Photo: Courtesy of HF Bar Ranch

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At the HF Bar Ranch, near Buffalo, Wyoming, kids can flat-out run amok. Soon after our arrival, my son was learning to rope a calf and got to drive a small golf cart into a parked car (nobody was hurt, and he still talks about it). My daughter walked on a battlefield and cast a fly to wild trout.

In the summer, the HF Bar isn’t a real working ranch—they don’t wrangle cattle—but it isn’t the Disney version either. While some dude ranches are as regimented as a New York private school, with supervised horseback riding (helmets required), posted schedules, and mandatory campfire singalongs, the people who run the HF Bar know when to butt out. They provide the horses, thousands of acres of trails, rock canyons, small rivers, and high meadows, plus three meals (say, eggs and flapjacks for breakfast, roast chicken at lunch, and smoked pork ribs for dinner) cooked to order each day … then they leave you to figure out the rest for yourself. You get your own horse, and you’re free to ride with a group or on your own. I used to be an indifferent horseman, content to trot along narrow trails, eyes on the tail of the animal ahead of me, but here I got what Westerns had been trying to tell me all those years: Galloping hell for leather across the high plains is the only way to travel.

Other dude ranches tart up drab motel-style rooms with Western furniture, but the HF Bar, the second-oldest dude ranch in the country, puts each family in its own distinctive cabin, many of them built by guests back in the twenties and thirties, each with an old-fashioned icebox on the porch (a fresh block of ice is delivered every morning). Other dude ranches offer fishing, but the HF Bar has its own Orvis fly shop, with rods and waders hanging on hooks (in kids’ sizes, too) that you can rent anytime. And other dude ranches offer hikes and yoga and kids’ rodeos, but the HF Bar also has its own sporting clay course, where even a 10-year-old child can learn to shoot a small-gauge shotgun, and believe me, if you want to put a real smile on a city kid’s face, take him to Wyoming and teach him to shoot.

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The HF Bar Ranch (307-684-2487; hfbar@wyoming.com; $1,400 per person per week).