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LIFE & ENTERTAINMENT

 

Trails & Wild West Tales

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cynthia Calvert

Tucson's Tanque Verde Ranch offers adventure and serenity

Saguaro cacti dot the landscape on the short drive from Tucson International Airport to the Tanque Verde Ranch, the largest dude Ranch in the country. At 640 acres, cowboys and cowgirls will find that the resort offers plenty of wide open spaces.

We spent a long weekend recently surrounded by the graceful serenity of the Rincon Mountains. City slickers arrive with jumbled nerves, anxious brows and BlackBerrys fastened securely to their belts. Within hours, the gentle swishing of horse tails, soft running waterfalls and a sunrise breakfast trail ride replaced those cares with a laid back stance, a slow pace and an attitude to match.

Getting away from the hustle of daily life and focusing on families is the top priority for the Ranch, where Western-themed rooms don’t offer TV or Internet access (both are available in the dining area). This is just a temporary adjustment as there are so many activities from sun-up to well past dark that guests tumble into bed with tons of happy memories of riding, roping and fishing.

The Ranch has charming history and general manager Gus Gustafson is happy to share it.

“The Ranch started in 1880 as a cattle ranch. Legend has it there is gold buried on the property. A foreman of the ranch had the great (!) idea to bring people here to enjoy the experience. In the mid-’50s, Bob Cote bought it and his family still owns it,” Gustafson said.

The star attraction, of course, are the magnificent horses. The Ranch’s beautiful creatures are front and center and gaze inquisitively from their rough-hewn pens spread over the front of the Ranch. Guests can lean against the fence, practicing their horse whispering, or just offer a friendly pat. Horsemanship is the center of every day and no mater what level of rider you are, there is plenty to do. There are walking rides and loping rides but the most fun we had was team penning (one of us brought back a first-place trophy) where various relays and tasks are performed. Ever try, on horseback, to get seven frisky calves to run between two cones or into a holding pen? This was a blast and you must not miss it. The Ranch offers horseback adventure to riders of all skill levels. A variety of rides are available: everything from regular rides lasting about an hour to all day and even week-long pack rides.

Lanny Leach, an Arizona horseman, gave a fascinating demonstration of training. We watched as he worked with a horse the Ranch had recently acquired from the U.S. Border Patrol. He spent 30 minutes with the somewhat recalcitrant animal, taking him from uncooperative to following his direction.

“I treat every horse as an individual,” Leach said. We were all impressed.

The cuisine is plentiful and pleasing to all palates and accompanied by great service. Our first evening was a Mexican fiesta and Texans will appreciate the homemade salsa, fajitas and all the trimmings. Best of all, a Mariachi group played to the diners’ delight. A real treat is the breakfast trail ride, offered several times a week. The horses were saddled and ready when 20 or so guests ambled over to the tack room. Gentle and beautiful, the horses carried early risers to the top of a nearby mountain where Gustafson personally flipped pancakes. Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns and biscuits was served as the sun peaked over the mountains. Tables with tablecloths were scattered about to ensure that everyone enjoyed the view of the majestic mountains which nestle up to the Ranch. Lunch and dinner are a continual bounty of country cooking and each evening near the dining room, Tucson vendors spread their wares for admiring guests. Each meal has dozens of choices, but the desserts outnumber the guests. No one cares if you try two or three! Don’t miss the Ranch gift shop (you can buy the very necessary cowboy hat for a modest sum) as they offer some unusual art, food and clothing items as well as a special children’s section.

Riding horses uses some muscles that don’t often get a workout at the office. The boutique spa is steps from guest rooms. For those saddle-sore backs and boot-clad feet, the totally delightful End of the Trail massage is highly recommended. Rates are incredibly reasonable and we wished for more after a fantastic hour with Jaison.

