It was one of those steal-your-heart sunsets behind the Tucson Mountains as the car turned off the Twin Peaks Road black top and meandered up the dirt road to the welcoming gate and corral at White Stallion Ranch, a dude ranch and guest ranch, north west of Tucson, Arizona.
The sky painted in orange, red, gold and purple was the perfect backdrop arriving for days of back-to-the-West bliss, as has been going on for more than 50 years at the ranch. The entrance is flanked by an array of international flags – one for each country represented by a guest in residence. There are nine flying in the setting sunlight.
We’re ushered to our semi-private casita. The low stucco building we’ll call home holds two spacious, well-appointed suites and a patio opening to a cactus-lined walkway. The walkway, artfully lit, is an arrow aimed at the central building, and dinner.
White Stallion is all-inclusive, and three meals a day are part of the daily activities. That night, the flavors of steak and salmon are wafting from the outdoor mesquite-fired grill, and we find ourselves at a table with a couple from Germany.
“We have come here five times before. Call me, John,” pronouncing it “yon” as he extended a warm handshake across the table. “We love it here, riding horses, seeing the galleries in (Tucson), and taking in real America.”
It’s a different America at the White Stallion Ranch. Owned by the True family for 50 years, the history as a guest ranch dates back to 1945. For 75 years, it’s been serving tourists in search of an old West experience, the ranch has more than 3,000 acres of Sonoran Desert and permits to enter the adjoining Saguaro National Park. The third generation of Trues run the ranch today, and are celebrating the dual 50th and 75th anniversaries.
After dinner, we head for the campfire with our new German friends, and a Swiss-American couple. We join about 15 others on hay bales with a western music guitar-singer from nearby Marana singing folk songs and telling tales of the old West.
The next morning, we’re up early for the day’s hike into Saguaro National Park. Dressed for some scrambling, we head across the desert with a kitchen-packed lunch, and start the rugged climb to the nearby peak. The half-day excursion is for moderately-experienced hikers, and the reward is a view of the Arizona Sonoran Desert and the saguaro forest for which the park is named.
Heading back to the ranch for lunch is a lot easier and effort than climbing for the view, but the clear desert air makes it possible to gaze from towering Mount Lemmon and the sprawling western edges of Tucson all the way north to the mountains south of Phoenix.
In the warm afternoon sun, it’s time for the pool. Hard to believe that the cabana and shade-covered pool deck is part of the same landscape in which several movies and television westerns were filmed, including “High Chaparral.”
The White Stallion Ranch is home to the largest domesticated herd of horses in Arizona. With the large collection for riders, one of the ranch’s benefits, particularly for inexperienced riders, is assigning a horse as your own for the length of the visit. With opportunities to ride daily, this gives a rider a chance to know the horse and the horse to know the rider.
For children, this is particularly a good opportunity so that a relationship builds as skills increase with the daily opportunity to ride.
Summer 2016, White Stallion Ranch is offering large discounts for family visits of four and five nights with the Cactus Kids special family rates. The all-inclusive deal includes meals, hiking, horseback riding and a child’s riding lesson. Evening entertainment is always part of the equation.
The ranch is much more than hiking and horseback riding. In addition to the pool, there is a movie studio stocked with a wide variety of films—particularly classic westerns—a business center, petting zoo, sport courts and tennis courts.
When staying at White Stallion Ranch there are always opportunities to explore the surrounding area – galleries and restaurants in Tucson and Oro Valley, the eastern district of the Saguaro National Park, and the scenic drive up the Santa Catalina Mountains to Mount Lemmon. Mexico is just about an hour to the south.
The planned activities include stargazing in a near-pristine dark sky, just part of the overall education experience for families. This is more than a vacation, it’s an opportunity to learn about the desert night sky, the Sonoran geology and rock formations and there are child and parent art classes as well.
On our last day, guests were rounded up to participate in a western equestrian event. Teams were formed for a team cattle penning competition. This is the challenge of cutting a calf from a herd of cows and working it into a corral. If watched in a true competition, this is a rapidly running action event, but at the White Stallion ranch, the pace is a little more relaxed, and the seconds ticking seem to go slower.
John was dressed for the event in Stetson, calfskin vest and full leather chaps he acquired on a previous trip to Tucson. He takes the lead in his team and rushes ahead of his team. His wide, on the sidelines with me, says that the wanted to set a new record.
The calf, however, is less than cooperative, and as John leads his team into the turn, the calf circles back to the other young steers. Another member of the team cuts off the fleeing youngster, turning it towards the corral. John joins up, and with another ride, form a phalanx that forces the calf towards the corrals. The announcer ticks off the seconds. John’s team carries the day, but the record stands for another year.
As the afternoon wears on, it’s time to gather up for the Beer and Cheetos Ride. We head out into the desert for about 30 minutes on the trail deep into the western scene to a bucolic picnic style setting. Cold beer and, as White Stallion describes it, “empty calorie” snacks are served family style in a setting where guests get to know each other.
This ride, as also applies to the Wine and Cheese Ride, is for adults only. It’s an opportunity to let the kids be kids at the zoo. The ranch offers weekly art classes, or there are riding lessons at the corral. The Beer and Cheetos and Wine and Cheese rides head to a secluded portion of the huge ranch near the base of the Tucson Mountains and below Twin Peaks.
So heading for a dude ranch has a lot of family memories to build in to the vacation. While there is Wi-Fi and Internet access, even a business center in the old Telegraph Office, the activities take kids away from screens and apps and exposes the entire family to traditional western activities while still offering high-end accommodation and amenities.
This is a participatory vacation, with something for everyone. One of the guests said the nicest part of the days her family was at the ranch was knowing that the kids were in a safe environment, and they did not have to be watched or worried about as she and her husband enjoyed doing what they wanted to do.
The last morning on the ranch, we saddle up for the breakfast ride. About 20 minutes on a horse at an easy walking pace puts us west of the ranch house and corral deep into the desert near the national park boundary. At a shaded setting, the coals are hot, and the lines keep moving for eggs, flapjacks, bacon, potatoes, and endless gallons of juice and coffee.
With a slight chill in the morning air, there’s nothing like a morning ride to work up an appetite. Laughter and conversation fill the air as guests gather among new friends to share tales of the experience and trips before.
Flavio and Stacey, he from Switzerland, she from Tucson, met while Flavio was here on an earlier trip. He wanted to go to a country music club in the city, and met Stacey five years before when she was stood up for a blind date. They have been together ever since, a long distance romance spanning the Ocean and two continental halves.
“If I could get a similar job in Tucson, I’d move here,” he admits.
“I don’t know,” Stacey laughs. “I think I kind of like the back-and-forth travel too much. And I only have cook special when he’s in town.”
Flavio had been coming to White Stallion for almost seven years before meeting Stacey, so this was his 12th visit to the ranch.
“There’s something really unique about staying in a ranch like this,” he said. “When you’re riding in the desert, even in a group, it’s easy to find yourself thinking that it’s 150 years ago, and there’s no one else in the desert except you.”
With 3,000 acres, there’s a lot of that desert to explore trip-after-trip.