They say you can’t go home again, but that’s not quite true. You can go home…
just be prepared to appreciate the changes.
For me, home has always been Tucson, Arizona, where I spent the first two decades of my life. When I decided to vacation in my hometown this past winter, I was determined to do it right. That meant staying at the historic Tanque Verde Guest Ranch (TVGR), which has earned the distinction of being one of the country’s top guest ranch resorts.
When I lived in Tucson, the ranch was always a great spot for a special dinner or a celebratory event, but I’d never stayed there as a guest. I wasn’t going home to Tucson to recapture the past but rather to enjoy the area as a tourist might see it. After my visit in February, I can appreciate why TVGR is considered a premier vacation destination.
There is a rich sense of history at the ranch—and for good reason. You’re literally walking and riding in the footsteps of those who have gone before. You can almost hear the echoes of the Native Americans, ranchers, cowboys and cattle who’ve called this land home. The Western architecture, adobe walls and rugged mesquite corrals aren’t for show. They’re the real deal, built long ago to withstand the test of time.
The area’s first residents trace back to the 1600s, when Pima Indians frequented the Cottonwood Grove and valley at the base of the Rincon Mountains. They used the seasonal river as a water source and left numerous artifacts still found today.
The ranch was first established in 1868 by Don Emilio Carrillo, a native of Santa Cruz, Mexico, who moved to Tucson in the 1850s. Originally named the Buena Vista Ranch, he later renamed it La Cebadilla after the wild barley found along Tanque Verde Creek. Carrillo became a prosperous cattle rancher, although the area was frequently at risk of attack by Apaches. Carrillo’s success attracted the dubious attention of bandits who attempted to rob the ranch on May 7, 1904. The raiders hung Carrillo from a beam in one of the buildings (known today as the “card room”) and left him for dead. Remarkably, Carrillo survived the horrific attempt on his life, only to die from complications of the hanging in 1908. The ranch was then purchased by Jim Converse, a cattleman who changed the name to Tanque Verde Ranch. The name is Spanish for “green tank” or “green pool,” a testament to the nearby artesian spring-fed water source, once used by Native Americans and cavalry patrols from Tucson’s Fort Lowell.
Realizing that Eastern “dudes” would actually pay to experience ranch life, it was Converse who first opened the ranch to guests in 1928. That tradition continued after the ranch changed hands one last time in 1957 when Brownie Cote bought it, eventually expanding TVGR into a world-class guest ranch and resort. Brownie’s son, Bob, took over managing the ranch in 1969. Although he retired in 2009, Cote Family Operations still owns the ranch. Bob and his wife, Rita, live on the premises and maintain regular contact
TVGR has surpassed the Cote family’s early goals. The ranch has been named “Best Dude Ranch in Arizona” by The Arizona Republic in 2012, a “Top Ten Family Resort” by the Travel Channel, among “America’s Best 8 Dude Ranches” in 2014 by Conde Nast Traveler and “Readers’ Choice Award Winner” in 2014 by Conde Nast Traveler.
Today, the ranch sits on a dramatically scenic 640 acres bordering Saguaro National Park (East District) and the Coronado National Forest. Because the operation still runs cattle, it also leases some 60,000 acres of state land, so to say there’s abundant room for riding, hiking and mountain biking is an understatement.
We timed our visit to coincide with the La Fiesta De Los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo, which celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2015. The four-day event draws top competitors from across the nation and takes place the last weekend of February, preceded by the popular non-mechanized rodeo parade. (I rode my horse in it in 1976!)
Spring is another fabulous time to visit Tucson, thanks to the wildflowers and cacti blooming in late March and through April. Arizona’s state flower is the saguaro cactus blossom, and spring is the time to see it in all its glory. Unless you really love the heat, I’d suggest skipping a summer visit, although TVGR does offer some tempting vacation packages during those months, so the choice is yours.
TVGR can send a driver to pick you up at Tucson International Airport, but my husband and I decided renting a car would give us more freedom to explore.
Lodging at the ranch ranges from casitas to salas and haciendas. All options have private full baths and many have fireplaces. There’s a comforting Old West feel to the accommodations, thanks to adobe walls, Santa Fe-style architecture and the high desert location. Rooms don’t have televisions, but trust us, you won’t miss it. We enjoyed drinking morning coffee on the porch of our sala where we spotted mule deer ambling up the hillside, and the sunsets from that porch were spectacular. Various accommodation packages are available, but we found the all-inclusive rate suited us best.
