The Disappearing Dude Ranch

The sun may be setting on an American travel institution, as ranch owners face the temptation of cashing out of their land, or strain to please guests who prefer spas to saddles.
July 7, 2006; Page W1

Amid decades of change in Arch Wagner's life, Montana's Boulder River Ranch was the constant.

Thirty years ago, Mr. Wagner, then a radiologist in Virginia, spotted the ranch's ad in the back of a fishing magazine. He visited for a week, then returned nearly every summer, teaching his children to fish on the river that runs through the ranch, sprinkling his late wife's ashes there and riding horses with his grandchildren through its 600 acres.

Last summer, he didn't go back. Thanks to rising land prices, the family that owned the ranch since 1918 sold to a group of investors that included newscaster Tom Brokaw, and the property stopped taking guests. "Three generations of us went there," says Mr. Wagner.

[dude ranch]

For a century of summers, American travelers have headed to Western ranches, saddled up their horses and galloped away from the tedium of modern life. Now, the future of dude ranching is being threatened by rising land prices and the reach of development. Some ranches are being sold off to a new generation of wealthy investors seeking private retreats, while others are attracting neighbors with names like McDonald's and Starbucks. At the same time, dude ranches that stay in business are racing to catch up with travelers' changing tastes, which increasingly tend toward massages and shopping.

At the heart of this is a fact: Many dude ranches rest on land that is now far more valuable than the business on top. More money means more choices. Ranches can continue as if nothing has changed, and many have. They can increase revenue by adding amenities and taking more guests. Or they can cash out, by subdividing the ranch or selling it in its entirety.

In 1968, Sherry and Dave Farny bought Skyline Ranch near Telluride, Colo., for $168,000. So when eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman offered to buy their 150 acres a few years ago and, they say, eventually increased her offer to just under $20 million, the Farnys sold. "We would go to bed at night totally exhausted saying, 'What are we doing this for?' " Mrs. Farny says. "We're sitting on a gold mine." Skyline Ranch closed to guests last summer. A spokesman for Ms. Whitman confirmed she bought the property.

Ranchland Prices Rise

For the one-year period ended March 31, the price of ranch land increased 20% in Wyoming and Colorado, both dude-ranch-heavy states, according to Federal Reserve surveys of agricultural bankers. Ranch values in California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington are up about 19% to $1,642 per acre.

Take a look at some recent ranch offerings, from rustic outposts to spa-style ranches.

The last option has been increasingly lucrative. At a time when so many Americans buy and flip properties for profit, the ranch business stands out for its relatively slow churn. Many ranches have been in the same family for almost a century, and first-time ranchers -- often executives who flee the corporation for a simpler life -- buy with the intent of running the ranch for several years. What's changed is that many new owners have stopped taking guests or have overhauled the property.

So the number of dude ranches is slowly decreasing. The Dude Ranchers' Association, a grouping of guest properties west of the Mississippi in the U.S. and Canada, reports that its membership has fallen to 114 ranches last year from 116 in 2003. The Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association counts 30 members this year, down from 36 in 1999. The Colorado association estimates three of its ranches are now for sale.

Pete Kunz, a retired sales executive who has run the Rawah Ranch in the Colorado Rockies since 1989, recently put the ranch on the market for $2.5 million. He estimates that of the 20 potential buyers he's met with only half or so are interested in the guest-ranch business. He says he's resigned to the idea that new owners may not take guests, but he'd be upset to see it filled with "a bunch of starter castles."

The Kay El Bar Guest Ranch in Arizona has added bigger horses for heavier guests.

Dude ranching traces its roots to the late 19th century, when working cattle ranches took in boarders for extra cash. By the early 20th century, new ranches opened solely to serve city-slicker guests, or dudes. Today, ranches typically charge guests $1,000 to $3,000 per week, which generally pays for activities and three square meals a day. Guests eat family-style, often with the ranch's owners, and they're expected to settle up later if they grab a beer from the lodge fridge. Guests can hike or fish, and may get a chance to help round up cattle. Rooms typically don't have Internet access, or even phones.

That's how Tim Murphy likes it. The lawyer from Orinda, Calif., says Montana's Nine Quarter Circle Ranch still looks the same as it did when he started taking his family there in 1979, and he keeps returning for its weekly softball games and Saturday square dances. The ranch's guest rooms don't have TVs, cellphones don't get reception -- there's a land line in the laundry room -- and Mr. Murphy recalls his disappointment when Federal Express started delivering to the ranch more than a decade ago. "It sounds very limiting, but it's very freeing," he says. "The only thing you can do is hang out."

