Cowboy Dreams Come True
at Arizona’s Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch
By Susan Hetzel & Peter Meade
If you grew up like us wondering about life as a cowpoke, then we’ve found the ideal place in the Arizona desert to live out your best "City Slickers" dreams. And, if you’re also looking for the quintessential vacation spot where your kids can run free, this is the perfect Southwestern dude ranch for everyone in the family.
Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch (STGR) is located in Yucca, Ariz., off Route 40, about 45 minutes northeast of Lake Havasu City and southwest of Kingman. For us, it’s about a 5.5-hour drive from the San Diego area. For those traveling by plane, it’s about a two-hour trip from the Las Vegas airport.
WHY STAGECOACH TRAILS?
We first read about STGR while doing some Internet research in 2005. Sue hadn’t been on a horse in 30 years while I had been an accomplished rider as a child . Moreover, our son Ethan, who was five on our initial visit, had never even been on a pony ride. Still, STGR was drivable, affordable and seemed like a good destination for our Thanksgiving break. Boy, were we right—we recently returned from our eighth visit in five years, which says a lot for a family that takes frequent trips to the East Coast and loves traveling abroad.
Currently celebrating its tenth anniversary, Stagecoach Trails fulfills the childhood dream of Carrie Rynders to own and operate a dude ranch in Arizona. As a young girl, she loved to read Trixie Belden mysteries (think Nancy Drew with horses). Her favorite, "The Mystery in Arizona," took place on a dude ranch, which planted the first seed.
Years later, Carrie and her husband Dan, who both hail from Wisconsin, took their family on a dude ranch vacation, but were forced to leave their oldest daughter, Amy, behind because she has cerebral palsy and none of the ranches could accommodate her wheelchair. Another seed was planted, which then grew into Stagecoach Trails, the nation’s first and only fully handicap-accessible dude ranch.
While STGR has earned an excellent reputation for hosting special needs groups, it was the prospect of riding extremely gentle and well-trained horses that first appealed to us. The fact that Stagecoach Trails is the recipient of two Trip Advisor Traveler’s Choice awards—for best bargain family vacation and hidden gem—carried weight as well.
Another plus: the size of the ranch—STGR accommodates only up to 40 guests with 10 rooms and a pair of two-bedroom/two-bathroom "family houses," all of which are spacious and decorated in Southwestern style. While we weren’t quite sure what to expect on our first visit, something truly magical happened and it draws us back, time and time again to this piece of paradise in Northwestern Arizona.
OUR DESERT OASIS
When you take the bumpy ride down the dusty 11-mile dirt road to STGR, the ranch suddenly appears like a desert oasis surrounded by the Buck, Hualapai and Mojave mountains. Stagecoach Trails sits on 340 acres surrounded by some 360,000 acres of federal land that lends itself to endless directions for riding.
The all-inclusive ranch features three hearty meals each day and plenty of opportunities for fun on the trails as well as relaxation around the lodge or pool with the other guests, who frequently hail from all over the world. The staff is friendly and highly accommodating; the wranglers are skilled and patient while the herd of 60 horses offer the perfect complement for riders of any skill level (and up to 240 pounds).
While the youngest cowpokes may be limited to walking excursions around the ranch on tethered horses or supervised time in one of the rings, even novice riders over the age of five can enjoy two rides every day except Sunday on the myriad trails and washes that crisscross the acres in every direction. Wranglers take more experienced riders out on faster, loping rides as well as half- or all-day treks into the mountains with visits to Indian petroglyphs and a lone Saguaro cactus.
Amid the clumps of ocotillo and creosote, we’ve spotted occasional rabbits, quail, a deserted turtle shell or two, bobcat dens, Joshua trees, "evidence" of coyotes, a stray cow or two and WWII-vintage 50-caliber machine gun shells (from when soldiers and aviators trained in the area).
KIDS RUN FREE
Yet the pluses go beyond time in the saddle. We revel in the comfort that we can let our son and his newfound peers roam the vicinity of the ranch and its outbuildings, the Hualapai Dining Hall and Frontier Lodge, without constant parental supervision.
Where else can you do that these days? Ethan usually can be found frolicking with one of the Rynders’ enthusiastic dogs, in the pool or hot tub, feeding the horses, visiting the goats, throwing a football or Frisbee, tossing horseshoes, practicing his roping skills, playing pool or ping-pong, singing karaoke (far too loud) or further perfecting his poker playing.
Meanwhile, his parents enjoy the childfree time to rest, read, socialize or hang out. As frequent visitors, we’re also known for hosting pre-dinner happy hours, where guests share stories and libations while enjoying the gorgeous desert sunsets and listening to our "Cowboy Mix" on the iPod.
The buffet-style meals—prepared by Tony, who’s married to the Rynders’ daughter Vicki—are varied, plentiful and delicious, and we always try to save room for the scrumptious homemade desserts. Tony’s succulent ribs, steaks and barbecue chicken get rave reviews from all. We especially appreciate his willingness to accommodate even the pickiest eater in our group and also know that special diet requests are easily obliged.
GOOD FAMILY FUN
Another fact that has made our STGR experiences so memorable is the other families we’ve met over the years. More than 50 percent of the guests are from Europe, many from the UK, as they seem most enamored with chasing the quintessential John Wayne experience. We repeatedly chuckle when Ethan picks up a British accent during the stay, and often keeps spouting words like "Mummy" and "brilliant" for weeks afterward.
