How American ranch families’ work is preserving their land in a new era of Western travel.
It's a gorgeous summer day in a lush, green meadow at the base of the towering snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. Here on the eastern slope of the Sierras, not far from Yosemite National Park, the rumble of hoofbeats fills the air as a dozen riders gallop by on well-trained horses through tall grass, splashing through puddles of mountain runoff along the way.
These fortunate few are riding on a ranch founded back in 1861 by Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill. He was one of the lucky ones who came West in the California Gold Rush and actually found gold. Hunewill bought a cattle ranch, where he raised beef for the hungry miners in the nearby Wild West boomtown of Bodie. Fast forward to the Great Depression. In the 1930s, cattle were selling for 3 cents a pound, according to family lore. Hunewill’s descendants were going broke. In desperation, they began taking paying guests to save the ranch. It worked. And horseback vacations at Hunewill Ranch have since become a treasured tradition for families all over the country.
The Hunewills are among the many members of the Dude Ranchers’ Association (DRA) who’ve kept their ranch alive, and in the family, by passing it down from one generation to the next. As the DRA approaches its 100th birthday in 2026, the torches are still being passed in a variety of ways. Here’s a look at how a few ranch families are preserving their piece of Western paradise, allowing the rest of us to experience a vacation like no other.
A seventh generation of the Hunewill family is now growing up on the ranch, located just outside Bridgeport, California, two hours south of Reno, Nevada. With 4,500 private acres plus tens of thousands more acres of state and federal land, 180 horses, and 1,200 cattle, there’s room to spare for the maximum 45 guests at a time to spread out on horseback. Riding is the focus here, and loping is encouraged. The excellent horseback instruction gets newcomers, including children, up to speed in a hurry. There are also opportunities to push cattle during a stay, and weeklong cattle drives are offered in the fall.
Now in her 80s, matriarch Jan Hunewill is the last of the fourth generation. Her son Jeff, the ranch’s general manager, oversees the cattle operation with his daughter Leslie. Leslie also co-runs the breeding program with Jan’s daughter Megan, who also heads up the riding program. Jan’s other daughter, Betsy, runs the office and Jeff’s wife, Megan, handles the books. Getting up close and personal with the season’s new foals is a weekly treat for guests.
GRATEFUL: “I have a lot of friends who tell me, ‘You’re so lucky to have grown up there!’ And I feel the same way,” shares Leslie. “So it’s a big job. But somebody’s gotta do it. And I’m glad that that somebody is myself, my brother, and my cousins.”
FAMILY TIES: Guests often say a week with the Hunewills makes them feel like part of the family as well. “It’s like ‘old home week’ every week when people come back. I love that about it,” smiles Jan. “Someone said to me the other night, ‘You have a great business here.’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s a lot more than a business.’”
KEEPING THE PEACE, PASSING THE TORCH: The Hunewills have long held a weekly family meeting to keep the ties that bind firmly in place. It’s obviously working well. “I think we like what we do. We like each other. We like this place!” laughs Megan. “So I think we all feel like it’s a gift to work here, and to make it viable for the next generation, to keep this place going, as a gift for our kids, and as a gift for the people who come here.”
Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
Located just outside Yellowstone National Park, Montana’s Nine Quarter Circle Ranch is tucked away in a beautiful canyon that was once a hideout for outlaws. Here along the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River, a Chicago family took over the ranch in the early 1900s and built the massive log lodge and its twin stone fireplaces. But the Great Depression and World War II left the place vacant for years. Howard Kelsey brought the ranch back to life in the mid-1940s and began the ranch’s tradition of raising exclusively Appaloosa horses, the breed made famous by the Nez Perce Tribe, who rode through this area during their war with the U.S. Army in the summer of 1877.
Yellowstone and the surrounding Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are a major draw for Nine Quarter guests. Those who want to enjoy guided fly fishing have the pristine Taylor Fork almost all to themselves. Most of the 50 guests at a time spend their days riding Appaloosas on seemingly endless trails crossing both the ranch’s private land and public land. It’s not unusual to see a moose from the saddle, in the wild country surrounding the ranch that calls itself “a place where time stands still.”
Time does march on. In 2020, Howard’s grandson Kameron and his wife Sally became the third generation of Kelseys to take the reins at the Nine Quarter Circle, after Kameron’s parents, Kim and Kelly, retired. And the young couple’s daughter Anna is the start of generation four.
TAKING OVER: “It’s been a really great thing and a fun, easy transition with the folks,” Kameron says. “I’m extremely honored and humbled to do it, and I hope that I can continue on the legacy that my family has created here.”
