Stepping out onto the timber-framed patio at West Texas’s Withers Ranch, coffee in hand, it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer starkness of the Davis Mountains, rising hundreds of feet above. The bottom of Madera Canyon curves down past the adobe house, with rock outcroppings pockmarking the slopes. The juniper and pinyon pines that dot the hillsides are almost assuredly hiding bedded mule deer and coyotes, maybe even a lone cougar. But the animals are invisible from the back porch in all but the twilight hours. Even driving up to the ranch itself, down eleven miles of unpaved roads, is an adventure, like driving across an African savanna, with montane grasslands stretching out to the horizon.
“When you get close to the house,” says the ranch manager, Allison Ryan, “you come around a bend in the road and all of a sudden the canyon opens up before you. It’s the best feeling to watch people’s faces as they see that, because their response is always the same: ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe this exists in Texas.’”
But exist it does, roughly an hour north of Marfa, and you can call it yours—at least for the weekend. That’s because the Withers Ranch is one of the original properties listed on the online rental platform Explore Ranches, cofounded by Ryan along with partners Jesse Womack and Jay Kleberg. The two-year-old Texas start-up works with roughly two dozen private, exclusive properties that provide unparalleled access for paying guests. The bulk of the ranches are in Texas, from Hill Country retreats with riverfront access to a Marfa getaway with a courtyard pool and ten-mile vistas of the Chihuahuan Desert. But the company is expanding rapidly and now offers options in New Mexico, Colorado, and California. They’ve also discussed adding a hacienda in Costa Rica and a property in Virginia—basically any place that has the right combination of comfy accommodations, big views, and ranching bona fides.
“We spent a year traveling around to find the right spots to kick off with,” says Kleberg, a sixth-generation Texan who works with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. “Some of them are 10,000, 20,000, or 200,000 acres—spectacular places that the owners may have grown up with, but places that haven’t been experienced by anyone outside the family.”
Most of the properties are working ranches, owned by individuals, and embody all their personality and charm (and quirks). Which is why Ryan and Kleberg vet each one personally to make sure it meets their expectations before adding it the site. So while Explore Ranches may seem like an Airbnb model, it’s more akin to a collection of boutique hotels under the same brand. The vibe of every property is totally distinct, but the level of service is similar throughout.
The ranches are available for their accommodations only or, depending on the location, Explore Ranches will help set up a fully staffed trip that includes guides, cooks, and naturalist-led activities like hiking, biking, and fishing. “We have everything from a simple turnkey experience, if you don’t want to have any contact,” Ryan says, “to a full staff and chef, to make every dream you have come true.”
The ranches are often massive, stretching across thousands of acres, but the ranch houses themselves—where guests stay—range in size from a two-bedroom (four-person) casita on California’s massive, 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch to a veritable resort that can accommodate 250. Most, however, sleep between eight and fifteen. “We’ve had everything from weddings to small family get-togethers at the properties,” Ryan says.
Most of the ranches also have a conservation component, to help protect the landscape. The Withers Ranch, for example—which was purchased by Ryan’s father as a weekend retreat—has a conservation easement on it, and it’s part of a 100,000-acre reserve under the stewardship of the Nature Conservancy. The owner of Texas’s Hudspeth River Ranch, Alice Ball Strunk, has been instrumental in helping to protect the pristine Devils River, which flows through the property.
Ted Turner’s southern New Mexico property, Ladder Ranch, another Explore Ranches listing, clocks in at 156,000 acres, with an impressive mix of ecosystems, ranging from desert grasslands to pine forests. The property is also home to Native American ruins, as well as a free-ranging bison herd that represents a unique gene pool—all of which is protected through Ted Turner Reserves and the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
“We all grew up in conservation-minded families, so conservation is a big part of why we’re doing this,” says Ryan. “We also know that if we can get people to these beautiful places, where owners are working hard to preserve the landscape, the guests will also feel the need to help conserve wild spaces.”
As the pandemic slowly subsides and Americans start reconvening with friends and extended families, these properties hit a sweet spot: an adventure that may not necessarily require a flight but still feels a million miles away, full of privacy and open space. So if you’ve ever day-dreamed of standing on the back patio of a sprawling family estate, taking stock of own your wild dominion, here’s your chance. Only now you can indulge those fantasies without worrying about how to pass it on to the kids. This one is all yours.