Lutherans in Minnesota

Leaping into the ‘brand new Old West’

Joy Ranch, the fifth Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota site, provides an accessible Old West camp experience. The camp’s 1880s church and school buildings are incorporated into the experience. Photo provided by Lutheran Outdoors

If you don’t remember the fictional Marshal Matt Dillon wandering the streets of Dodge City, Kansas, making sure that cattle rustlers didn’t run off with Miss Kitty, it doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate Joy Ranch, the new camp site offered by Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota. In fact, you might appreciate it all the more.

Watertown, South Dakota, realtor Joy Nelson, who had in 1989 bought the land that is being transformed into an Old West town, asked herself “What am I going to do with this 110 acres?” With already existing structures, like a one-room schoolhouse, Nelson began to imagine a camp, and she contacted Lutherans Outdoors. She offered them a gift.

“We had recently [found] some studies that argued there was a need for more accessible camping options,” said Kari Sorenson, interim director of Joy Ranch. “Lots of camps inherited the buildings they plan to use for the camp, but we knew we would be building [most structures] from the ground up, and could incorporate a commitment to accessibility from the beginning,” she added.

“We have some wonderful camps, but accessibility has always been a problem,” explained Layne Nelson, executive director of Lutherans Outdoors. “And Joy Ranch is going to give us an opportunity to do something brand new, to go from the ground up with accessibility in mind. [We can reach out] to people of all abilities and all needs from the beginning.”

A step back in time

Interestingly, two of the existing buildings first suggested the camp’s theme: “the brand new Old West.” The site’s one-room schoolhouse and old church were constructed in the 1880s; there was plenty of space to build a town around them.

Joy Ranch is a reconstructed Old West town with a general store and a hotel. “On one side of the street is a ‘bunkhouse’ for the youth,” Sorenson explained. “On the other is an adult and family high-comfort retreat center.” And everyone can enjoy The Thirsty Boot, Joy Ranch’s ice cream and snack place.

Surrounding Lyle Lake, this South Dakota camp includes a number of water-related activities. Campers can use pontoons or canoes, swim, or even fish.

The camp also has a herd of horses, available for riding, and a wagon that is accessible for persons in wheelchairs. The camp includes a therapeutic riding program; riding lessons are available as well.

Joy Ranch is currently booking for spring retreats and fall programs, but it will really launch with this summer’s camping program.

“Registration will begin online on Leap Day,” the extra day on the calendar every four years, February 29, so that campers “can leap into the brand new Old West,” said Sorenson.

For more information or to see a promotional video, go to and click on the “Joy Ranch” button.

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