Weekend Pass

Dude Ranches Are Going Strong, So Saddle Up for a Cowboy Vacation

They combine the best of a chill vacation with a peek into the world of real cowboys. Bull Hill Guest Ranch welcomes hapless city slickers, but they’re running a thriving cattle business in the background.

By Allison Williams August 17, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Bull Hill Guest Ranch from a canvas tent.

The rolling acres of Bull Hill Ranch look about the same as they did in 1903—the year an ambitious immigrant named Peter Ansaldo stumbled upon the slopes with nothing but a male Hereford bull named Curly.

Today this is a vacation resort for up to 50 wannabe cowpokes—but also a working cattle ranch. Tucked into the state’s very northeast corner, its 50,000 acres of rangeland stretch six miles north to Canada. 

Nine cabins and two canvas tents surround a big-porched cookhouse, and dozens of saddle horses graze the grassy slopes. The Columbia River—known here as Lake Roosevelt, backed up from the Grand Coulee Dam—sparkles in the Eastern Washington sunlight below. It’s 300 miles from Seattle and feels every inch of it.

But when Ansaldo made his way here from San Giorgio, Italy, the Columbia was a narrow river and there were few scattered Italian and Irish immigrants in a state only 14 years old. He grew the ranch by planting fields and renting Curly, the first and then only Hereford in the region, out for stud. By the time his daughter married another Italian who’d arrived via Ellis Island, a man named Minot Guglielmino, Bull Hill Ranch was thriving.

Tucker Guglielmino leads his sorrel horse, Jane, through his great-great grandfather’s homestead, pointing out a deer blind here, an abandoned wood cabin there, and a patch of rhubarb that’s fed generations of Guglielminos. His mount picks her way through a meadow of thick purple lupine and bright pink Indian paintbrush, the Idaho mountains visible on the horizon.

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Pete Guglielmino drives cattle on Bull Hill, homesteaded by his great-grandfather.

This is how most wrangler-led rides unfold; no itineraries, no checklists. Guests chat with wranglers over breakfast before mounting up, and some opt for an afternoon swimming Ansaldo Lake or putting your feet up on the cookhouse porch. The fresh-baked cookies and beer fridge are self-serve, as are buffet-style meals three times a day. There are skeet to shoot, horseshoes to toss, and two hot tubs for soaking in the open air; ranching may be a grueling industry, but being a dude ranch guest sure isn’t.


The concept of a dude ranch—hosting paying guests who don’t know a saddle horn from a snaffle bit—dates to the 1800s, when stories of wild western life charmed city folk back east, and in the early 1900s, when Teddy Roosevelt made playing cowboy a presidential hobby. Expanding railroads made visiting the semisettled west even easier, and a Dude Ranchers’ Association formed in the 1920s.

Their most recent heyday was the early ’90s, when City Slickers won an Oscar and 10-year-olds sang the theme song to Nickelodeon’s Hey Dude. But the best part of this particular dude ranch is that it doesn’t feel like Disneyland, and no one’s staggering around in a bad John Wayne impression. Horse skills aren’t mandatory at Bull Hill, but the horses aren’t sluggish old-timers out of a petting zoo—you can speed to a brisk lope if you want. Trails loop down to the Columbia, to nearby China Bend Winery, or to a small saloon (yes, there’s a hitching post). 

Cattle driving here isn’t for show; the ranch runs several hundred pairs of cows and calves, surviving in an industry that isn’t what it used to be. Falling beef prices and rising feed costs in the early 2000s led ranches across Washington to be split among families or sold piecemeal for residential plots. The Guglielminos survived partly because Tucker’s father, Pete, and uncle Don had launched the guest ranch in those yee-haw ’90s, throwing up a few canvas tents and making shared meals for guests in the cookhouse. 

Lofted, fully plumbed cabins with wood-fired stoves eventually replaced the tents, though the glamping craze of the 2010s prompted them to erect canvas accommodations again. Another survival tactic: Bull Hill doesn’t keep its cattle year round; instead the ranch sells them to a Washington-based company every winter, after the cows have had their free-range feast and mated with the 23 bulls scattered among the 50,000 acres.

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Fishing in Lake Ansaldo, named for the ranch’s founding family.

Tucker and his uncles, cousins, and niece bring guests along when they round up the herd, even if it means bushwhacking on horseback (so that’s why cowboys wear leather chaps). Ask for almost anything at Bull Hill and you’ll receive a smile, a shrug, and a “Sure!”—by all appearances, cattle ranching is great for one’s blood pressure.

Nothing’s too tough here for guests, even accidents: Tradition dictates that riders who fall off a horse at Bull Hill Ranch must take a whiskey shot out of a hollow bull horn. That goes for staff and visitors alike (though visitor unseatings are usually more of the embarrassing slide-off variety) and kids down a hornful of pickle juice before getting back up in the saddle. The Peter Ansaldo of 1903, driving his single bull up a remote hilltop, would barely recognize this kind of ranching—but with this combo of family business and a regular influx of cheerful visitors, he’d probably be a fan.

Bull Hill Guest Ranch
3738 Bull Hill Rd, Kettle Falls

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