From lessons in riding and leather-working to fine wine and Wi-Fi, Arizona dude ranches offer a stable of challenges and creature comforts.
Tomorrow, you may be walking funny. But are sore thighs such a steep price to pay for crisp air, rustic adventure and unspoiled Western terrain? At Arizona’s growing circle of Western-style cowboy resorts, otherwise known as “dude ranches,” visitors can saddle up and gallop across the grasslands of southern Arizona, over the White Mountains’ snow-sheeted forests, and through the hoodoo-studded hideaways of the Chiricahuas. Then ease your saddle-chapped rear into a restaurant chair for haute-ranch cuisine – or just kick back on the porch, drink in the frontier views and remember what silence sounds like.
Tanque Verde Ranch
It’s a crisp, temptingly beautiful 70-degree winter morning in Tucson. Rubbing a soon-to-be saddled horse with a rubber curry to loosen dirt and debris, one is lost in reverie – until wrangler Karen Powers barks out instructions to our greenhorn horse-grooming group: “Work in a circular motion. Put in some elbow grease. When you’re done brushing your horse, your arm should be tired.”
With mild, sunny weather from October to June, Tanque Verde Ranch offers a world-class Wild West getaway in the shadow of the rugged Rincon Mountains, between Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest. A riding menu of dude ranch staples includes walking and loping trail excursions through saguaro-studded paths on 60,000 acres. Add-on packages for first-timers or riders recovering from traumatic experiences are also available.
Should you suffer sudden-onset bowleggedness, the ranch offers an on-site spa to relieve tired limbs. There’s also a lake stocked with largemouth bass, catfish and bluegill, and the cozy Red Dog Saloon – complete with beer brewed exclusively for Tanque Verde Ranch.
Northern European visitors comprise roughly one-quarter of the guest ledger, a demographic quirk made more entertaining during dinners at the ranch’s community tables. Dining room windows offer sweeping desert views, but don’t forget to look up. Saguaro root ceiling construction lends authenticity to grounds already teeming with desert flora and fauna.
Side trip: Soak in scenery with a tram ride at nearby Sabino Canyon (sabinocanyon.com).
Holiday events: Not finalized as of press time. Visit tanqueverderanch.com and click on “Activity Schedule” for an updated daily schedule.
Elevation: 2,800 feet
All-inclusive rates: $395-$1,095 per night depending on lodging selection and season (based on double occupancy).
Kids’ activities: Daily kids’ program, with riding lessons, for ages 4-12
Circle Z Ranch
Steer your wagon toward the Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, where you’re as apt to spot a blue heron perched under creekside cottonwoods as you are to climb craggy cliffs en route to adobe ruins. Upon arrival, an expansive, lush lawn serves as the hub of a wagon-wheel-shaped property from which intimate cottages and riding trails radiate across 6,500 acres of ranch land. With direct access to more than two miles of Sonoita Creek, naturalists and riders appreciate Circle Z for its luxurious silence and sundry landscapes.
After you get your feet wet, dust up your boots. One guided horseback ride lets guests gallivant through the grasslands of San Raphael Valley, where parts of the movie Oklahoma! were filmed. Another splashes through Sonoita Creek and ascends to sun-swept ridgeline views. Circle Z tailors rides to guests’ tastes – sometimes quite literally, with the popular lunchtime lope to Patagonia’s only saloon, the Wagon Wheel.
“It’s like living in the old West. Saddle up your horse, ride up to the bar, and then ride home,” says manager Pamela Soper.
The Circle Z has entertained dude ranchers every winter since 1926, and the folks here don’t cotton to any newfangled modernity: Meals are served buffet-style and rooms are uncomplicated and unplugged. So, snuggle up with Riders of the Purple Sage and soak in an idealized image of the American frontier – one not so different from the creekside quietude you’re experiencing.
Side trip: Visit the wineries in nearby Sonoita (arizonawine.org/sonoitaWineTrail.html).
Holiday events: Holiday-themed music and meals
Elevation: 4,000 feet
All-inclusive rates: $235-$280 per night; $1,410-$1,685 per week (based on double occupancy). Child rates available.
Kids’ activities: Child rides, kids’ cantina, tennis, ping-pong and basketball
Rancho De La Osa
Pairing exotic wines with epicurean prowess (think pork tenderloin with raspberry-chipotle sauce), Rancho De La Osa is a food ranch masquerading as a dude ranch. Chef/owner Veronica Schultz serves her Southwestern cuisine in a hacienda-style dining room bathed in nine shades of red – colors her husband, Richard Schultz, selected to flatter guests’ skin tones under candlelight.
