The 1991 movie, which earned Jack Palance a supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Curly, the crusty cattleman, spurred an increase in dude ranch vacations as urban and suburban cowboys tried their hands at riding, roping and herding cattle.
I thought I might like riding the range too. But my interest waned when I realized I'd have to sleep in the dirt — and pay for the privilege.
Fast-forward to 2010: Dude ranches have come a long way.
Planning your trip
IF YOU GO
The Ranch at Rock Creek, 79 Carriage House Lane, Philipsburg, Mont., 59858; (877) 786-1545, http://www.theranchatrockcreek.com. Lodge, cabins or luxury tents on Rock Creek. Rates from $800 per person per night, including all activities, meals and most beverages.
Can you imagine what Curly would say about a sunset wine and cheese party on the ranch lawn? Or basking in the Jacuzzi after a five-course gourmet dinner?
"Guest ranches have changed a lot in the past 10 years," said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers Assn., which represents more than 100 longtime U.S. guest ranches.
"A decade ago, it was all about riding. Now a dude ranch can be a place to hold a destination wedding, have an adults-only birthday party or go to an afternoon wine tasting. Some of the ranches have added spas and other amenities that were unheard of a few years ago."
Now we're talking about my kind of dude ranch. So a couple of months ago, I headed to Montana to sample one of the newest, the Ranch at Rock Creek on a 10-square-mile patch of unspoiled forest and pastureland about a 90-minute drive from Missoula, in the western half of the state.
The ranch, which opened earlier this year, is a boyhood dream-come-true for banker Jim Manley, who said he searched for the property for 20 years. His goal? To find ranchland that would fulfill a nine-point laundry list of desires.
"I didn't want poisonous snakes [or] highway noise," he said. "I wanted a ski resort nearby; I wanted the elevation to be low enough so people wouldn't get altitude sickness like they do in Aspen and some other resorts. It had to be working cattle ranch. And it had to have a river running through it."
He found his dream location about three years ago. The Ranch at Rock Creek is named for a crystal-clear stream that bubbles through the pines and grasslands, bisecting the property and offering excellent spots for fly fishermen and scenic views for the cabins along its banks.
Manley and his family used the ranch as a getaway for a couple of years before he added accommodations — suites, cabins, houses, a lodge and luxury trappers tents — and opened it to the public.
There are traditional dude ranch activities, such as riding, shooting and fishing, and some nontraditional fun and games: mountain biking, swimming, a spa, bowling, paintball and karaoke, sort of like a luxury camp for grown-ups.
At this camp, however, guests don't have to worry about sleeping in the dirt: The four-poster in my room featured Frette linens and a down comforter that was 4 inches thick.
Of course, not all dude ranch visitors seek this kind of experience. And industry spokesperson Hodson is the first to acknowledge it.
"Many guests want to herd cattle, sleep under the stars and spend the day in the saddle," said Hodson, whose association's members include both luxury resorts and classic "City Slicker"-type facilities — working ranches that encourage guests to work side-by-side with real cowboys.
Many of these facilities are small, allowing only a handful of guests. McGarry Ranches, along the Snake River in Idaho, is one of the smallest, limiting the number of patrons to about eight.
"We are a working cattle outfit," the McGarry website says. "We invite you to join the cowboy crew in activities that include calving, doctoring, branding, fence mending, odd jobs and driving cattle to new pastures."
If this description leaves anything to the imagination, guest manager Harold R. Stein is happy to clear up misconceptions. "We're not in the entertainment business," Stein said. "We don't have a swimming pool or anything like that. But if you want to get wet, we can throw you in the Snake River.
"We have guests who come to us from all over the world, and they want to have a real experience, not just go out on the trail and ride nose to tail."
Stein assured me that I wouldn't have to sleep in the dirt. I'd come back to cow camp each night after a long day of riding tall in the saddle and get a home-cooked meal, a shower and a nice bunk in a shared room with a shared bath.
It reminded me of my college dorm, but with horses.
At the other end of the size spectrum are full-scale resorts such as Tanque Verde in the saguaro-studded desert foothills outside Tucson, which can accommodate more than 200 guests.
Tanque Verde offers traditional resort activities, such as tennis, biking, hiking and swimming, in addition to riding programs. As with most dude ranches, Tanque Verde has an all-inclusive rate, meaning that activities and meals are included.
Guest ranch rates make them a good buy for families, Hodson said.
"It's a great way for families to vacation because meals are included and you don't have to pay for individual activities. Plus, everyone's in the same place."
These qualities have also helped the ranches become popular locations for reunions of families and friends.
During my stay at the Ranch at Rock Creek, I rubbed shoulders with model and actress Julianne Phillips (ex-wife of Bruce Springsteen), who was celebrating her 50th birthday with a group of friends. We ran into each other on the trail, in the spa, at the Silver Dollar Saloon and the four-lane bowling alley. Then we sang karaoke together.
Manley added evening activities to the schedule because he thought dude ranches often ignored end-of-day recreation. I could relate: Sitting around a campfire gets old after a while, especially if you've already heard all the ghost stories.
Of course, Curly Washburn would have been more interested in a campfire than a sing-along in the saloon.