Southern Arizona guest ranches offer families a healthy mix of outdoor adventure and American tradition.A stay on a guest (or “dude”) ranch gives families a chance to unplug from the modern world and sample a taste of the Old West.
Popularized in part by the City Slickers movies, the guest ranch experience was once the getaway of choice for the rich and famous from across the country. In the 1920s and ’30s, many authors, actors and captains of industry made their way to southern Arizona for some Western-style rest and relaxation.
During a recent dude ranch visit, my two 9-year-old traveling companions and I stayed in a room once occupied by John Wayne. I was impressed—they had never heard of him.
Here is a sampling of family-friendly southern Arizona guest ranches where you’ll find plenty of history, sunshine and a healthy dose of adventure.
Rancho De La Osa Guest Ranch
Established as a guest ranch in 1923, Rancho De La Osa is a 300-year-old adobe gem, located 65 miles from Tucson and just a few hours by horseback from the Mexican border. One of the last great haciendas in America, the ranch provides a historic and relaxed setting to enjoy the best the southwest has to offer.
You’ll meet Ron, the head wrangler and foreman, seemingly straight from central casting. Yet, he’s the real deal, and his rugged ways and cowboy good looks add an extra dose of authenticity to your ranch stay. He spends his early mornings readying the other wranglers, horses and riders for a day on the range.
My 9-year-old niece Anna, a novice horsewoman, was a bit apprehensive about her first trail ride. However, Ron’s cheerful encouragement and a snazzy pair of pink cowgirl boots we found in the barn were enough to spur her on.
Come sundown, you’ll find Ron visiting with guests or teaching cowboy dancing in the historic cantina. Known as the “Old Adobe,” the cantina, now a cozy ranch gathering place, is reputed to be the oldest building in the state of Arizona. Oozing character and several hundred years of history, it was originally constructed as a mission outpost where traveling Jesuit priests could stop in for supplies.
Ranch Planning Details
Most ranches include three meals a day in their pricing, as well as horseback riding and a menu of activities.
Spa treatments, private riding lessons and alcohol are typically extra.
Expect minimum-stay requirements, from three days to a full week during busy season.
When making your reservation, ask for specific packing suggestions. Most ranches suggest long sleeves, jeans and boots for riding.
While sunny afternoons can be warm and comfortable by the pool, desert evenings can be unexpectedly cool. Plan accordingly. Typically, there is little shopping nearby.
While there is no formal children’s program at the ranch, no one will be bored unless they choose to be. In addition to daily horseback riding, mountain bikes can be found outside the office door. Hiking and biking trails head off in every direction, and the pool and hot tub are popular after a warm afternoon in the saddle.
Kids love taking a turn ringing the hefty dinner bell, signaling all ranch guests to find their way to the main hacienda. Within the two-foot-thick adobe walls, food, wine and tales from the day are served up for all to enjoy.
Rancho de la Osa Guest Ranch; www.ranchodelaosa.com; tel. 800-872-6240.
Tanque Verde Ranch
Founded as a working cattle ranch in 1868, Tanque Verde is located on 640 acres in the foothills of the Rincon and Catalina Mountains and is bordered by both Saguaro National Park East and Coronado National Forest.
The 74-room family-owned-and-operated guest ranch resort is well-known for its top-notch extensive children’s program. To ensure a quality, age-appropriate experience, young guests are divided into two groups: Buckaroos (ages 4 to 6) and Wrangler Kids (ages 7 to 11). The ranch makes it clear: this is not babysitting. Kids should come eager to have some active fun that will include saddling up and hitting the trails. To keep everyone comfortable, parents are asked to participate in the first riding experience.
Tanque Verde has more than 100 horses, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis, a children’s western-style playground, indoor fitness center, landscape art classes and a full-service spa.
Tanque Verde Ranch; www.tanqueverderanch.com; tel. 800-234-3833.