Lone Star, to be exact—set up on the honor system.

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Perfect your marshmallow-toasting techniques for some s'mores.

The lodge also had shovels and tools to be used in a designated area on the ranch for digging up fossils. It was too hot to pull out a shovel that day, so I satisfied myself with examining some rocks with trilobites and ancient shell impressions that previous visitors had found. You want to keep kids busy? Give them a shovel and tell them to find dinosaur bones. Whoever thought of that knows kids.

There are also lots of trails and nature walks on the property where you can discover the flora and fauna of the Texas Hill Country. My favorite ranch adventure, however, was the evening hay ride. I haven't been on a hayride since I was in my teens and this one upped the ante by taking us to feed the longhorns on the ranch. I knew nothing about these animals when I first sat on the hay bale but was almost an expert by the end of our voyage. The owner of the ranch loves what he does, driving us to a scenic spot and proceeding to give us a lesson on the history of this amazing breed.

The longhorns were expecting a treat and they galloped after us until we stopped to feed them. Soon, we were surrounded by these amazing animals as they devoured the treats the boss had brought on the ride. Our favorite bull in the herd was Picasso, so named because he looked like he had been splashed with different color paints. No two steers looked alike and this herd was a cornucopia of different shapes, colors and sizes. The history of the longhorn, we learned, is a fascinating one as they have evolved from Spanish stock to an amazingly resilient breed over 300 years. And in only a century, the longhorn went from junk cattle to a Texas symbol more beloved than the mockingbird.

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Riding longhorns isn't for everyone, but you can do it here.

The Hill Country State Natural Area sits right next to the ranch so were able to take a drive in the park and walk to some springs. Along the way we spotted blinking fireflies. I haven't seen these illuminated insects in Houston in decades. I don't know what happened to the lightning bugs that seemed to be everywhere in my youth, but they must have relocated to Bandera. Fireflies weren't the only creatures we spotted, but also a multitude of huge jackrabbits, fearless cotton-tails, a ribbon snake and even an armadillo. The only thing we didn't check off our list were the wild pigs and coyotes occasionally seen in the area.

After we got back and the sun set, the campfire was lit and the ranch served s'mores. I borrowed the lodge guitar, banged out a few Johnny Cash songs for the other guests under the bright stars, and burned some marshmallows. The donkeys showed up to beg for graham crackers and the evening was complete.

I've been all over the world and I feel like I've seen just about everything, but I honestly can't recall my last s'more, hayride or lightning bug sighting, and I certainly hadn't petted a goat since I was a kid. Maybe this trip wasn't just about discovering Texas or learning how to be a cowboy. It was about rediscovering my childhood.

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