TANQUE VERDE GUEST RANCH
Collecting trail dust and Western memories
Looking back, the red-headed rider replies in an utterly charming British accent, “I’ve spent the better part of a year here by now, luv.”
The urban core of Tucson recedes as four lanes of roadway transition into two. Sidewalks morph into dusty shoulders as Speedway Boulevard becomes little more than asphalt slathered onto the rise and dip of natural terrain. Just the barest press on the gas pedal sends the minivan cresting over the hillocks. The whoops and giggles from the back seats prove that—sometimes—Space Mountain isn’t necessary for roller-coaster thrills.
Speedway Boulevard finally dead-ends 14 miles east of I-10. There, a bland, government-issue trailhead sign competes for space with a brightly painted wooden placard. The bright orange sun rising behind a green saguaro makes clear which sign wins this beauty contest.
A turn to the left, a few final twists and bends, and there it is: Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, nestled in the saguaro-studded foothills of the Rincon Mountains. If the glossy mailer’s seductive spiel keeps its promise, Tanque Verde offers a taste of the old-style rancher’s life in the guise of a 640-acre working ranch, luxury resort, and spa.
All conversation stops as we drive slowly onto the grounds and absorb our first impressions:
To the right: Scores of maned, sloping heads bob about in the corral, which is encircled by saguaro, prickly pear, and gnarled mesquite. Wife Terry, riding sidesaddle up front, and the cowgirls-to-be riding in back—oldest daughter Kelly and her younger sister Jessica—simultaneously draw in sharp, astonished gasps at the sight of so many horses.
Straight ahead: Cacti, flowering shrubs, and huge old-growth trees form shaded canopies over flagstone walks leading to the main building’s long, covered porches. Hummingbirds flit about, crisscrossing and dive-bombing their next targets.
To the immediate left of the main building: Salmon-colored, gated adobe archways lead to guest quarters; beyond that, our port of entry, the front office.
The hinges of the lobby’s massive carved doors hail us with an amiable groan. Sunlight glints off copper-clad windows as this motley quartet spills through the doorway. We look around as we wait at the check-in counter, jaws agape and unashamedly wearing greenhorn badges on our sleeves.
Commanding immediate attention is an enormous granite fireplace with a volcanic slab hearth and mantle, windows at either side. Tumbleweed wreaths adorn stonework that rises to a high ceiling rowed with kiva logs and saguaro ribs. A stained-glass window, fabricated around a weathered wagon wheel, throws kaleidoscopes of color onto the adjacent plastered wall.
Facing the fireplace, an array of overstuffed couches and chairs sit atop an enormous Indian-style carpet. The arrangement telegraphs that this common area is intended more for palaver than mere lobby decor.
Around the corner from the entrance, a handcrafted mannequin leans wearily back in a wrought-iron straight chair. The expression embroidered on the stuffed prospector’s face suggests years of toil without striking the mother lode. I call out for Kelly and Jessica to pay respects to this moth-eaten geezer in bib overalls and faded, checkered flannel shirt, but they can’t be bothered. Both crane their necks and stare bug-eyed at the massive bison head mounted high in an alcove.
Photo by Rob AdamsSaguaros and mesquite trees encircle the corral.
Tanque Verde’s original owners were Emilio and Rafael Carillo, brothers who founded the ranch in 1868. Cattleman Jim Converse bought it from the Carillo family in 1921, and soon found that friends from back East were clamoring to visit and pitch in on cattle drives. Converse built guest quarters to house his ever-growing number of visitors, and the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch was born.
In 1944 the Cote family, proprietors of a Minnesota children’s summer camp since the 1920s, decided that acquiring an off-season property would enable them to retain their camp staff year-round. Tanque Verde fit that need perfectly, and it has been in the Cote family ever since.
To this day, the Cotes run it as a working ranch, with 150 horses in the corral and around 700 cows and calves grazing 60,000 acres of leased land within the boundaries of neighboring Saguaro National Park.
Checked in, map in hand, we drive to what will be our quarters for the next two evenings. As we pass through the arched doorway festooned with bright Mexican tiles, we discover this “deluxe room” is, by any other resort’s standards, a two-room suite. The main area includes two queen beds, an alcove with a dinette set seating four, a walk-in closet (promptly dubbed “Jessica’s Time Out Room”) and a beehive fireplace with two armchairs standing sentry before it. The brick-and-plaster walls, low ceilings with dark, heavy beams and rust-colored décor suggest a retro-West ambience.
The piece-de-resistance is not beheld until heavy drapes are drawn open, unveiling a museum diorama. Behind a wall-to-wall picture window, an expansive outcropping named Roadrunner Ridge runs east and west less than 50 yards away. Beyond the ridge stands the Rincons, its army of surrendering saguaros reaching skyward.
For the second time within half an hour, greenhorn jaws drop.
Soon enough, the awe subsides, the girls tire of trampolining on the beds, and Terry and I sit down to plan our weekend. We decide that, until the dinner bell rings, Saturday is pool day. We spend the next few hours lounging at the outdoor pool, then inside the spa building, where the whirlpool and indoor pool are given a workout.
Dinnertime arrives and the adults feast on filet mignon and mahi-mahi while the girls, taking the kid-friendly route, order spaghetti and meatballs. It’s plain to see why Mark Shelton, Tanque Verde’s culinary manager and resident chef since 1979, was voted 2001’s Southern Arizona Chef of the Year. Throughout the weekend, we find ourselves overwhelmed by Shelton’s offerings: every morning, we are presented with a breakfast buffet table laden with every traditional dish imaginable; with every meal, the savory main offerings compete with an amazing array of fresh fruits, salads, desserts and pastries.
