Climb any slope in the Tortolita Mountains, stare out across the Marana plain, and it’s still easy to see history among the growing retail centers and residential rooftops. Cattle still roam among the saguaros and roadrunners still dart across dirt roads through the desert.
Dude ranches are as integral to Arizona’s agricultural heritage as cotton, cows, and citrus. They offered rough-edged, sunburnt wranglers a comfortable setting to sit back and sip wine or slug a beer. This is where silver screen cowboys would go to learn their parts. With clientele like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Paul Newman (and the odd European royal prince thrown in there as well), the cast of characters taking up residence at a dude ranch would easily add a dash of glamor to any campfire circle.
These oases oozed luxury, though sometimes they dressed it up in cowhide. They offered a place to sip a Tom Collins by the pool before saddling up for a cattle drive. They promised full-plated barbecues, roping lessons, and campfire entertainment. A stay at a dude ranch entailed all of the enticements of simpler times in a romantic moonlit saguaro cactus setting, with the full complement of modern amenities and twangy cowboy guitarists. This experience is still attainable in and all around Marana.
White Stallion Ranch
When you turn off the paved road and begin making your way along the gravel approach that leads to the nationally award-winning White Stallion, every bump will take you one step farther away from the turmoil of modern life. Set into a deep pocket of the Tucson Mountains, the wide open acres that surround White Stallion provide tremendous access to open space that is now in Saguaro National Park. As a guest here, you may enjoy trail rides in one of the most beautiful settings in America. As you round the last corner before the ranch, a row of antique stables eventually presents itself. Generations ago, this same sight, a symbol of good company and a hearty meal, greeted ranch hands returning after a long day out on the range. Today, it’s as welcome an image of rest and repose as it ever was.
As White Stallion has grown over the course of its long life, it has never forgotten its Southwestern roots. The dining lodge where guests enjoy communal meals still stands as the original ranch building, built in 1936, and there you can even see a fragment of one of the original adobe walls that stood on this site. During renovations work crews discovered wire and horseshoes used in its original construction. That unpretentious approach characterizes not only the walls, but also the whole guest experience at White Stallion, an approach that perfectly balances authenticity with comfort.
Classic dude ranch amenities that guests can look forward to include a refreshing swimming pool, tennis courts, and barbeques under the stars. Add to that more modern additions, like a spa, fitness center, and a movie theater, and what you’ve got is the perfect getaway in the perfect setting.
Oasis at Wild Horse Ranch
In the golden age of Western moviemaking, the mountains around Marana proved a fertile playground for the imaginative actors and directors dreaming of sheriffs and outlaws, cacti and rattlesnakes, campfires and cattle drives. When a backlot in Malibu just wouldn’t quite do the trick, they’d head out to these mountains for that perfect saguaro cactus landscape. And when the Tinseltown stars needed a place to lay their heads at night, the Oasis at Wild Horse Ranch, which welcomed its first guests in 1940, was just the spot. Though now a wedding and event venue, and not a guest ranch, Wild Horse has lost none of its luster over the years.
The Oasis at Wild Horse Ranch now hosts weddings, corporate gatherings, family reunions, and any other large group at its beautiful facility all year long. On one sprawling patio, shaded by a massive mesquite tree, they’ve been known to fit 400 guests for a seated dinner. Here, you can celebrate any occasion in the same rollicking cheer as John Wayne, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, and many more. Sidle up to the bar and take a look around you. On one wall is a stone fireplace complete with mantle that speaks to the history of this setting. This thick slab of lumber holds old photographs and other memorabilia that recall the exciting past that is still very much alive at Wild Horse Ranch.
Take a stroll around the grounds and enjoy the rolling lawns and gurgling creeks all around you. Here, attention to detail is everything. Festive light bulb strings glitter overhead, and nearby, a cozy nook invites guests to take a break from the dance floor beside a crackling campfire. Whether you’re looking for that perfect location to make a lifelong commitment or just a fun spot to host a company retreat, Wild Horse will have something for you. After all, if it’s good enough for Butch Cassidy, it’s probably good enough for you.
Mira Vista Resort
Set along the foot of the Tucson Mountains, with a sweeping view on one side of Safford Peak and across the wide valley toward the Catalina Mountains, Mira Vista began in the 1930s as Saguaro Vista Ranch, the site of a ranch with a well that was a stop for travelers in the 1860s. Its unusual Modern Pueblo-influenced rustic Craftsman architecture, vine-covered pergola, and wide pool area makes it seem like a younger cousin of the Arizona Inn in Tucson.
Mira Vista is no longer a dude ranch but it has become a popular clothing-optional resort for professionals from all over and people from all walks of life who enjoy their freedom to recreate bare in a vintage property. And why not? We have more days of sunshine than California.
The amenities include a tennis court that’s now used for pickle ball, pool, dining room, and brand new bar area for special events, exercise room, games room, and condos for those who want their own piece of sophisticated nude ranch living. Photo by Jim Collette, LMGI
Venues dressing up as western, but lacking any actual history, aren’t hard to spot. Take one trip to Frontierland at Disney, and it’s not hard to spot the concrete edifice behind a thin façade of wooden planks. Fun, yes, but authentic? Not so much.
That’s not a problem that Cocoraque Ranch suffers from. This is a working cattle ranch, and the pen of meandering cows just beyond the dance floor won’t let you forget it. If you don’t mind a little dirt, if you’ve ever had a sore butt after a long day in the saddle, Cocoraque may just be your ideal venue for any event.
While they don’t offer lodging, Cocoraque can accommodate just about any other request. That’s because owner and manager Jesus Arvizu is committed to letting you set up your event however you’d like. His venue includes a stage, dance floor, dining pavilion, and bar area. Everything else is up to you. He’ll let any caterer come in and set up, he works with local operators to offer jeep tours, cattle drives, and trail rides, and he’s even got area contacts who will put on a whole rodeo for the right crowd.
Where Cocoraque excels is in the ambiance created and meticulously maintained by Jesus. His dining pavilion is a three-walled terrace, offering diners the perfect indoor-outdoor setting that keeps out dust but still presents awe-inspiring views of the surrounding mountains. Rows of picnic tables mean that any meal here is a communal experience, providing guests with the perfect opportunity to swap stories over ribs and beer. A giant fireplace is the centerpiece of this dining hall, and even without a flame roaring away, it spreads a feeling of warmth into every corner of the room.
Across from the dance floor, Jesus has crafted a bar that channels all the Old West atmosphere of a Dodge City saloon. Adorned with a row of cowboy hats, iconic tools of the trade like saddles and ropes, and even the odd cattle skull, this is just the spot to tuck into a tankard of ale. After a day out on the range, you’ve earned it.
Lazy K and Saddle and Surrey Ranches
The density of dude ranches around Marana is perhaps not surprising considering the amount of Western films that used this area for locations, from at least 1913 to present day.
Lazy K Bar Ranch (no longer in existence) first opened its doors in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains in 1940. The Van Cleves, a major ranching family out of Montana, took a risk in moving down to Arizona. Lazy K quickly became one of the most popular ranches in the region.
Saddle and Surrey Ranch originally opened in 1948 just north of Sweetwater Drive. This popular destination attracted visitors from across the country with its convenient access to both the Tucson Mountains and the Santa Cruz River. In 1956, Collete Jackson, who helped operate the ranch, even appeared on the cover of Newsweek as part of a story about Arizona’s booming economy. Today, this property is now Cottonwood de Tucson, a recovery center offering guests a peaceful retreat nestled amid a forest of saguaros.