You awaken to the sound of galloping horses thundering into a corral. Out your window you catch glimpses of these steeds racing through clouds of dust to wranglers’ shouts. After a hearty breakfast, you find your personal horse, and mount up.
You pen horses, tend cattle, then enjoy a rugged ride in the mountains followed by a lope through an endless desert. A great sense of freedom and serenity settles in. You have a tasty lunch on the trail, then ride back and settle down on the ranch house’s front porch until time for a chuckwagon barbecue dinner. You top off the evening with a soak in a spa and the libation of your choice.
Welcome to a guest-ranch vacation in warm, welcoming Tucson, Arizona. The area is steeped in Western history and cattle ranching, a heritage local guest ranches keep alive for all to enjoy.
We’ve found that a guest-ranch experience can be life-changing. Many folks leave the ranch with a renewed sense of purpose. Guest ranches also create a sense of family that will tempt you to return year after year.
Ready to hit Arizona trails and enjoy authentic accommodations? Here’s the rundown on four of Tucson’s best guest ranches: Elkhorn Ranch, Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, Tanque Verde Ranch, and White Stallion Ranch.
Elkhorn Ranch (elkhornranch.com), 50 miles southwest of Tucson, focuses on top-notch trail horses, a value passed down through generations. In 1922 Ernest and Grace Miller started their first Elkhorn Ranch in Montana’s Gallatin Valley. In 1945 the Millers came to the Baboquivari Mountains, 50 miles southwest of Tucson, to establish a winter-season working and guest ranch.
For years the Millers hauled their horses, tack, and all the guest-ranch trappings north and south with the seasons. Finally, in 1961, their son Bob and his wife, Jan, stayed in Arizona. With their four children they built the Elkhorn Ranch into the wonderful place you see today.
The third generation of the family—Charley and Mary Miller and Tom and Anne Miller—live and work at Elkhorn year-round, maintaining the working ranch and raising and training their treasured horses.
The ranch herd currently consists of about 120 saddle horses, breeding stock, and colts. The Millers established their own breeding program at Elkhorn with a Thoroughbred-Percheron cross stallion and Quarter Horse mares. Draft-cross horses typically have sound minds and strong, athletic bodies.
As foals mature, they’re gradually turned out onto the mountainous country around the ranch. The Millers’ training program starts colts around age 2 and turns the horses into trail mounts around age 4. The Millers take their time to prepare trail mounts mentally and physically.
Guests may keep the same horse throughout their visit. Riding the same horse every day creates an opportunity to form a bond between rider and horse. Riding the ranch’s 10,000 acres is an adventurous way to experience the area trails. Lope in the desert, walk the remote canyons, and tackle the Baboquivari Mountains. A delicious lunch is included on all day-rides.
Six guides take out small riding groups; each ride is tailored to the guests’ desires. The horses get every Sunday off, creating a perfect time to relax, swim, hike, birdwatch, and see the local sights.
Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort
Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort (haciendadelsol.com) is located on Tucson’s northern edge. The ranch’s Spanish Colonial architectural style is inspired by the Moorish architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Step into Hacienda Del Sol, and travel back to the luxurious days of Tucson’s past. The resort is one of our nation’s Historic Hotels of America, recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Original owners John and Helen Murphey, who helped build the ranch, were connoisseurs of beauty. Helen helped carve intricate patterns into the library’s beamed ceilings. Hand-hammered light fixtures and hand-painted tiles were done by local artisans. The Murpheys designed their hacienda to be a desert haven and an artistic retreat.
From 1929 to 1948 the place was called the Hacienda Del Sol Ranch School for Girls, offering a college-preparatory curriculum along with Western ranch activities. The ranch gained national recognition with such names on the roster as Pillsbury, Vanderbilt, Kellogg, Westinghouse, and Campbell.
In the late 1930s, famous Swiss architect Josias Joesler was commissioned to rebuild areas of the hacienda in a Southwestern style that was later instrumental in influencing Tucson’s distinct architecture. Hacienda Del Sol is one of the oldest examples of Joesler’s work in the region. His work continued until 1948 when the property became a guest ranch.
As a guest ranch, it became a favorite hideaway for such luminaries as Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Howard Hughes. Eventually the ranch fell into decline until 1995 when new owners envisioned restoring the hacienda to its former glory. Great care was taken in keeping the original buildings and natural surroundings intact. This architectural showpiece features thick adobe walls, beehive fireplaces, and loving personal touches. In 2005 32 additional guest rooms with views of the Santa Catalina Mountains were added to the resort.
The grand design, along with elegant and casual dining options, make Hacienda Del Sol a once-in-a-lifetime guest-ranch destination.
At the original entrance we were greeted with an array of flowers, shrubbery, and herbs. In the lobby we explored rooms restored to their past grandeur. Of particular interest to us was the small library, intact with original books from the 1930s.
The stables are located down the hill from the main structures. There are fewer trail-riding opportunities here than at other area guest ranches. However, the ranch does offer short, cross-country, and sunset rides. Amble through a gorgeous desert with expansive vistas aboard one of the resort’s trusty mounts.
