My Wild West Adventure

As much as I love a lazy beach vacation, and I do, my most memorable trips have all delivered some kind of unique experience or exciting adventure. New to my list of destinations that rank high in both departments: the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, AZ, which I had the pleasure of visiting a few weeks ago. This dude ranch—the largest in the country—sits in the Sonoran Desert, in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. After a 20-minute drive from the airport, I immediately set down my bags and soaked up the beautiful cactus-spotted landscape from a chaise on my hacienda suite’s private patio. Inside, my large room featured tall windows that framed the same fab view, a jetted tub (sweet!), and a charming adobe fireplace. Sigh. I could get used to ranch life!

First up for the group I traveled with was a sunset trail ride and drinks at the Dog House Saloon. Looking around the rustic bar and taking in the lively conversation, it was clear that this is where friends meet to grab a cold one or house favorite, like the prickly pear margarita, and exchange tales of the day’s adventures. With over 160 horses in the corral, the riding activities—lessons, trail rides, team penning competitions—are the highlight for most guests, and the source of lots of great stories. Curious to know how the smallest cowboys and cowgirls fit in here, I set out the next day to learn about the kids program I’d been hearing about.

Morning brought a longstanding tradition on the ranch: a breakfast cookout at the Old Homestead featuring the best blueberry pancakes I’ve ever had and scrambled eggs loaded with Southwest flavor. Tummy full and sunscreen lathered on thick—man, that desert sun gets blazing hot early!—I popped by the arena to watch a group of children mount horses for a lesson. I learned that the kids program offers hours of activities—riding, arts & crafts, nature walks, fishing—each day for children 4 to 12. A family vacation that caters to kids, giving parents time for… whatever they want? Yee haw!

From the comfort of shaded stands, I later watched ranch guests compete in Funkana, timed events that test riders’ ability to navigate obstacles on horseback. The whole thing was wildly entertaining, especially at the end, when one of the ranch’s own cowboys gave cheering spectators a taste of what they call “redneck surfing.” Balancing on a “surfboard” of old railroad planks, he was pulled by two horses around the same Funkana course guests had just completed (check out the picture). No wipeouts!

Day three started with an early tennis lesson, and after improving my rusty backhand, a mountain bike ride. This was one of those adrenaline-rushing experiences I’m happy to have had, but it became obvious quite quickly that weaving around cacti is not something I’m particularly good at! It was cool to bike in the desert, though, and see some wildlife and vegetation up close. Okay, very up close at times. I had a couple of near run-ins with some prickly succulents, but all potentially ugly collisions were averted. Phew! After a dip in the pool, my group met again for a nature walk, led by a seriously knowledgeable guide. We learned all about the plants that call the Sonoran Desert home, and got to observe several kinds of birds up close when our guide lured them over with birdseed.

In the evening, our last at the ranch, we headed to the Cottonwood Grove for a cookout, which was a fantastic end to our stay. We dined on grilled chicken, creamed corn, baked potatoes and corn bread with honey butter—everything you’d expect from a ranch barbecue. Dessert didn’t fall short either: fruit cobbler baked in an outdoor woodstove. As the sky turned an inky black and the stars (so many stars!) appeared, the surfing cowboy came back, this time to give dance lessons. A group line dance was a fitting finale to my stay at the Tanque Verde Ranch, and a fun farewell to all the new friends I’d made.

Tanque Verde Ranch, high season rates start at $225 per person, per night, and include accommodations, three meals daily, all pre-scheduled daily activities and the kids program.

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