How Dude Ranches Work

Two cowboys round up cattle on a cattle drive on the Double Mountain River Ranch outside Raton, Texas.
Two cowboys round up cattle on a cattle drive on the Double Mountain River Ranch outside Raton, Texas.
Joe McNally/Getty Images

In th­e 1991 film "City Slickers," three middle-aged men disengage from their suburban struggles for a two-week-long cattle drive at a dude ranch in the Colorado hills. During the course of their adventure, the three hapless amigos run into everything from tumultuous weather to cow births. The slapstick comedy depicts the mayhem that occurs when people accustomed to lives far-removed from nature decide to live out their John Wayne fantasies in the Wild West. But leaving the creature comforts of home for the rugged life of a cowboy isn't just the stuff of movies. It's a back-to-basics form of tourism as old as the hills -- the dude ranch.

The advent of the dude ranch owes much to the nostalgia for the frontier. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the frontier was gone; unsettled areas were few and far between, and the frontier line, the boundary between unsettled and settled areas, had disappeared. An era of American history had come to a close [source: PBS]. The cowboy who had once served a very practical purpose was now the stuff of legend. Around the time of Turner's declaration, dude ranches began sprouting up in the West to serve East coasters who wanted to experience cowboy life.

Today, the main goal of the dude ranch is to enrich both body and mind. By surrounding yourself with the natural beauty of some of the most remote areas of the western wilderness, you can relax and take a deep breath. You also have the opportunity to do some ranch work, which will undoubtedly help your physical fitnes­s. You can ride a horse, go for a walk on a trail, or just sit back in a hammock and watch cattle and horses roam.

­Due to the diversity of the dude ranch experience, a variety of people enjoy these unique vacations. Families enjoy dude ranches because they can spend quality time together in a learning environment. Children have a lot of freedom on dude ranches; the safe, small environment allows kids to learn a variety of skills through hands-on experience. Solo travelers can enjoy the peace and quiet of the great outdoors, while having the opportunity to work with others on the ranch. Business groups use the dude ranch experience as a team-building exercise -- co-workers bond through hard work in a distraction-free environment.

The dude ranch has come along way since its beginnings -- or has it? What were the first dude ranches like? And which American president popularized it in its earliest days?