City Slickers Meet Saguaros at Tucson’s Tanque Verde Ranch
When it comes to family adventure in Arizona, Tanque Verde Ranch, an upscale dude ranch set in the hills above Tucson, is a horse of a different color — up to 180 horses, actually, of many sizes and colors. In fact, there is such a wide variety of horses on the ranch, that the wrangler, who seemed to know each and every horse by name, located a perfect equine match for each human in our group, based on size, experience and personality.
All the horses at Tanque Verde are geldings, the working rancher’s mount of choice for their even temper. Mares are considered too moody, and stallions unpredictable. My college-aged son was brought a large, bay-colored quarter horse named Romeo. I was matched up with Othello, a gigantic black draft horse big enough to pull the Budweiser beer wagon through a blizzard by himself. He was so obviously enormous, and chosen just for me, that it felt a little awkward. Apparently, my cowboy outfit was not as slimming as I had thought. Only with the added height of the back porch was I able to climb aboard, and the view was amazing. I could see for miles from the back of Othello.
Located in the Rincon Mountain district (pictured above), Tanque Verde is made up of 640 acres, and it leases 60,000 more acres from the U.S. Forest Service. It borders the Saguaro National Park, a section of the Sonoran desert preserved for its giant saguaro cactus.
DESERT OASIS Jump in the pool at Tanque Verde for a refreshing cool-down after the morning ride. Remember to take your boots off.
In this setting, the ranch, which began as a cattle ranch in 1868, and became a dude ranch in 1928, offers a unique Old West escape from urban chaos and suburban malaise. It’s about as far from OC as you can get. There are no TVs in the rooms, which led to momentary shock upon that discovery and withdrawal pain for a few minutes the first evening, but we soon found ourselves talking about the day on the patio and counting shooting stars.
Once on the trail with Othello, we cruised cactus of all ilk: towering saguaros, barrel cactus, prickly pear, the fuzzy-barbed cholla, and the ocotillo, which is pretty much what an octopus would look like it if it were a cactus. We were at the tail end of the spring bloom, with scattered flowers along the trail. Othello nearly brushed us against several fat saguaros as we rode, and I wished I had a pair of leather chaps, but I never caught a saguaro thorn, thankfully. If I could choose one cactus not to fall in, it would be the cholla, whose spine tips have microscopic backward-pointing barbs, designed to stay embedded in the skin. I thought of this often — don’t dump me in the cholla, Othello — as our horses scrambled and riders tipped among rocky outcroppings. If you do catch a thorn, you can get your revenge at the end of the ride at The Doghouse, the ranch saloon, by ordering one or two of the Prickly Pear Margaritas.
The best time to be out is early — before breakfast — or during the two hours before the sun goes down, when the light softens, the colors brighten and the deer come out to eat. We liked the breakfast ride. We rode to a deserted homestead dwelling, where longtime Tanque Verde owner Bob Cote was flipping blueberry pancakes, serving them up with eggs, bacon and coffee — breakfast on the trail, chuck-wagon style.
GO WEST The writer and his son ride into the sunset.
In addition to trail rides are about a dozen different equine programs and activities for the entire family — the minimum age to ride is 4 years. “Harmony with Horses,” created by local horse “listener” Tom Chambers, offers city slickers an opportunity to experience the psychic bond with a horse from the ground up. (The affable Chambers also hosts “Cowboy Tales & Music” on Monday nights.) Team Penning tests one’s cattle herding skills while on horseback (herding, I discovered, is a tedious, slow-motion affair, by the way, and not at all like you see in the movies). But there are many activities and events where you are not on horseback, or at least you shouldn’t be, like the spa, mountain biking, and fishing at the lake on the ranch. Chef Justin Macy’s cuisine, prepared with fresh local ingredients, is healthy but still hearty fuel for the trail. And there are so many social activities on the schedule, that making friends is as easy as falling off a horse (well, maybe not the horses at Tanque Verde). The entire week felt like we were at summer camp, the kind where you don’t want to go home.
Summer brings low rates, and midday heat to Tanque Verde. But nights and mornings cool down to an average 74-77 degrees. Take the Breakfast Ride in the morning, hang out in the pool in the afternoon, and the Sunset Ride at sunset.
The Kids Stay Free package (two kids ages 4 – 11), June – Sept 30, starts at $450 a night, and includes all meals, supervised children’s program, horseback trail riding and lessons barbecue cookout and more. More details at www.tanqueverderanch.com
By Randall Tierney
The Grand Canyon Railway has been bringing passengers to the South Rim since 1901.
Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel
Just off historic Route 66 is the charming little town of Williams, AZ. Seen by many as the gateway to the South Rim, Williams is home to the Grand Canyon Railway. Train enthusiasts get primed for the experience upon checking into the Wild West-themed hotel, adjacent to the depot. From the decor in the massive lobby to the pillows on the comfy heds, embroidered with a train map of the trip to come, the whole family gets ready to ride the rails. Not only does this transpo option let you bypass lines of cars and take you across picturesque desert, forest and scrub landscape to spot elk, deer, fox and other critters enroute, but the trip kicks off with a bang as a comical cowboy show awaits the passengers.
The railway dates back to 1901 and offers a wide variety of ticket options for the 130 mile roundtrip. Memorial Day through Labor Day packages let kids stay free, eat free and ride free. www.thetrain.com
Get Along with your Little Doggies
Those making it a road trip from OC don’t have to leave Fido and Fluffy at home. Pets aren’t allowed in the National Park (except service animals), but guests of the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel have exclusive access to a very good on site Pet Resort, with individual rooms for canines and condos for kitties, each with their own lounging ledge next to a private window overlooking the pool and basketball courts. Pets can bring their own personal items with them, and enjoy soft music played in the background.
By Sascha Zuger