But in many ranch areas, the outside world is drawing closer. The Lake Mancos Ranch in Mancos, Colo., is celebrating its 50th year of guiding riders through the San Juan Mountains and taking guests trout fishing in streams where prospectors once panned for gold. Todd Sehnert, its second-generation owner, remembers looking out the lodge window as a child and seeing nothing but trees and cattle. Now, he says, visitors can see three homes and a fourth under construction. The ranch is about five miles out of town on a road that used to have four families living along it; now there are more than 60 addresses. The Sehnert family has put the 235-acre spread on the market for $4 million, and Mr. Sehnert says he expects it won't last much longer as a guest ranch. "Maybe lean more toward a resort or something," he says.

Other ranchers have become developers. The owners of the 8,000-acre C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado are selling 35-acre plots for $1 million to $1.5 million. The Home Ranch, also in Colorado, next year plans to sell about 10 home sites a few miles from the dude ranch at about the same price ($1 million for a 35-acre plot). "What we're trying to do is get some money out, but preserve the look and feel," says John Fisher, manager of the Home Ranch.

'Drop-Dead Charming'

Of course, not all owners are building rural subdivisions. In many cases, relative newcomers and high-profile owners continue to invite guests: Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch and Val Kilmer's Pecos River Ranch -- both in New Mexico -- take guests. (Pecos River Ranch is on the market for $18 million but will continue to take guests at least until October, the ranch says.)

Home for sale at C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado

Others say they aim to preserve the land. Mr. Brokaw says he and his partners -- including actor Michael Keaton, musician Dave Grusin and former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin -- had little interest in continuing to run a guest operation at Boulder River Ranch, where Mr. Wagner took his family. "It is an absolutely drop-dead charming place, but it's not where Generation X is looking to go," says Mr. Brokaw, who has owned property nearby for 17 years. "What we were trying to do is keep it from getting chopped up into 25-acre ranch plots."

Dude ranches make up a shrinking sliver of the travel industry. The average guest ranch takes about 40 people at a time, and the 114 ranches in the Dude Ranchers' Association have a total capacity of about 4,200 guests. That's fewer than the number of people who can fit on Royal Caribbean's new Freedom of the Seas cruise ship, with a total occupancy of 4,375 passengers. Meanwhile, competition is increasing from spa-style resorts, which typically offer shorter stays and more pampering. According to trade group the International Spa Association, there were 1,662 U.S. resort and hotel spas in 2004, the last year available, compared with 473 in 2000.

Many ranches are responding by offering resort-type touches of their own. The Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch in Parshall, Colo., now offers a "spa ride," a four-hour horseback trip to the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa, where guests can soak in the tubs or get an "herbal wrap" with a vitamin C facial. (The ranch shuttles guest back to camp in a van.) Guests at Arizona's Tanque Verde Ranch can cap off a day of horseback riding with the $150 "Rawhide Renewal," including a creosote-bush scrub, jojoba-butter rub and massage. The Three Bars Cattle & Guest Ranch in Cranbrook, British Columbia, has five golf resorts nearby, and about one-quarter of the ranch's guests skip a morning or afternoon ride to get in a round.

Janet Becker and her husband, Jerry, recently went looking for a dude ranch and picked the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Ariz. Mrs. Becker made the decision after looking at a Web site with several Arizona ranches, a list of amenities and next to that a column of check boxes. The White Stallion had checks next to almost everything, including hot tub, tennis court and maid service. "I was just thinking if they offered more it would be something we'd like better," says the accounting professor from Pickerington, Ohio. "We didn't want to really rough it."

Belgian Draft Horses

The influx of treadmills and massage tables has reignited an age-old fight among ranchers over what constitutes a "real" dude ranch. The Dude Ranchers' Association, formed in 1926, requires its members to have horses, offer meals and activities for a single price and have guests stay for at least three nights. While the association's rules don't prohibit spas, golf courses, yoga or phones, old-guard ranchers believe extra trappings diminish the experience. "We don't take change real lightly," says Jeff Cahill, a third-generation owner of the Sixty Three Ranch in Montana. Mr. Cahill says of the newer dude ranches he's seen, "very few of them exemplify the dude ranch."

[Nine Quarter Circle Ranch]
There are no in-room TVs at Montana's Nine Quarter Circle Ranch.