THE LURE OF THE WEST: “People always seem to be drawn to that,” says Kameron. “They aspire to be riding a horse on the range. And that history is huge! That’s a big reason people come to our location … the history and the Yellowstone Valley. That’s what dude ranching is trying to do: keep that West alive.”
BIGGEST SATISFACTION: “You take ’em on an overnight pack trip and sit around the campfire and look at the stars, and ride a horse up there — it just opens up their imagination. And watching that happen, it soothes the heart.”
FAVORITE PLACE: “The Lee Metcalf Wilderness. There’s some pretty special lakes and places up there that are just amazing. They’ll just take your breath away. Get there on a big bluebird day, and it’s nice out, and you’re riding a horse. … It’s pretty spectacular.”
Three Bars Guest Ranch
Dude ranching runs in Tyler Beckley’s blood. His grandparents were longtime leaders of the DRA. Tyler’s mother April grew up trick-riding on a dude ranch in Idaho. Dad Jeff rode broncs in rodeo. The couple built and sold the Top of the World dude ranch in British Columbia, then took a junk-strewn nearby property and transformed it into Three Bars Ranch, which opened in 1992. South of Banff and north of Glacier National Park, Tyler now manages “the adventure ranch of the Canadian Rockies.” Three Bars offers river rafting, shooting sports, fly fishing, ATV adventures, mountain biking, and archery. Horseback riding remains the core activity, with 35,000 acres of public and private land to roam. Three Bars runs cattle too. Plus, Tyler’s brother Jesse, a world-class reining horse trainer, offers guests a weekly peek inside his competitive world. Jesse’s training operation is on the 2,000-acre ranch headquarters, where the three Beckley families all live. Any and all can pitch in to help the dude ranch when needed.
FAVORITE ACTIVITY: “I’m spoiled,” admits Tyler. “I get to do something different every day. It’s hard for me to pick one. I have a cool job because I get to help people experience those things — and lots of times, for the first time. Obviously, the horse program, that’s our core and always will be our core. Far and away, I would say that’s my favorite. But it’s cool to combine that program with other experiences.”
NEXT-GEN DRA: “I’ve been going to the DRA convention since I was a little kid,” says the 41-year-old. “Even into my early 30s, I was the youngest guy there by far. But I would say in the last five years, there’s lots of people my age and much, much younger than me. I think we really are seeing kind of a transfer over to that next generation. And I’m enthused about it. There are some really highly qualified operators out there.”
ENDURING TRADITION: “The cool part about our business is as much as it evolves, as much as it changes, the core stays the same — that horsemanship aspect and authenticity, that part stays the same. And while my parents have very little expertise or advice on digital marketing campaigns, they’re still my go-to when it comes to anything that has to do with the horse program or the actual running of the ranch.”
Touted as the original dude ranch, Eatons’ Ranch believes they are one of the last few dude ranches that let guests go riding without a guide. Brothers Howard, Willis, and Alden Eaton founded a horse and cattle outfit near Medora, North Dakota, in 1879, and soon had so many visitors from the east, they had to charge for their hospitality. Dude ranching was born.
Having relocated to Wyoming in 1904, Alden’s 80-year-old great-grandson Frank Eaton — along with his cousins Bill and TJ Ferguson, who are in charge of the barn and the family’s other ranch 100 miles away — is the last of the fourth generation of the family still on the ranch. While there is fishing, hiking, archery, and trap shooting, horseback riding is the favorite way for the 100-plus weekly guests to explore the ranch’s 7,000 private acres outside Sheridan, Wyoming. There’s even more room to roam on the adjacent Bighorn National Forest. Now semi-retired, Frank — along with Bill and TJ — ran the corral for years, where qualified guests are allowed to ride the range on their own. Frank’s daughter Mary is among the half-dozen fourth- and fifth-generation family members who today care for this living legacy, helped out by a summer staff of about 50 hired hands.
RIDE WITHOUT A GUIDE: Newcomers always start with a wrangler, and guides are always available for any rider who wants one. But the chance to saddle up and take off on your own is a major draw. “Because a lot of them are experienced riders,” says Mary of her visitors. “To have that opportunity to go experience the Western lifestyle without a guide is the way it should be.”
Headquartered in Wolf, Wyoming, along the Bighorn Mountains, Eatons’ offers spectacular country to see on horseback. “They can go riding in the mountains, or the foothills, or on the flats,” tells Frank. “They’ve got a great place to do all types of riding or hiking.”
FRANK’S FAVORITE: “The people I’ve met. We’ve had so many guests, or ‘dudes,’ as we call ’em, that are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation. And they love it and keep coming back, and their kids come back.”
