Since the time of Lewis and Clark, folks have been fascinated with the American West. In the late 19th century, romantic accounts of the open range and Western adventurers like Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill circulated back East, and those itching to escape the congestion of the city vacationed out West to get a taste of life on the wild frontier. For a few bucks, these travellers—called “dudes”—could enjoy the full ranching experience at outfits that offered grub, bunks, and plenty of saddle time to their guests.
In some ways, dude ranching today has come a long way from its early years (most ranches no longer pick guests up at the train depot in a horse-drawn wagon), but in the most important ways, dude and guest ranches haven’t changed hardly at all in the last century—they still offer horses and hospitality, and share their love for the Western way of life with people from around the world.
In the following pages we highlight some of the elder statesmen of dude ranching; here are 10 historic dude ranches, many of which have been in operation 100 years or more.
Bar Lazy J, 102 years old
In 1912, the Buckhorn Lodge opened its doors to traveling guests for $5/day on the American Plan, which included food and lodging, as well as activities such as horseback riding, fishing, square dancing, singing, and cookouts. The ranch was run by Edgar M. Messiter along with James S. Ferguson and his wife, Florence (Brownie)—until James died, leaving Edgar and Brownie to marry and prosper.
In what may be considered the first form of social media, Edgar and Brownie hired a newly outed debutante as a social secretary, so that Edgar could focus on his gardens and outdoor ranch maintenance and Brownie could ensure clean accommodations and properly prepared meals. As a result of this debutante’s social campaigning, guests were only admitted with a letter of reference.
The early days at the Buckhorn Lodge offered a formal setting, with coffee served on the lawn before breakfast and afternoon teas. In between, polo was played on the lawn, and croquet courts were set up between the banks of the Colorado River and the guest’s tents.
Return guests have always been a part of this ranch’s history: As families continued to vacation here year after year, the tents on the riverbank eventually gave way to cabins built specifically for some of those families, as well as the staff.
The Buckhorn changed hands a number of times over the years until it was purchased by Rudy and Mabel Menghini, who saw fit to change the Buckhorn’s name to the Bar Lazy J, to match the ranch’s original brand, still in use today. After a few more owners, the ranch was finally purchased in 1995 by its current owners, Jerry and Cheri Helmicki.
In some respects, not much has changed at the ranch for its guests—horseback riding, line dancing, and hearty meals are still staples of the Bar Lazy J. The herd includes about 90 head to accommodate everyone from lead-line tots to lifelong horsemen and women. Additionally, the ranch also offers the opportunity for folks to go skeet shooting or to cross the river gorge on a zip line. Either way, Jerry and Cheri do their best to make sure that each guest returns to their home knowing they’ve now got family in Colorado.
In fact, last year, Jerry and Cheri ranked in the Top 5 Best Ranch Hosts in the Nation by DudeRanch.com. The Bar Lazy J also pulled a Top 5 ranking as the Best Family Ranch, and in the Signature Ranch Awards, they were ranked as the #1 Fly Fishing Ranch.
Brush Creek Ranch, 130 years old
307-327-5284, brushcreekranch.comSeasons: summer, fallLocated in Wyoming’s scenic Platte River Valley between the Sierra Madre Mountains and Medicine Bow National Forest, Brush Creek Ranch attracts visitors from all over to its 15,000 acres of beautiful country.
In 1884, the Sterrett brothers settled the 20-square-mile parcel of land that would eventually become the Brush Creek Ranch. The brothers built the original homestead with timber they hauled in from what is now Medicine Bow National Forest.
The ranch went through different owners until Edgar Uihlein purchased it around 1925. It is from Uihlein’s last name that Brush Creek Ranch adopted its “U” brand. Russell Thorpe—whose father ran the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage line—was installed as Brush Creek Ranch’s first manager. The enterprising Uihlein purchased surrounding ranches and grew Brush Creek to its present size. During World War II, German prisoners of war, who were housed at the ranch facilities, constructed its impressive rock garden.
After Uihlein, the ranch was run by the Meyers Land and Cattle Company. E.P. Meyers and his descendants ran a strictly cow-calf operation until 1996, when the decision was made to open the ranch to city slickers; after a century of various incarnations, Brush Creek found its calling as a guest ranch. In 2008, it was sold to the White family, who own and operate the ranch today.
Despite Brush Creek’s modern amenities, it is still a working Wyoming ranch with 450 head of cattle in the herd. Horseback rides take guests into the high country, across rivers, and on the occasional cattle drive.
