Growing up in southern Arizona, I remember the mountains surrounding Tucson being more than rugged and majestic. Their distinctive landmarks were as familiar to me as my own backyard.
I spent countless hours riding my horse along their foothill trails and arroyos, making memories I still treasure. The presence of those mountains carried a sense of security and permanence I never realized I took for granted until, as an adult, I moved away from the West.
During the 20-odd years I lived in Tucson, the historic Tanque Verde Guest Ranch (800/234-3833; www.tanqueverderanch.com) was a place my family and friends visited for special events, but I’d never stayed there as a guest.
When I planned a trip to Tucson this past winter, I decided to do just that. My visit confirmed what I’d long known: that TVGR has earned the distinction of being one of the country’s top guest ranch resorts, especially if trail riding is your main goal.
The ranch is rich with history of Native Americans, ranchers, cowboys, and cattle who’ve called this land home through the centuries. Pima Indians are known as the area’s first residents, dating back to the 1600s. The Western architecture, adobe walls, and rugged mesquite corrals are the real deal, built long ago to stand the test of time.
Don Emilio Carrillo first established the ranch in 1868. Carrillo was a native of Santa Cruz, Mexico, who moved to Tucson in the 1850s. Although he originally chose the name Buena Vista Ranch, he later renamed it La Cebadilla after the wild barley found along Tanque Verde Creek.
Carrillo prospered as a cattle rancher, despite the frequent risk of attack by Apaches. Carrillo’s success eventually attracted the dubious attention of bandits who attempted to rob the ranch on May 7, 1904. The raiders hung Carrillo from a beam in one of the buildings and left him for dead. Somehow, Carrillo survived the horrific attempt on his life, but in 1908, he died from complications of the hanging.
Jim Converse then purchased the operation, renaming it Tanque Verde Ranch, which is Spanish for “green tank” or “green pool,” thanks to the nearby spring-fed water source. Both Native Americans and cavalry patrols from Tucson’s Fort Lowell once used it to water their mounts.
A cattleman with a flair for business ventures, Converse opened the ranch to guests in 1928, after realizing that “dudes” from Eastern states would actually pay to experience ranch life. That tradition continued after the ranch changed hands one last time in 1957 when Brownie Cote bought it, with the goal of turning TVGR into a world-class guest ranch and resort.
In 1969, Brownie Cote’s son, Bob Cote, took over managing the ranch. Although Bob Cote retired in 2009, Cote Family Operations still owns the ranch. Bob Cote and his wife, Rita, live there and regularly interact with guests. The ranch’s 640 dramatic acres border Saguaro National Park (East District) and the Coronado National Forest. Because the operation still runs cattle, it also leases some 60,000 acres of state land, so there are virtually unlimited trail-riding opportunities.
Planning your Trip
The weather makes fall and winter just about the perfect time to visit Tucson. Spring is especially picturesque, thanks to the wildflowers and cacti blooming in late March and through April. And if you don’t mind the desert heat, TVGR offers some tempting vacation packages during the summer months.
We timed our visit to coincide with La Fiesta De Los Vaqueros® Tucson Rodeo (800/964-5662; www.tucsonrodeo.com), which celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2015. The four-day event draws top competitors from across the nation and takes place the last weekend of February, preceded by the popular nonmechanized rodeo parade. I was in my early teens when I rode my horse in that parade in 1976. (Check the website for the rodeo’s 2017 dates, in case you want to plan your trip around this popular event.)
If you fly in, TVGR can send a driver to pick you up at the Tucson International Airport, but my husband and I chose to rent a car so we could visit friends and do some exploring around my old hometown.
TVGR has several accommodation packages, but you can’t go wrong with the all inclusive rate. Lodging at the ranch ranges from casitas to salas and haciendas. All options have private full baths, Wi-Fi, and Internet radio.
Most salas are located along the ranch’s main walkways, while some have a courtyard. These rooms are the set up with either two queen-sized beds, or one king or one queen.
Casitas are more spacious than salas and include a fireplace and sitting areas, as well as a private patio. Haciendas are the largest option, accommodating two to six guests, making this a good choice for families or several friends traveling together. Each hacienda has a fireplace and private patio.