Others are making smaller concessions to modern life. Approaching the Kay El Bar Guest Ranch in Wickenburg, Ariz., guests take a two-lane highway past a small town before veering off onto a bumpy dirt road. The smell of horses permeates the air and the floorboards creak at the main lodge, which is decorated with cattle brands, stirrups and a canteen collection. One of the ranch's recent improvements wasn't a spa, but two Belgian draft horses that can accommodate guests weighing up to 300 pounds. (The ranch's quarter horses can take riders up to 240 pounds.) But just beyond the Kay El Bar a ranch-home development is going in, and on a recent horseback ride one could get glances of construction equipment and fresh home foundations. "You can feel the world is coming," says Nancy Loftis, who owns the ranch with her husband, John.

Over the past four decades, Russell True has watched the world change around his family's land. His White Stallion Ranch, on a patch in the Arizona desert, used to be more than a half-hour from the nearest supermarket. Now, though the ranch looks like it's in the middle of nowhere, a five-minute car trip takes guests to a McDonald's, a Starbucks and a Wal-Mart Supercenter, part of the Tucson sprawl that lies just over a buff-colored mountain. With nearby resorts offering golf courses and spas, Mr. True has recently added a fitness center, a small movie theater and in-room manicures.

On a recent night Mr. True sliced barbecued pork onto the dinner plates of about 100 guests and later announced a breakfast ride. After walking table to table with a sign-up sheet, he surveyed the patio as guests watched a performer named "Loop Rawlins" twirl guns, crack a whip and jump through hoops of spinning lasso. Longtime dudes walked up to check in with Mr. True, and a grade-school-aged girl jumped into his arms and asked if she could live at the ranch.

Mr. True says he gets two or three calls a month from developers, compared with about one annually a year ago. "I've never been tempted for a minute -- that doesn't mean it isn't the most absurd business ever if you figure out what we make versus what the ranch is worth," he says. "But it's what we like to do."

Write to Conor Dougherty at

Dude, Where's My Ranch?

Here's a look at recent ranch offerings, from rustic outposts to spa-style ranches close to cities. Prices are the per-person daily rate for adults, and include meals and most activities. All of them require multiday stays.

S63 Ranch Livingston, Mont.
Swing set and sandbox for toddlers Guests can lasso "cattle-dummies" with the cowboys This old-school ranch takes no more than 30 guests. Three miles of trout-filled streams run through the property, and there are more than 100 miles of trails, passing through the Gallatin National Forest and Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Area, just a few minutes away. But don't expect a hot tub. "We don't have anything new, other than a new year," says third-generation owner Jeff Cahill.
Laramie River Dude Ranch Glendevey, Colo.
Tube down two miles of river, and get out next to a hot tub Next-door neighbor (five miles away) is a buffalo ranch This Colorado ranch is just south of the Wyoming border (Laramie is a 45-minute drive), on 1,800 acres where riders can sometimes see elk and antelope. Rides and hikes go out daily, and an overnight ride leaves on Wednesdays. But this year a fire ban has guests cooking and roasting marshmallows over a propane fire.
The Hideout at Flitner Ranch Shell, Wyo.
Rooms have wireless Internet and satellite TV Guests brand calves alongside Wyoming cowboys Century-old working ranch has access to 300,000 acres with 3,000 head of cattle. The rare ranch with extensive winter programs, like wine tastings, snowmobiling and, next season, sleigh-rides. Its Trapper Lodge (Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt stayed there, the ranch says) goes for $1,200 a night, excluding activities.
Three Bars Cattle & Guest Ranch Cranbrook, B.C.
Golf just 20 minutes away Fly fishing on St. Mary's River Ranch is on 1,000 acres with 360-degree views of the Canadian Rockies, with activities including river rafting and skeet shooting. A typical meal is oven-fried chicken and biscuits, and guests spend most days riding or hiking to waterfall vistas. In May, the ranch added a gym with a treadmill, an elliptical trainer and yoga mats.
Tanque Verde Ranch Tucson, Ariz.
"Rawhide Renewal" massage at ranch's La Sonora Spa Riding along the Tanque Verde Wash waterway This 645-acre ranch just outside of Tucson has grown to 74 rooms since its 1868 founding. It has a resort flavor, with manicured lawns, a paved parking lot, indoor and outdoor pools and a spa. A dude-ranch rarity: Outsiders are welcome for dinner, where recent menu items included veal cordon bleu and eggplant parmesan.
Twin Peaks Ranch Salmon, Idaho
Nearby town has art galleries, country shops White water rafting down the Salmon River As more ranches go private, this 2,400-acre spread follows a different trajectory. For decades it served as a private getaway for owners, including members of the DuPont family, before opening to the public 14 years ago. The ranch has two ponds stocked with rainbow trout; guests mostly catch and release, but ranch chefs will cook one for dinner if guests prefer it over prime rib or wild-rice stuffed pork chops.