However, those looking for luxury will find it; guest amenities range from yoga classes and massages to chef-prepared meals and a 10-station sporting clays course.
Eaton’s Ranch, 135 years old
Seasons: summer, winter bed & breakfast lodging
Eaton’s Ranch, tucked on the piney slopes of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, holds the distinction of the being the first and oldest guest ranch in the world. For more than 130 years, generations of Eaton families have welcomed folks from all around the world to their home—a true guest ranch from its very start.
The ranch’s history starts in 1879, when three Eaton brothers—Howard, Willis, and Alden—started a horse, cattle, and game ranch in North Dakota. Additionally, Howard was a guide through Yellowstone country. Friends of the Eatons from back East came to visit and, enchanted by the stunning badland vistas, stayed—sometimes for months at a time. As the ranch grew, so did its renown for hospitality. One inspired visitor recommended to the Eaton brothers that they charge their guests for the experience, and the dude ranch industry was born.
By 1901, the ranch had nearly 600 horses, some two-dozen buildings, and a 60-guest capacity. The $15/week charge included the use of a horse.
In 1904, the Eatons moved the operation to their current location, near the historic town of Sheridan, Wyo. With a little help from positive press by Theodore Roosevelt—a longtime friend—by 1930, the ranch was the largest and most well-known vacation ranch in the country.
The ranch has always stayed in the family, and today is operated by fourth- and fifth-generation Eatons. The horse program is a highlight; the remuda consists of 200 head and guests are able to ride, unescorted by a wrangler, over 7,000 acres of wild country. Guests looking to spend a night under the stars can take part in the overnight pack trip through the Big Horn National Forest. Outdoorsmen and history buffs will also find plenty to do; Yellowstone Park, the Battle of the Little Big Horn National Monument, the Buffalo Bill Museum, and the Old West town of Sheridan are all within driving distance.
Circle Z, 120-plus years old
The Circle Z, located in Patagonia, Ariz., is nestled along the ever-running Sonoita Creek and beneath the walls of Sanford Butte. Today’s ranch guests know the butte as Circle Z Mountain—from most directions, the sight of the butte signals the way home. Pottery shards and arrowheads from one of its caves dating back to before any recorded history of the area suggests that signaling people home is likely a task the butte has been performing for a long time.
The ranch has also been in operation for quite a while, originally run as a sheep camp in the 1880s. In 1926, it opened its doors to its first guests, and after 88 years of Western hospitality, the ranch stakes the claim as the longest continuously operating guest ranch in Arizona. The adobe cabins and structures that were erected when the ranch was first built are still standing today.
In 1976, the state of Arizona opened Patagonia Lake State Park just to the south of the ranch. Between the Sonoita Creek (one of the few streams that flows all year in Arizona) and the new lake, the Circle Z is situated amongst some incredibly prized resources. That same year, the ranch was purchased by the Nash family, who had been visiting the ranch since 1936 and continue to run the ranch today.
Understanding the value of the Circle Z’s ecology, in 2013, the Nash family placed 3,300 acres of their ranch into a conservation easement that protects much of the land between the ranch and the town of Patagonia, shielding the Circle Z from suburban sprawl. This way, future generations of ranch guests will still be able to enjoy what other ranch guests have been enjoying since 1926: horses, history, and hospitality.
The Circle Z herd includes a number of horses that have been bred and raised right on the ranch and the rides they provide have long been a highlight of visiting the Circle Z. And, thanks to the resources provided by the desert waters of Sonoita Creek and Lake Patagonia, the ranch and the neighboring Patagonia Nature Preserve have also gained worldwide recognition for bird watching, providing a lush riparian habitat for nesting and migratory birds.
Additionally, the Circle Z offers home-cooked meals that are often prepared with vegetables and meats raised on the ranch. In between meals, guests will have no trouble busying themselves with a hike up Sanford Butte or a game of tennis or shuffleboard. In the evenings, a good campfire stick for roasting marshmallows is all that’s needed to sit back and enjoy some cowboy tales and sing-alongs under the night sky.
Lone Mountain Ranch, 99 years old
Big Sky, Mont.
Seasons: summer, winter
Originally homesteaded in 1915 by Clarence Lytle, the ranch that would eventually become Lone Mountain was first a cattle, horse, and hay operation.
