Tanque Verde Ranch: Where History & Horses
Meet Education & Eating
By Peter Meade
The saguaro cactus has starred in more Western movies than even John Wayne. So if you’re looking for that iconic symbol of the Old West, nowhere will you find more of these majestic masterpieces than at Tanque Verde Ranch.
Located on an impressively scenic 640 acres in Tucson, Ariz., and flanked on either side by two parcels each of 60,000 acres (the Saguaro National Forest and Coronado National Forest), Tanque Verde Ranch is so much more than just an all-inclusive destination for your next family getaway.
While the ranch itself dates back to 1868, when a wealthy Mexican named Emilio Carrillo purchased the property, TVR today is updated with all the services and amenities you would expect from the toniest spa. Many of the traditions carried on today trace their origins to Brownie Cote, who bought the ranch in 1957. The Cote family remains involved in the ranch’s operation still today with Brownie’s son Bob, who is lauded for his awesome blueberry pancakes served at the weekly breakfast ride cookout.
Tanque Verde Ranch is located 45 minutes from the Tucson International Airport. An added bonus, especially for families, is that there’s a seemingly constant shuttle of vans that provide round-trip transportation. The extra bonus is you receive a history lesson about the city and ranch as the miles pass by.
This prepares you for your arrival. The ranch itself has the expected Southwestern feel. There are 69 rooms, junior suites and suites—so there’s something to meet the needs of any size of family. While the accommodations feel a little sparse and dated, they do include an Internet radio, microwave, refrigerator and coffee maker. What you won’t find is a television. If you need something to look at, try the gorgeous scenery or the horses at the corral. For nighttime viewing, get reacquainted with the definition of darkness. Tucson has an aversion to streetlights, so you really get to see the starry sky and moon. No wonder Tucson is hailed as “the astronomy capital of the world.”
No matter whether you came to Tanque Verde for the full-featured spa—yeap, it has one—or to play tennis—there’s a pro and nice courts—or to eat—there’s a restaurant, not a dining hall—at the heart of this ranch are the horses.
While my family and I have notched double-digit visits to guest ranches, I must say none put rider safety at more of a priority. So no matter how many hours—minutes?—you or all your family members have logged in the saddle, be completely assured the wranglers will take good care.
Three scheduled rides are offered every day, ranging from slow ones that feature walking through the desert scenery to more spirited loping rides that let you kick up a little desert dust. On the latter, for advanced riders only, first you must complete the ranch’s “lope check,” which represents your ticket to ride at a faster pace. This entails proving to a jury of three wranglers that you can operate and control your horse to their strict satisfaction. Even though I have been riding most of my life, I felt a twinge of anxiety as I mounted that morning.
Truth be told, it took me to the last of my three tries to get the gloved thumb’s up from the wrangler judges. While I was getting fully prepared to try again manana, I would recommend being very firm about what you are looking for in a horse. And be sure to use that authoritative voice you use for disciplining your offspring when pleading with your horse to do what is instructed.
Despite all the wranglers’ diligence, the matching of horse and rider seemed a bit casual. I felt like I was standing at the valet parking line at a restaurant and whichever car pulled up next was mine. I rode a different horse almost every time and frankly the results were mixed. My advice: if you find a horse you like, request him (they’re all males) and stick to your proverbial guns. There certainly is a diverse enough herd (TVR claims to have the largest stable of riding horses in Arizona), so the weight of the decision should be made on more than just your weight.
HARMONY WITH HORSES
Where Tanque Verde Ranch really shines as a destination for families of all sizes and interests is with two of its specific offerings. First off, I must sing the praises of the “Harmony with Horses” program. HwH is customized to offer participants the opportunity to create and sustain a healthy relationship with your horse based on a willingness to communicate clearly and work with your four-legged partner.
This program was created and run by long-time TVR staffer Lisa Bedient. There are many variations of the program available as it can be tailored specifically to your needs. For example, beginners can get an introduction to horse care and basic riding. Families can arrange for quality time together while advanced riders can work on specific parts of their horsemanship.
Tell Lisa what aspect of horsemanship you want to tackle and she’s on it like the rhinestones on her belt. She’s part horse whisperer, part zen master. My time with her, which included a ride past Paul McCartney’s nearby property (look for the Arizona flag, not the Union Jack, flying) and the dilapidated set from the 1989-1991 sitcom “Hey Dude” on the TVR grounds, was the highlight of my stay.
FOR LITTLE ONES
And if your family ranks include young cowpokes, Tanque Verde runs what is arguably one of the best children’s programs you could find at any dude ranch at any price. Aside from horseback riding and grooming, there’s lots of arts and crafts, hiking and nature walks. The program runs 7:15 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for kids aged 4-to-12. There’s even a children’s dining room, so relaxing parents can enjoy their meals and perhaps some adult conversation.
While families should expect to unwind, relax and enjoy during their stay, expect to learn a few things that go beyond horsemanship. Tanque Verde has its own Nature Center, which is hosted by a knowledgeable nature lover and occupied by a few creatures you will hope not to see on the trails, like a diamond-backed rattlesnake. Also, make sure to check out the red bat. Additional activities include: guided hikes, bird watching, walks focused on taking pictures, mountain bike tours and fishing. To rest whatever may be aching, try lounging at the outdoor (or indoor) pool or schedule time at the on-site La Sonoma Spa. An abundance of wellness treatments and classes, including yoga, await.
THE DOG HOUSE
If liquid libations are more your recuperative style, head to the Dog House saloon. Originally a bunkhouse when the property was a working cattle ranch, now drinking-age guests can gather here informally starting at 5:00 p.m. daily. Try the Prickly Pear margarita or if you want something as hot as the Arizona sun, opt for the Hellfire variety.
Three meals a day are served in the spacious restaurant, which is as likely to be occupied by locals as much as guests. The menu is extensive, the all-you-can-eat buffet has something for even the pickiest eaters and the desert bar is, well, gloriously caloric. You can dine with your brood or join in for a true extended-family style experience. This allowed me to meet several families that were habitual TVR guests. One couple from England was marking their forty-seventh visit and have always stayed in the same room!
Roots of Antiquity
History is evident everywhere at Tanque Verde Ranch. As you walk toward the dining area, check out the room on the right. A part of the ranch dating to the 1800s, the beam running down the center of the room is where bandits hung original owner Carrillo—on three separate occasions—trying to learn the whereabouts of his fortune in gold (that only existed in local rumor). The weekly lecture is given by a local professor-historian who is more than happy to fill you in on all sorts of interesting tidbits.
Among his revelations: Tanque Verde was named for the “green pool” and seasonal river that meanders through the property. Also, one room is rumored to be occupied occasionally by a guest of the Casper-like persuasion.
Room rates (double occupancy) range from $450 daily to $595 depending on the season with additional adults (12 and over) from $125 to $225 and children (4-11) $99 to $175. So expect a five-day stay will set you back at least $3,500. No dude ranch adventure is inexpensive, but take heart in remembering that Tanque Verde Ranch is all-inclusive, so Junior’s fifth trip to the desert bar is on the house.
Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 East Speedway
Tucson, Ariz. 85748
Call for rates and availability: 800-234-3833
Peter Meade is a habitual guest of dude ranches. This is his third article for Bay Area Family Travel. He’s currently dreaming about his next adventure.
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