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Turn a college shopping visit into a trip that you and your teen will remember forever by adding some non-college focused moments into the mix, like riding horses. We started my daughter’s college tour of the University of Arizona at Tanque Verde Ranch where we rode horses, mountain biked, ate dinner together and stargazed. We arrived at the college tour more rested and able to focus on all that the campus had to offer.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted for this trip.
College Shopping and Horseback Riding at Tanque Verde Ranch
Who says a college shopping trip can’t be fun? After several college trips over the past two years, I’m getting good at the fun part. We have driven the California coast, hiked and biked and ate our way around college campuses. For my daughter’s college shopping trip we added horses to the mix and took away the television. Surprisingly, no one missed the TV. And that is saying a lot for a visiting Broncos fan during SuperBowl 50.
Our first dude ranch experience, why did we wait so long?
We do not have a dog – or a cat. My 15 year-old has wanted a dog since he was little but I am not much of an animal person. Our attempts to care for other living things wound up in funerals around the commode so we figured the best way to care for a dog was not to get one – which might also explain why we have never been to a dude ranch. That choice I regret; it turns out horses and teens go together, creating a perfect way to start our college visit to the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Getting to know the horses and tackling mountain biking
Tanque Verde Ranch (TVR) on the far east side of Tucson is home to over 200 horses during the busy season, but you do not need to know how to ride a horse to enjoy TVR. There are fundamentals and intermediate classes that will show you the ropes or lopes. If you’re experienced, you will have to pass the loping test to take the more advanced rides.
My horseback riding initiation was a two hour trail ride in the hills of the ranch. We went to the top of Scott’s Knob and then down the other side which meant I had to hang on and trust the horse would pick the best path on the steep uphill. For me, that was an accomplishment.
My teenagers had never ridden horses and by the end of the fundamentals class they were both loping. They took the intermediate class as well and rode the steep Mountain Adventure Ride with Joe Valdez who has been a wrangler at TVR since 1979.
While my kids were loping with their horses I was learning to mountain bike with Penut. It’s not as simple as jump on the bike and hang on over the bumps. He taught me to look ahead…look ahead…look ahead, use two fingers on the brake, and to coast with my feet at 9 and 3. That technique was enough to build my confidence to go down a set of stairs on my bike. I would NEVER have tried that on my own.
Food and Pharmacy Nature Hike
Janys and her husband, Carl, led us on an hour long Food and Pharmacy Nature Hike on the property, pointing out desert vegetation that heals and nourishes. For instance, the mesquite tree produces beans packed with protein and can be ground into a meal that sweetens baked goods. They showed us how to rub creosote between our hands and inhale it to smell summer rain and possibly improve a respiratory condition.
For more hiking, my son and I walked next door to Saguaro National Park and hiked the beautiful Wildhorse pass loop which took about two hours.
Our home away from home
Our casita had plenty of room for the 3 of us (2 teens and myself). I had a separate bedroom with a queen size bed, and the kids slept in two queen-sized murphy beds in the living room that easily folded back into the wall when we needed more space or wanted to hang out by the fireplace. The decor is airy- Spanish tiles and western comfort with touches like wagon wheels and toilet paper holders with spurs. There is a wet bar with fridge and coffee maker and a gigantic bathroom with full size Jacuzzi (which is a MUST after 3 hour trail rides). Other lodging options include connecting casitas, a hacienda, and single rooms at the heart of the ranch.
All rooms have a view of either a sunset, a desert garden, or the mountains and have a place to sit and relax outside. And NONE of the rooms have a TV. We didn’t miss it. One of my favorite things to do was to sit on our patio at twilight watching the stars pop out one by one. After dark we spent time checking my daughter’s astronomy app for outlines of constellations, which were abundant from our porch.
Dining at the ranch
Activities are scheduled around set mealtimes. Seating is private or communal, depending on availability and your preference. Overall, the food is good and plentiful. The breakfast buffet offered a variety of options including fresh fruit and yogurt daily. The lunch buffet changed it up with different choices each day like risotto, pork tenderloin with apple chutney, stuffed manicotti and salads. There was always an array of petit fours, cake slices and macaroons for dessert. Dinner was plated with a varying menu daily.
The menu was fine for three nights but there was no wow factor, nothing to pine for after I leave the ranch. But change is on the horizon. Chef Justin Macy, formerly with Miraval, is passionate about shaved asparagus, making healthy food exciting for kids, surprising guests with unexpected menu items and reducing (possibly removing) the butter and cream from the current menu. He wears an “I love a challenge” expression and keeps pictures of his food creations on his phone for his own viewing pleasure. He has spent his first month observing and planning his overhaul. I am betting his wife, an award winning pastry chef, will join him or at least help him create the wow factor that will have guests staying longer just for the food.
All inclusive means more for your money
TVR is all inclusive. In addition to three hearty meals a day, activities like horseback riding, horse grooming, riding instruction, mountain biking, tennis, hiking and nature walks are all included in the daily price. There is a nature museum with live tarantulas, snakes, skeletons and loads of information. The outdoor pool is surrounded by 360 degree calming desert and mountain views and there is also a smaller indoor pool near the spa.
Meals are a big part of our vacation budget thanks to two boys who “never feel full” so with an all inclusive I felt like was getting a double bonus: no cooking and my son could eat all he wanted. And he did – taking advantage of two entrees for dinner.
Prices range from $550-700 per night for two ($275-350 each) during February. They do offer last minute deals and prices are higher during their peak time which is holidays and Arizona school breaks. You will pay extra for alcohol and private lessons but I never felt nickeled and dimed and my teens never went hungry.
Also included are wonderful happy people who work at the ranch. The wranglers are experienced and accommodating. When you visit the in-house museum where the story of the original owner being hanged is told, you will see pictures of my kids’ trail ride leader, Joe Valdez, who has worked there since the 1970s. The hiking and biking leaders are knowledgeable and encouraging. Four days at Tanque Verde Ranch made this college visit feel like a real break.
And if you’re still not convinced TVR is a good choice, maybe a Hollywood plug will help. Hey Dude! a Nickelodeon coming of age television show about kids who worked on a horse ranch was shot on location at TVR in the 1990s. One guest I met chose TVR because she was a huge Hey Dude! fan growing up.