Howdy partner! Back in 1991, one of Hollywood’s most iconic western movies hit the screens. Starring Billy Crystal, the cult classic ‘City Slickers’ followed three friends on a mission to a Colorado ranch to join a cattle drive across the Great Plains of America, in a narcissistic attempt to ‘find themselves’.
With hilarious, and at times, disastrous consequences, the movie brought to the fore a relatively unheralded type of western tourism – the ‘Dude Ranch’ holiday.
Today, Dude Ranch holidays are swiftly becoming a popular choice for those of us seeking something a little bit different - a change from the usual beach holiday, city break or traditional family resort escape.
But just what is a Dude Ranch? And what on Earth is a dude anyway? And why has its popularity skyrocketed in recent years?
Firstly, a quick history lesson. ���Dude”, of course, is the original slang for “city slicker”. Dude ranches’ collective history dates back to the 1880s, when families who’d recently moved out west would invite friends to visit their cattle ranches. Once the practice spread, ranch owners realised they’d better start charging for room and board. The business model proved so successful that many converted their cattle operations into guest ranches in the early 1900s - a tradition that continues today.
Dude ranching has since come into its own as an increasingly popular type of western tourism. Although each ranch is different, offering varying degrees of ‘luxury’, each one focuses on caring for ‘dudes’, through outstanding hospitality, horseback riding, and presenting the sheer beauty of the unspoiled outdoors in rustic surroundings.
Sound tempting? Here’s what else you need to know.
Why a Dude Ranch holiday?
As the original western adventure holiday, dude ranches exist in locations in the wilderness that haven’t had ‘all the rough ridden off them’. While at the same time providing some added luxury with all the amenities you could ever need or want.
You’ll discover the true American wilderness, that can only be seen on horseback, and break bread with the men and women who are the stewards of the land. These families open their homes to thousands of guests every year, and are committed to showing you their famed Mid-Western hospitality. Visiting a dude ranch is much more than guest rooms and horses though; it’s about sharing the spirit of the ‘Wild West’ and the beauty of its wilderness. You’ll discover a simpler way of life, one that demands honesty, integrity and hard work, all the while as your appreciation of nature, family and friends is renewed.
Expect to discover the luxury of silence, with the wind on your face, and the stars shining brightly at night beyond the rim of your (real-life) cowboy hat. Sounds cool, right?
When to visit
The easy answer to “when should I visit a dude ranch?”, frankly, is ANYTIME. Most dude ranches operate year-round, with some catering exclusively to a specific season.
Summer is the peak season for ranches in the Northwest, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be met with crowds of tourists. One of the many beauties of the dude ranch is that the number of guests at any one time is tightly controlled. These ranches focus on providing an authentic American West experience, so a crowd of ‘happy-snappers’ you will not find.
Winter on the Northwest’s ranches is truly something to behold, with some of the most beautiful scenery in the American West covered in blankets of crisp snow. Whether your penchant is for skiing or snowmobiling, the dude ranch offers a secluded yet active winter getaway for all ages. However, if you fancy getting away from the cold and rain this winter, then the dry desert winter of the American Southwest offers plenty of warm sunshine to melt away your winter blues.
Where to go
The good news when it comes to selecting a dude ranch destination is, you really can’t go wrong. Each one subscribes to the same ethos – to provide guests with an authentic Western cowboy experience. They are, by definition, remote, spanning the entirety of the American West, so expect to have to undertake a decent commute to get there! But then that’s kind of the point; to step away from the hustle and bustle of city life, and do as Billy Crystal and Co did, in the pursuit of ‘finding yourself’.
You’ll find all manner of dude ranches offering, as a minimum, copious amounts of hearty food, rustic lodgings, horseback riding, hiking and sightseeing. It’s then simply a question of how much you want to trade up from there. We’ve picked out just some of our favourite dude ranches below to show you the diversity you can get:
Dixie Dude Ranch - Bandera, Texas
This traditional working ranch, just an hour’s drive from San Antonio International Airport, makes for the perfect Western getaway. Life on the 725 acre Dixie Dude Ranch is like a home away from home, where guests are invited to join in as part of the family. The vibe is relaxed and you are always free to set your own pace. Situated in the spectacular Texas Hill Country, there’s plenty of room to relax, take in a magnificent sunset and kick up your heels. Daily activities range from exploring hiking trails on horseback and campfire sing-a-longs, to hayrides and country dancing. When you hear the ‘Chow bell’ ring, rest assured, you’re about to experience some spectacular Texan grub!
Mayan Dude Ranch, Texas
The Mayan Dude Ranch is set in the ‘Cowboy Capital of the World’ and offers you the chance to saddle up in true Texan Cowboy style. This rustic ranch is set amongst 350 acres of stunning scenery, making it the perfect choice for families and novice riders. Mornings will start with a hearty breakfast at the Cowboy Breakfast cook-out, followed by an afternoon of cattle herding, sunbathing, swimming, or even golf or tennis. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll be ready for a traditional Texan meal and a relaxing evening spent around the campfire. Expect the Hicks family, who’ve operated the ranch for over 50 years, to welcome you with Texan hospitality.
Zapata Ranch, Colorado
Fancy an authentic ranch experience? An opportunity to get your hands dirty whilst enjoying some added luxury? If your answer is yes then the Zapata Ranch (all 103,000 acres of it) could be for you. This award-winning dude ranch offers the chance to work alongside the wranglers on various projects. But it’s not all work and no play – there’s horseback riding, cattle moving, nature hikes and wildlife watching to enjoy. And if that’s all become a bit much, why not join one of the weekly relaxation and yoga sessions to bring you back down to earth. The surrounding area is known as the ‘American Serengeti’, so expect to see antelope, elk and deer in their incredible natural habitat.
These are just some of our most popular dude ranches. You’ll find more on our Ranch Holiday’s page.
What are you waiting for?
It’s easy to see why the dude ranch holiday has made its way onto many a bucket list. The activities on offer at the typical dude ranch are no longer limited to just horseback riding, cattle herding, hiking and sightseeing – though let’s face it, this sounds awesome! Most dude ranches have expanded their range of family-friendly activities, to include rock climbing, white water rafting, fly fishing, kid’s campouts and even golf and tennis.
It’s fair to say that the people of the American Mid-West know how to have a good time, and a more wholesome and welcoming lot you will not find. Experience the unique Western hospitality and energy on an American dude ranch holiday for yourself, and tell me I��m wrong.
If you need some help getting your dude ranch selection just right, why not speak to one of our seasoned travel experts for a tailored recommendation.After all, there might just be a little cowboy in all of us...why not find yours today?
Blogger Profile - Penelope Phillips
Penny joined the My America Holiday team after realising her love for writing and travel could be merged into one satisfying talent. A lover of foreign cultures, heavy metal and food, you can usually find her with her nose in a good book or at a music event. Her American dream would be hiking Yellowstone Park and experiencing authentic Cajun cuisine in New Orleans, though she can also be found roaming across Eastern-Europe on the hunt for good beer and goulash!