In 1926, Lytle sold the ranch to J. Fred Butler, a Chicago paper mill tycoon. Butler was enamored with the natural beauty of the ranch and wanted to use it as a vacation spot for his family. He spared no expense improving the grounds, buying 11 sections adjacent to the homestead and building cabins for his daughter and son-in-law, Florence and Don Killbourne. Named after the Butler and Killbourne families, the property was then called the B-K Ranch.
Florence spent much of her free time collecting Native artifacts, many of which are still on display around the ranch. After the elder Butler passed away, Don and Florence opened the family operation to guests and ran the B-K as a successful dude ranch for many years.
The ranch has enjoyed many livelihoods since them—a boy’s summer camp in the 1940s, a logging camp in the ’50s (when it officially picked up the Lone Mountain Ranch moniker), and a guest ranch once again in 1977, when it was purchased by current owners, Bob and Vivian Schaap.
The ranch offers the full gamut of Western and outdoor activities—everything from horseback riding and fly fishing in the summer to snowshoeing and sleigh rides in the winter. Artistically inclined guests can capture the natural splendor of the area on canvas in oil painting classes, and aspiring yogis can stretch out their saddle soreness with yoga classes. Guests can regale their fellow travelers with tails from the trail at the ranch saloon, which features live Western music from local musicians.
In 2006, in recognition for its role in the history of Montana, Lone Mountain Ranch was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Paradise Guest Ranch, 115 years old
For more than 100 years, folks from all over the world—including a few Western luminaries—have come to enjoy the serenity and adventure of Wyoming’s Paradise Guest Ranch.
In the late 1890s, cavalry-soldier-turned-politician Norman Meldrum turned to the cattle trade and drove a herd from Colorado up to Buffalo, Wyo. The cattle were summered in a mountain meadow in the Big Horn range—a meadow so beautiful that Meldrum decided to prove up the land and build a home there.
Meldrum’s son, Dr. Gordon Meldrum, was just as enchanted with the area and encouraged friends to visit the cabin and witness the surrounding breathtaking scenery. Those who visited called the area “Paradise,” and the name stuck.
In 1907, Paradise Guest Ranch officially opened its doors to paying guests. Notable visitors of the ranch include Owen Wister, writer of the seminal Western, The Virginian, and author Aldo Leopold, who had this to say about the ranch in his famous work A Sand County Almanac: “Finally, there was Paradise Ranch. …It lay tucked away on the far side of a high peak, as any proper Paradise should. Through it’s verdant meadows meandered a singing trout stream. A horse left for a month on this meadow, waxed so fat that rain-water gathered in a pool on his back. After my first visit to Paradise Ranch I remarked to myself, what else could you call it.”
The Ranch at Rock Creek, 100-plus years old
The Ranch at Rock Creek is located between Butte and Missoula, near the old mining town of Phillipsburg, home to less than 1,000 people. In its heyday, however, during the Silver Boom of the late 1800s, Phillipsburg catered to more than 3,000 residents. At this time, what would become the Ranch at Rock Creek was merely a mining claim.
At the turn of the century, after the Silver Crash of 1893, the ranch was homesteaded by W.W. Shaffer and P.B. White as a working cattle ranch—an operation it maintains to this day, over 120 years later.
Also preserved is the ranch’s 19th-century barn, now converted to house three lodging units, including “The Loft,” featuring a slipper tub and various other supremely well-appointed furnishings. Guests can also relax in the comforts of one of the Granite Lodge’s nine rooms, styled after Old West themes such as the guns used to win the West. For more privacy, the ranch offers accommodations in individual log homes or in canvas-walled glamping cabins.
But all the pretty things do not exist solely within the walls of the ranch. When Jim Manley purchased the ranch in 2007—a dream he’d had since he was a 10-year-old boy in New Jersey—he did so knowing the surroundings at Rock Creek would be worth every pretty penny.
Resting against the base of the John Long Mountains, The Ranch at Rock Creek encompasses approximately 10 square miles (or 6,600 acres) of pristine Montana meadows, woodlands, and mountain ridges, and also includes four miles of Rock Creek frontage.
Such grand outdoor amenities allow for countless recreational opportunities, from horseback riding and mountain biking to fly-fishing and hiking. It has a herd of more than 50 horses and is the first and only resort in Montana to be named Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Hotel.
Rankin Ranch, 151 years old
Seasons: spring, summer, fall
Nestled in the small mountain valley of Walker Basin, deep in the Tehachapi Mountains, is the Rankin Ranch, a 151-year-old cattle and guest ranch that has seen the passing of two century marks.
