The Hill Country Feature

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The Dude Ranch Experience

Bandera's Cowboy Capital title not only stems from the longstanding cattle ranches in the area, but from all the visitors who pony up the cash for a bit of the cowboy life for themselves, albeit a bit cushier than the real thing in some cases.

The dude ranch experience allows families or individuals (sometimes even a group of women on a girlfriends getaway) to catch a glimpse or what it means to live and work on the open range. Most ranches pride themselves on combining a rustic, outdoorsy, and sometimes primitive environment with today's modern amenities. Depending on the ranch, guests may be able to take daily horseback rides, learn about the area's natural history, watch wranglers barrel race and rope cattle (and sometimes participate), take evening hayrides, and sit around the campfire roasting marshmallows and listening to cowboys sing old trail songs. You don't have to worry about throwing a lasso your first time out, and horseback-riding instruction is available for all levels of experience.

These City Slickers-type adventures began with one enterprising couple back in 1920. Ebenezer and Kate Ross of 1901 Buck Ranch decided to open their property on San Julian Creek, just outside Bandera, to guests from Houston who were looking for a change of pace. Before long, other established ranches began opening their gates to those curious about a Western style of living. With the influx of these seasonal wannabe cowhands, Bandera became famous for its resort-like camps, rodeos, cowboy bars, and restaurants to compliment these newly appointed guest ranches. (Before this, small rodeos and livestock shows took place in a lot of the different areas in the Hill Country, but centered primarily around trade through much of the early 1900s, not as much for show as they are today.)

Many of these dude ranches have changed in appearance since the early 1900s. While early ranches were bare-bones, offering room for only a few families, and usually serving not-so-gourmet cuisine, many have added such amenities as rustic cabins or high-end guest accommodations, dining lodges serving old-fashioned Southern dishes with modern twists, cable TV, Wi-Fi, an on-site masseur, and golf courses.

Most ranches operate their guest programs from the early spring to the late fall, providing all-inclusive packages with meals and daily horseback rides included. Prices vary, but average $125 to $150 per person per night.

—Jessica Norman Dupuy

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