Experience life on the Western range
at a Texas dude ranch
on a blazing summer day and time to put the horses away. Tami Martin, one of the wranglers at the Dixie Dude Ranch in Bandera, hoists weathered saddles off the trail-weary horses, her arms tan and strong from the job. In faded Wranglers and cowboy boots that read “Just A Good Old Girl” in capital letters on the back, she makes the work look cool and easy. So I ask Garrett Connell, a wrangler who’d been charming me with tall tales on the trail, if I can help “untack” my horse, Sancho.
“We aren’t equestrians here; we’re cowboys,” he says. “We unsaddle.” Then he shows me how to ease off Sancho’s bridle and latigo. I’m no Tami, but it feels good to haul Sancho’s gear to the barn and whiff the heady aroma of well-worn leather. Such a moment, I would later discover, is a microcosm of what dude ranches are all about.
What, exactly, is a dude? To many, the term evokes a vision of shaggy surfer types—someone trying to be cool. Or it’s a way to address them, as in “What’s up, dude?” Though this may sound incongruous to people familiar with Texas dude ranches—where paying guests participate in Western activities from trail rides to chuckwagon dinners to skeet shooting—the contemporary connotations of “dude” are actually closer to the origins of the dude ranch than I realized.
“I do not believe there ever was any life more attractive to a vigorous young fellow than life on a cattle ranch in those days,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his eponymous autobiography published in 1913, a couple of decades after his first trip out West. Roosevelt, famous for his love of outdoor adventure, was one of America’s first dudes. For in the 1880s, a dude—in addition to meaning a snazzy dresser—was an urban dweller, often from the East Coast, who goes to a ranch to embrace the work and wide-open spaces of the Western life. In a 2013 study, slang etymologists Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen linked the word back to the nonsense word “doodle,” as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
“Back in Roosevelt’s time, a dude was a specific thing,” says Clay Conoly, owner of the Dixie Dude. “There were no ‘guest ranches,’ but there were dude ranches, and everyone who helped out in the corral from out of town was called a dude wrangler.”
As families play card games at nearby tables, Conoly and I sit by the jukebox in the Roundup Room of the Dixie Dude. The 725-acre working ranch has been in Conoly’s family since 1901, and it’s where he lives with his wife,
Diane, and sons, Alec and Sharp. He explains his own take on the term: “A dude is a person traveling into an area they’re unfamiliar with, but with an open mind, learning new things and appreciating the work that’s done on a ranch. It’s a good thing.”
In an effort to better understand the quality of dudeness, over the course of a week this July I visited the Dixie Dude Ranch in Bandera—a town billed as the Cowboy Capital of the World—and two other Texas ranches: Blisswood Bed and Breakfast Ranch, 350 acres in Cat Spring in the rolling prairie an hour’s drive west of Houston; and JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa, 13,000 acres just off of Interstate 10 in the arid scrublands between Sonora and Junction.
These are but a fraction of what’s out there. From the historic Prude Ranch in Fort Davis to the Wildcatter Ranch in Graham to the Beaumont Ranch in Grandview, there are about a dozen dude ranches across Texas. The dude experience is a top vacation choice of visitors to our state, and when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, demand for dude ranch getaways grew from out-of-state visitors and Texans alike. In my own pursuit of dude life, I would do things I’d never done, such as unsaddle horses, feed buffalo, and hot tub with an armadillo. I’d learn the hard way that one should never wear shorts on a hayride. I’d befriend other dudes from across the world. And most importantly, I’d get a feel for what makes a good dude.
Blisswood Bed and Breakfast Ranch
As I pull off Interstate 10 onto the country roads of Austin County, my relief from the anxiety-inducing traffic and urban grind is immediate. The feeling morphs into full-on glee as I drive beneath arches of moss-draped oaks and approach Blisswood’s barn, where white Paso Fino trail horses are grazing in a meadow. Sometimes you have to immerse yourself in nature to remember how much you need it.
I feel even better once I meet Skeeter, head of guest services, who right away takes me to feed bananas to some lemurs. His real name is Erwin Harrison Hagler Jr., but when he was just born, someone said he was so cute he looked like a little mosquito. He was forever after Skeeter—even now that he’s 75. After the banana-crazy lemurs have their fill, Skeeter shows me how to throw hatchets.