For those who don’t get out to the Arizona foothills often, the terrain can appear brown, flat and dead. But be still and watch the desert. What looks like a dusty and dry terrain is actually teeming with wildlife. The Saguaro National Park East, which is next to the Ranch, offers a short nature movie along with maps for both hiking and driving and is home to an incredible array of life. There are 25 species of cacti, 500 species of plants, 60 reptiles, 200 birds and 75 different mammals making their home here. Some of the more popular critters include ringtail cats (we spotted one near the Jacuzzi one night), deer mice, gophers, jack rabbits, fox, coyotes, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, badgers, javelina and bobcats. The Park also is home to mountain lions and black bears.

The Ranch has a lovely educational nature center on the property. The Ranch employs experts who lead guests of all ages in a friendly introduction to the wonders of the park - be sure not to miss the sunrise nature walk. We were thrilled to see a Cooper’s hawk fly overhead.

Yes, it can be hot in Tucson so the most popular months to visit the Ranch are January and February. There is a concerted effort to make the experience real, with a focus on being outdoors and experiencing horses and nature. But the owners also know that today’s vacationers want luxury too.

“At our heart, we’re a Ranch,” Gustafson told us. “We want to keep the Ranch while bringing up the guest amenities, specializing in family reunions, weddings and corporate events.” Whatever a guest wants, whether it be golf, shopping in upscale Tucson, visiting wineries or taking a rugged overnight hike in the desert, Tanque Verde will make it happen.

Be warned, however; this is not your typical three-nights-in-a-hotel-room vacation. The desert will compel you to stay. The average guest stays five nights with 15 percent of the 35,000 annual visitors opting to extend their stay once they’re on site.

Beyond the horses, there is a multitude of things to keep a family busy: mountain biking for all skill levels, tennis, birding, swimming, water aerobics, hikes, and water color classes are offered. Ranch guests may play golf at several nearby courses. Hanging out and doing nothing is encouraged, too. A full-time director runs the extensive children’s program. Buckaroos (ages 4-6) and Wranglers (7-11) participate are separate activities, all of which is included in the daily rate! Riding, riding games, general games, arts and crafts, swimming, tennis, nature walks and dining are all organized. The Ranch is the sort of place where parents can relax and let kids be kids. We saw the children happily racing from fishing to riding to the computer, smiling from ear to ear.

Each evening, after dinner, there is always a planned and fun activity. Bingo in the Doghouse Bar – completely family friendly – was a riot. We loved the one-man play ‘Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier.’ Historically accurate and performed by a descendant of the famous lawman, the play was a great complement to the surroundings.

Twice a week, the Ranch has a huge barbecue in Cottonwood Grove. Tables surround a large open fire and cowboys sing under the twinkling stars all the cowboys songs you know.

The Ranch is all inclusive – all activities, meals, rooms and entertainment are included with the price. Alcoholic beverages and spa treatments are extra. The Sonoran Suites accommodate three to six and begin at $375 a day per person. Casitas sleep two to six for $300 per day per person and the Redington Rooms accommodate one to four for $275 per person. Price discounts are given for third and fourth guests in the same room. If you stay four days or more, the Ranch provides complimentary shuttles to and from the airport. It is a great deal (and there are often Internet specials). The Ranch has its share of accolades: It has been nominated as a Top Ten Family Resort by Travel Channel in 2007 and 2008, nominated as a Top Five Ranch by Conde Nast, 2008 and nominated Best Dude Ranch by Best of the West, 2008. For all the information, visit www.tanqueverderanch.com.

One of the best activities we enjoyed, however, was not planned. Each room has a patio with guest furniture. We moved the chaise lawn chairs out to the nearby path and gazed up at the gorgeous night stars. In the moonlight, the stately Saguaro stood outlined against the mountains. There was not a sound to be heard, except the occasional cricket. As far as we could see and hear, there was peace and quiet. The deep, dark, blue-black Arizona sky is a powerful tonic to the overworked soul.

Photos by Larry Shiflet

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