If you’ve never been to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, you might think it’s empty, barren, and hotter than blazes. But on my first morning ride at White Stallion Ranch just outside Tucson, the desert is vibrant and alive—and surprisingly cool. We’re walking in the shadow of a mountain, and ambient sunlight gilds the cacti in auras of gold, orange, and pink. Birds flit about as our horses clip-clop along the trail. I take a deep breath and inhale the herbaceous smells of the desert. I am in my element.
Whenever I visit the Southwest, I feel a strange kinship to the land, as if I belong here. In spite of the desert’s tranquil appearance, there’s a palpable sense of energy in the ancient landscape—the mountains, the desert, the canyons, and gorges, shaped by forces we can’t even comprehend, forces that are still at work. It’s hard not to feel awe.
Peter and I are here in Arizona for an 11-day vacation, and our itinerary is packed with all the activities I love: horseback riding, hikes, museum visits, gardens, history, nature, and delicious food and wine. Our trip will take us from Arizona’s southern side through Phoenix, one of my favorite cities, then northward, where we’ll visit Sedona’s Red Rocks and the iconic Grand Canyon. Along the way we’ll experience some of the best of what Arizona has to offer and reconnect with our ancient roots in this awe-inspiring state.
Here’s Part 1 of our adventure. Saddle up the palomino, and come along for the ride.
IN THE DESERT
The current owners of White Stallion Ranch, the True family, have been welcoming guests since 1965. I love it from the minute we arrive. Set among palm trees, like an oasis in the desert, the ranch can accommodate up to 100 guests in a variety of accommodations. While not a luxury property, it’s definitely a step up from rustic dude ranches with its spacious, updated guestrooms and suites—plus a 4-bedroom house for groups and family gatherings. Amenities include a pool, fitness center, hot tub, and a cozy bar where you can meet other guests before dinner. Our darling casita features wood paneling and Southwest decor, and we even have a patio with an outdoor fireplace and comfy chaise lounges, perfect for stargazing at night.
Whether you are a beginner or an experienced rider, I can’t think of a better place to get in touch with your inner cowgirl than White Stallion. The True family has made it their mission to provide a quality experience for guests, and the ranch runs like a well-oiled machine. Each afternoon in the main lodge, guests sign up for the rides they wish to join the next day. Most days options include a slow and a fast ride. Other rides offered regularly include a breakfast ride, all-day ride, wine-and-cheese ride, and beer-and-Cheetos ride. Cattle wrangling, rodeos, and cookouts are also part of the fun.
Don’t worry if you’ve never ridden or if it’s been ages since you sat in a saddle. White Stallion’s wranglers will match you with the perfect horse. I’m assigned to Stetson, and she’s gentle yet responsive. Our morning ride is a slow ride, required for all first-time guests. Slow simply means your horse walks the whole way—ideal for getting used to being in the saddle and waking up your muscles. Plus ambling along on horseback reminds you to slow down, breathe, and connect to the beauty of nature.
White Stallion Ranch is adjacent to the Saguaro National Park), and tall Saguaro cacti dot the ranch, like still-life statues watching the world go by. But other species of cacti also abound. One of my favorites is called the Teddy Bear Cholla. From a distance the cactus appears to be covered in fluffy, white down, but when you get close, you discover it’s full of spiky thorns. Not sure where the name comes from since you definitely would not want to hug one of these Teddy Bears.
After our relaxing morning ride, we are ready for a fast ride, available for more experienced riders. Peter and I have ridden a fair amount, but I’m still nervous as we mount up. Before taking off, you need to pass a test—i.e., show that you can canter confidently in a fenced-in arena. So I do my best to cue Stetson into a canter, and she glides into a nice, easy lope under the wrangler’s watchful eye. I’m bouncing in the saddle a bit, but I get a thumb’s up—and Peter does, too, so we are off and running.
Not really. The fast ride isn’t just running. It’s a series of walks and canters through the desert. Each time we get ready to canter, the lead wrangler says, “Is everybody ready?” The horses are so habituated to the routine, you don’t even have to give them a cue. They start running before the words are out of the wrangler’s mouth! We canter along mostly straight stretches of trail in single file. The challenge is to find the horse’s rhythm and keep your distance from the other horses—easier said than done since horses run at different speeds.
I’m still learning to canter, so I’m out of rhythm at times. Stetson is forgiving, luckily, and soon I figure out how to ease her into a slow canter and slow her down when she picks up her pace. The canters last a minute or two at most, and when we slow down to a walk, my heart is racing and I’m smiling like nobody’s business.
