Saddle Up at These Tucson Dude Ranches
Toss on your cowboy hat and boots, hoist yourself onto a horse, and hit the riding trails at these two long-running Arizona dude ranches.
My wrangler-guide, Matt Byrnes, looked back at me from his saddle as our two horses walked in line along a dusty trail flanked by towering cacti. “Ready to ride?” he asked. In an attempt to strike a cowboy-cool tone, I answered, “Yup.” At Brynes’s command, our horses took off like a pair of four-legged Ferraris, galloping down the trail and into the curves they had committed to memory. I clung to the saddle, feeling the power of the horse, and for a minute I was a cowboy riding to the rescue in an old Western movie. This is the experience at Tucson’s White Stallion Ranch, one of more than a dozen Dude Ranches in Arizona, where guests can sample the trappings of old cowboy life while enjoying the benefits of a full-service resort.
The term “dude” actually originated as an insult—what real cowboys called Eastern city folk back in the 1890s—clumsy overdressed posers who came out west acting like they knew it all. Since then, dude ranches have evolved to welcome visitors, both clumsy and skilled, with a variety of experiences ranging from high-end resorts with trail rides supplemented with spa treatments, to working cattle ranches with rugged horseback wilderness adventures.
The increasing popularity of experiential travel has been a boon for dude ranches, with singles, couples, and families all coming out to saddle up. The Tucson area, with its rich cattle ranching history, has long been a popular destination for dude ranches. And spring is a great time to get out and hit the trails before summer heats up.
Below are a couple of my favorite dude ranches near Tucson—great destinations for a weekend escape or a week-long cowboy adventure.
White Stallion Ranch
Near the edges of Saguaro National Park, White Stallion Ranch began as a working cattle ranch in the early twentieth century, first welcoming guests in the 1940s. Nowadays, the ranch covers 3,000 acres of facilities and trails, has 43 guest rooms, and owns one of the largest herds of horses in Arizona. With a flock this big, you know they can find one that’s just right for you to ride, from a calm, plodding trail-walker to an energetic loper eager to sprint into the sunset.
White Stallion offers lessons to both beginners and experienced riders, including cattle-penning training sure to awaken the cowboy within you. For those less serious about a future in wrangling, sign up for their Wine & Cheese rides or the Beer & Cheeto rides to enjoy a relaxing picnic in a stunning desert setting.
The highlight of my stay, aside from my gallop around the property, was attending White Stallion’s weekly rodeo. An exhibition rodeo rather than, say, competition style. This event shows off the talent of staff horsemanship in challenges like barrel racing, roping, and steer-wrestling.
After the horseback riding, the ranch cooks up cowboy-worthy outdoor barbecues to supplement the restaurant’s menu. After which you can swap tall tales in their western bar, catch a movie in their small theater, or shoot some pool in their rec room. A heated outdoor pool, hot tub, tennis courts and spa services complete the resort-side of the White Stallion dude ranch experience.
Tanque Verde Ranch
My family and I have been visiting the Tanque Verde Ranch just outside of Tucson for decades, ever since I was a kid. And we’re not the only regulars. On a recent trip, I spoke with one family who has been coming to the ranch annually for the last 55 years, now on their fourth generation of young riders getting into the saddle for trail rides.
At Tanque Verde, opened in 1921, ranch cattle still graze across 60,000 acres of leased U.S. Forest Service lands, but the main business is now hosting guests on its 640-acre property. A large corral complex with 150-plus horses and a big team of wranglers gives Tanque Verde the feel of a cavalry training operation. Riding classes are offered for beginning and advanced riders, after which you can show off your skills in walking, loping and adventure rides around the nearby hills.
Left unchanged since my youth, the breakfast cowboy cookout means taking a trail ride to a clearing with a covered wagon surrounded by picnic tables and cast-iron griddles. There, staff cook up flapjacks and dispense coffee and hot chocolate as they wave away excess smoke with their cowboy hats. The aroma of sizzling bacon and smoke from mesquite-fueled fires mix with the scent of sagebrush scrub and dusty horses.
These days, Tanque Verde has developed into a full-service resort, with an expansive menu of daily activities including mountain biking, tennis, yoga, archery, riflery, and even silversmithing workshops. The rooms are mostly still rustic, but you won’t be spending a lot of time there with all the action going on. One Tanque Verde tradition that has endured though is the communal dining. Large tables in the main lodge have hosted generations of guests who continue to share stories of their cowboy adventures along Tucson’s Sonoran desert trails.