Predawn finds us up and excited. Today’s the Day. We are going to spend the day at one of the America’s top Dude ranches, Tanque Verde Ranch, east of Tucson, Arizona. We are going to take the Breakfast Horseback ride. We had never been to a Dude ranch and we are not sure what to expect except for horses and cowboys.
We wanted to understand why Dude Ranches are such an iconic and enticing American experience. Cattle ranching was the cornerstone lifestyle that fostered the expansion of the Old West. Settlement across the American plains, majestic Rocky Mountains, Deserts and Forests was done solely by the bravest individuals that put it all on the line to forge their future fortunes. As those pioneers established their footholds in the remote landscapes, ranching was the lifestyle that would sustain most of them. Homesteads were established to support these fledgling families with both their farmed sustenance but their livelihood too. There was a codependence amongst the ranchers and pioneers moving west. Travelers needed stopping points and sought shelter, rest and refreshment at the distantly placed ranches. As the railroads expanded west, ranchers recognized there was a business opportunity to continue the tradition with the growing quantity of travelers. The 1880’s saw the birth of the Dude or Guest Ranch experience as ranchers set out their welcome mats to the thousands of train passengers yearning to set eyes or lay their claims on the vast American landscape.
Little has changed on these ranches, and they are one of the best options for a truly unplugged vacation. They are also one of the best ways to experience the Cowboy Way, by working and living at one of these ranches.
We wanted to enjoy the guest experience but also explore the possibility of a lifestyle that included working at a dude ranch.
When we first arrived at Tanque Verde Ranch the ambiance of the pastel colored style adobe buildings instantly charmed us. We pulled open the hand carved thick oak door to the guest check-in. A gent with long silvery locks and a hearty build in loose blue jeans tucked into his well-worn cowboy boots was talking across the counter to the hotel Registrar. They both stopped and greeted us wholeheartedly. “We are here to meet Jim Bankson, the General Manager”, John spoke up. The well groomed looking Registrar smiled, “Mr. Bankson is tied up, but I will be happy to let him know you are both here”. We gave him our names; enjoyed some happy patter and then we stepped to the side to wait. The silver haired gentleman stepped forward and offered to take us to the dining room to enjoy some Coffee and Pastries. “That’d be really nice” and we followed him outside and across the shaded front gardens.
We entered the main hall of this ranch, with a beautiful high ceiling dining hall. A small museum about the early days when the ranch had started in 1862 beckoned in a small anteroom, but not before coffee. Heavy dark beams, thick adobe style walls, beautiful furniture all set an authentically historic stage for the view of the swimming pool and mountains beyond. We enjoyed our coffee and fresh orange juice while wandering the rooms and talking with guest and staff. Connie had worked there for years and seemed to know many of the guests by their names. One lady I met was ready for the breakfast ride and had been coming for 24 years. She was exuberant about her days at Tanque Verde. “It’s heaven here!”
Jim, the General Manager, came and found us. We had arranged in advance to interview some of his wranglers that work on the ranch. “I’ll walk you down to the stables so you don’t miss your breakfast ride and introduce you to Kathy who you can interview later”, sounds great. Jim is a gregarious guy and his story was fascinating in its own right. He told us, “I’ve spent my entire career working at resorts, Rosario’s Resort on Orcas Island in Washington, Jenny Lake Lodge at Grand Teton’s National Park to name a few and now here.” Wow, what a way to live, in beautiful natural settings amongst happy folks on vacation. We arrived at another adobe structure where we met Kathy who checked us in for our ride. We thanked Jim and made arrangements with Kathy to meet up with her and husband Jake in the afternoon after they completed their chores.
We joined other guests on the back porch of the building that faced the stables. People of all ages dressed in both well-worn western wear and some in fresh out of the box cowboy attire carried on soft conversations as they waited for their horses. One by one a wrangler would approach with a horse and match a guest to that individual horse, based on a person’s size, riding experience and the temperament of the horse. We held back, wanting to be at the tail end of our riding group for the less supervised but albeit dustier view.
I was introduced to Sedona, a handsome chocolate brown quarter horse, and we seemed to be comfortable with each other right away. My wrangler cautioned that Sedona liked his space and not to get to close to the other horses or he was likely to start some trouble. I appreciated the heads up. John met Sonya, a stout filly with light coloring and the hint of appaloosa spots. She was known to have a propensity for stalling and smelling the cactus “roses”. We were surprised to see that there were 180 people on horseback for this breakfast ride but really pleased to see that the quantity did not dimension from the quality of the experience. A wrangler was assigned to small groups of eight to take them off on their own rides and then we would arrive in a staggered succession at the old homestead to enjoy our chuck wagon al fresco breakfast.
