What is a Dude Ranch? A Short History of Dude Ranching

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What is a Dude Ranch? A Brief History of Dude Ranching

What is a dude? The meaning of the word “dude” has changed over the years. Early Yellowstone Park rangers created the word in the 1870’s to refer to any visitor from the east. By the 1880’s the term “dude” meant anyone who was not a resident of the Rocky Mountains, referring equally to travelers, tourists, and new residents. By the 1920’s the term was more specific to anyone who hires a guide, or pays money to stay on a ranch.

Dude ranching evolved from several different sources over a period of about 50 years, starting in the mid eighteen hundreds. Two of the origins of this business were the northern Rocky Mountain hunting expedition, and the southwest plains cattle ranch.

Hunting and the Northern Mountain Dude Ranch

From the time of the famous Louis and Clark expeditions in the early 1800’s there has been a certain romantic appeal of the Rocky Mountains.

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Family Fun at our Colorado Dude Ranch

In the Rocky Mountains, local settlers commonly acted as guides to immigrants, “travelers-for-pleasure”, and especially hunters. Development of railroads west brought increasingly easier access, and by the 1850’s, the number of eastern hunters arriving had increased to the point where the guiding expeditions of hunters had developed into an industry of it’s own, with a number of companies established.

The comforts offered by these hunting parties varied widely, some dudes lived as “westerners” sleeping in the open, taking turns at sharing camp duties, and participating in the “normal life of the west.” Other hunting parties were quite elaborate. Buffalo Bill Cody led a group of hunters from New York who brought their own French chefs and waiters. They dined each night in formal evening dress, in a dining tent which was floored, carpeted, and equipped with linen, china, and silver.

By 1869, a number of these expedition companies built permanent hunting camps and guest lodges. These lodges served as the owner’s permanent year-round homes, base camp for expeditions, and the place where customer-hunters could safely leave their spouses while they hunted. Satisfied customers often returned every year to their “second home out west.”

In 1872, the easterner’s fascination with the west was fueled by the formation of America’s first national park; Yellowstone National Park. The park (which was as large or larger than most eastern states), was instantly famous for “its geysers, hot springs, magnificent scenery, and outstanding hunting.” The Northern Pacific Railway capitalized on this romance, and developed a business transporting tourists and hunters for both the park and ranches in the surrounding states.

Cattle Ranching on the South-Western Plains Dude Ranch

At the same time, the post-Civil War cattle boom added another dimension to the west, with buffalo, longhorns, cowboys, wranglers, and ranchers. As the industrializing east required more beef, the cattle industry spread across the south-western plains.

Life on the plains was isolated and lonely. Early ranchers had few close neighbors, and gladly welcomed visitors, eager to meet and talk to strangers, hungry for news and companionship.

Similar to the lure of the northern Rockies, the plains were home to many animals that attracted hunting, including deer, elk, and especially buffalo.

It was not uncommon for ranchers to develop longstanding relationships with sportsmen. The rancher provided the board, lodging, a horse, and hunting grounds close to the comfort of the lodge; the sportsmen provided news, conversation, companionship, and game for the table.

The second half of the 1800’s was a period of enormous growth for cattle ranching. The mushrooming population growth on the eastern coast had an ever-increasing demand for beef. At the same time, the expansion of railroad lines into the south-west territories allowed for both the easy transfer of cattle to market, and easy travel for the eastern sportsman.

The great cattle boom ended after the disastrous winter of 1886-87, when blizzards and bitter cold killed million of cattle. Many ranchers, who refused to accept money from visitors before, now reconsidered the costs of their hospitality.

For example, in the spring of 1887, the owners of the Custer Trail Cattle Company inventoried their stock to find they had the same number of surviving cattle as when they started the business in 1882. From the start of the ranch in 1882 to the 1887 inventory, few of the guests at the Custer Trail Ranch contributed financially. The Eatons counted 2,200 free meals they had given guests in one year. Despite the “code of western hospitality,” the ranch simply could not afford such generosity, and began to charge ten dollars per week for all guests.

By 1891, guest business had grown to the point where dudes were a permanent, significant factor in the operation of the ranch. The Custer Trail Ranch was known as a “place where easterners of the better and more influential classes, more particularly of the younger generation, could build themselves up mentally and physically through the association with nature.”

At about this time, and especially after the financial crash of 1893, other ranches followed suit, making hospitality a significant “product” in the financial operation of the ranch. Again, as an example, in 1917, The Eaton’s ranch comprised “over 7,000 acres of land, 500 horses, hundreds of cattle, and accommodations for 125 guests.

“Modern” Dude Ranching

In the early decades of the 1900’s, a number of events lead to the development of the dude ranches whose primary purpose was to provide hospitality to guests, with hunting/fishing and raising livestock as a secondary sources of income.

The United States Department of the Interior began advertising its new National Parks. This advertising was enthusiastically brokered by the Northern Pacific Railroad, who also actively marketed both dude ranches and National Parks. The railroad and the government did much early dude ranch advertising.

The inhospitable climate of Europe and advent of World War I closed Europe to vacation travel, and Americans began exploring their own country for vacations.

Travel became easier with the advent of the automobile, and access to the west became affordable for millions of middle class families.

Dude ranching came into its own as western tourism became an industry. New ranches were started, some with new and creative “niches.” Initially, hot springs and health camps were not uncommon. One ranch was a boarding school for boys. Other ranches focused on pack trips for boys, later to become summer camps for both boys and girls. Many ranches developed the photography hunt. Currently, there are ranches that focus intensely on tennis, swimming, and golf. There has been at least one ranch that catered to nudists! Although each ranch is different, most ranches focus on the basics of caring and feeding dudes: hospitality, horseback riding, and the beauty of the outdoors.

Characteristics of the Most Modern Guest and Dude Ranches
As they developed, guest or dude ranching has developed some common characteristics.

1. The dude ranch is the year round home of the owner, where the visitor is considered a guest of the family.
2. The dude ranch is located in the western states or provinces, in a location remote from crowded areas, with the sights and pleasures of the west
3. The dude ranch offers food, rustic lodging, and horseback riding, most often packaged at one price (i.e. the American Plan), with reservations required.
4. The main activities of the dude ranch are no longer limited to riding, hiking, sightseeing, and simple relaxation; some have expanded their scope  to include w=a wide a growing range of soft adventures for every member of the family to share;

  • Rock climbing and belaying
  • White Water Rafting
  • World Class Disc Golf
  • Guided Hiking
  • Rifle Range Target Shooting
  • Trap Shooting
  • Tomahawk Throwing
  • Family Trout Fishing at nearby lakes
  • Serious River Fly Fishing
  • Riding at all skill levels
  • Tacking, Horse Care & Basic Horsemanship Lessons
  • Evening Campfires: singing, poetry, s’mores & more!
  • Kid’s Campouts
  • Horseshoes, foosball & pool tables

5. The key ingredient of the dude ranch is its atmosphere, informal in manners and dress, a genuine hospitality, with guests known on a first name basis.

The Sundance Trail Guest Ranch is proud to continue these traditions.

Source: Lawrence R. Borne; Dude Ranching A Complete History; University of New Mexico Press; 1983.