There’s a comforting Old West feel to all lodging options, thanks to the adobe walls, Santa Fe-style architecture, well-appointed Southwestern furnishings, and impressive desert views. We appreciated walking back and forth to our casita, following the trail of old horseshoes embedded in the concrete sidewalk.
Rooms don’t have televisions, but you won’t notice. We enjoyed drinking morning coffee on our private porch while watching mule deer ambling up the hillside. Sunsets from the porch were also spectacular.
A sure sign of a successful operation is the number of repeat guests, and TVGR has those in abundance.
“We’ve been coming here every year for two weeks in February,” notes Ruth Shepherd of Charlottesville, Virginia, whose first visit was in 1984. She and her husband, Raymond, were celebrating their 50th anniversary. There were 16 people in their group, including their three grown children and six grandchildren ranging in age from 4 to 13.
“The ranch has something for everyone, whether you’re a gung-ho rider or someone who doesn’t want to ride every time,” says Shepherd. “I love that you don’t have to be a great rider to go on the Mountain Adventure Ride. I think it’s a different thing for everyone that keeps people coming back.
“What’s neat is that there’s plenty to do,” she adds. “Some of us have been on the walking and loping rides. We’ve also done the nature walks, which are easy and great for families, as well as hiking, tennis, mountain biking, fishing, and swimming. Our grandkids love the kids’ program.”
The ranch is known for its cuisine and won the Silver Award for Outstanding Southwestern Cuisine by Tucson Lifestyle Magazine in 2013.
Breakfast can be light (think yogurt and fresh fruit) or hearty (pile your plate with eggs, bacon, and French toast). Lunch always features a buffet, while dinner is full service with a rotating menu of several options, both traditional and creative, as well as the starter buffet.
Dessert is fabulous, with plenty of tantalizing options. Among my favorites were the beautifully decorated cactus cookies, complete with cream-cheese frosting, a TVGR specialty.
Eating at community tables is encouraged, making it fun to get to know other guests. For lunch one day, we shared our table with Andrew and Gail Quayle, who were vacationing from London. They both quit their professional jobs to travel around the world, visiting numerous countries.
The couple had saved for seven years for this once-in-a-lifetime journey. The Quayles included TVGR in their adventure after reading about the ranch in a travel brochure.
“I’d never been on a horse before this week,” says Andrew, who was confidently loping when I rode with him that morning.
One of the “challenges” of the group lesson was to sing a song while loping around the arena. We all laughed when Andrew sang “God Save the Queen” while piloting his horse along the required course.
Special dinner events are held each week, including Mexican Fiesta Night for true Southwestern flavor, and the Cottonwood Grove Ranch Barbeque, an outdoor meal featuring live entertainment.
Many guests make it a tradition to visit the family-friendly Doghouse Saloon each evening before or after their meal. It’s just a short walk from the dining room and features, among other libations, the ranch’s famous prickly pear margarita, made from cacti on the premises.
Depending on how much energy you have left after a day of riding and other ranch activities, you’ll want to check out the after-dinner programs. One night featured “Tales of the Tanque Verde,” told around a fire pit. Another night, there was a rattlesnake presentation, and on another, a talk about Arizona’s gems and minerals.
Local vendors were on hand one evening, and I bought a sterling-silver ring as a memento of our trip.
No matter how wonderful the accommodations, scenery, and food, riding is the main reason most folks choose a guestranch vacation. With 150-plus horses in the riding string, TVGR has a horse to match every guest’s ability and comfort level. Most ranch mounts are stock-horse types, with a number of draft-horse crosses, as well.
I made it a point to ride as much as possible and ended up riding twice per day. I rode three different horses during my stay.
Many guests sign up for the loping rides (you have to pass a skill check to participate), but there are plenty of slower riding options. Even though I consider myself an accomplished rider, I opted not to do the loping rides, as my focus at the ranch was less about speed and more about taking in the stunning mountain scenery.
