Hewn from history and etched lovingly into our souls, the mythology of the Old West thrives at today’s historic dude ranches, hailing from their origins more than 140 years ago. Woven into the tapestry of this great American tradition are some of the West’s most romantic icons: cowboys, horses, cattle, magnificent scenery, abundant wildlife, and Teddy Roosevelt himself.
Dude Ranching’s Genesis
In the great post-Civil War cattle boom, aspiring ranchers flocked to the verdant open range in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas—among them, three earnest brothers from Pittsburg: Howard, Willis, and Alden Eaton who founded a horse and cattle ranch in Medora, North Dakota, in 1879. By the late 1870s, the extirpation of tens of millions of American bison had opened up grazing lands for these and other budding entrepreneurs, whose cattle grew fat in the vast grasslands that once teemed with bison. Howard, brimming with pride in their newly acquired paradise and with an innate gift for hospitality, loved sharing the Eaton Ranch with guests from back East, and in 1883, put together a pack trip to Yellowstone. When Howard’s friends offered to chip in on expenses for that trip, his idea to charge folks for ranch stays took root.
The Eatons found they could derive a decent income from guests from back East who hungered to experience the West—with its accoutrements of leather chaps, jingling spurs, 10-gallon hats, and six-shooters. Buffalo Bill’s first Wild West Show, which opened in 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska, and in three short years burned a swath to Madison Square Garden, further inflamed the public with a fever for the frontier West, and helped create even more of a market for ranches willing to host “dudes,” as these Eastern city slickers came to be known.
A letter from Howard to a friend back East, published in the New York Times, would prompt a young Theodore Roosevelt to visit in 1883 in pursuit of trophy bison. Enraptured with the West, Roosevelt entered a partnership on the Maltese Cross Ranch, near the Eaton brothers’ Custer Trail Ranch. It would become his spiritual refuge—and arguably, his salvation—the next year, when his mother and his wife both died on Valentine’s Day. Immersing himself in the healing power of the wilderness, Roosevelt would establish a second ranch, the Elkhorn, 35 miles to the north.
The Eaton brothers’ venture into the hospitality business turned out to be fortuitous. The English cattle that ranchers had shipped in to replace the hardy native bison could not withstand the harsh conditions that led to the “Big Die-Up” of 1886-7. In 1886, a severe summer drought burnt grasslands to the roots and by November, millions of cattle were near starvation. That winter, relentless blizzards inundated the entire Northern grasslands with deep snow, gale-force winds, and minus 50-degree temperatures. When the rains finally fell in early 1887, they froze everything under a thick cap of impenetrable ice. More than 90 percent of the cattle in the region perished, signaling a death knell to the days of roving cowboys running immense herds over the open range. The few ranchers who could carry on fenced in their cattle and provided supplemental hay and grain.
The Eatons lost 1,350 of their 1,500 cattle in the Big Die-Up. Later that year, the Eaton homestead burned to the ground. Without the income derived from dude ranching, they could not have survived this double whammy. The Eatons persevered and in 1904, they relocated to their present ranch near Wyoming’s 1.1-million-acre Big Horn National Forest in order to offer richer riding experiences for their burgeoning roster of guests.
Today, the fourth and fifth generations of the Eaton family continue to operate Eatons’ Ranch—the granddaddy of ’em all.
Dawn of the Dude Ranch Era
Dude ranches proliferated simultaneously with the railroad expansion of the early 20th century, with the former providing the destination and the latter, the means of transportation. Ernest Miller, who helmed Elkhorn Ranch at the time, approached Max Goodsill of the Northern Pacific Railway about a collaborative partnership. Goodsill shared the idea with Northern Pacific’s A.B. Smith, passenger traffic manager, and in September of 1926, ranchers, railroad brass, and national parks officials met at the Bozeman Hotel in a three-day meeting that culminated in the formation of the Dude Ranchers’ Association.
In attendance were numerous dude ranches still operating today, including Wyoming’s 7D, CM, Eatons’, Moosehead, Paradise, Red Rock, Rimrock, and Triangle X ranches; Montana’s Averill’s Flathead Lake, Elkhorn, Nine Quarter Circle, and Sweet Grass ranches; Colorado’s Bar Lazy J and Drowsy Water ranches, the Hunewill Ranch in California; and the Circle Z Ranch in Arizona.
Representatives of the three entities established five shared business objectives for their cooperative venture, with the ranchers adding a sixth: the organized protection of fish and game. Business boomed as a result of this newly formed organization and by 1940, more than 25,000 people annually were chalking up a dude ranch vacation.
“During WWII, ranch visits declined, but the ’50s and ’60s were really the heydays of dude ranching,” says Colleen Hodson, authorized agent for the Dude Ranch Foundation (the DRA’s nonprofit).
With the development of the interstate highway system, families could venture west by automobile instead of rail. Inspired by television Westerns such as The Lone Ranger, The Roy Rogers Show, and Bonanza, families flocked to dude ranches to recreate their own home-movie adventures.
“The late ’90s and early 2000s really brought challenges with the new technology,” says Hodson, who had been the executive director of the DRA before transitioning to her work with the foundation. “Getting all of the ranches to have websites and email addresses was huge. Our electronic marketing has really evolved in the past 15 years. What our member ranches can offer is so unique, and people are yearning for that authentic experience.”