“You don’t want to overthink it,” he says. “It’s not baseball. Pull up by your ear almost like you’re cuttin’ your ear off.” I emulate Skeeter’s form and grunt as I hurl the shiny silver ax at a target of splintered wood. Then we load up in the Polaris, a four-wheeled ranch buggy, to visit bison in the wildlife pasture. As we approach, black buck antelope leap like ballerinas into the woods. Upon seeing Skeeter’s Polaris, the bison rumble over and stick their wide wet noses into our seats as other guests and I try to shovel scoops of feed into their open mouths. It’s a fun-filled mess of kibble, buffalo slobber, and peals of laughter all around.
The next morning, I wake early for a sunrise soak in my cabin’s hot tub. It’s still dark, and when I shine my flashlight at a rustling in the brush, I see a fat armadillo, his bands shimmery in the beam. Usually, I see armadillos dead on the road, so the chance to study this scaly critter as he seeks breakfast is a treat.
This is one of the reasons dude ranches are such a welcome vacation. Rather than developing land for tourism, dude ranches preserve the land and allow animals to keep their wild spaces. The Blisswood and the Dixie Dude participate in wildlife rehabilitation and land conservation programs. The entertainment is the kind of low-tech delight a dude appreciates: an armadillo rooting at sunrise, an antelope leaping into the woods, a buffalo slobbering on your fingers.
Carol Davis, Blisswood’s owner, grew up on a farm in Fayette County. “I once was drawn to the lights of the big city, but after a while those lights dimmed for me,” she says. “Being here, close to the horses and wildlife, makes my spirit sing. And I see it in my guests. One family from the UK actually cried when it was time to leave, they felt so happy here.”
I know my spirits are up, too. I see why those Yankee Doodle Dandies needed to come out West.
The Dixie Dude Ranch
Connell, the Dixie Dude wrangler, holds my phone as he helps me mount Rooster, a one-eyed horse and cancer survivor. “Rooster’s what you call an Overa paint,” he tells me. “Is there anything else I need to know about Rooster?” I ask. “No,” he says, “I’m gonna let you figure that out on your own. You signed a waiver.”
Rooster may just have one eye, but he’s sure-footed on the trail. The dozen of us on this morning ride wind our way through a limestone valley flanked by hills covered in oak and cedar trees. Our meditative pace makes it easy for me to pester Connell with questions, like where’d he get his big shiny belt buckle? It’s a reward, he says, for one of the bull riding competitions he won on the pro rodeo circuit. After 17 broken bones and four surgeries, he retired from the sport in his late 20s. But he misses it. “When you’re climbing down the chute onto the back of a 2,000-pound bull, there’s nothing like it,” he says.
That night, Alec Conoly takes a group of 45 guests on a hayride, pulling us behind his truck on a trailer lined with hay. Alec is the fifth generation of his family to live and work on the Dixie Dude, and it’s clear he loves it. He takes pleasure in educating us about the Longhorns that approach and doesn’t miss a beat when one named Nacho poops during his talk and a kid yells out, “Look, Nacho sauce!” Our group, including families from London and Turkey, is full of questions: Why are the steers’ horns longer than the bulls’? Why don’t we eat Longhorns? Mama, can we please get a bull?
The hearty meals served at the Dixie Dude are communal affairs. I was impressed by Tracye Porter, a grandmother from Idalou, who brings each of her grandchildren to a dude ranch when they turn 10. Her granddaughter, Alessa, proudly describes to the table how she’d learned to unhook the perch she caught in the fishing pond. Also at the table, the three-generation Melline family of 13 dudes from Washington, D.C., stole the show with their matching T-shirts that say “Straight Trippin’” in sparkly letters. Although we are from many places and live different lives, the story swapping and bonhomie over home-cooked meals build a sense of connection that feels extra sweet these days.
Driving the Hill Country roads leading away from the Dixie Dude, buoyed by the good vibes of the ranch and the people I met there, I think about Clay Conoly, who says he has no regrets about leaving a career in oil to run the family ranch. “Spend time out here and it just works on you,” he says. “You might call it spiritual.”
JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa
From Bandera, it’s a 150-mile drive to the rugged scrublands between Junction and Sonora. At 13,000 acres, the JL Bar is just a tad smaller than Manhattan. Within a minute of pulling off I-10, I arrive at a security gate that opens to a paved road through drought-baked earth and prickly pear. I turn right at the flag as instructed by the security guard and approach the Main Lodge, a stone behemoth surrounded by verdant grass, golf carts, and large vases filled with faux burgundy hibiscus flowers. I exit my car to the crooning of country music played over outdoor speakers. This landscape may be spartan, but the JL Bar, named for owners James and Lois Archer, is all country cush.
The JL Bar is a marksman’s playground. You can shoot skeet, fire pistols, and hunt exotic game, including black buck, axis deer, and red stag. You can also shoot rifles on the ranch’s long-range course. With a target that’s 1,500 yards away, it’s touted as one of the longest courses in Texas.
Visitors can also sample reining, a riding style popularized by the Yellowstone TV series where the horse performs exact patterns of spins, circles, and stops. Jon Joseph, the trainer who oversees the JL Bar’s horse program, describes reining as “figure skating” on a horse. “Reining horses are the best trained horses in the world,” he says. “Riders of any level can rein. The horse does most of the work, and the rider just kind of hangs on and enjoys it.”
The prices here are what you might expect for a place where guests fly in regularly on the ranch’s private airstrip. According to an activity list at the front desk, an hour of reining costs $180, and an hour of skeet shooting costs $75, not including gun rental and ammo fees. Given my budget, my primary activity is hanging out by the infinity pool with a glass of sauvignon blanc and noshing on a butter-dabbed rib-eye at the ranch restaurant. The peace of this immense desert is soothing, particularly as the July sun departs and the air begins to cool. But my boots stay clean.
“I wouldn’t call this a dude ranch,” Joseph says. “It’s a resort.” Certainly, those who fly to the JL Bar from across the globe get a hefty dose of Texas ranch glamour within these gates. And those who try their hand at activities—like reining or target shooting with a super-powered scope—are learning, dude-like, about horses and hunting.
Although the word “dude” has evolved over time, the classic version evoked by Roosevelt and his ilk back in the 1880s abides in Texas. As Tracye Porter, the grandmother from Idalou, told me when her granddaughter ran off to admire the Dixie Dude’s peacocks: “We just watched the farrier shoe some horses—that was cool—and now she’s off again. Alessa’s free here; she can explore, try new things. She’s being a good little dude.”
The Dude Abides
Dude ranch lodging and activities vary widely across Texas. Patricia Moore, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Bandera County, which is home to five dude ranches, recommends contacting the ranch to see if it’s a good fit for your vacation. “I tell people all the time: There is no best dude ranch,” she says. “They all vary. Call them up and chat with the ranch staff. Tell them what you are looking for.”
Blisswood Bed and Breakfast Ranch offers lodging in farmhouses, a wagon, a log cabin, a safari tent, and RVs. Activities include trapshooting, ax throwing, and trail rides. Lodging rates start at $129 per night, not including activity prices. Trail rides start at $99 per person for one hour. 13597 Frantz Road, Cat Spring. 713-301-3235; blisswood.net
Dixie Dude Ranch offers lodging in cottages, cabins, and bunkhouse rooms. Activities include trail rides, fishing, hayrides, and campfires. Advanced horse-riding options are available upon request for more experienced riders. All-inclusive rates start at $180 per day for adults, and $70 per day for young children, with lodging, meals, two daily rides, and most activities included. For weekends and large groups, book about six months in advance. 833 Dixie Dude Ranch Road, Bandera. 830-796-7771; dixieduderanch.com
JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa offers hotel rooms and cabins. Activities include trapshooting, reining horseback riding, pistol shooting, long range rifle shooting, and hunting. Lodging rates start at $399 per night. Activities cost extra. Reining costs $180 per person for one hour. 3500 Private Road 2254, Sonora. 855-414-3337; jlbar.com