Cowboys. Horses. Guns. Booze. And tennis?
When it comes to dude ranches, hosts are adopting John Wayne’s, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” and are offering options unheard of just a few years ago in order to attract guests.
Dude ranches still have horses and wranglers, and an aura of the Old West. But today, many also offer extras like conference centers, spas, zip lines, paintball, ATV rides, naturalists, kids’ clubs and rock walls.
“Fifteen years ago you probably wouldn’t have found a swimming pool at a dude ranch, or very seldom. Now they all have swimming pools,” said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, based in Cody, Wyo. “At least half — probably more like three-quarters — are adding new activities and amenities every year.”
Dude ranches date back to the late 1800s, according to the association, which was established in 1926 at a meeting that included ranchers, railroad officials and National Park representatives. Today, the association represents about 100 ranches west of the Mississippi in the United States and Canada. There are also unaffiliated ranches, as well as some in the East.
Originally, dude ranch stays were intended to immerse guests in a ranch experience, and would require at least a weeklong stay.
“If they have to go move cows from the north pasture to the south pasture then that’s what you’ll do” at a working dude ranch, Hodson said. “If a portion of the fence fell down ... then you’ll go fix fence.”
Although some working guest ranches still exist, most people no longer have the time nor inclination to rough it for days on end.
“They might want to ride on Monday and Tuesday and then on Wednesday take a day off and get a massage,” Hodson said.
At a recent stay at the Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg with my husband and daughter, we walked, trotted and cantered our horses for four hours through the mesquite and saguaro to get to and from our cookout lunch in the shadow of Vulture Peak. The next day, I found that my derriere rebelled at the idea of getting back in the saddle.
While many other guests golfed on the resort’s par 72 golf course or relaxed in the spa, we filled out our stay in the heated pool, taking lessons from the resident tennis pro, hiking and learning to shoot trap — aiming our shotguns at flying clay targets.
Prices at dude ranches, and the amenities included, vary widely. At Rancho de los Caballeros, for instance, riding is extra, but meals are included. However, men must wear a jacket or Western-style vest to dinner and children are asked not to wear T-shirts or shorts to the main dining room.
A dog-friendly guest ranch in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park last summer was far more laid-back, even though a wedding was held while we were there. It had great horseback riding and we took advantage of the on-site racquetball courts, but the food was poor and our cabin infested with mice.
Peak season for dude ranches depends on the location. Ranches in Montana, Colorado and Wyoming often close for the winter, though they might open again for Thanksgiving and Christmas, offering sleigh rides and winter horseback riding.
But ranches in Arizona and New Mexico frequently close for the summer because of the heat, or at least restrict their riding to early morning and sunset. High season at Rancho de los Caballeros is Feb. 14-April 14, and it closes mid-May.
While many dude ranches are adapting to the times, some have closed, either bought for development or sold to private corporations. Others have struggled as children move away from the family business.
But Hodson thinks there will always be a place for dude ranches. “It’s not dying out by any means. We’re always going to have this Western way of life,” she said. “We’re going to morph into something different than we had 20 years ago.”
As they look for a niche that extends beyond campfires and cowboy boots, today’s dude ranches offer murder mystery weekends, as well as programs catering to artists, photographers, bird watchers, wine aficionados, cooks, girls’ getaways, romance packages, singles, and gays and lesbians, among other interests.
“The tradition is there,” Hodson assured. “Sometimes it can be a difficult jump for them to make these changes but we’re doing it; maybe slower than some industries, but we are in the hospitality business, so we have to supply what the customer wants.”
As for all the transformations in a way of life steeped in history, perhaps it’s best to follow John Wayne’s advice: “Never say sorry. It’s a sign of weakness.”