One of the most satisfying things about our stay was meal time. TVGR encourages dining at “community” tables, making it fun to get to know other guests. The culinary team at TVGR is the reason the ranch won the Silver award for Outstanding Southwestern Cuisine by Tucson Lifestyle Magazine in 2013. We loved the fact that lunch always featured a buffet; I especially liked the well-stocked salad bar selections. Dinner is full service with a rotating menu of several options, both traditional and creative, as well as the starter buffet. Dessert was fabulous; among my favorites were the beautifully decorated cactus cookies, a TVGR specialty, complete with cream cheese frosting. Servers are incredibly efficient and pleasant, making sure you have everything you need.
Special dinner events are held each week, including Mexican Fiesta Night for true Southwestern flavor, and the Cottonwood Grove Ranch Barbeque, an outdoor meal featuring live entertainment. A short walk from the dining room is the Doghouse Saloon, where you can enjoy the ranch’s famous prickly pear margarita, made from cacti on the premises.
Don’t miss the Breakfast Ride, which takes place two mornings each week. You’ll leave the ranch on horseback by 8am for an easy ride up to the Old Homestead where ranch hands are busy cooking a chuck wagon-style hot breakfast.
During our visit, the mornings were cool, so it was a treat to ride up and be greeted by the aroma of fresh coffee and blueberry pancakes cooking on an enormous griddle, ranch-style eggs, bacon and more. To our delight—and surprise—we learned the gentleman in the cowboy hat and apron whipping up those incredible griddle cakes was no less than our host and ranch owner, Bob Cote. With our horses safely tied at hitching posts, we filled our plates and ate at one of the picnic tables scattered beneath the saguaros where we enjoyed our alfresco breakfast before riding back to the ranch.
Let’s face it. No matter how wonderful the accommodations, scenery and food, a primary reason people come to a guest ranch is to ride. TVGR has mastered this integral part of the equation. With 150-plus horses in the riding string, there’s a horse to match every guest, whether you’re a serious regular rider, have some experience… or have never been on a horse in your life. Many guests sign up for the loping rides (you have to pass a skill check to participate), but there are plenty of slower riding options. There’s also a highly acclaimed kids’ riding program to get younger riders safely learning and in the saddle.
To experience the stunning surrounding mountains on horseback, sign up for the Wilderness Ride. This roughly three-hour excursion takes you up rugged, rocky paths, along ridges and down trails that offer breathtaking, 360-degree views of the Sonora Desert covered with stately saguaros, prickly pear, ocotillo, barrel and other cacti. At one point, our wrangler pointed out a house in the foothills that belongs to Paul McCartney.
Red tail hawks circled and called as they gracefully soared above the valley. It had been a wetter winter than usual, so creeks were running, and we passed a large reservoir full to brimming. In several places, we saw waterfalls, sunlight glittering off the water as it rushed down the mountainside. Some of the trails are quite steep, but you can trust your horse to negotiate every step carefully. On those significant uphill climbs, just grab a big handful of mane, lean forward and give your horse his head.
If you want to improve your horsemanship, sign up for the Harmony with Horses program led by ranch teaching staff. You’re sure to learn and have fun doing it.
Although I spent most of my time horseback, TVGR has plenty of other activities for non-riders, including guided mountain biking and desert hikes (one of the most informative is the “Food and Pharmacy of the Desert” walk), tennis, swimming and even catch-and-release fishing in their own Lake Corchran. Relaxing body and skin treatments are available at the luxurious, on-site La Sonora Spa, complete with indoor pool and spa whirlpool.
With the days filled with adventure, great food and friends, our stay was over too soon, but the magic of the ranch stayed with me long after we departed. After our plane took off for the flight back to Florida, I snapped a photo of those craggy, cloud-topped peaks below. That familiar feeling of homesickness at saying good-bye to my old hometown gnawed at me.
Florida may be “home” now, but part of my heart will always remain safe and secure among those beloved mountains of southern Arizona.
Put These Outings on
our “Must-Do” List!
Depending on when you visit Tucson and how much time you have, add one or more of these memorable experiences to your stay.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Rated among the Top 10 Museums in the World. Everything from raptors and mountain lions to rattlesnakes and hummingbirds
cf8 (520) 883-2702
“One of the 50 must-see wonders of the world”
Snow skiing, hiking, ski lift summer rides
Mission San Xavier del Bac National Historic Landmark founded in 1692 as a Catholic mission; oldest intact European structure in Arizona
sanxaviermission.org (520) 294-2624
Natural desert oasis with hiking trails, picnicking, guided shuttle bus tours
Saguaro National Park—East and West Districts
(TVGR is adjacent to the Rincon Mountain District—East)
Hike and picnic in stunning mountain surroundings
Rincon Mountain District Visitor Center
Tucson Mountain District Visitor Center
Trail Dust Town
Shops, museum, stunt shows in a miniature Western town; great steaks at Pinnacle Peak, Tucson’s original cowboy steakhouse