REPUBLIC, Ferry County — We thought the baby deer in the front lawn was plastic yard art until it jumped up and ran over to greet us.
My family and I, in the middle of a recent no-plans road trip through Northeastern Washington, had just arrived at the family-run K Diamond K Guest Ranch, four miles south of Republic.
We’d seen numerous road signs for guest ranches as we crossed the rolling mountains in the far corner of the state, and had stopped unannounced at K Diamond K to give our year-old son, Ian, a break from the car, and maybe show him a few animals.
Little did we know that we had just stumbled on to one of the best places in the region to act like a cowboy and interact with a veritable Noah’s ark of farm creatures — plus an adopted stray fawn named Felina.
“Hiya! You want to help us bottle-feed Felina?” asked a cheerful woman in a cowboy hat. Her name was Kathy McKay, and her family owns the ranch, which includes a sprawling log-built guest lodge.
“(Felina) is best friends with the milk cow,” 9-year-old guest Annabelle Blackmer, from Spokane, told us. “They spend all day together.”
As if on cue, the cow bellowed from the far side of the yard.
“We’re about to go for a horseback ride; you should join us!” said McKay.
We were only two minutes into our visit, and not even 10 steps from our car, yet our heads were already swimming with wonder. “What kind of place is this?” we whispered. “This is amazing!”
Saddle up your horses
A stay on a guest ranch doesn’t feel like a normal vacation. In many ways, a guest ranch is designed to stretch your comfort level and encourage you to try new things.
Visitors help with chores as much as they want, which helps you feel less like a paying guest and more like a friend.
Before we knew it, we had donned borrowed cowboy hats and boots, and were brushing the horses, mounting saddles and directing livestock from one pen to another.
The can-do spirit made a fan out of 10-year-old Peter Blackmer, another visitor from Spokane, who joined us on our trail ride. He arrived not really liking horses, and finished his stay wishing he could take one home, and clutching to his chest a newly purchased framed art print of a horse.
If you live in Seattle, you tend to forget that most of Washington state is rural and that animals aren’t limited to house pets or zoo creatures.
On a guest ranch, you can stand almost anywhere, turn a circle and see at least six different critters ambling about.
From our room’s balcony, I watched: ducks walking by, then rabbits nibbling on grass, and then a gaggle of wild turkeys crossing under a fence. At night I was lulled to sleep by the mournful cries of coyotes.
K Diamond K supports about 60 head of cattle and another 60 horses on land that stretches a mile in any direction.
When McKay’s parents, Steve and June Konz (their family name contributed the “K” to the ranch name), moved to the valley in 1961 they opened a much needed veterinary clinic, and the ranch has been a haven for injured and abandoned animals ever since. That’s how they got Felina — the ranch adopted her when her mother was driven away by a neighbor’s dogs.
Following a lunch of heaping cowboy tacos, we took Ian to the petting zoo, where excited squeaks and squeals greeted us. A pair of juvenile pigs ran over, followed by a goat, a sheep, a calf, a troop of chickens, and finally a (soon-to-be) Thanksgiving turkey.
Little Ian’s vocabulary couldn’t do his emotions justice. Each time something new appeared, he would draw a sharp breath, point and a fire off a huge grin.
Ripe with new experiences
The following morning we were asked to join McKay in a roundup of horses from a nearby field. Our family piled into an all-terrain work vehicle and zoomed around with McKay whistling sharply and directing a ranch dog to drive the horses to the stable.
It was a pinch-yourself, “I can’t believe I’m doing this” moment for me. But it was just one of dozens of activities we could have chosen that morning.
If you feel like hunting ground squirrels or panning for gold in the creek, they can make it happen.
Want to watch that big sawmill turn trees into lumber? OK. Interested in helping injured animals? Let’s head to the vet clinic. Just want to jump on the trampoline or read by the stone fireplace? Go for it.
A working ranch never stops working, so seasonal activities take place throughout the year, and it’s open to guests for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There’s always horseback riding, weather permitting, and winters feature 100 miles of snowmobile trails, sleigh rides and snow tubing.
We spent one afternoon shooting foam targets full of arrows until someone asked us if we wanted to milk the cow, which of course we did.
After that, a staff member baby-sat Ian so we could go on another horseback ride. We traversed steep hillsides of Ponderosa pine and bright yellow larches, scaring up grouse and a handful of horses along the way.
Upon our return, I marveled again at the enormous trees the family harvested from the property to build the main lodge. I pictured it laden with holiday decorations, with bonfires outside in the snow. I could think of no better place to spend a winter weekend.
Or, for that matter, how each season would offer something new.
Maybe next time we could float the river, or shoot traps, or wrangle cattle, or fly fish, or look for beavers, or explore the cave, or hunt for fossils, or …
If you go
Republic is about 2½ hours by car from Spokane and 5½ hours from Seattle, at the intersection of state highways 20 and 21.
Winter and holiday visits
K Diamond K is open for Thanksgiving and Christmas, with festive decor and ”ranch-style” holiday meals. It offers “cut your own Christmas tree” outings from mid-November until Christmas.
Horse rides are offered year-round, including in snow, as weather and safety permit.