Travel trends are often brief. In a shrinking world where travelers have access to almost any destination and experience they desire, many opt for a variety of vacations and have no interest in repeat visits. However, one decades-old vacation choice has held its appeal and is increasing in popularity.
“A stay at a dude ranch is one of the most special, All-American experiences that families can have,” said Gene Kilgore, author of Gene Kilgore Ranch Vacations, a guidebook now in its 13th edition. “In today’s tech bubble, and with all of the instability in the world, ranches are beacons of hope and hospitality. They are places where men, women and children can have quality time together and embrace nature and the simple pleasures of the outdoors.”
The words “dude ranch” still evoke the cowboy mystique in every generation, from aging Baby Boomers to the 20-somethings of Generation Z. And it’s an attainable dream. Anyone can escape a frenetic urban existence for a ranch vacation, ditching electronics to connect with horses, ranch hands and fellow “dudes.” For those seeking big skies, glorious scenery and adventures that don’t include horses, there’s a ranch for that, too. Today’s ranches offer something for everyone, from mountain biking to fishing, climbing, hiking, ATV riding, swimming, zip-lining, yoga, massage and even snow sports.
Most ranches remained open this year, following all pandemic regulations, taking precautions and making modifications to their operations in order to ensure the well-being of guests and staff. Since most activities and services revolve around open-air space, dude ranches can offer a safe retreat where you can get out and enjoy nature.
Dude ranches debuted in the 1880s, when harsh winters and falling cattle prices prompted ranchers to take in paying guests. Cowboys referred to the ranching novices as “dudes,” and the name stuck. Enticing stories about the natural beauty of the West and the wholesome ranch lifestyle ran in Eastern newspapers, and new railroads made it easier for people to travel and see for themselves.
In the 1920s the railroads, national parks and ranchers partnered to promote dude ranch vacations, forming the Dude Ranchers’ Association in the process.
Baby Boomers, a generation with tremendous influence on every facet of modern American life, have had a lifelong love affair with cowboys. From the time they were born (1946–1964), Boomers were treated to a steady diet of Western movies and television shows. In 1959 alone, 26 Westerns aired on primetime TV. By the early 1970s, Western movies were on the wane, but television shows such as Lonesome Dove (1989), Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993–1998), Deadwood (2004–2006) and Longmire (2012–2017) kept the genre alive.
Boomers made dude ranches popular — and introduced their kids and grandkids to the infectious cowboy lifestyle. The 1991 movie City Slickers, in which three middle-aged white-collar buddies embark on an ill-fated cattle drive, resounded across generations, and ranch vacations surged.
“City Slickers reminded movie-goers of the great American tradition of ranch vacations,” said Kilgore. “It struck a chord with Boomers who grew up on Westerns as well as people of all ages who had a sense of adventure.”
Bryce Street, executive director, Dude Ranchers’ Association, agreed. “City Slickers was a huge boost to dude ranching,” she said. “More recently, the television show Yellowstone, with Kevin Costner, has brought attention to ranch vacations. We get inquiries referencing it, as well as Debbie Dunning’s Dude Ranch Round-Up on RFDTV and the Cowboy Channel. Social media has also played a part in the popularity of dude ranches. In 2019 the 97 DRA member ranches welcomed about 85,000 visitors, and many have had record-breaking seasons in recent years.”
Wannabe cowboys fuel the popularity of dude ranches, but there are other motivators. The setting is paramount. Guests expect vistas of prairies, mountains and forests; clear rivers, streams or lakes; and a great dome of sky untracked by jet contrails. They want to see wildlife, livestock and skies full of stars. They want it quiet enough to hear leaves rustling in the breeze, a horse’s far-off whinny and a rooster crowing a wake-up call.
Roughing it is part of the cowboy lifestyle, but creature comforts are also important to ranch vacationers. Their housing choices can vary from bunkhouse rooms and rustic cabins to modern chalets or suites in a luxury lodge. Food can range from hearty cowboy grub to gourmet cuisine by candlelight. A critical ingredient is the hospitality shown by ranch owners and staff. The most frequent comment offered by happy dudes is they were treated like family during their stay.
For environmentally conscious folk, ranches can offer sustainable vacations in places where nature seems untouched by climate change and perhaps will remain that way. Being remote and self-contained usually adds to a ranch’s appeal rather than being a deterrent.
Today’s family members often have diverse interests, so dude ranches provide a “something for everyone” choice where individuals may go their separate ways during activities but enjoy quality time together at meals and evening gatherings around a campfire. Ranches can satisfy a variety of age groups, too — children, teens, parents and grandparents.
That is not to say every ranch focuses on family groups. Specialization has led to adults-only ranches, ultra-private ranches that cater only to groups, and luxury ranches with spas and golf courses. Ranches offer special sessions for women; couples; and afficionados of music, art, cooking and photography. Traditional cattle ranches still ensure dudes can get dirty and saddle-sore working alongside ranch hands.
“Authenticity is important for dude ranches,” said Street. “Necessary upgrades are made year after year, but the true Western feel is ever-present. We have luxury ranches that offer more amenities and activities, but the majority are working cattle ranches.”
The Diamond D Ranch in Idaho is an off-the-grid, self-sustaining ranch surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness, far from phones and WiFi, and powered by a hydroelectric generator. It has been in the same family for 60 years. Owner Linda Demorest calls it “a slice of Heaven on Earth that has affected hundreds of guests. Some may find their peace and also find a piece of themselves while on the back of a horse, others find it casting a fly on the river, some while gazing over a high mountain lake and many from the easy simplicity of a front porch swing.”
In contrast, Red Reflet Guest Ranch in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, is a 30,000-acre working cattle ranch that also serves as a luxury resort. It accommodates guests in modern chalets with fully stocked kitchens, fireplaces, hot tubs, WiFi and private phones — and views of the Bighorn Mountains. Amenities include a lighted tennis court, heated pool, indoor and outdoor riding arenas, a shooting range, a gym and a Cowboy Waterpark. There’s a wine cellar to complement the gourmet dining. Owned by Laurence and Robert Kaplan, Red Reflet proves the epitome of luxury ranches, but the experience Robert describes embodies the goal of every dude ranch on the spectrum.
“A visit to Red Reflet is like a gentle wave rolling over the senses,” Robert said. “The landscape is beautiful, untouched, dramatic and on a scale that puts our daily lives into perspective. Our activities are designed to take guests a bit out of their comfort zones — things like horseback riding, ATV adventures, zip-lining, hiking and more. The goal is to create moments that build priceless memories shared with family, partners or friends.”
“The travel industry has had highs and lows, depending on the economy, during my 40 years in ranching,” said Kilgore, “but what’s exciting now is that the ranch vacation is a sleeping giant in the travel marketplace. Young people are looking for new adventures, so we’re able to introduce them to the romance of cowboy life and different ways to enjoy the outdoors. We live in a world of instant access, but what we need are lasting memories. Once you’ve been on a ranch vacation, you never forget that experience.”
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