“Over the decades, dude ranches have continued to evolve while still remaining true to the tenets of their origins—often with generation after generation of the same family running the ranches,” she continues. “It’s a love of the land and a love of the lifestyle.”
And just as on the ranches, where the next generation is ready to step in as their parents transition out, Hodson’s successor was prepared to step in when Hodson transitioned to the foundation.
In fact, some might say that current DRA Executive Director Bryce Street, who has been with the organization for about a year, has been preparing for this job since before her birth.
“My parents met at Triangle X Ranch,” she says, “and I grew up in Dubois, where I worked for the CM Ranch for seven years.” The CM, with Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to its north and west and the Wind River Reservation to its east, is nearly a century old and renowned for its breathtaking wilderness pack trips—allowing Street to immerse herself in the lifestyle that would become her career.
As she considered college, she turned to the Dude Ranch Foundation, which has awarded more than $350,000 to students wishing to pursue a career in the dude ranch industry. Her scholarship helped Street earned a B.A. in Business Management at Montana State in Billings.
“Dude ranches become a part of people’s lives,” continues Street, “with families returning over multiple generations. They provide an escape from the modern world and sense of freedom for kids and adults alike—allowing them to ride horses, explore wild places, and experience the Western way of life.”
Dude Ranch Guest Experiences
Modern dude ranches offer more varied activities than in any previous time in history, with the horse experience central to all. Some ranches offer great freedom, such as Eatons’ Ranch, where experienced riders can ride unescorted over 7,000 acres (with ranch permission). More than three dozen of the hundred or so DRA member ranches offer pack trips, often into remote regions of national forests and parks that are inaccessible by any other means, allowing participants to immerse themselves in pristine wilderness—a hallmark of the dude ranch experience.
Still others are traditional working ranches, where guests can participate in the actual day-to-day chores of moving cattle or sheep, mending fences, and other animal husbandry tasks. Some offer source-to-table gourmet ranch cuisine prepared by Cordon Bleu chefs. Many focus on family vacations, offering age-appropriate programs for the youngsters while parents pursue adult activities, with families sharing some activities and reuniting at mealtimes.
Girlfriend getaways, adults-only weeks, and specialty adventures such as hunting, birding, fly fishing, and whitewater rafting can be found at many DRA member ranches, with others offering resort-style amenities such as spa services, golf, and wine tastings.
With the dizzying array of offerings, the best place to start looking for your ultimate dude ranch vacation is the online DRA Member Ranch Directory, which can be sorted by capacity, dates open, activities, food, length of stay, lodging and amenities, riding, specialty events, and state. All operate on the American Plan, with meals, lodging, and activities (except for a few optional fee-based ones) included in the per-person rate.
Despite all the variety, one thing that all ranches share is the devotion of their guests, who in countless numbers return to the same ranch year after year.
Sue Gerry of Maine has been coming to Arizona’s Elkhorn Ranch, established in 1945 by the Miller family, nearly every year since 1963. “My father-in-law was a cowboy as a young man,” she says, “and wanted to share his love for that life with his family.” She and her husband started bringing their children to the Elkhorn the very next year. Year after year, they’d bring their children and later, their grandchildren. Since her husband’s passing, she now comes alone.
“It’s a remarkable place,” says Gerry. “I feel like I am going home to a loving family every year. The food is divine and it’s such a quiet place to connect with nature. The art, photography, and music workshops make this ranch so unique.” Gerry, now 87, enjoyed riding well into her 80s at the Elkhorn. “I still hike two miles before breakfast,” she says, “and lead tai chi classes in the afternoons.”
Former FBI Special Agent Lisa Ference has been coming to the Bonanza Creek Country Guest Ranch in Montana for 19 of the past 20 years for girlfriend getaways. “The group’s evolved a bit over the years, but it’s primarily about four of us,” she says. “We leave the husbands, boyfriends, and children behind and spend the week just riding. We ride in the Lewis and Clark Forest, move cattle every week, do half-day rides and one full-day ride. June and David Voldseth take only eight to 12 guests at a time and run a real working ranch with horses for all riding abilities.” Ference, now retired, has worked at the ranch for the past three summers.
August 2019 marked the 14th year that Virginians Diane and David Holdford have come to Colorado’s Bar Lazy J Ranch. The ranch, near Rocky Mountain National Park, has operated continuously since 1912 and was among the founding ranches of the DRA. Surrounded by public land that provides stunning vistas and challenging terrain for riders, the ranch also offers Designated Gold Medal Fly Fishing on a private stretch of the Colorado River.
“Our first visit was with another couple,” says Diane, “and over the years, we made such great friends that many of us continue to book at the same time. The last week of August through September is adults-only, so we come then. The experience is like stepping back in time; You can disconnect from the modern world and meet people you wouldn’t meet otherwise.”
Diane shares that after guests’ 10th visit, ranch owners Jerry and Cheri Helmicki create a personal brand for them and burn it into the ceiling of the river porch. “It further makes you feel part of the family,” she says.
Whatever type of experience you crave—from family vacations, solo adventures, girlfriend getaways, romantic sojourns, and anything in between—there’s a DRA ranch just waiting to welcome you into its embrace and make you part of its family. SLE