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.
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.