Hough was born in Newton, Iowa, and graduated from the University of Iowa with a law degree. He moved to White Oaks, New Mexico, and practiced law there but eventually turned to literary work by taking camping trips and writing about them for publication.
He is best known as a novelist, writing The Mississippi Bubble as well as The Covered Wagon, about Oregon Trail pioneers,which later became successful as a movie, running 59 weeks at the Criterion Theater in New York City, passing the record set by Birth of a Nation. Other notable works included Story of the Cowboy, Way of the West, Singing Mouse Stories, and Passing of the Frontier, and writing the "Out-of-Doors" column for the Saturday Evening Post.
He created two play treatments with L. Frank Baum:The Maid of Athens: A College Phantasy, and The King of Gee-Whiz. Neither of these was ever completed or staged, though the treatments can be found in The Musical Fantasies of L. Frank Baum, edited by Alla T. Ford.
Hough was also a conservationist, and was the catalyst behind a law passed by the U.S. Congress to protect the buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. He married Charlotte Chesebro of Chicago in 1897 and made that city his home.
Hough's hometown of Newton, Iowa has honored him by naming an elementary school in his honor, (across the street from his boyhood home, which is marked with a tablet by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution) as well as the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League.