We wandered through dry creek beds and over spiny covered vegetated knolls, wound around switchback ridges and hillsides, climbing further into a magnificent and ancient Saguaro (Sa-war-ro) Cactus forest. Woodpeckers drilled into the mighty Saguaro while the acrobatic Harris Hawks hunted from above. We saw Javalina (wild pig) tracks, prairie dog holes and dodged combative magenta, green and red headed hummingbirds. Sedona loved to snack on the sage brush daisies as we plodded along and John constantly encouraged Sonya to stay with the rest of us. We saw the sun crest over the Catalina Mountains that morning and enjoyed it’s warmth on our shoulders while our wide brimmed cowboy hats provided soothing shade for our eyes.
After an hour and a half of pure pleasure enjoying the sensual essence of the flowering desert, we arrived at the old adobe homestead. The old home must have been wonderful at one time, because it still presented a welcome ambience inside and out. It sits perched on a low hilltop offering up 360 degree view of the Catalina Mountains, the Sonoran Desert and the distant valley of Tucson. One by one we slid, jumped, crawled and some gracefully dismounted, then with reins in hand, walked our horses to a waiting wrangler who tied them to a hitching rail. We were free to explore or get in line for our hot grub. We wandered over to the old chuck wagon line with other hungry guests and grabbed a blue tin plate. While we inched forward, kids ran around, more horses with riders arrived, and conversations sprouted. Bob Cote, owner of Tanque Verde Dude Ranch personally made up pancake batter with fresh blueberries that created a purple swirl design when he poured the batter of the hot grill. The couple in front of us said they had returned after just four months from their home in Texas because her husband wouldn’t stop craving Bob’s pancakes. We each requested just one massive pancake, and our plates felt the load. Then it was on to steaming trays of fresh biscuits, bacon, scrambled eggs with or without green Chiles and more served by a smiling bunch of ranch hands.
We took our plates of savory deliciousness to a picnic table on the bluff with a view of the mountains. An adorable little girl with two long blond braids sat on the far end protected her massive pancake from an opportunistic squirrel. Soon her family joined her and we learned that the Lyons family was on their 8th annual vacation at Tanque Verde, all the way from Massachusetts. Like so many others we met that day, almost everyone was a returning guest. The devotion of the guests to this place was unexpected. Families, couples, sisters, and singles were all building on a tradition of staying in the Casita cottages and enjoying the all-inclusive activities that they utilized to create their own personal experiences.
After a scrumptious meal and some fun conversations we remounted Sedona and Sonya and followed our wrangler down another narrow trail with a different route back to the ranch compound. We had enjoyed every moment of the breakfast ride, but there was still more to explore, so we turned the reins for Sedona and Sonya over to wranglers back at the corral. We were to rendezvous with Kathy and husband Jake back at the office later, so we headed off down to the fishing lake, hiked the nature trails and wandered amongst the quaint Casita cottages for hours. Rarely did we encounter anyone as we enjoyed our private exploration of this beautiful and historic ranch.
We eventually headed back to the Ranch office where we met up with Kathy and her husband Jake. We sat down with them to find out how they became wranglers and what working at a Dude Ranch was like. We loved them and think you will too. We are pleased to introduced Jake and Kathy Brons, newlyweds and wranglers. They tell their own story better than I can.
As we prepared to leave and the sun was setting we heard the first faint calls of a Coyote ( Ki-Yot) family signaling the coming starry night.
We had a wonderful day enjoying our first time at a Dude Ranch and we learned a few things:
- You can often pay to come to a Dude Ranch just to ride or use the facilities on a day basis.
- Short visits are a great break for business travelers as we met a single woman that had been in Phoenix at a conference and had a weekend layover.
- Most weekly experiences are all-inclusive with a few exceptions, additional alcoholic drinks and spa visits. However, luxury accommodations, golf, mountain bikes, kids programs, meals, horse riding activities, barbeque, nature programs, hiking, cattle wrangling, fly fishing etc. are all included.
- Proper footwear for rugged terrain both in and out of the saddle is highly recommended
- Know the climate you will be visiting. It can be hot or cold or both.
- A good Cowboy hat with neck lanyard and sunscreen are valuable accessories.
- Your horse appreciates it if you stand up in the stirrups when it needs to pee.
Dude Ranches are a uniquely American experience that people from all over the world should experience. The rich history, the interaction with animals and natural beauty and the personal time with family, friends and new acquaintances is a powerful blend of pleasure and life experience. Just the quiet and slower pace of life is alluring. We’ve included some resources below so you can start your researching picking where you will go or possibly work.
Resources for Choosing a Dude Ranch Vacation
Resources for finding a job on a Dude Ranch
Just for Fun!