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

Riders line up while bareback

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.

A man rides a horse in a river
Explore the Rockies on horseback

In the Rocky Mountains, local settlers commonly acted as guides to immigrants, “travelers-for-pleasure”, and especially hunters. Railroad development brought increasingly easier access. By the 1850’s, the number of eastern hunters arriving had increased to the point that the guiding expeditions of hunters had developed into an industry of its own.

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.

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 formation of America’s first national park, Yellowstone, fueled the easterner’s fascination with the west. 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.” Subsequently, 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.

Two boys sit in front of the fire
Guests enjoy some time around the campfire

Isolated and lonely, early ranchers gladly welcomed visitors. They were eager to meet and talk to strangers and 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 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.

By 1891, guest business had grown to the point where dudes were a permanent, significant factor in the operation of the ranch.

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.

Riders head across the field to go swimming
Guests experience a bareback meadow ride

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.

A father and son go fishing
Fishing at a local hotspot

1. The ranch is the year-round home of the owners, where the visitor is considered a family guest.
2. Located in the western states or provinces, in a remote location, with the sights and pleasures of the west.
3. Offers food, rustic lodging, and horseback riding packaged at one price.
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 a growing range of activities for every family member to share:

  • Rock climbing and belaying
  • White Water Rafting
  • World Class Disc Golf
  • Guided Hiking
  • A boy shoots a bow and arrow

    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
Guests sit around the campfire
Fun around the campfire

5. The key ingredient of the dude ranch is its atmosphere. Informal in manner and dress, a genuine hospitality, and 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.