Dude ranching is a southwestern and western vacation industry in which paying guests of a ranch participate in ordinary ranch activities. Unlike resorts, where guests are free to do as they please, dude ranches combine social and recreational activity by requiring their visitors to interact with the owner's family or employees and to participate in the life of the ranch. Guests at dude ranches have traditionally included both men and women. The old stereotyped dude was a "tenderfoot," "greenhorn," or person with citified or outlandish clothes. He eventually came to be thought of as "someone from elsewhere" who came to take part in the ongoing activities of ranch life. Dudes have ranged from misfits who have left the East to live quietly in the West on remittance checks from home, to guests who park at Nevada dude ranches seeking privacy while their divorces go through. The phrase "dude ranching" did not come into common usage until the 1880s. The industry developed in the nineteenth century around stock ranches, mountain ranches or lodges, and hot-springs resorts or health spas located chiefly in the western and southwestern United States, but sometimes as far away as Hawaii. Dude ranching flourished in the early twentieth century at ranches in Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, which offered summer fishing and hunting as well as ranch activities, and at their year-round counterparts in Arizona and New Mexico, more commonly known as "guest ranches." Others could be found in Idaho, Oregon, Texas, California, and Nevada. Because they are often located close to national forests or parks, dude ranches have been credited with a role in developing consciousness and support for conservation in the United States.
Dude ranching traces its beginnings to the period when the pursuit of a healthful climate and rugged life replaced an earlier preference of the wealthy for health spas and resorts. Buffalo Bill Cody, Capt. James Cook, and Howard Eaton, who led wilderness big-game hunting parties, made the first arrangements with ranchers to furnish guests with room, board, and the chance to hunt. Early clientele consisted largely of upper-class easterners and visitors from Europe, such as the Irish earl of Dunraven, who visited a dude ranch near Estes Park, Colorado, as early as the 1870s. Both Theodore Roosevelt and western fiction writer Owen Wister were first introduced to the West at dude ranches. In addition to cattle ranches, sheep ranches such as the Prade Ranch, which raised Angora goats, sheep, cattle, and horses in Real County, Texas, became dude ranches by promising a healthy environment and a chance to participate in the vigorous life of shepherds. Another type of dude ranch evolved in Nevada with the passage of a law in the 1920s permitting persons to obtain a divorce who had been in residence initially for only six months, a requirement eventually reduced to six weeks. With few good hotels in the area, dude ranches became popular places for celebrities to hide while waiting for divorces. On these ranches, the proprietor's wife often served as counselor to soon-to-be-separated individuals. Ranchers relied on guests to develop their clientele by word of mouth in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Later, ranchers organized visits to the East to meet with prospective guests, and bought advertisements in national magazines and booklets. Writers who reported back to the East in novels with such romantic titles as Loraine Hornaday Fielding's French Heels to Spurs (1930) and Mary Roberts Rinehart's Lost Ecstasy (1927) popularized the industry by relating their ranch experience and celebrating the liberating qualities of ranch life, cowboy lore, and nature.
Declining cattle prices in the 1880s forced more ranch owners to take in guests, and World War I fostered both American tourism and dude ranching as European travel declined. By the 1920s there were more than sixty dude ranches in Wyoming and Montana and numerous others elsewhere. A Dude Ranchers' Association was formed in 1926, and the industry gained support from railroads that advertised guest ranches in their brochures as a means of increasing passenger trade. In 1934 the University of Wyoming offered its first bachelor of science degree in "recreational ranching." By 1936 as many as 356 ranches were in operation.
In Texas, dude ranching began in Bandera County around 1920, when the Buck Ranch took in paying summer guests and the nearby Bruce Ranch began taking in overflow guests from its neighbor. By the 1930s, dude ranches were located at Alpine, Marfa, and Mitre Peak Park in Southwest Texas, in the Hill Country at Comfort, Kerrville, Bandera, Hunt, Junction, Medina, and Wimberley, in north central Texas at Decatur, Mineral Wells, and Lancaster, and near Davis and San Antonio. Principal ranches such as the Gallagher Ranch near San Antonio, a cattle ranch of 10,000 acres, and those in the Bandera County area developed where land with limited agricultural value could be used for dude ranches and private youth camps.
Dude ranching declined during World War II and failed to recover fully after the war as the population grew into sparsely peopled regions and altered the attitude toward nature and the West. Though cars made access to dude ranches easier, cheap gas and oil company promotions ultimately altered the habits of tourists and shortened the average length of stay of ranch visitors. Dude ranches in Colorado and New Mexico thrived after the war, but like many of those in Texas did so only through transformation into elaborate resorts. Since World War II, roughly twelve dude ranches have been continuously listed in Texas. The majority are near Bandera, the "Cowboy Capitol of the World." Dude ranches have become popular places for singles vacationing and, beginning with ranches outside of Dallas, have attracted company and club picnics and winter seminars of religious, business, and social groups as well as summer vacationers.