Arizona dude ranches meet Hollywood

A postcard of La Osa Ranch in Tucson, now for sale for $1.4 million dollars.
A postcard of La Osa Ranch in Tucson, circulated between 1935 and 1945. The ranch is now for sale for $1.4 million.

Humans are notorious for their insatiable desire to ride off into the sunset. And there’s one vacation just over the hillside that gives greenhorns and tenderfoots alike the chance to and rope and ride for real.

The guest ranches—also known as dude ranches—popped up during the Westward expansion days and have since become a refuge for vacationers from around the world looking to get a piece of the cowboy fantasy.

And many dude ranches have a surprisingly long history in Hollywood, said Leah Bright, the administrative assistant for the National Dude Ranch Association.

“It’s just a real-life experience of the movies,” said Bright.

Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia is the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Arizona and was the film set for “Red River,” filmed in 1948 and “Gunsmoke,” filmed in 1953.

John Wayne, the famous actor who played in several acclaimed Western films throughout his career.
John Wayne, the famous actor who played in several acclaimed Western films throughout his career.

There are three types of dude ranches, she said. Luxury ranches are high-end resorts, cattle drive ranchers bring guests in to work, and traditional dude ranches focus on horseback riding and other outside activities. The ranches are usually found along train stops in Wickenburg, Phoenix and Tucson, and anyone who signs the books at the front desk is considered a “dude.”

 ADRA-certified ranches include Circle Z Ranch, Elkhorn Ranch, Flying E Ranch, Hideout Ranch, Rancho de los Caballeros, Sprucedale Ranch, Stagecoach Trails, Tanque Verde Ranch, Tombstone Monument Ranch, and White Stallion Ranch.

Click here to see a chart that compares amenities including horseback riding lessons, cattle herding, hiking, nature programs, tourist attractions and rodeos.

White Stallion Ranch in Tucson has been the film site for over 30 movies and television shows including “Backlash,” “Arizona,” and “Winchester 73.”

“You can go out and ride in these cool destination locations like Geronimo Trail,” Bright said. “A lot of ranches have themed destinations, but with a little more authenticity,” she said.

Dude ranches began as early cabins to house and feed pioneers. The longstanding guesthouses flourished throughout the early 1900s with the invention of the transcontinental railroad and automobile.

“Once people from the East coast started coming out West, there was a connection made there,” Bright said.

An early postcard by C.M. Russell of cowboys rounding up cattle, published around 1890.
An early postcard by C.M. Russell to attract visitors to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West rodeo shows, published around 1890.

Hollywood began to idolize the cowboy lifestyle during the early and mid 20th century, not long after the O.K. Corral shooting in Tombstone.

This helped attract a wider audience to the possibility of vacationing at a dude ranch, said Bright. Actors like Kurt Russell, Clint Eastwood, Sam Elliott, Kevin Cosner, John Wayne, Paul Newman, and Robert Duvall played cowboy characters that helped spark a classic appreciation for Western films and culture.

Hollywood’s dramatization of the cowboy lifestyle can still be seen like in more recent movies like “City Slickers,” a 1991 comedy starring Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby and Jack Palance.

The movie follows three men who take an annual vacation away from their wives– this time deciding to push cattle from New Mexico to Colorado.

“City Slickers really brought light to what a dude ranch is all about,” Bright said. “So when shows are filmed at a dude ranch, it brings a public awareness. Because a lot of people don’t consider dude ranches as a vacation option.”

Christine Taylor began her career as an actress at Tanque Verde Ranch near Tucson. The teen drama show Hey Dude aired on Nickelodeon between 1989 and 1991. The abandoned film set can be seen in this YouTube video showing the apparent remains near Tanque Verde Ranch. You can watch the show’s intro here.

Dude ranches– like Hollywood Western films– allow visitors to get an inside experience on the life of a cowboy, said Bright. But the “happy-clappy” and “yee-haw” attitude in some films is a misinterpretation of the dude ranches.

“People out there are really authentic, and it’s not a cheesy experience at all,” she said.

For the ultimate cowboy experience, check out this map of dude ranches in the Arizona Dude Ranch Association.

McKinzie Frisbie is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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