Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Dude ranching has long been an important part of recreation in the Great Plains. The first dude ranches were generally family-operated cattle ranches that diversified during hard economic times by offering services to travelers. Known as dudes, these people visited ranches to ride horses, fish, and take part in cattle ranch activities. Dude ranches first appeared in the late nineteenth century, and they continue to operate at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One of the early dude ranches was the Custer Trail Ranch, founded in 1879 by Howard, Willis, and Alden Eaton at Medora, Dakota Territory. The brothers were hosts to visitors in 1882, and in the following year Howard Eaton led guests on the first of his many pack trips to Yellowstone Park. The primary interest for most dudes was horseback riding, but eventually they wanted to experience other outdoor adventures such as cattle drives, fishing trips, and visiting mountainous country and national parks. In order to satisfy their guests better, the Eaton brothers moved their operation in 1904 to the Bighorn Mountain area in Wyoming. Eatons' Ranch has operated there since that move. By the 1890s dude ranches had also developed in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

In 1926 railroad officials helped dude ranchers form the Dude Ranchers Association (DRA), an organization that continues to operate. The number of dude ranches reached its peak in the 1930s, when it was estimated that there were more than 350 in the United States and 1 in Canada. Then the numbers declined, partly due to the Great Depression but also to changing habits of travelers and more varied tourist destinations. The DRA directory for 2000 lists 105 member ranches in the United States and 3 in Canada. Most are located in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Lawrence R. Borne Northern Kentucky University

Borne, Lawrence R. Dude Ranching: A Complete History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Rodnitzky, Jerome L. "Recapturing the West: The Dude Ranch in American Life." Arizona and the West 10 (1968): 111–26.

Roundy, Charles G. "The Origins and Early Development of Dude Ranching in Wyoming." Annals of Wyoming 45 (1973): 5–25.

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