writer's dad, George Fink, leads the pack on a
family trail ride through the desert.
rode our line of horses along a trail winding between
giant saguaro cactuses towering nearly 30 feet in the air
like spiky desert signposts.
being in southern Arizona, we shivered in the December
winds, the desert hills above us painted an incongruous
white with frost. Our motley crew of the old, young and
unsteady plodded along on horseback like a lost pioneer
troupe. Fortunately, the grizzled veteran wrangler leading
our trail ride signaled that the chuck wagon was in sight.
were on a breakfast ride at Tanque Verde Ranch, a Western
resort that’s been in business since the 1920s. This
ride was a homecoming of sorts; I’d done the same trip
as a kid when my family of five traveled from the Chicago
suburbs to this venerable dude ranch over 30 years ago.
Now I was back with 10 of us, three generations of family
members from across the country to see how the ranch —
and our idea of a family vacation — has changed.
concept of a dude ranch vacation began in the 1880s, as
Teddy Roosevelt and other East Coast "dudes" (an
insulting term back then for clueless city posers) went
out West to play at being cowboys. Since then, dude
ranches have evolved to include high-end resorts with a
few horses, working cattle ranches, rugged horseback
wilderness adventures and everything in between. The
increasing popularity of experiential travel has been a
boon for dude ranches.
Tanque Verde, cattle still graze across 60,000 acres of
leased U.S. Forest Service terrain, but the main business
is hosting guests on its 640-acre property. A large corral
complex with 150-plus horses and a big team of wranglers
gives Tanque Verde the feel of a cavalry training
operation. Classes are offered for beginning and advanced
riders, with learning applied on a series of walking,
loping and adventure rides into the nearby mountains.
horse-focused activities filled my experience visiting the
ranch as a kid in the 1980s. While the corrals remain the
same, including wrangler Joe Valdez who’s been taking
city slickers out on the trails for 45 years, my childhood
memories definitely don’t include the newer ranch
activities of mountain biking, tennis, yoga, spa
treatments and water aerobics.
Verde’s guest lodging began as a few rooms attached to
the main building and has since expanded to more than 65
rooms ranging from basic "salas" to expansive
three- and four-bedroom Santa Fe-style haciendas whose
pink and orange hues blend into the desert sunsets. The
rooms can be rustic to a fault — some apparently not
updated since my first visit — but renovations are
dining experience remains a communal affair in the main
lodge, with hearty Southwestern buffets mixing frontier
meat-and-potatoes with healthy greens and Mexican-themed
food nights. The Doghouse Saloon provides pre- and
post-dinner libations, like the popular prickly pear
margarita, along with card and pool tables. A clunky TV
that used to be propped on a table has given way to
multiple flat screens.
family experience is part of dude ranch DNA. One family
spanning four generations has been coming to Tanque Verde
annually for the past 55 years.
about the traditions, the memories, the shared experiences
that keep our guests coming back," general manager
Rita Cote said.
I visited back in the day, I remember my little sister
Amy, maybe 5 years old, almost doing the splits as she
straddled the saddle of fat, docile Oats, the mellow horse
favorite for kids. This time, I watched Amy help her
daughter Esme, outfitted in pink cowgirl gear, get ready
for her ride atop another comically large horse.
traditions skip a generation. On the manicured front lawn
of the ranch, I saw a grandfather toss a football around
with his grandkids as their distracted executive dad stood
off to the side, pecking away at his iPhone.
do you mean you don’t know how to hold a football?"
the granddad asked, shooting a scolding glance at his son.
"Just put your fingers on the laces like this …"
from the trails, families share time at the ranch’s
stocked fishing pond, around the campfire during barbecues
and story-time sessions, and at the communal dining
Verde’s kids club (ages 4-12) offers plenty of
activities to keep the young ones occupied during the day,
so it doesn’t always have to be family time.
to the ranch as an adult, it was comforting to see that
some things were still the same. The saguaro-dominated
desert landscape remained unchanged. The horses still
wanted to stop to eat shrubs on the trail. Kids still
found equine flatulence hysterical. And the old wranglers
were as cranky as ever. "But after two decades here,
Joe actually started speaking in complete sentences,"
up to the breakfast campground, the setup was just as I
remembered it: a covered wagon surrounded by picnic tables
and cast-iron griddles, staff cooking up flapjacks and
dispensing coffee and hot chocolate as they waved away
excess smoke with their cowboy hats. The scents of
sizzling bacon and smoke from mesquite fires mixed with
those of the sagebrush scrub and dusty horses, fully
immersing me in old memories while I was creating new
dad, as usual, had slept late, but I’d see him on a
trail ride in the afternoon, both of us sneaking in a lope
when the wrangler wasn’t looking. He’d once again
recall old John Wayne movies and tell of his imaginary
past riding with the Apache and Comanche. My sister and I
would roll our eyes — we’ve heard the stories 100
times. But these were fresh yarns for the grandkids, a new
roundup of dudes enjoying an old tradition.
Fink is a freelance writer.)
there: The ranch is a 45-minute drive from Tucson
International Airport. Shuttle service is available.
Verde Ranch: Rates vary widely by season and room type.
Spring bed-and-breakfast packages begin around $300 for
two people sharing a room. Add $60 for an hourlong horse
ride. All-inclusive packages that include three meals a
day and all activities start around $650 a night;
ranches: Read reviews of 101 Western ranches at the Dude
Ranchers’ Association website, www.duderanch.org.