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Dude ranches usually bring to mind images of cattle drives and horse rides across expansive high plateaus in states like Montana or Wyoming. The Dude Ranchers Association lists 22 member ranches in Montana, and 29 association ranches in Wyoming. In contrast, there are three Dude Ranch Association members in California.

Why are there so few guest ranches / dude ranches in California compared to some other states? My presumption is that there are several causes for the disparity in numbers. The first point coming to my mind is a possible disparity in the cost of land in the various states. A quick internet search shows the average price for an acre of Montana pasture land was $580 in 2012, according to “Agweek”, and the average price for pastureland in California was $2800 per acre. With dude ranches needing to either own land, lease land or rent large tracts of land to ride on, this kind of overhead disparity could easily be a prime cause for the smaller numbers of California ranches.

I also wonder about the difficulty of doing business in the various states. Here is what is said about California’s business climate, as it shows in position #3 for states with the worst tax climate for business:


  1. California
    > State sales tax rate: 7.50% (the highest)
    > Property taxes collected per capita: $1,426 (19th highest)
    > Unemployment rate: 8.9% (4th highest)
    > Top income tax rate: 13.30%


By contrast, Wyoming comes in at first place for the most business friendly:

  1. Wyoming

> Taxes collected per capita: $4,347 (3rd highest)
> Unemployment: 4.6% (tied-5th lowest)
> Corporate taxes collected per capita: $0 (tied-the least)
> Sales tax rate: 4.00% (tied-7th lowest)

Montana came in at position #7 for most business friendly:

  1. Montana
    > Taxes collected per capita: $2,316 (23rd lowest)
    > Unemployment: 5.3% (tied-11th lowest)
    > Corporate taxes collected per capita: $125 (21st highest)
    > Sales tax rate: 0.00% (tied-the lowest)

(Read more: The Most Tax-Friendly States For Business – 24/7 Wall St.
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A third point might well have to do with dude ranching traditions. The origins of dude ranching relate to early 20th century urbanites who choose to vacation in rural settings to experience the authentic “cowboy life”. While there certainly is a cowboy presence and a rural experience to be had in California, it might be that there is less available rural land in California that is amenable to supporting the dude ranch experience.

From my perspective, here at California’s Marble Mountain Ranch, we operate a dude ranch on a comparatively small piece of ranch land. Marble Mountain Ranch itself, is just 65 acres in size, yet we access nearly a quarter million acres of public lands for the purposes of riding, packing, rafting and guided fishing. The resources are seemingly held in the public trust at a much larger scale in California, than in states like Wyoming and Montana. One example that illustrates this point is a Shell Wyoming dude ranch listing 300,000 deeded acres in it’s ranch operations. The larger operating California dude ranches list acreages at 10,000 acres and 26,000 acres.

California Dude Ranch Surrounded by Klamath National Forest

California Dude Ranch Arial View

So, if business is tough to conduct in California, if larger tracts of land are less available for purchase in California, and if the price of land in California is orders of magnitude more expensive than mid-western states, you might just see fewer dude ranches in California.

Despite the difficulties for ranching in California, there might well be a strategic advantage for operating in the sunshine state on smaller tracts of deeded land. With the extremely high California tax rates, a lower tax base, and lower operating expense can be achieved by letting the government own and manage the land that you operate on! So, this leads me to another topic to be discussed at a future date. How do you operate a dude ranch with the BLM, the California State Parks, and the United States Forest Service “special use permit system” as a method to access public lands for business purposes. Wow, that’s got to be an exciting topic!


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