Dude Ranches: An Eco-Friendly American Tradition


By Staff Writer Brendan Pringle.

Dude RanchesTo the average, technology-obsessed teenager, this seems like an OMG scenerio. So why should a family ditch the theme parks and car trips, and head over to a dude ranch instead? Simply put, it makes for the perfect family vacation. And it’s green.

As Gene Kilgore of RanchWeb.com explains, dude ranches are one of the few “all-inclusive vacations available.” Vacationers don’t have to worry about experiencing the stress of “Carmageddon” as they bounce from destination to destination. Upon arrival, the only traffic they’ll encounter is that of cattle herds. Ranches prepare all the food and supply all the entertainment. That alone is enough to make Mom and Dad smile.

But dude ranches are not just for families or couples. Many people travel solo for the peace and tranquility, as well as to meet other visitors with similar interests. Some business groups even travel to dude ranches for team-building purposes.

Dude ranches provide the “original” eco-tourism experience—a chance for people to break away from the binds of today’s media dependent world and reconnect with nature. As Kilgore states, “ the nature of the [dude ranch] vacation is green.”  After all, what could be greener than living off the fat of the land?

In fact, the dude ranch has been one of the pioneers of green living in America. As Colleen Hodson of the Dude Ranches Association states, “many ranches grow their own food . . . and feed their cattle with this food as well.” Garbage pickup is scarce in remote locations, so many ranches use leftovers to feed the animals, and also depend heavily on composting and recycling.

In addition, as Kilgore says, “green is something evolving in ranch communities.” For example, many farms serve organic food. “Suppliers are now providing more organic food to the ranchers.” Hodson adds that ranches are also “starting to use energy-efficient water heaters,” and have updated other practices to make their property even greener. For the White Stallion Ranch in Southern Arizona, this has meant changing over 30-40% of energy usage to solar (a savings of over $20,000 per year). Meanwhile, for the Rocking Z Ranch in Montana, it meant developing its own biodegradable fuel. Owners Zack and Patty Wirth use 100% Straight Waste Vegetable Oil (SWVO) “to power an irrigation pump offsetting more than 4000 gallons of diesel fuel per year.” Zack likewise employs solar power to irrigate the hay and grazing land.

While the thought of getting one’s hands dirty on a ranch may horrify some people, it’s important to note that there are ranches for every comfort level. Generally speaking, there are three broad categories.

First, there’s the “traditional dude ranch,” where, as Hodson says, “horseback riding makes up a large part of the experience.” Many traditional dude ranches offer a wide range of outdoor activities, like hiking, fishing, hunting, and making s’mores at the campfire. Kids have the chance to learn life skills and enjoy the freedom that only a ranch can offer. And, of course, ranches typically offer riding lessons for those that are uneasy about hopping on a horse. Copious leisure time allows for reading, watching sunsets, or simply relaxing by the fire.

Then, there’s the working ranch. A working ranch has all the elements of a traditional dude ranch, but provides “an even greater hands-on experience for guests.” Itineraries depend on what needs to be accomplished throughout the course of the day (i.e. roping/branding cattle, etc).

And finally, there’s the resort ranch. According to Hodson, resort ranches are “a little more upscale,” and may include activities like guided fishing trips, rafting excursions, and nature hikes. Whether you grow pale at the sight of mud or simply want a more luxurious experience, a resort ranch is probably the best option.

Dude ranches have a long history of bringing “the great outdoors” to city slickers, but one key pioneer allegedly started it all– Howard Eaton. Eaton purchased a ranch in the Dakota Badlands during the 1880s and boasted about the experience to his friends back east. One such letter ended up in the newspaper, and caught the eye of none other than President Teddy Roosevelt. Befriending the Eaton family, Roosevelt quickly tried his own hand in the Badlands and purchased some land nearby.

The Eatons quickly found themselves hosting more and more Eastern guests who were intrigued by stories of life on the ranch. Railway expansion increased dude ranch popularity with the turn of the century. By the 1920s, cattle farmers started using it as a way to supplement their income. And thus the cowboy lifestyle lives on.

In the diverse world of dude ranches, there is surely a ranch for everyone. Ranch sites are located in some of the “most pristine wilderness areas in America,” with breathtaking scenes and a refreshing sense of tranquility, far from the chaos and congestion of big city destinations. This year, ditch Wally World and saddle up for the experience of a lifetime. In other words, be a dude.

As you plan your dude ranch retreat, be sure to check out these helpful resources: