The Cowboy Way

I have never once even considered doing the Electric Slide, Boot Scootin' Boogie, Cowboy Stomp or any other form of country line dancing. The last time I can recall riding a horse was during a seventh-grade camp trip in the middle of winter. And to my ears, "dude" sounds more like surfer lingo than something associated with cowboys.

But that doesn't mean our trip along New York's Dude Ranch Trail wasn't a rootin' tootin' good time.

If You Go

Fort William Henry Resort: 48 Canada St., Lake George, N.Y., (518) 668-3081. Rates are from $189.90 to $449.90 during peak season (July and August).

1000 Acres Ranch Resort and Golf Club: 465 Warrensburg Road, Stony Creek, N.Y., (518) 696-2444. Weekly rates from $798 per adult (double occupancy) with riding privileges, $696 without riding, $564 riding and $432 non-riding for children 13-17, $528 riding and $396 non-riding for children 7-12; free for children 6 and under (June 28 through Aug. 24, 2003).

Lake George Steamboat Co.: Steel Pier, Beach Road, Lake George, N.Y. (518) 668-5777. Lunch, brunch, dinner and specialty cruises aboard the Minne-Ha-Ha, Lac du Saint Sacrement and Mohican.

J.T. Kelley's Steak and Seafood: at the entrance to the Fort William Henry Museum, Canada Street, Lake George, N.Y., (518) 668-3165. Dine on traditional Irish dishes, choice steaks and seafood in this restored 19th-century trolley station.

Painted Pony Ranch and Championship Rodeo: Howe Road, Lake Luzerne, N.Y., (518) 696-2421. BBQ rates $10 for adults, $7 for kids, $3 for kids special (hamburger or hot dog plus fixin's); rodeo rates $12 for adults, $9 for kids

Papa's Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant: 35 Main St., Lake Luzerne, N.Y., (518) 696-3667. Stop for breakfast or an evening treat on the patio, which overlooks Little Falls, where the Sacandaga and Hudson rivers join.

An exceptional family drive (even with three kids under 6), the 40-mile loop begins and ends in Lake George. The New York scenic byway winds through the Adirondack Mountains, snakes along the Hudson River and reins in the pace of everyday life.

We traveled Interstate 90 from Cleveland to Albany, where I-87 runs north to the Lake George exit. If you have more time — and children whose attention spans are a little longer — you can pick up two additional byways with a quick detour off I-90 to Rome, N.Y. There, you can bite off a good slice of the 84-mile Military Byway or the entire 140-mile Central Adirondack Trail and still end up in Lake George.

Once we reached the bustling tourist town, we settled into the Fort William Henry Resort and Conference Center. Located at the headwaters of Lake George, our "motor inn" accommodations were simple and comfortable, but step onto the cement balcony and the ice-blue water of Lake George unfurls before you, curling around the wooded shoreline and gathered in the distance by mountains.

After four hours in the car (we split the 8 1/2-hour drive over two days), the kids released their pent-up energy in the resort's pool. Located on a bluff overlooking the lake, it's the perfect perch on which to curl up with a book, watch the paragliders soar over the water or catch the steamboat Minne-Ha-Ha puffing its way back into port.

We took a two-hour luncheon tour aboard the four-deck Lac du Saint Sacrement to experience the lake up close. A bit like My Big Fat Floating Wedding, there was plenty of food, dancing and music that ranged from Frank Sinatra to the Chicken Dance. Our lounge-style keyboardist provided lake trivia; a guide to shopping, nightlife and eateries; and commentary on the sprawling retreat homes that dot the shoreline.

?ack on dry land, we hit Fort William Henry Museum. A restoration of the original British fort that was captured in August 1757 by French General Marquis de Montcalm and 12,500 French and Indian soldiers, the museum offers a peek at 18th-century military life. Kids will get a kick out of the cannon firing, musketball-making demonstration and the chance to join the British 35th Regiment.

At night, Lake George bustles with the energy of a child. Its boardwalk is filled with shoppers, partiers, families and tourists in search of ice cream, mini golf, video games, libations and souvenirs. We strolled the waterfront, stopping occasionally to let the kids peer into the limpid water or quack at a family of ducks. We grabbed some Hershey's ice cream and a bottle of wine from New York's Finger Lakes region and called it an evening.

Our second night began the "dude ranch" portion of our trip with a rodeo at Painted Pony Ranch in Lake Luzerne. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Painted Pony Championship Rodeo begins with a Texas-style barbecue. When you've had your fill, mosey over to the arena, where professional cowboys put on one heck of a show. Every event — from cattle roping to bull riding — compacts edge-of-your-bleacher excitement and near disaster into short bursts of 30 seconds or less. Stick around afterward at the rodeo's saloon for country music, two-steps and spirits.

Outside Lake George, much of the route takes on a more rugged feel. Here, you can stay at one of the remaining dude ranches that give the area its name: Ridin-Hy Ranch and Rodeo in Warrensburg, Roaring Brook Ranch and Tennis Resort in Lake George and 1000 Acres Ranch and Resort in Stony Creek.

We stayed at 1000 Acres, which can be aptly described as "a summer camp for families." Stabled between two mountains on the banks of the Hudson River, the accommodations range from private cabins to motel-style rooms, but all maintain a camplike feel with wood paneling, rustic decor and cozy quarters.

With two pools, tennis courts, a ballfield, playground equipment, sand volleyball and basketball courts, a nine-hole golf course, rowing and paddleboats, horses, a weekly rodeo and all the fresh air you can handle, there's no shortage of activities.

Meals are an event unto themselves. Served ranch-style — that means buffet to us city folks — you can chow down on everything from steak-and-potatoes favorites to vegetarian delights. Breakfast and dinner are especially hearty and a great opportunity to chat with other guests.

Still, it wouldn't be a ranch without riding the trails on horseback. Though 1000 Acres offers rides for every skill level (and mine was certainly "city slicker"), a line from the waiver form kept running through my head: Horseback riding is the only sport in which the smaller predator (human) attempts to control the prey (horse), which is five to 15 times larger, 20 to 40 times stronger and three to four times faster.

Diesel — an Appaloosa mottled white, gray and black — must have sensed I was somewhere below "cowboy" level and made it easy on me. At that pace, the trees that cover the mountain open up to reveal saddle-high undergrowth; withered creekbeds; and rows of bare, angular limbs choked off from the sun's energy by the lush treetops 50 feet above.

Nightfall means a live band, drinks and snacks in the Red Dog Saloon, where kids are welcome all night (and have been known to sack out on the couches after shooting pool, dancing and playing video games).

Or discover how an Adirondack chair got its shape: sloped seat, reclined back and wide armrests. I'm convinced it's designed for the best view of the stars on a summer night. Just above the black curves of the mountains, the sky creases with a band of light. The stars that we see in the city are there, but behind them — among them — are the ones we miss: glistening in a swirl of light, like when the sun catches the dust kicked up from a horse's gallop.

Once you experience that, it's hard to let go of this place. So people don't. On Friday night, the last for many guests, Cowboy Ernie hosts a talent show and bonfire, where young ranchers can sing, tell a joke, dance or perform a skit. In the morning, you pack up, exchange hugs with friends old and new, and head for home. Until next year.

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