by Lee Foster
The “dude” or guest ranch vacation continues to flourish in several western states despite the visible threat of urbanization and the invisible threat of skyrocketing liability insurance costs.
Foremost among these ranch destinations is the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson. Tanque Verde is the largest and oldest of the Arizona guest ranches.
Tanque Verde lies on the eastern side of the city, adjacent to the Saguaro National Monument and the Coronado National Forest. While retaining its rural feel, Tanque Verde has evolved to become a major destination ranch resort.
The traditional western ranch experience of horseback riding remains, with more than a hundred horses maintained for guests. Tanque Verde’s fortunate location, next to vast public land holdings (almost a million and a half acres), insures that its riding trails will never be developed.
“Guest ranches have been a typical Tucson lodging tradition,” observed the manager. “But most have disappeared. We had 37 guest ranches in Tucson as recently as 1952, but only three remain today.”
The manager explained, however, that those three are secure because of their proximity to public land holdings.
“Guest ranches sold out to become subdivisions,” he said. “You can’t send people riding through housing developments.”
Ranches throughout the west that escaped the pressures of development have faced another challenge: rising liability insurance coverage. Putting an inexperienced guest on a horse in these litigious times is a risky business. Liability rates have increased sharply, when the insurance is available. Only well-financed operations, such as Tanque Verde, have survived.
The setting of Tanque Verde is choice, with many of the 59 rooms overlooking a desert environment dominated by large saguaro cactus and the mountain foothills. Rooms are spacious, with western-style decor and fireplaces. Arizona Indian-blanket motifs and the adobe construction style of Arizona define the ambiance.
“A ranch vacation will appeal to the traveler who likes western-style informality,” said the manager. “Plus good food, horseback riding, and peace and quiet.”
Tanque Verde has changed with the times to meet the interests of today’s traveler. Family members who don’t ride horses may want to swim, play tennis, take a sauna, or hike with a naturalist. The indoor and outdoor swimming pools, sauna-jacuzzi, and four tennis courts are as important as horseback riding. Sumptuous all-you-can-eat buffet meals, included in the accommodations price, have replaced the romantic image of a cowpoke throwing a handful of coffee beans into boiling water. Although the patio-style rooms and cottages appear rustic, they all have private baths, complete heat-air conditioning, and phones. Lodging, meals, horse riding, and the “resort” facilities are included in the room price.
Despite the changes, Tanque Verde has not lost its soul. The children’s counselor, for example, organizes a daily “rodeo” where youngsters practice their horse skills on kid-size horses and ponies. Historically, Tanque Verde also has much to celebrate as a part of the Old West. In the 1880s, shortly after Rafael Carillo founded the ranch, the Butterfield Stage careened past here on the route into Tucson during the 24-day trip from St. Louis to San Francisco. Tanque Verde means “green pool” in Spanish, referring to the pools of water in the creek beds, fed by underground sources.
The rural setting, with only the quail to announce the morning, contrasts sharply with other, more urban, Tucson lodging options. Due to its sunny climate, Tanque Verde remains open all year, without a transformation emphasizing winter sports, especially cross country skiing, as happens at more northerly guest ranches.
The Tanque Verde manager has watched Tucson guest ranches evolve for several decades. Originally, guest ranches were cattle ranches in need of gentlemanly workers who liked to ride horses out to inspect cattle and fences. This was pleasant work. City slickers came out to do the work in exchange for lodging. So arose, in part, the name dude, as in dude ranch, which is now replaced with the word guest ranch so as not to reflect pejoratively on the person who is the patron. The guest ranch immerses the traveler in an outdoors, down-home, horsy world, suffused with the slower pace of country life.
“Guest ranches offer an authentic American vacation experience,” said the Tanque Verde manager. “I believe we will see a comeback of them. Ironically, new hotels in a place such as Tucson help the remaining guest ranches. New hotels bring in visitors. The visitor looks around and finds the guest ranch. Some visitors choose the guest ranch for their next visit.”
Guest Ranches in the West
Here are a few examples of guest ranches in the West, plus an information source where you can learn about additional guest ranches in the listed states.
For information on Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, Tucson, see http://www.tanqueverderanch.com.
All the West:
Dude Ranchers’ Association lists 100 guest ranches in various states at http://www.duderanch.org.
Rock Springs Guest Ranch is in Bend, Oregon. See http://www.rocksprings.com.
Lone Mountain Ranch, in Big Sky, Montana, is at http://www.lonemountainranch.com.
Triangle X Ranch, in Moose, Wyoming, is at http://www.trianglex.com.
C Lazy U Ranch, in Granby, Colorado, is at http://www.clazyu.com.
The Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association is at http://www.coloradoranch.com.