In Wyoming, a Taste of the Wild West

Luxury dude ranches offer the pleasures of a bygone era without any of its hardships.

Looking to experience a taste of the Wild West without spending weeks aboard a wagon train and facing heat, dust, hailstorms, mud, bad water, and broken wheels—not to mention hostile attacks, near starvation, disease, and possibly death? Head to a western ranch.

That’s what young, skinny, asthmatic, monied New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt did in 1883. He was wearing a custom fringed buckskin shirt, a brimmed hat, a silver belt buckle engraved with a grizzly bear image, alligator riding boots, spurs engraved with his initials, and leather chaps, and brandishing an ivory-handled Colt revolver along with a silver-mounted Bowie knife made by decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. 

As he would all his life, Roosevelt enjoyed looking the part—and playing it.

Roosevelt purchased a small ranch in the Dakota Badlands along the Little Missouri River, where, he said, “the romance of my life began.” He bought a herd of Texas cattle, declared himself a rancher, and set about living strenuously and courageously, more like an Arab sheik, he imagined, than a “sleek city merchant or tradesman.” Then, in 1884, he built a second, much more luxurious ranch that he named Elkhorn. 

He rhapsodized about life in the West, telling readers of his books about sitting in the shade of his cabin’s veranda to escape the “hot lifeless air” with few sounds to break the midday stillness. “From the upper branches of the cottonwood trees overhead—whose shimmering, tremulous leaves are hardly ever quiet, but if the wind stirs at all, rustle and quiver and sigh all day long—comes every now and then the soft, melancholy cooing of the mourning dove…”

Thirty-five miles from Roosevelt’s new ranch was another ranch started several years earlier, in 1879, by three brothers—Alden, Howard, and Willis Eaton—at Medora in the Dakota Territory. The Eatons were also wealthy easterners, from Pittsburgh. Friends from back east began visiting their ranch each summer, some staying for months. Eventually, to make ends meet, they had to start charging for lodging. 

Thus, the first western or “dude” ranch was born. In 1904, with their old neighbor Roosevelt—as irrepressible as ever—now muscular, world-famous, and in the White House, the Eatons decamped to Wolf Creek near Sheridan, Wyoming, in the Bighorn Mountains. During the Roaring Twenties, the Eaton Ranch flourished by attracting dudes from the East who wanted to play cowboy and enjoy the exhilaration of the brisk high-mountain summer air amid spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery.

The tradition they established continues in Wyoming today at luxury ranches like those described below, all of which offer plentiful and exquisitely prepared food.

Flat Creek Ranch

Flat Creek Ranch, between Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, was built in the 1920s by a countess and a cowboy along a gorgeous spring creek filled with rising wild cutthroat trout. Five rustic log cabins feature woodburning stoves and old-fashioned clawfoot bathtubs.

Trey and Shelby Scharp have managed the ranch for a decade. They note that while some western ranches have 50 or more guests, they host only about a dozen at a time and offer an “intimate ambiance where you are never part of a crowd.” Flat Creek does its best to provide a range of outdoor activities, including half-day horseback rides, backcountry fly fishing, and gentle hikes through brilliant wildflower meadows—or more rigorous hikes to the Nose of the Sleeping Indian Mountain at 11,106 feet elevation.

The minimum stay at Flat Creek is only three nights.

Darwin Ranch

The most remote western guest ranch in the lower 48 states, Darwin Ranch overlooks the Gros Ventre River, with ready access to the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Pros Ventre Wilderness. It, too, dates back a century. Today, Kathy Bole and her son, Oliver Klingenstein, run the Darwin. Kathy is a chef who oversees the lodge operations and kitchen. Oliver, a Renaissance man with a degree in environmental history, is a certified emergency medical technician and the trainer of the ranch’s herd of mustangs.

Darwin Ranch—where there is no cell phone service—is a place to get blissfully lost.  The minimum stay is six nights.

A-Bar-A Ranch

In the heart of southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains, along the North Platte River, is the hundred-year-old A-Bar-A Ranch. It and its three sister ranches—Big Creek, State Line, and Sheep Rock—provide access to hiking, horseback riding, and fly fishing on over 100,000 acres. Shooting ranges offer trap, skeet, and five-stand shotgun shooting; youngsters can learn archery as well as the use of a .22 rifle.

Managers Lisa and Justin Howe tout the ranch’s one-to-one guest-to-staff ratio and sustainable grazing practices with 200 horses and 5,000 cattle.

Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch

“We are not your typical dude ranch,” says Peter De Cabooter, a native of Belgium, who with his wife, Marijn Werquin, bought the Hideout Lodge and Guest Ranch in 2017. The Hideout is in Shell, Wyoming, in the Bighorn Mountains, soaring to more than 10,000 feet in elevation, 110 miles east of Yellowstone National Park. It’s an upscale riding and working cattle ranch. 

“Whether you ride every day or are swinging into the saddle for the first time,” says Marijn, “we have a horse that is right for you.” She points out that the wranglers treat their horses gently, to minimize their stress. Lessons in natural horsemanship are offered throughout the week.

The relatively new Hideout & Guest Ranch was established in 1995 by Peter’s aunt, Paula De Cabooter-Flitner, and her husband, David. The well-traveled De Cabooter-Flitner brought her experiences and culinary sensibilities to the rural Wyoming sagebrush, adding a distinct flair to its operation and feel. Guests arrive—and return yearly—from around the world. Occupancy is limited to 25 dudes per week.