Careful consideration drives every aspect of this Mexican-style ranch, which traces its history to a mission outpost founded by 17th-century European explorer and missionary Father Eusebio Kino, and was pockmarked by Pancho Villa’s bullets during the Mexican Revolution. Each of the ranch’s 19 comfortable, cozy, antique-decorated rooms features a porch with mountain views.
When adventure beckons, “our guests go out, have the casual horseback experience and do the yippie-i-oh thing,” Richard says. Twice a day, two-hour guided horseback rides take guests along rocky uplands and high Sonoran desert grassland that tumbles along 100,000 riding acres north of the Mexican border.
But horses aren’t the only ones getting hitched at this romantic ranch. The Schultzes eloped 30 years ago and afford their guests the same flight of fancy with their popular “elopement package,” complete with ceremonial post-wedding mission bell ringing and lodging in the spacious Territorial Suite.
Saddle up posthaste for this siren call of the wilderness. The ranch is for sale, which Richard owes as much to the couple’s advancing age as their desire to test the real estate market.
Side trip: Visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center on the adjacent Tohono O’odham Reservation (noao.edu/kpno).
Holiday events: Southwestern turkey feast on Christmas Eve, followed by Santa’s arrival – on horseback, of course – with presents for guests.
Elevation: 3,800 feet
All-inclusive rates: $240-$275 per night per person; $1,500-$1,750 per week per person (based on double occupancy).
Kids’ activities: None
On the eastern side of the Chiricahua Mountains, Craig Lawson leans against a pine pillar at the guest house on his 245-acre dude ranch, romanticizing the resilience of this “last, great American Western frontier.” Outwardly, he channels a leathery, likeable Jack Palance presence, one who might rumble about the secret of life being about “one thing – just one thing.”
At Hideout Ranch, that “one thing” is riding. “We’re not a spa. We focus on riding. We want guests to leave here feeling like real cowboys,” Lawson says. “We’re riding the trails that Cochise and Geronimo rode, and we may be the only ones who have been on them since.”
Lawson and his wife, Tamara, live 50 miles from the nearest traffic light, in a converted barn she expects would give Martha Stewart an aneurysm. With 28 horses, two donkeys, two goats and a guest house, the ranch carves a niche that big outfits can’t offer on the nose-to-tail trail: one-on-one instruction.
“Western riding is not just sitting in the saddle going forward,” Lawson says. Sit up. Sit back. Open your shoulders. Relax your hips. Heels down. You’ll rehearse the litany in your hard-earned sleep after hours of hoofing through eastern Chiricahua canyons, Fort Bowie, Cochise Stronghold, or Skeleton Canyon, where mighty Geronimo surrendered. Rides are tailored, personal and hands-on, with an option to pack cowboy rolls and sleep near a crackling campfire.
Side trip: Stop at the roadside monument commemorating Geronimo’s surrender, off Highway 80 at mile marker 406.
Holiday events: Special holiday rates December 24-26 and December 30-January 1
Elevation: 4,700 feet
All-inclusive rates: $250-$275 per night per person; $1,402-$1,650 per week per person
Kids’ activities: None; no children younger than 12
Hidden Meadow Ranch
Desert dwellers dreaming of a white Christmas should head to this luxurious Greer retreat for five-star elegance and service in a sylvan setting. Owners Tim and Casey Bolinger and Gary and Jeanne Herberger take pampering to new altitudes. Snowing outside? Your windshield shall be scraped. Cold? Your fire shall be stacked, with wood delivered daily. In addition to fine linens and leather decor, each of the 13 cabins (three of which are pet-friendly) is furnished with XM radio and Wi-Fi.
With 150 acres of equestrian trails threading the surrounding 5,650-acre wildlife habitat area, Hidden Meadow arranges jaunts – weather permitting – through snow-powdered paths on some of their 40 horses. Guides also offer winter sleigh rides, ice fishing, target practice and excursions on Miss Piggy, a 24-passenger SnowCat that rumbles through back country for sledding, snowshoeing or libation-laden revelry.
Warm up afterward with wood- and leather-working or cooking lessons with the chef, who’s known for creating “Western mountain cuisine” delights like shrimp in avocado relish with spicy tequila sauce or achiote-marinated elk tenderloin with mushroom whiskey sauce.
Side trip: Go skiing at Sunrise Park Resort (sunriseskiparkaz.com).
Holiday events: Cabins are decorated for Christmas, and Santa brings presents to children; New Year’s Eve features gourmet food and wine, live music and a champagne toast.
Elevation: 8,500 feet
All-inclusive rates: $300-$545 per day (based on double occupancy), depending on package.
Kids’ activities: Arena riding lessons for kids 4 and older; supervised children’s program