Tanque Verde Ranch
Tanque Verde Ranch (tanqueverderanch.com) may well be the crown jewel of Arizona guest ranches. Location plays a big role. Situated east of Tucson and encompassing 640 deeded acres and 60,000 leased acres, the ranch rises into the Rincon Mountains bordered by Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest.
Brownie Cote, a member of the Dude Ranchers Hall of Fame, first developed the property into a guest ranch. He was motivated by a passion to “develop the lives of youth.” What better way to achieve this goal than through outdoor activities and horseback riding?
The Cote family still owns and manages the ranch. Over the years Tanque Verde has expanded to accommodate a variety of guests yet has retained its true nature. It’s a beautiful ranch where guests can ride to their heart’s delight, then ride some more. With a choice of 150 trail mounts, each guest can be carefully matched to a horse.
Tanque Verde offers a variety of rides daily, along with specialty rides, such as sunset and breakfast rides. The breakfast ride was a favorite of ours: soft, buttery morning light bathed the cholla cactus and reflected off wind-sculptured rocks. As the sun peered over the Rincon Mountains and we reached the breakfast spot, the smell of bacon infused the sagebrush-scented air. A perfect morning!
Tanque Verde knows the most important ingredient of a successful guest ranch—happy, satisfied guests! The ranch strives to make each guest’s stay a memorable, happy experience.
Larry and Gina Beltrame traveled here from Des Moines, Iowa. Larry, who loves horses, was having the time of his life. Gina, who was unable to ride because of a car accident, worried that she’d feel like “a fish out of water.” Much to her delight, she loved all the non-horse activities, as well as the ranch camaraderie.
Julie and Amanda Michel, a cheerful mother-daughter couple from North Dakota, loved the sun and spa service. In the morning, they were heading out on their first horseback ride. “It doesn’t get better than this!” Julie told us with a grin.
When you’re not riding, sign up of one of Tanque Verde’s educational programs. We loved the nature walk! We learned about the edible and medicinal properties of plants we see when riding in the desert. After a day in the saddle, you can soothe away soreness in the hot tub, followed by the ranch’s signature prickly pear margarita.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Here are our top prep tips for a memorable guest-ranch vacation in Tucson, Arizona.
Choose your season. The best times to go are winter, spring, and late fall, when temperatures aren’t as hot. Season determines what you’ll pack and the rate you’ll pay.
Do your homework. Study each ranch to decide which one best meets your needs. Find out what personal items are supplied in guest rooms. Ask about the liquor policy. If needed, ask whether the ranch accommodates special diets. Find out the weight limit for riding. Check the ranch’s website for suggestions and requirements.
Pack for desert riding. Layer your riding apparel. In the desert, the mornings can be quite cool and the afternoons hot. Pack lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and sunscreen. Bring your own Western hat or well-ventilated, brimmed riding helmet. Riding boots without laces are best; smooth leather repels cholla cactus and desert debris. Add a sturdy water bottle to stay hydrated.
Get ready to ride. If you haven’t ridden in some time or ride casually, get in some serious saddle time before you go so you’re ready for long rides and desert gallops. Pack long underwear to cut saddle chafing.
White Stallion Ranch
We first visited White Stallion Ranch (whitestallion.com) on a warm, sunny winter day. We’d just left snowy western Montana and reveled in the contrast. We’d heard about the ranch by word-of-mouth. The ranch lived up to and exceeded our expectations.
Russel True’s parents acquired the ranch in 1965. Russel is enthusiastic about the ranch and its history. White Stallion was built in the early 1900s as a cattle ranch. The original buildings were made from adobe brick.
David Young, the property’s first deeded owner, homesteaded here from 1936 to 1939. Gradually the property became a guest ranch and was purchased by Russel’s parents, Allen and Cynthia True. At that time the ranch consisted of 17 rooms, 17 horses, and 200 acres. Tucson was expanding, causing a drastic drop in the number of guest ranches. Being farsighted, the Trues began purchasing land, increasing the ranch size to 3,000 acres. Today the ranch has 41 rooms plus a four-bedroom hacienda.
White Stallion Ranch has one of the largest privately owned herds of horses in Arizona and a herd of cattle. The Trues do a good job of putting these horses to use; there are a number of rides to choose from. Mountain rides take you into the Tucson Mountains to Movie Pass, named for the Hollywood movies filmed there over the last 50 years. They also offer half-day rides, wine-and-cheese rides, and fast rides.
Fast rides are an exciting way to experience the desert. There’s nothing like galloping on a speedy, well-trained ranch mount with the wind in your face and saguaros flying by. To do the fast ride you must pass a loping test in the arena. We had to take the test even though we’re horse owners. We felt better when we learned that a world champion rodeo cowboy vacationing at the ranch also had to take the test.
Our favorite was the all-day ride, a combination of walking and loping on a 23-mile loop through a section of Saguaro National Park. Consider this ride if you’re an experienced and conditioned trail rider, as you’ll be in the saddle for around eight hours. However, time goes by quickly as you ride through rugged canyons and stretches of desert and visit Native American petroglyphs. It’s an excellent way to cap your vacation at White Stallion Ranch.