After dinner we relax on the patio. Enjoying the cool evening air, under a luminous full moon we listen to the cicadas, crickets and, somewhere in the moonshadows beyond Roadrunner Ridge, the hyena-like yelp of a coyote.
Sunday morning, after dropping the girls off with their respective activity groups, Terry and I head over to the corral for an introductory loping, or slow trot, riding lesson. A ride along the Douglas Spring Trailhead in Saguaro National Park follows. Despite the able assistance of Greg, the head ranch hand and his assistant, Jay, the hour-long ride leaves me saddlesore beyond belief. Somewhere, out there, greenhorn alarms are ringing once more.
After a leisurely lunch of Cornish hen, prime rib, salmon, eggs Florentine and those awesome desserts, we amble over to the arena to watch the girls try their hand at riding.
Watchful parents call out words of encouragement to their young riders from shaded perches. As the horses meander around the dusty corral under a late spring sun, the look of excitement on the youngest riders’ faces belie the languid pace of their steeds. With cowboy hats pushed jauntily up from sweat-beaded foreheads, you’d think these kids were imagining themselves galloping along at breakneck speed—junior Pony Express riders, one and all.
That evening we were treated to a nature hike hosted by Marcia Warwick, one of Tanque Verde’s two full-time naturalists. Warwick stops every so often to provide facts on the denizens of the desert—warm-blooded, cold-blooded, winged and legged. A minor ruckus erupts over the discovery of a horned toad desperately trying to camouflage itself from the leviathans looming over it.
Warwick leads the group past Lake Cochran, which looks more like the swamp inhabited by the Creature from the Black Lagoon, to the Cottonwood BBQ Grove, where the crowd gathers for an evening of food and song. As we gorge ourselves on New York strip steaks broiled over mesquite wood (with all the fixin’s, of course), the sun slowly sinks below the westerly horizon. All the while, Tom Chambers—cowboy singer, horse whisperer and host of the ranch’s “Women of the West” program—serenades us with classics like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In.”
On our final day, Jessica rejoins her friends in the 4-to-7-year-old Buckaroos group, while Kelly settles in with the 8-to-11-year-old Wranglers. Terry and I limp along on the 8:15 a.m. hike to an outdoor breakfast at the Old Homestead, one of the ranch’s original outbuildings located on the easterly edge of Roadrunner Ridge.
After breakfast, I find myself chatting with owner Bob Cote. Wearing scuffed boots, faded jeans, and a sunwashed work shirt with bolo tie affixed by an enormous, round chunk of turquoise, Cote looks every bit the gentleman rancher. I mention that everybody here seems to be from somewhere else. With pale blue eyes nearly hidden in mirth and a shock of white hair boyishly falling down over one brow, Cote says that behind California, Illinois and New York, the majority of his guests hail from Great Britain and other parts of Europe.
Even more impressive, as Cote proudly tells me, is the fact that 67 percent of his guests are repeat visitors.
As Cote and I walk toward the corral, he calls out to a woman riding by. “Tammy!” he hails the rider. “Tell this gentleman how long you’ve been coming here.”
Looking back, the red-headed rider replies in an utterly charming British accent, “I’ve spent the better part of a year here by now, luv.” Clarifying, she says she has been a guest for two weeks every year…unfailingly, since 1987. Cote just smiles.
After telling him how enjoyable our stay has been, Cote thanks me with a hearty pat on the back and a firm handshake, saying he expects to see me and my family return once my youngest daughter, Gillian, and toddler son Sean – the two youngest members of the clan not present for this visit – are old enough to ride.
It’s a request that seems impossible to refuse.
IF YOU GO
From Interstate 10 in Tucson, take the Speedway Boulevard exit east. Drive approximately 14 miles until Speedway dead-ends at the Douglas Spring Trailhead in Saguaro National Park. Turn left, then drive 1/4 mile to ranch parking.
The ranch offers free round-trip transportation from Tucson International Airport for visitors staying more than five nights.
Most rooms and suites can comfortably accommodate families; suites are slightly higher. Lodging rates vary by room type and include accommodations, three meals per day, all regularly scheduled ranch activities and use of all facilities except spa services.
May 1–September 30
December 16–April 30
October 1–December 15
All rates are subject to 7.5% tax and a 15% service charge, which covers all gratuities. Contact the ranch for the exact multi-occupancy room rate and other seasonal special rates.
For reservations & information, call or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
For corporate meetings and retreats, call or e-mail email@example.com
Hiking: Interpretive tours are scheduled daily with the ranch’s naturalists in Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest. Featured hikes include sunrise, sunset and half-day hikes, with longer advanced hiking (with three hikers minimum) available upon advance request. The hikes range in difficulty from level desert hiking to mountain hikes up to several thousand feet.
Mountain biking: A variety of guided bike tours for various skill levels are available for guests 13 and older. Mountain bikes, helmets, gloves and water are provided.
Other sports activities: The ranch features five lighted tennis courts with complimentary lessons from a staff tennis pro, plus basketball and volleyball courts. Catch-and-release fishing is available at Lake Cochran. The ranch provides all equipment for these activities. Championship golf courses are nearby at additional cost.
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