SO YOU WANT TO BE A COWPOKE BUT YOU’RE NOT READY TO QUIT your day job? A ranch vacation might be just what you need to quell those longings to saddle up and eat trail dust—in other words, to get in touch with your inner buckaroo.
Stock ranches in the Western United States began wrangling greenhorns for fun and profit around the 1880’s. Theodore Roosevelt was first introduced to the West at these ranches, where dudes—a term that originally meant someone from somewhere else—were promised, as one vintage brochure put it, “a healthy environment and the chance to participate in the vigorous life of shepherds.” Dude ranches didn’t straggle into Texas until around 1920, when Bandera’s now-defunct Buck Ranch began welcoming paying guests for $10 a week. Ebenezer Buck and his wife, Katie, whipped up picnics and ran the place. Uncle Frank Buck led trail rides and, at night, would teach guests the cotton-eyed Joe and the schottische. “You can run more dudes to the acre in these hills than you can cattle,” one of the Bucks’ neighbors reportedly quipped. By 1947 at least 25 dude ranches dotted the state, many of them clustered around Bandera—a situation that hasn’t changed to this day. These tourist enterprises were prosperous enough to briefly support The Dude Wrangler, a quarterly newsletter devoted to work and play in this great resort area, as well as a Saturday-morning radio show that featured the goings-on at area ranches.
Over the past seventy years the dude ranch concept has evolved into more types of guest ranches than there are wrinkles on a Brahman bull. We’ve got resort ranches, working ranches, day ranches, hunting ranches, executive-retreat ranches, and ranches with nary a horse, a steer, or even a goat to their name. (Those hooves can be hell on the putting greens and sand traps.) Initially, I was looking for cattle-driving dude ranches, like the one in the movie City Slickers. I soon discovered, however, that despite Texas’ Chisholm Trail legacy, true roundups in this state—at least those that are open to weekend cowpokes on a regular schedule—are extremely rare. (The Y.O. Ranch in the Hill Country and the Bar H in the Panhandle town of Clarendon offer annual and twice-yearly roundups, respectively.) So I settled for places that met my minimum defining criteria for a ranch vacation: overnight accommodations, horseback riding, and no matter how contrived, at least a glimmer of the spirit of the West. I’d be horsewhipped if I didn’t warn you that the grub at some of these places is just that, and you might be bunking in a room that would give Martha Stewart seizures. But if you’re dying to holler “Head ’em up