Bandera’s  main draw is its dude ranches. Some are hokier than others, but all offer the natural escape most visitors are seeking. Instead of carting the kids or the grandparents around in a car to museums and shows, families, mostly from San Antonio , opt to spend a weekend in the country surrounded by docile horses, wooded trails, swimming holes, outdoor barbecues, campfires, and hay rides.
It’s a nice change of pace, and allows for a different kind of bonding, sometimes with other families at the ranch-style community meals and recreational events. Activities are optional, so guests can choose to spend as much time as they like inside rustic cabins and lodges or outdoors getting in touch with their inner cowpoke.
One of the best-known of the Bandera  bunch is the Dixie Dude Ranch (nine miles southwest of town on FM 1077, 830/796-4481, www.dixieduderanch.com , adults average $120 each per night, children circa $60). Unlike many area locales, the Dixie is an actual working stock ranch, operating since 1901. Guests can partake of planned activities such as horseback riding, swimming, fishing (gear provided), hiking, and hayrides, or they can venture out on their own to explore the ranch on hiking trails, hunt for fossils and arrowheads, or visit the 100-year-old barn and cemetery. Chow time means meals in the family-style dining house, outdoor barbecues, fried chicken, or a cowboy breakfast. Accommodations are in duplex cabins, cottages, a two-story bunkhouse, and a main lodge. All have two or more beds with private baths, air conditioning, and heat.
Firmly in the resort ranch category (as opposed to a working ranch) is the renowned Mayan Ranch (off Pecan Street, approximately 1.5 miles west of Bandera, 830/796-3312, www.mayanranch.com , adults average $140 each per night, children average $80; three meals and two horseback rides included in the cost). Guests at the Mayan can pony up for a full day of optional activities including a cowboy breakfast cookout, trail rides, a poolside lunch, swimming, cowboy games, tubing on the adjacent Medina River, dancing, and even fireworks. Afterward, guests are certain to sleep soundly in whichever accommodation they choose—individual cottages with up to three bedrooms, or one of the large lodge rooms overlooking the Hill Country .
Another popular Bandera  getaway is the Silver Spur Guest Ranch (9266 Bandera Creek Rd., 830/796-3037, www.silverspur-ranch.com , adults $130 each per night, children average $65; three meals and two hours of horseback rides included in the cost; minimum two-night stay). Located alongside an enormous state park, the Silver Spur offers many of the activities found at other well-heeled dude ranches, including trail rides, outdoor cookouts, and hay rides, with additional features such as a junior Olympic-size swimming pool and an arena for barrel racing, pole bending, and other riding activities. The main lodge and cabins offer modern and comfortable amenities.
Bandera  boasts nearly a dozen more dude ranches in the general vicinity, each offering a varied range of rustic charm and cowboy-related activities. For a comprehensive list of options and a sneak peek at what they have to offer, visit the Bandera County Convention and Visitors Bureau website at www.banderacowboycapital.com  or to discuss details call them at 800/364-3833.
Most of Bandera’s  dude ranches offer horseback riding as part of the package, but not everyone visiting the area is hitching up to the ranch experience. Several independent stables in the area will arrange horseback rides by the hour, day, or even overnight. Options include Lost Wind Livery (830/796-7292), Wagon Wheel Riding Stables (830/966-2153), and Lightning Ranch (800/994-7373, www.lightningranch.com ).