One of the best ways to do this is to sign up for the Mountain Adventure Ride. This three-hour excursion takes you up rugged, rocky paths, along ridges and down trails A scenic ride back to the ranch after the Breakfast that offer breathtaking, 360 degree views of the Sonora Desert covered with stately saguaros, prickly pear, ocotillo, barrel, and other cacti. At one point, our wrangler pointed out a house in the foothills that belongs to Paul McCartney.
Red-tail hawks gracefully soared above the valley. It had been a wetter winter than usual, so the creeks were running, and a large reservoir was full to brimming. We saw waterfalls, sunlight glittering off the water as it rushed down the mountainside.
Some trails are quite steep, but on those significant uphill climbs, I just grabbed a big handful of mane, leaned forward, and gave my horse his head. Well accustomed to the terrain, he never took a bad step.
On any ride from the ranch, you’ll be surrounded by saguaro cactus, that statuesque Arizona icon that grows only in the Sonoran desert. It’s known as the largest cactus in the country, growing to a normal height of about 40 feet, although some have reached heights of more than 70 feet.
The saguaro is so slow-growing that it can take 70 years for one to reach just 6½-feet tall. Some have numerous “arms,” while others have none. You can get an idea of a saguaro’s age when you realize that it takes anywhere from 75 to 100 years for the cactus to grow its first arm.
As our horses’ shoes clinked over rocks on the trail winding between these towering cacti, I savored the knowledge that some of these same saguaros were guarding this very trail 200-plus years ago.
Sunup & Sundown
A ranch tradition you won’t want to miss is the Breakfast Ride, which takes place two mornings each week. You’ll leave the ranch on horseback by 8:00 a.m. for an easy ride up to the Old Homestead, where ranch hands cook up a hearty breakfast chuck wagon-style.
The mornings were cool, so it was a delight to ride up and be greeted by the aroma of fresh coffee and blueberry pancakes cooking on an enormous griddle, ranch-style eggs, bacon, and more. To our delight — and surprise — we learned the gentleman in the cowboy hat and apron whipping up those incredible griddle cakes was no less than our host and ranch owner, Bob Cote.
With our horses safely tied at hitching posts, we filled our plates and ate at one of the picnic tables scattered beneath the saguaros. We chatted with other guests as we enjoyed our alfresco breakfast before riding back to the ranch.
Sunset in the desert makes an impression, no matter the season. Those wide open Arizona skies provide spectacular colors and cloud formations as the sun drops below the horizon. The ranch offers a 1½-hour sunset ride just for riders who want to take advantage of this idyllic time of day. Riders on this outing are often fortunate enough to spot wildlife.
Back at the Ranch
Back at the ranch, if you’re looking for a little friendly horseback competition, be sure to sign up for team penning. We were divided into teams of three riders. Each team took turns herding a specific heifer or steer out of a small group of cattle. The goal was to drive that animal down the entire length of the arena and into a small pen at one end.
This was tougher than it sounds, since most teammates had no experience with cattle. It made for a fun challenge and more than a few laughs, both for us riders and those friends and family members watching from the sidelines. There was more than a little good-natured teasing when a team couldn’t get their steer to cooperate in a timely manner.
If you want to improve your horsemanship skills, look into the Harmony with Horses program led by ranch teaching staff. (Advance reservations are required.)
One afternoon, I signed up for a groundwork session and enjoyed learning from a very patient, skilled instructor who made it look easy. It was rewarding to see how well the horse responded as my coordination improved.
If you feel like a bit of pampering after all that riding, make an appointment for a massage or skin treatment. The luxurious on-site La Sonora Spa even has an indoor pool and spa whirlpool.
When it was time to leave the ranch, I felt a wave of nostalgia. It had been such a treat to stay at this historic place in the town where my love of horses and riding took root and grew.
I’ve lived in north Florida for years now, but my heart will always think of Arizona as home. Those rugged mountains surrounding Tucson were among the first sights I remember, and remain a source of solace and sanctuary — not to mention a favorite place to ride.
Cynthia McFarland is a seasoned trail rider and full-time freelance writer based in Central Florida. She regularly contributes to national equine magazines and is the author of eight books.