Tasting The Cowboy Lifestyle - Dude Ranches Today And In History
What is a Dude Ranch?
A dude ranch or guest ranch is an establishment that sells trips ranging from half day trail rides to a week or more.
Most modern dude ranches put people up on the ranch in cabins or bed and breakfast style accommodation. They offer not just riding but hunting, fishing and hiking. Some specialize in families and provide activities for children. Many will give lessons in roping and other 'cowboy' skills.
A few still offer the wilderness pack trips that were a hallmark of the early dude ranches, and quite a few do still provide the ability to take part in cattle or horse drives. Most, however, are watered down and many now resemble resorts, with heated swimming pools, line dancing and barbecues (usually with both kinds of music - country and western).
How Did Dude Ranches Come About?
The colorful version of the origin of the dude ranch is that Teddy Roosevelt saw a letter published in a New York paper. This letter was written by Howard Eaton, soon after starting the Custer Trail Ranch in the Dakota Badlands. Mr. Roosevelt was so intrigued by their story of ranch life that he bought a neighboring ranch, the Maltese Cross, just to experience cowboy life.
Before long, guests from the east were inquiring about staying at the ranch. The first guests "paid" for their stay in chores, but after a bad winter the Eatons started charging guests. As the cattle industry struggled, more and more ranchers saw an opportunity to supplement their income by taking in guests who would pay for the privilege of helping with chores and learning how to ride and handle cattle.
In 1926 there were so many dude ranches they started their own trade association, the Dude Ranchers' Association.
How Did They Decline And Change
The height of the dude ranch phenomenon was the 1920s. Then a series of events precipitated their decline. The Great Depression reduced the number of people who could afford to take the train west to ride on a cattle ranch. Just as things picked up, World War II hit the industry hard again.
By the time the war was over the car was taking over from the horse as the means of transportation. The dude ranch vacation fell into the shadow of the modern great American vacation tradition - the road trip.
In order to survive, dude ranches added luxury amenities. As the riding ability of the average guest decreased, they were forced to reduce the emphasis on riding and buy or breed quieter horses. In fact, they had to learn to deal with clients that often didn't know one end of a horse from the other. The term 'dude' became one used with contempt by real horsemen. A 'dude' was a city born idiot who did not know what he was doing and was as likely to fall off as achieve anything.
There are still several hundred dude ranches, but most of the old dude ranch families are no longer in the business. Very few dude ranches are working ranches that keep cattle and raise their own horses. There are also a number of outfitters who will take riders into the wilderness, but do not offer ranch accommodation. Most of these use pack stock to transport gear, but some use vehicles or wagons.
Is It Possible To Find An Old Style Dude Ranch?
With all of that, is it possible for the serious rider to find the sort of experience that Teddy Roosevelt wrote about?
It is a lot harder now, but it is certainly possible. For example, in Alberta, Canada, Dewy Matthews runs Anchor D Guiding & Outfitting Ltd., offering serious wilderness riding trips including one limited to experienced riders and hunting trips in the fall. (I heartily recommend this outfitter, even if all you can afford is a short trail ride from their ranch. Wilderness trips book up early).
Long Hollow Ranch in Sisters, Oregon is a working ranch that allows guests to participate in their regular ranch activities including two cattle drives a year.
Bucking S Ranch near Alcova, Wyoming caters to riders of all levels and includes cattle drives and overnight camping, and allows guests to look after their horses (not often the case these days, especially as many tourists would rather have all of that done for them).