Most important, we’ve forged friendships with families from all over and are now thrilled when their "holidays" match our "Spring breaks" so we can all meet again at the ranch. A testament to STGR’s enduring popularity: nearly 75 percent of the guests are returnees and many, like us, bring an ever-widening group of family and friends on those repeat excursions.
While the wonderful horses give even novice riders a lot of confidence in the saddle, it’s the expert advice from seasoned wranglers that makes the riding experience so rewarding. Over the years, we have become particularly fond of the head wrangler, Craig Boyd, who’s the "realest" cowboy we’ve ever saddled up with. A word of caution, however: Do not refer to his attire as a "costume" and don’t mess with his hat. (If you do, you may find yourself riding a horse aptly named Widowmaker.) Craig is a man of many talents; besides being an ordained minister (he’s performed numerous wedding ceremonies at STGR), he tells great stories, bad jokes and provides cowboy songs and poetry weekly on music night.
Evenings typically are spent around either the inside or outdoor fireplaces, playing rousing games of Catch Phrase or spirited games of pool. The Rynders are game fanatics, so be prepared to participate (see Widowmaker reference above). Typically, each week warrants a visit from Bobby Jones and his band, a bonafide cowboy singer, his wife and their good friends who play all the Western standards with flair. Even Carrie joins the group with her special "Stagecoach Trails" rendition of "Elvira." It sticks in your head for weeks afterward (Ethan sang it the entire way home on our third trip).
At night, you will be reminded that you have rediscovered the true meanings of "dark" (except for the exceptional stargazing), "quiet" (as in no car alarms, only an occasional coyote call) and "heavenly" (that peaceful easy feeling sometimes sung about).
While in some cases, time seems to stand still at the ranch, for us the time always goes by too fast. We still recall that at the end of our first visit we were so tearful to depart we could think of only one antidote: we immediately signed up for our next trip.
Now between trips, we tell everyone about our adventures, and have enlisted good friends, Geoff, Julie and Nicole Less, to become our ranch "pardners." The Less family just completed their fifth visit when we all traveled there to ring in 2011!
THINGS TO CONSIDER
These days, with the prices of taking the entire family on a memorable vacation more challenging than ever, Stagecoach Trails is a highly affordable, value-packed option. There are no minimum stay requirements like many other ranches (though you certainly should stay at least two days) and the delicious meals and desserts are included in the price. Figure a four-day stay for a family of four (with kids ages four to 11) is less than $400 per person (hay included).
While Stagecoach Trails is our idea of a perfect family getaway, like all venues there are things to consider. There’s only one TV (in the Bison room of the lodge), no phones in any of the rooms, spotty cell phone coverage, no room keys and you (and your kids) are on the honor system for consumption of the snacks and beverages in the lodge. Also, STGR doesn’t have a liquor license, so if you’re inclined to imbibe, you best be packin’ your own tasty beverages.
If you’re seeking a plush, spa-centric locale, STGR might not be for you and your family. Sure, JoAnn, the master masseuse, comes in weekly from Havasu to soothe any aching muscles, and there are golf courses nearby and ATVs you can rent, but as Carrie would tell you, the essence of Stagecoach Trails is on the horseback riding and the dude ranch experience.
Taking a trip to nearby Oatman is a good diversion. A mining town in the late 1800s, the town has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. You can feed carrots to the friendly burros that roam the streets or take in one of the staged "Wild West" shootouts in the street in front of the hotel where Clark Gable and Carol Lombard spent part of their honeymoon or shop for Route 66 tchotchkes. Overall, it’s a fun getaway, especially on Sundays when the horses at STGR are enjoying a well-deserved rest.
That said, even if you are the tenderest tenderfoot, dress the part. If you don’t own a 10-gallon hat, be sure to bring boots and jeans. Keep an eye on the weather for Yucca beforehand and dress appropriately. When we visited over Christmas break, the daytime temperatures were unseasonably cold (in the 40s), so we rode wearing layers with duster-style coats. In previous years around that time, temperatures were much milder (in the 60s), so we rode wearing light jackets.
In April, the weather is usually perfect and the desert flowers are in full bloom; then we favor T-shirts. The ranch typically is closed between June 1 and July 13 due to the triple-digit summer weather. Still, there’s lots of riding in the summer, coupled with extra pool time.
Whenever we go to Stagecoach Trails it’s like we’re visiting our adopted cousins. The feeling falls right in with the saying that drapes across the back wall of the ranch’s Frontier Lodge: "You’ll come as guests and leave feeling like family."
We can’t wait to saddle up again. ****
Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch
19985 Doc Holliday Road
Yucca, AZ 86438
Call for rates and availability: 866-444-4471- or 928-727-8270
London Bridge, Lake Havasu City (55 minutes)
Grand Canyon (three hours)
Historic Oatman (one hour)
Hoover Dam (1.25 hours)
Sedona (three hours)
Route 66 (see the inspiration for the movie "Cars")
Kingman (45 minutes)
Las Vegas (two hours)
Susan Hetzel & Peter Meade are "tag team" writers, enthusiastic horseback riders and avid travelers who live in Carlsbad, Calif. This is her first and his second article for BAFT.
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