History of Ranch Vacations

Published
01/11/2015 by


One of the greatest attractions of ranch vacations is the opportunity to experience lifestyles and landscapes, which appear to have been untouched by the modern world. But, of course, the first ranches were not designed as popular tourist destinations for city dwellers – they were working cattle ranches and farms with huge open spaces. The first ranchers would drive their cattle over long distances from horseback to find suitable grazing to keep their stock in the best shape for breeding, eating and for selling at market.

History of Ranch Vacations


Cowboys in south Orange County. Photograph courtesy of Orange County Archives.

Where do ranches come from?

The ranch concept is originally Spanish. In fact, the word 'ranch' comes from the Mexican-Spanish word 'rancho' – the name for the headquarters of a livestock farm worker. It is widely reported that when the Spanish and Portuguese came to America in the 16th century, they brought with them cattle ranching techniques that they used at home. In Mexico and the western United States, the land leant itself to 'open range' grazing – the type of lifestyle that is often romanticized in books and films. 

dude ranch history


Chief Pushmataha and others at Buffalo Ranch, Newport Beach, Dec. 1954. Photograph courtesy of Orange County Archives.

In some areas, there was conflict with native Americans – depicted in so many 'cowboy and Indian' films – over who truly had rights to the land. In the end, many areas of open range became overgrazed and unable to support the increasing number of cattle as the pressure on the land increased. Farmers moved in to use land for crop production and fences were introduced to protect the crops. Some ranchers continued to live traditionally, but in many areas more modern, dual-purpose, fenced farms sprang up.


dude ranch history


Drying apricots on the George Fox Ranch, Tustin, circa 1910. Photograph courtesy of Orange County Archives.

What is a 'dude ranch, or ranch vacation'?

By the late 19th century, the romanticization of the American West had begun. Nostalgia for the 'old days' and the desire to experience the wild frontier drew Americans from cities in the east to the ranches of the west. These visitors, known as 'dudes' to those in the west giving the guest ranches their colloquial name, could experience the endless sky they had fallen in love with in their favourite movies in safety now the conflict was concluded.

The development of ranches as holiday destinations

Famous faces, like President Theodore Roosevelt, enjoyed the freedom and excitement of the American West and tourists flocked to follow in their footsteps. When the concept of visiting the 'Wild West' first began, 'dudes' would arrive on the transcontinental railway and travel from the station on traditional wagons or buggys. Not everyone enjoyed their real-life experiences of the American West, as the ranches they visited were working ranches with the associated odours and timetables. Other guests, however, thrived on the gritty reality of life on a ranch and riding alongside real-life cowboys.


history of dude ranches


Grand Canyon Historic Clear Creek Trail, built in 1934-35 as a mule trail so tourists from Phantom Ranch could reach a scenic side canyon. Photograph courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park on Flickr.

After World World I, post-war prosperity, the invention of the automobile and the introduction of Western movies lead to a boom in the interest in ranches and kick started the development of the modern guest ranch.

Today's vacation ranches

A modern ranch vacation is a very different beast to the first working ranches who opened their doors to adventurers looking for a taste of the real 'Wild West'. For those who seek adventure, there are still working ranches that allow guests to spend all day in the saddle herding cattle to new grazing, eat by the traditional campfire and fall asleep dirty, tired and satisfied under the stars alongside their mounts. But many more ranch owners have diversified to cater for less hardy guests, those seeking an escape to the country with a more relaxed focus or adventurers looking for less traditional sports. From spas on site to wine tasting courses, trail riding to riding lessons and snowboarding to white water rafting, there is a ranch that can fulfil your every need. 

Backed up with luxury accommodation, family cabins and traditional or high-class cuisine, the guest ranch has become a home away from home that everyone can enjoy. That's right, even us 'dudes' from the east. But look closely and you'll see the traditional ranch values are still there – family focus, home-grown ingredients and the love of the horse – and they will never go away.

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