Tom and Sue Murphy's dude ranch should be fully booked this time of year, their guests enjoying pastoral weeks of rafting, long horseback rides in the backcountry and evening hot springs soaks at 9,300 feet in the Rocky Mountains.
Instead, there are few vacationers moseying into the Murphys' Elk Mountain Ranch. Other family-operated dude ranches across the West this summer are also seeing declines in bookings amid the sour economy. These ranches often cater to city customers from the East and charge up to $1,800 for a one-week stay.
To compensate, ranches are offering cheaper group discounts, slashing children's rates and adding free amenities like massages. The Murphys, who during one recent week had just seven guests instead of the usual 30, are offering shorter stays, even though they fear it weakens what it means to stay at a dude ranch.
"We usually have tried to avoid those shorter trips because then you can't get the true experience we have to offer," Sue Murphy said. "It takes time for some guests to truly relax and get to know everyone and be comfortable. By the time they leave, they might just be getting into it."
Dude ranches in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Arizona are at 60 to 70 percent capacity this summer, according to the Cody, Wyo.-based Dude Ranchers' Association, which markets ranches both the rustic and ritzy.
"We are all pretty much family operated, so the bad news is we really don't make a lot of money," association President Russell True said.
Complicating their troubles: Dude ranches chiefly rely on word-of-mouth and repeat customers for business and cannot afford sophisticated marketing campaigns such as those employed by the ski industry.
"The most important way we all market is make our guests happy and get them to come back or spread the word," True said.
True, a second-generation owner of the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., said competing in the tourism industry is tough enough for ranches, but advertising their all-inclusive plans is even harder.
"At first blush, we look like a big ticket vacation," True said. "But most of those other vacations aren't including meals, lodging and entertainment, where we do."
A typical ranch stay costs from $1,500 to $1,800 per adult per week. Rates haven't risen more than 10 percent in the last decade, according to the DRA.
Then there are the upfront costs, notes Kristen Swanson, president of the Montana Dude Ranchers' Association.
"Dude ranching is a very unique business," she said. "We still have to gear up all the rooms and horses to get ready, no matter if we have just 5 or 10 guests. That's the way it's always been, and will continue to be, as long as we can."
Ranchers' troubles began last year. The Arizona Dude Ranches Association says it got a rush of cancellations when the stock market tanked, leaving plenty of empty beds last winter. The DRA, which represents 101 ranches in 12 states and two Canadian provinces, reported a 15 percent dip in average winter ranch income in 2008 compared to 2007.
Scott Dugan, president of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association and owner of the Tumbling River Ranch in central Colorado with his wife, Megan, said some dude ranches might not make it through another tough year.
The Colorado Trails Ranch in Durango decided to close this summer to concentrate on having a booked ranch through next year.
"We have been able to hang on because we've been doing it for so long," Dugan said. "We understand how to operate in hard times and just tighten up our belts a little more."
On a recent night at Elk Mountain, kitchen staff sang to Deana Carter's "Strawberry Wine" as they prepared supper for a handful of guests winding down after a half-day trail ride and campfire brunch. Murphy prepared to join her visitors for square dancing after the meal.
"It's just flat out fun," said Pat Sanders, 57, of Temple, Texas. "I love the Old West thing and the idea of trying to be a cowboy."