Curious about what it’s like to work on a dude ranch? I spent one summer as the cook at a Colorado dude ranch and had the time of my life. Here’s a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes at a dude ranch!
Up until college, I lived what most would consider a normal existence. I attended a public school, participated in the usual after-school activities like choir and speech club, and went on one or two big family vacations per year with each of my divorced parents. It wasn’t until college that my life took some interesting twists and turns — chief among them being that I obtained a job at a dude ranch in Colorado the summer following my freshman year of college. To this day, my job at the dude ranch is the life event most people ask me about and continually bring up in conversation.
I’m not sure if it’s because the west is often romanticized in novels as the land of cowboys and gunslingers, or what, but it’s been five years since my stint in Colorado and I’m still peppered with questions about life on a ranch by my friends and family. From their questions, I’ve come to understand that few people truly understand what a dude ranch is, why anyone would want to visit one, and above all else few people grasp what exactly it takes to keep a dude ranch running.
Alas, I can’t answer every nitty gritty detail about dude ranches, as I only worked at one — and I didn’t even work with the animals. But hopefully I can kindle your curiosity about dude ranch living and shed some light on this unique feature of the American West.
What is a Dude Ranch?
Sometimes called a guest ranch, a dude ranch is essentially a vacation destination for guests to experience the “Western lifestyle.” No two dude ranches operate the same way, but in general you can expect to spend most of your time at the ranch going on trail rides and spending time with the horses. For the full dude ranch experience, I recommend staying somewhere for a week, but there are some ranches that offer day-rides and shorter stays.
In addition to horseback riding, the dude ranch experience revolves around relaxation and getting outside. The ranch I worked at had day trip packages guests could sign up for, such as white water rafting, visiting the local hot springs, attending the town rodeo, and more. Dude ranches attract a lot of families, but solo travelers would enjoy the experience as well!
What Dude Ranch did I Work at?
I worked at Elk Mountain Ranch in Buena Vista, Colorado. Elk Mountain is tucked away in the San Isabel National Forest and was once home to a mining town (the trading post at the ranch is one of the few buildings that remains from that time). While at Elk Mountain, I worked as the cook — so no, I don’t know anything about horses, nor did I spend much time on the trails. I did, however, go up to the pasture and pet the horses frequently, for what it’s worth.
If you find it odd that I thought to apply for a job at a dude ranch, you’re not alone! Most of my friends in NYC are completely baffled by it too. I wanted to work at Elk Mountain since I was a kid. My mom took my brother and I to the ranch when we were young, and we visited three years in a row with the same families we met on our first visit. During our final visit to Elk Mountain, I was allowed into the kitchen to help prepare breakfast and dinner. I was maybe eight or nine at the time, so I was allowed to do only simple things, like rolling up crescent rolls. But those few hours in the kitchen stayed with me for years.
When I started college, I didn’t see how I’d be able to squeeze in a summer at Elk Mountain between all the internships and study abroad experiences I planned on having. But halfway through freshman year I realized that I really wanted to make it happen, so I sent in my application and hoped things would work out. Much to my surprise, the owners remembered me from when I visited as a kid and gave me a job in the kitchen! I almost cried when I got the news, and the spring semester seemed to drag on while I waited for my adventure out west to begin.
A Typical Day at a Dude Ranch
Again, I can only speak to what my days at Elk Mountain Ranch were like, but here’s the basic rundown of what my schedule looked like for four months of my life. Because Elk Mountain is so remote, it’s not hooked up to any power lines. The whole ranch runs off of a generator, so every morning I’d wake up in the dark and would get a 15-minute head start on breakfast before the electricity kicked on. The kitchen at Elk Mountain was below a guest room, so I’d have to be quiet (plus, the assistant cook slept off the kitchen by my room, and I didn’t want to annoy her!).
I worked from what we fondly called The Kitchen Bible. It was a binder chock-full of instructions, cook times, and recipes that broke down my schedule to the half-hour. In the leadup to breakfast, I’d prep all sorts of non-perishables for the day ahead — fruit and pasta salads, meat marinades, and general vegetable prep were all pretty standard. And then, of course, I’d make breakfast itself — buttermilk pancakes, brandied French toast, bacon, scrambled eggs, the works. Each day had a set menu, but I was allowed some freedom when it came to certain side dishes and desserts.
An hour or so before breakfast started, the wait staff would trickle into the kitchen to set the tables, put out condiments, plate everything, and serve it up. Meals always passed in a blur for me; they were a constant stream of refilling juice carafes, checking on whatever I had cooking in the ovens, and cleaning dirty dishes as they were brought in by the servers.
Once breakfast wrapped up and the wait staff girls started their house cleaning rounds, I’d work through lunch to finish up the afternoon’s tasks. Again, every day was different, but my afternoons were usually dedicated to prepping the meat I had cooked during breakfast for that night’s dinner or making the baked goods for later in the day. There was also a cookie jar in the screened-in porch that I was constantly refilling.
If I worked fast enough, I’d get at least two hours off between lunch and dinner. The ranch was always empty during that time since all the guests and wranglers would be on a trail ride. I took a walk every day to the first cattle guard and back, and on my way back I’d often see the guests coming back from their ride. That was my signal to get my butt in gear and hustle back to start on dinner.
After dinner, there would be some form of entertainment for the guests and staff to enjoy. A local songwriter would come each week to yodel, or we’d do square dancing or take guests on a hayride and make s’mores around a bonfire. The staff was expected to mingle with the guests and participate in the activities. I won’t lie, I was usually dead tired after dinner service was over, but I really loved evenings at the ranch since I didn’t get to chat with guests during the day.
The generator shut off at 11pm every night, at which time I’d crawl back into bed and pass out, only to repeat it all the next day. Working at Elk Mountain was the most exhausting job I’ve ever had, but also the most rewarding. I had so much fun with the other staff members, and leaving Elk Mountain at the end of the summer was heartbreaking. It’s one of those places that stays with you, you know?
How to Find the Right Dude Ranch for You
No matter how old you are or what stage of life you’re in, I think everyone should stay at a dude ranch at least once in their life. You’ll meet the most incredible people there, and you’ll have the chance to properly unwind and reconnect with nature. If you’re thinking of planning a dude ranch vacation, I recommend looking at the Dude Ranchers’ Association website — a dude ranch listed on their site has fulfilled a strict list of criteria and will be top-notch. Obviously, I think Elk Mountain Ranch is the best dude ranch in Colorado, but I’m biased.
Hopefully this post gave you some insight into life on a dude ranch! I feel like there are so many things I’ve left out, but if I told you every little thing I loved about my job at Elk Mountain Ranch this post would become a novella. Before writing this post, I re-read my journal I kept during my summer in Colorado and it made me smile so much! At the end of the summer, I jotted down a list titled “Things I’ll Miss About Elk Mountain,” and I shared stories about the geese who’d try to rip open the trash bags sitting outside the kitchen, and the lamb in the petting zoo I used to feed in the mornings.
If you have any questions about my job / life on a dude ranch / etc., please leave me a comment below! Like I said, I feel like I over shared a bit in this post, yet I also left out so much. So let me know if there’s anything I forgot to touch on that you’re curious about!
Tell me: Did you know what a dude ranch was before reading this post?
PS. Apologies for the poor quality of the photos in this post. I took these pictures on my camera phone and my old point-and-shoot camera. Photography wasn’t a passion of mine then!