Travel Photo Credit: Graddy Photography

Happy Trails: 48 Hours in Tucson

A stone’s throw from Tucson, the historic ranch of your dreams awaits.

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It’s 7:45 a.m. and we’re already in the saddle, guiding a string of horses up the shoulder of Arizona’s Rincon Mountains. It’s an early start, but worth it: the sky is incandescent, the desert scrub a soft grey punctuated by hundreds of saguaro. We can see forever. My mount, a palomino named Dorado, picks his way across dry washes that only a few weeks ago were rushing cataracts distributing half the area’s 30 centimetres of annual rain in a matter of days. Our destination winks in and out of sight across the gullies: the circa-1868 homestead house of Tanque Verde Ranch.

When we crest the final ridge, owner Bob Cote greets us from behind the outdoor grill where he’s cooking up blueberry pancakes, as is his practice Thursdays and Sundays. Settled in at picnic tables with the pancakes, some eggs, and coffee, we greet the day like the (okay, pampered) cowboys we’ve all become in only a few short days.

Tanque Verde has been a guest ranch for over a hundred years in a part of the country where that really means something; its 640 acres, home nowadays to nearly 200 geldings and 69 southwestern-style guest rooms, make it the largest dude ranch in America. And in this case, size matters. Having so many horses and staff means every day there are multiple rides, plus many guided activities, like mountain biking, nature walks, and even astronomy and cooking challenges for those not equinely predisposed.

I want to know more about horses, so I spend hours each day reliving the “Hi-yo, Silver!” dreams of my childhood. Dorado’s awfully placid, but on another occasion I’m consigned to a trusty-looking mount named Boots and we get up a fine head of steam, shifting smoothly from a trot up to a canter (which, in these parts, they call a lope). Sadly, my technique is judged too sloppy for fast lope rides, and I’m sent back down to the walk/trot minors. Dorado may not be my getaway steed, but he turns out to be very good at another activity: team penning. In groups, we coordinate our mounts to nudge a herd of calves across a ring and into pens; our foursome easily outpaces the competition to win first. It’s not quite Lone Ranger territory, but it’s immensely satisfying nevertheless.

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Tanque Verde’s slow time is May to August, but it’s early November and the place is quiet enough that on cookout night we’re just a few dozen gathered around fires, listening to Bill Ganz sing Johnny Cash as we wash down hamburgers and grilled corn with Barrio Blanco ales and the house special: margaritas made with juice from prickly pears picked on the property. Nogales, Mexico, is only 100 kilometres south, and with the guitar, the crackling fire, some line dancing and all those brilliant winking stars (Arizona has dark sky legislation, and up the road 24 telescopes are in service to astronomers around the world), the ancient desert rises up, blotting out the very few modern intrusions to convince us we’ve made it back to the Old West.

My legs don’t see the romance, apparently: after three days riding the trails, I’m a little tender, so I take advantage of one more ranch amenity. I head to La Sonora Spa for a very urban cowboy deep muscle session that squeezes the soreness out of my jostled body. Saddle-sore no more, I stop by the corral one last time and reach through the mesquite fence to wish Dorado happy trails.

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