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Arizona getaway: Dude ranches, horses and Wild West adventure

Decades ago, when TV Westerns were on prime time and the baby-boom generation (including me) was glued to “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide,” more than 30 dude ranches operated in the vicinity of Tucson. Now there are just three, with nine other member ranches in the Arizona Dude Ranch Association scattered across the state.

WHITE STALLION RANCH, TUCSON, AZ.:  Schedule for the day:

  • • 9 a.m. Slow horseback ride
  • • 11 a.m. Fast ride
  • • Quick buffet lunch
  • • 1 p.m. Riding lesson (focus on loping)
  • • 3 p.m. Quick dip
  • • 4 p.m. Team cattle penning
  • • 7 p.m. Steak cookout
  • • 8 p.m. Entertainment
  • • 10 p.m. To bed — and out within five minutes

Not every guest at White Stallion Ranch schedules such an equine-intensive day.   Horses, horses and more horses are what a guest-ranch vacation is all about.

Decades ago, when TV Westerns were on prime time and the baby-boom generation (including me) was glued to “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide,” more than 30 dude ranches operated in the vicinity of Tucson. Now there are just three, with nine other member ranches in the Arizona Dude Ranch Association scattered across the state.

They’ve all evolved with the times, of course, diversifying to appeal to families, singletons, girlfriend getaways and other demographic groups. Do guests even have to like horses, much less get astride one? The answer is a resounding “neigh.”

Offerings vary, but the ranches I visited all offer comfy accommodations and non-horse options like hiking, rock-climbing, fat-tire e-bike tours, UTV (utility task vehicle) tours focused on history and Hollywood, vintage rifle and pistol shooting, bird watching, evening entertainment and more.

“Our goal is always to be a horse-based ranch, but we’ve evened it out with more activities,” says proprietor Russell True, who grew up on White Stallion Ranch and has an ownership interest in the two other guest-ranch operations I visited in late April.

They all caught me under their spell — and the only “City Slickers”-style mishap I had was when I tripped over a shoelace while taking photos in a cactus garden, and did a full-on hand plant against a giant saguaro with inch-long spines. Ouch.

Here’s a look at all three ranches:

Rancho de La Osa, Sasabe

“In the middle of nowhere on the way to nowhere” is how True describes this historic ranch, which dates back to the 1700s, on what is now the Mexico border. A 90-minute drive southeast of Tucson, the complex of low adobe buildings appears abruptly on the horizon, like a sherbet-colored mirage in the midst of an undulating desert sea.

With just 18 guest rooms, it’s a boutique operation that attracted Hollywood and political A-listers from the 1920s into the 1960s. Today it draws guests looking for an off-the-beaten-track, horse-centric experience.

Of interest: The ranch complex is within a half-hour ride of a section of the infamous “border wall,” a tubular steel barrier wrapped on top with concertina wire. The odd thing: It stops abruptly at the territory of the indigenous Tohono O’odham people, who didn’t want it snaking into their land. It’s easy to walk around the butt end of the barrier and we did, snapping photos in Mexico while our smartphones went into international calling mode, with accompanying charges. Go figure …

White Stallion Ranch, Tucson

This is a Cadillac among guest ranches, with 43 luxury rooms and suites (plus a five-bedroom hacienda) that attracts guests from around the world. The 3,000-acre ranch borders Saguaro National Park and sports thousands of those fantastically shaped cacti, some hundreds of years old, that don’t grow naturally anywhere else.

A herd of about 170 horses, one of the largest in Arizona, means there’s a mount to fit every ability level, from 5-year-old beginners to competitive riders  “We get a lot more intermediate and advanced riders than many guest ranches,” says True.

Tombstone Monument Ranch, Tombstone

At first glance, this place is, well, different — a fake 1880s frontier town where kids and adults alike swagger past false-fronted buildings with smiles on their faces and smartphone cameras in hand. With its swinging-doors saloon, Old West signage and guest rooms named for characters from TV and movies (mine was Miss Kitty’s Bordello No. 2), the one-street complex looks and feels like a movie set.

Just three miles down the road, the silver-boom town of Tombstone offers a bigger and more authentic dose of the Wild West, replete with staged gunfights at the OK Corral.

If You Go

Vacations at Arizona’s Rancho de La Osa, White Stallion Ranch and Tombstone Monument Ranch can be booked separately or as a two- or three-ranch combo. The three ranches are all-inclusive, meaning meals and unlimited activities are included in the rates, which fluctuate seasonally. During the fall, Rancho de la Osa rates range from $235 to $285 per person per night, double occupancy, with discounts available for children. White Stallion Ranch rates start at $230 for the same time period, and Tombstone Monument’s start at $248.

Find more information at ranchodelaosa.com, www.whitestallion.com, www.tombstonemonumentranch.com.

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