An intrepid adventurer named Walker Rankin founded the ranch in 1863. Born in Pittsburgh, the lure of the Wild West and the promise of gold brought him to California in 1854. By way of Panama he made his way to San Francisco, and after some success in the gold fields, he settled in Walker Valley, named for Joseph Reddford Walker, a scout for General Fremont. Rankin became a cattle rancher, and was the first to import Herefords to the area.
In 1868, Rankin married Lavinia Estelle Lighter, whose family had come to California by covered wagon, and the two had seven children. In the 1870s, the ranch became a stage shop for the overland trail route, and mail carriers and other travellers became the first guests of the Rankin outfit. The barn that stabled the teamster’s horses still stands today.
The Rankin Ranch has been passed down through multiple Rankin generations, each making their mark on the ranching culture of the area—the family has been very involved in the Kern County Cattleman’s Association and the Kern County Cowbelles.
In 1965, an official guest operation was added to the cattle ranch, subsidizing the beef income and ensuring future generations of Rankins would have a ranch to run. Indeed, the tradition of ranching has continued down the Rankin line. Today, fourth, fifth, and sixth generation Rankins operate the 31,000-acre ranch, a family guest ranch since its inception.
Guests today can expect square dances, wagon rides, hiking and biking trails, fishing, and daily horseback rides through California’s cattle country.
63 Ranch, 85 years old
In 1863, a Montana territory homesteader named George Bruffey registered his brand—the 63, in commemoration of the year—with the Territorial Government (Montana was not yet a state). The 63 Ranch remuda still sports the brand, making the 63 one of the oldest continuously recorded brands in Montana.
In 1907, Bruffey’s son, Memorus, homesteaded some 156 acres on upper Mission Creek, some of the prettiest country in the West; it’s where the Mission Creek Canyon meets the jagged peaks of the Absaroka Mountains and the rolling grassy hills, rimrock ridges, and sagebrush vistas above the Yellowstone River. This homestead, against its breathtaking backdrop, eventually became the 63 Ranch.
In 1929, the Christensen family—brothers Paul and Elmer and their sister Johanna—purchased the property, a mutual dream-come-true for siblings who had long wanted to own a Montana dude ranch. They kept the brand, and named their guest ranch after it.
Eighty-five years later, the 63 Ranch is still owned and operated by the Christensen family, making it one of the oldest family-owned and operated dude ranches in Montana. A testament to family history and heritage, the ranch still utilizes many of the originally constructed log buildings. In 1982, the 63 Ranch was the first ranch in Montana to be designated a National Historic Site by the National Register of Historic Places.
The 63 Ranch is also a working cattle ranch, and guests have the opportunity to gather cattle (and hone their roping skills, if they’re handy). For trail riders, there are over 100 miles of trails to explore and enjoy.
Other ranch activities include fishing for trout in Mission Creek (3 1/2 miles of which run through the ranch), square dancing, perusing through the library stocked with Western classics, hiking the surrounding mountain ranges, and roasting s’mores under the stars.
Triangle X Ranch, 88 years old
Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Seasons: summer, fall, winter
Located in the heart of Grand Teton National Park, the historic Triangle X Ranch is the only guest ranch in the country within the perimeters of a National Park.
In the early 1900s, a couple from Utah—John S. and Maytie Turner—enjoyed taking vacations to Yellowstone National Park and the nearby Jackson Hole valley. One summer, while fishing just east of Jackson Hole, John followed a small creek down a draw and came to an open area with a stunning view of the Teton Range. In that moment—moved by the magnificent landscape in front of him—John knew he would move his family to this exact area and build a home.
In July of 1926, John’s dream came true; he bought the land, paying the land’s owner more than twice the requested amount. That fall, the Turners welcomed their very first guests—big game hunters.
John and Maytie’s son, John C. Turner, took over the operation in the late 1920s. In 1931, he guided a fortuitous elk hunt—on the hunt was a pretty young woman named Louise Mapes…who he married four years later. They had three sons—Harold, John, and Donald—and the Triangle X Ranch currently operates as a partnership between the three third-generation brothers. All fourth-generation Turners grew up on the ranch, and two of the clan, Lucas and Robert, continue to help their fathers on the ranch, continuing the family tradition.
Tradition is a big part of the Triangle X—just as the early guests did, today’s guests can enjoy riding, fishing, cookouts, square dancing, hiking, helping with ranch work, or just relaxing and enjoying spending quality time with friends and family.
Those looking for a little adventure can find it on the Triangle X’s pack, river, or big-game hunting trips.
In the winter, guests can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and wildlife viewing right from their front door.