THE RIDING BUG
Meals are served family-style in the dining room, and the food is hearty and plentiful. Our first evening the dinner theme is Italian, so there’s fabulous lasagna, spaghetti, and ravioli. A cowboy breakfast is on tap the next morning featuring steak and eggs—perfect for a day in the saddle. What’s great about family-style meals is meeting the other guests, some of whom have been coming to White Stallion for years. In fact, Susanne, the ranch’s marketing director, says 65 percent of guests are return visitors. That’s amazing.
We meet Guenter, a retired dentist from Austria, his wife, Sylvie, and their niece, Elise. I happen to be reading a book called The Perfect Horse about how Austria’s Lipizanner stallions were kept safe during WWII, and Guenter tells us he met the director of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, a main character in the saga, when he was a boy. Small world! We also meet a couple from Canada, a father and daughter from the UK, and two couples from Florida, who come every year after having been bitten by the riding bug. They now own horses back home and love their new hobby—all thanks to a vacation at White Stallion.
Each evening activities are offered. Our first night it’s line dancing, which is a hoot. I have two left feet, so it takes me a while to follow Megan’s instructions: Step to the left. Step to the right. Heel, heel, touch, tap, hitch. That last move is a quarter turn, and I’m either a few beats behind or “hitching” in the wrong direction. Megan also teaches us a barn dance, which involves changing partners after you do a series of simple steps plus a twirl. We are laughing a mile a minute, especially since some of us can’t keep up with the music’s tempo. Other nightly activities include stargazing, arts and crafts, and cowboy songs around a campfire.
On the second day at White Stallion, Peter and I challenge ourselves by signing up for the all-day ride. We head out after breakfast—along with two wranglers and another couple who we discover have ridden horses around the world—and follow a trail into Saguaro National Park. The scenery is stunning. We ride through canyons and gorges, past giant boulders, through dry riverbeds, up and down mountains, stopping for a midday lunch in a shady ramada. Yes, it might be January here in southern Arizona, but the temperatures climb into the 80s, and under a blazing sun, it’s pretty darn hot. Wide-brimmed hats are recommended.
The wranglers show us petroglyphs on boulders in the park, markings left behind by the prehistoric Hohokam people, which experts say may be thousands of years old. The Hohokam created petroglyphs by etching designs into the dark surface of sandstone and other rocks. For being so old and weathered, the spirals and squiggly lines are surprisingly vivid on the boulders. No one knows the significance of the markings. Maybe they were used to communicate—or perhaps someone just felt like creating a pretty design on the side of a rock.
We do a little cantering during the ride, but mostly we walk through the desert, sometimes chatting, other times quiet, alone with our thoughts. It’s in these moments that I feel glad to be alive and far, far away from the noise and stimulation of the modern world. Escaping into nature matters now more than ever. When we take the time to slow down and reconnect with what’s real in the world, we remember what life’s all about.
I guess you can tell I’ve been bitten by the riding bug, and even though it’s been a few months since we visited White Stallion Ranch, I only need to close my eyes to remember how alive I felt there. I hope one day to ride again through the Sonoran Desert on the back of a horse. It can’t happen soon enough.
White Stallion Ranch offers all-inclusive vacations year round, as well as workshops, clinics, seasonal discounts, and special packages—like Cactus Cowgirls, which is offered four times a year. The next cowgirl gathering is January 14-21, 2018. Visit www.whitestallion.com or call 520-297-0252 for more information.
NEARBY IN TUCSON
• Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum - The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden featuring interpretive displays of living animals and plants native to the Sonoran Desert region. This fab family attraction has been teaching visitors about the desert since 1952. Dine in the museum’s café—it’s affordable and tasty! www.desertmuseum.org
• Mission San Xavier Del Bac - Known as the White Dove of the Desert, this Catholic mission built in 1783 just outside Tucson is considered one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the U.S. The interior and exterior are both breathtaking, and the story of the church is a fascinating insight into the history of this region. www.patronatosanxavier.org
• Old Tucson - Old Tucson is one of Arizona’s top Wild West attractions, featuring live-action stunt shows and live entertainment, vintage rides for the kids, genuine southwest BBQ, stagecoach rides, and more. Immortalized in 400+ films and commercial productions, Old Tucson continues to serve as a premiere film location. Perfect for anyone who’s a fan of westerns! www.oldtucson.com
• Tucson Botanical Gardens - The Tucson Botanical Gardens is an urban oasis of five-plus acres with 16 specialty gardens that surround visitors with beauty and inspiration. Families will love the seasonal, live tropical Butterfly Exhibit, Butterfly Magic. Don’t miss dining at Café Botanica, which features local, sustainable ingredients. www.tucsonbotanical.org
Coming Soon: Parts 2 & 3 of Peggy’s Arizona adventures.