SURVIVING SINCE 1879: “I think a lot of it is having the people born into the family wanting to stay here and work on it. And most of ’em, they enjoyed it, and they’ve grown up with it, and that’s what they want to do,” says Frank, adding, “The people that were taking over knew what they were doing. I didn’t have to worry that much.”
THE TRAIL AHEAD: “It’s a big deal,” declares Mary. “It’s an important thing to carry on and teach our kids so they can carry it on as well. The Western lifestyle is important for people actually to disconnect and reconnect as a family.”
BORN LUCKY: “Growing up, people always asked why we never went to summer camp,” Mary recalls. “And I always would say, ‘We’re at a summer camp!’ And that’s what I love about it.”
The DRA Way
Even the DRA is passing the torch. Longtime DRA executive director Colleen Hodson recently retired, handing the reins to 24-year-old Bryce Albright. “I loved my job, everything about it,” says Hodson. “But it was just time for new blood to come in. This is an ever-changing world and we have to change with it, for the ranches to stay successful and relevant.”
Albright grew up active in Future Farmers of America and spent seven summers working her way up from housekeeping to wrangler on the CM Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming. She’s passionate about dude ranching. “Getting to see the Western way of life instilled in people from around the world,” she reflects, “it’s incredible to see people transformed throughout the week and really appreciate this way of life.”
Those entrusted with this unique and treasured industry face the challenge of preserving cherished Western traditions, while competing, marketing, and messaging in the ever-changing digital age. Not to mention mucking stalls, saddling horses, running a first-class hotel and restaurant, and all the other hard work it takes to keep a ranch running and customers happy. Not easy. But the next generation of dude ranchers are more than ready to carry on what, as Jan Hunewill says, is much more than a business. “I get to work with some pretty incredible people that all have a common goal,” says Albright. “Keep the Western way of life alive.” — M.B.
Flathead Lake Lodge
Les Averill spent World War II ferrying bombers across the Atlantic Ocean, with lots of time to dream about the abandoned boy’s camp on the other side of Flathead Lake from where he grew up. He returned home to Montana in 1945, bought the property outside Bigfork, and, after horse-logging the land and other backbreaking work, created one of the West’s most unique dude ranches. With 60 private acres of manicured lakefront lawn and 1,500 more to ride horseback, Flathead Lake Lodge is the only DRA ranch where you can spend the morning in the saddle and the afternoon cruising the water on a vintage 51-foot sailboat. Flathead operates two restored 1920s-era racing sailboats created by famed boat designer L. Francis Herreshoff. The twin lodges on the property were built in 1932. And the ranch owns a collection of antique vehicles, including four fully operable fire engines.
Over the years, the 120 guests per week have often included celebrities. But Flathead is known for its old-fashioned Western hospitality, making even the famous feel right at home. Chase and Kate Averill are now the third generation to skipper the lakefront ranch, which added a 10-mile banked mountain bike track to its offerings of watersports, fly fishing, whitewater rafting, or a day trip to nearby Glacier National Park (offered in conjunction with Sun Tours).
TRADITION: “Not much has changed in a lot of years, and that’s part of what makes the place special,” says Chase. “It’s a little bit of a step back in time.”
THE BUGSY SIEGEL STORY: “One fall day, a big black Cadillac pulled in and my grandfather Les [was asked] if they could stay for a month or two. He obliged and ended up taking them into the wilderness on a quote-unquote hunting pack trip for another month. And they kind of paid his bills for the winter. He had no idea who they were but found out later as people came around looking for them. There’s lots of fun old stories. This part of the world was pretty remote back then.”
WELCOME HOME: “We’re blessed to have cool old historic lodges and have all the lake activity. But it really just comes down to the way people are treated here. It’s good old honest Western hospitality. We still operate very much like a 10-person ‘mom-and-pop’ ranch. It’s very much that approach. This is our home, and we’re welcoming these guests into our home. Our staff really buys into that. Even though there’s 120 guests, there still is a very informal, home feeling to the place.”
FAVORITE THING: “It allows us to keep from having to grow up! Our whole thing is we’re sharing this place and these experiences with our guests. And we’re just having fun doing it. But it’s definitely the people. That’s what makes this style of vacation special. You get a week with your guests in a very personal and genuine and informal environment. Our goal is to build a relationship with them. We want to get to know our guests on a personal level. So they become a lot more than a guest. They become a part of the Flathead Lake Lodge family.”
Photography: Courtesy Hunewill Ranch, Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, Three Bars Guest Ranch, Eaton's Ranch, and Flathead Lake Lodge
From our April 2021 issue