Dude ranch vacations have been considered some of the very best family vacations ever since dude ranches and guest ranches first burst onto the scene in the late 19th century.

The Romance with the American West

Why did folks from “back East” start heading to Western dude ranches in the first place? If you remember any of your high school history lessons, you might also remember that the 19th century was a time of great exploration and adventure in the Western United States.

Starting with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Americans had been hearing about the mythical and Wild West for nearly a century. From brave settlers who took the Oregon Trail to make their fortune, to the ’49ers who rushed West for gold, to the railroad builders who finally tamed the West, Americans long saw the West as a place that encapsulated everything that was great about spirit of the American people.

By 1893, however, the frontier days were declared over. Immediately a sense of nostalgia arose.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Dude Ranches

Out of this nostalgia, people sought out ways to remember the Wild West. One of the most popular shows in the late 19th century was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Starting in 1872 in Chicago, this circus-like show traveled throughout the Midwest and the East. Featuring famous names such as sharp-shooter Annie Oakley and Native American chief Sitting Bull, the show was hugely popular and even traveled to the UK. The Wild West show continued until the early twentieth century. By that time, some historians say, Buffalo Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity on the planet.

For some people, the show wasn’t enough. They wanted to live the life that Buffalo Bill glorified. Even before the twentieth century, guest ranches started to spring up. Back then, however, these were still very much working ranches, and the guests were like farmhands who paid for the privilege of living out their Western fantasies.

The Dude Ranch After World War I

Between postwar prosperity, the invention of the automobile, and the creation of the first Western movies, dude ranches exploded in popularity after World War I. In response to the rapidly growing industry, The Dude Ranchers Association was founded in 1926. In the subsequent years, dude ranches became what they are today.

Want to see how our own dude ranch has evolved at Colorado Trails? Visit our “History” page on our website and you’ll see how we’ve grown over the last fifty years.