Culture / Out West

Western Adventure at Eatons’ Ranch

After 125 years of western hospitality, this Wyoming guest ranch still offers the freedom to ride on your own.

The rising sun slowly warms the top of the mountain pasture. A deer delicately walks across a shady hillside, pausing every few steps. A couple of wild turkeys soak up the rays while taking a morning stroll. Nature’s slowly waking on the eastern slope of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. The air is still and crisp.

Suddenly, from behind a ridge, sounds of whistles and yips mix with whinnies and blowing nostrils. A few minutes later, a rider appears, briefly silhouetted against the pale blue sky and followed by more than 100 horses. The colorful herd pours over the ridge crest and trots down the slope. The horses’ coats shine in the soft morning light. Two more wranglers bring up the rear. The herd soon reaches the hill bottom before disappearing under the trees and following a muddy trail running along the bottom of Wolf Creek Canyon. As they cross the creek, the wranglers’ whistling and the horses’ loud splashing echo through the woods. Once on the other side, horses and riders lope up the short trail leading to the corrals.

Another day begins at the Eatons’ Ranch, a Wyoming guest oper- ation that celebrated 125 years of ranch life and western hospitality last summer, making it the oldest guest ranch in the country.

Lured to the West

The ranch’s history began in 1869 when Howard Eaton, the oldest of three brothers, left his native Pennsylvania and traveled to the Missouri Breaks of North Dakota. For 10 years, Howard made his living by providing wild game for the railroads and guiding hunters from the East. By 1879, he started a cattle operation, the Custer Trail Ranch, near Medora, North Dakota.

The ranch was named after Lt. Col. George A. Custer, who camped there during the spring of 1876, en route to Montana and the Little Big Horn. Shortly after Howard arrived, brother Alden joined him, soon followed by their younger brother, Willis. The three brothers began hosting their numerous friends from the East, who ached for western adventure, giving them the opportunity to live the cowboy life.

Guests stayed for weeks at a time, riding, working cattle, helping with chores and hunting. Always generous and hospitable to friends and strangers alike, the Eatons found it increasingly difficult to feed and accommodate so many people. In 1881, one guest realized that the brothers’ endless hospitality was becoming a financial strain, and prevailed upon them to start charging for room and board, so “folks can stay as long as they like.”At that point, an industry was born and a tradition started.

By the early 1900s, the Eaton brothers started looking for more suitable and varied riding terrain for their ever-growing number of guests. Howard, who also led summer pack trips in Yellowstone and Montana, wanted to be closer to avoid the lengthy trip from Medora. The quest led the brothers to the eastern slopes of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains and Wolf Creek Valley, where they relocated in 1904. The Eatons announced they wouldn’t be open that year, as they had to build cabins and other structures. Nevertheless, 70 people showed up unexpectedly that summer, living in tents and lending a hand.

Tucked away at the end of the secluded Wolf Creek Canyon, outside Sheridan, Wyoming, the ranch, still operated by members of the Eaton family, offers its guests 7,200 acres of riding terrain with rolling hills, grassy meadows and hidden valleys. With a string of more than 200 horses, riding continues to be a crucial part of the ranch’s activity program. As guests gather by the century-old barn, considered the ranch’s heart, wranglers select mounts for the day, according to each guest’s riding ability. At the ranch, tradition prevails; horses are roped every morning from horseback, to the delight of the guests yearning for a taste of cowboy life.

Ever since Big Bill, Alden’s son, became famous for throwing a loop big enough to rope five riders at once, roping’s been part of the family tradition. Every August, the ranch’s annual team-roping competition draws a large crowd of guests and contestants.

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