Family escape to a Tucson ranch
When the last dreary days of winter linger, there’s nothing better than a trip that promises warm sun and clear blue skies. Tucson, Arizona, is renowned for its superb weather, boasting over 300 days of sunshine a year, more than any city in the U.S. The air is remarkably dry with low humidity and even though daytime temperatures can soar to 80 degrees, the temperature drops at sunset providing cool, comfortable evenings.
Saguaro National Park
Tucson lies in the Sonoran Desert, a lush desert as far as deserts go due to the eleven inches of rain the area receives on average annually. As a result, over 1,300 kinds of plants and 300 species of animals are indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, most notable of them, the magnificent saguaro cactus. This sentinel-like cactus has come to symbolize the southwest and is native only to Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. The saguaro is 50 years old before it produces its first arm and some are over 50 feet tall and over 200 years old.
Saguaro National Park, encompassing over 90,000 acres east and west of Tucson, is a preserve for the largest concentration of saguaro. Visitors Centers tell its fascinating story and both east and west sides of the park offer scenic loop drives, hiking and bike trails, and ranger-led interpretive programs.
Tanque Verde Ranch
The vast desert landscape cries out for horses, cowboys, ranches and such, and we found them all at the historic Tanque Verde Ranch just outside Tucson. Speedway Avenue, a major Tucson thoroughfare, narrows a few miles past town, then abruptly ends at the Douglas Spring trailhead for Saguaro National Park and a discrete sign marks the entrance to Tanque Verde Ranch. The setting could not be more spectacular. We were in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains, bordered by Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest, and the desert lay before us dressed in its spectacular colors of spring— blossoms of magenta, orange, purple and gold bursting from the cactuses.
The Tanque Verde Ranch was founded in 1868 and now serves the tourist industry as a four star resort. The main buildings retain their rustic charm with high ceilings, timber beams, and wide plank floors. Seventy-six adobe casitas in clusters of three and four are built up the desert hillside. Accommodations are comfortable, many with fireplaces, all with porches or patios and bird feeders, and, pleasantly, no TV. Ranch facilities include outdoor and indoor pools, children’s outdoor wading pool, tennis courts, whirlpool, sauna, exercise room, spa, nature center, group meeting rooms and Arizona’s largest riding stable.
There are more than 180 trained horses at the ranch. Morning and afternoon rides are offered daily divided into scenic, walking rides and advanced “fast” rides, encompassing walking, trotting, and cantering. Beginning, intermediate and loping instruction is also offered.
All riders who want to join the “fast” loping ride, regardless of previous riding experience, must pass a lope check given by the wranglers. So began the challenge for my husband and a group of other experienced riders. While they had hoped for a stress-free vacation, demonstrating competent horse skills and passing the lope check proved to be much more difficult than they anticipated. The wranglers were tough and some seemed to revel in failing the cocky city slickers who envisioned themselves expert cowboys. Every morning and evening, the group assembled for their scheduled lope check, and every morning and evening for two days, they failed and resolutely practiced more. While this had the potential to make for a frustrating vacation, the struggling lopers relived their trials each evening around the pool and became a close-knit group who shared lots of laughs and many exhilarating rides once they successfully passed.
Miles of riding and hiking trails wind through the ranch’s 640 acres and adjacent National Park. The horses climb steep, narrow trails to majestic overlooks. Loping riders journey off the desert trails to gallop through washes and forests. As the lopers quickly learned, the wranglers’ caution on the lope check was not unfounded as the horses are spirited, responsive and the trails challenging. Riders can request a favorite horse if available.
The ranch also offers many non-riding activities including tennis, guided hikes, yoga and wellness activities, mountain biking, nature walks and programs, fishing and art workshops. Upon check-in, guests receive a full schedule of activities for the week.
A supervised children’s program runs daily for ages 4 to teens. Twelve-year-olds have the option of participating in the children’s program or in adult lessons and rides. Buckaroo Kids for ages 4-6 have basic riding lessons in the morning and afternoon in the children’s arena. Depending on the level and ability of the child, parents may be asked to assist their children during scheduled corral riding times.
Older kids participate in a more active riding program with daily riding lessons as well as basic and advanced rides. Children cannot go on adult rides, but parents are welcome to ride with their children. Children are not given lope tests, but may be advanced into loping lessons by the counselors. In addition to riding, the children’s program offers arts and crafts, tennis, swimming, games, sports and nature programs. Our 11-year-old’s mission of spotting reptiles of any kind was fulfilled when he found two rattlesnakes, many lizards, horned toads and gila monsters on the trail.
Guests share large tables in the dining room which made meals especially enjoyable and enhanced the ranch’s friendly, community environment. Breakfast included a buffet of juices, fruits, yogurts, breads and cereals plus standard breakfast items ordered from a menu. The extravagant buffet lunch, also popular with Tucson residents, included a choice of entrees, vegetables, soup, extensive salad bar and dessert table. Restaurant service is provided at dinner. Weekly dining events include an outdoor barbecue, breakfast ride and Mexican Fiesta buffet.
Children have their own dining room, supervised by a counselor for breakfast and lunch. After the first day of camp, our children were eager to leave us and join new friends in their own space.
Rates at Tanque Verde Ranch are all inclusive and include three meals daily, snacks, horseback riding, outdoor BBQs, indoor and outdoor pools, guided hikes, nature activities, children’s program, tennis and entertainment/evening programs. Check online for packages including kids-stay-free, off-season discounts, holiday packages and last minute deals.
For any family interested in riding, or intrigued by the spirit of the Old West, a dude ranch vacation will surely become one of your most memorable experiences together.
For more information about Tanque Verde Ranch and other western guest ranches, see Fast Facts below.
Photos courtesy Tanque Verde Ranch and Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau
- Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 East Speedway
Tucson, AZ 85748
- The Arizona Dude Ranch Association
P.O. Box 603
Cortaro, AZ 85652
- Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association
P.O. Box D
Shawnee, CO 80475
- The Dude Ranchers Association
P.O. Box 2307
1122 12th St.
Cody, WY 82414
- Grand County Dude & Guest Ranch Association
Grand County, Colorado
- Saguaro National Park
3693 South Old Spanish Trail
Tucson, AZ 85730
Rincon Mountain District Visitor Center
Tucson Mountain District Visitor Center
2700 N. Kinney Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85743