The air is still while the billowing cumulus clouds contrast white against an azure sky over the Tucson Mountains.
The quiet is broken with the distant sound of children giggling and shouting, horses snorting, and the readying clump of horses into the soft Sonoran Desert sand.A young cowboy shouts with glee as he guides a longhorn cow into a pen. Credit: White Stallion Ranch
At the far end of the arena, some longhorn cattle are clustered together watched over by a professional wrangler.
Join our NEW Facebook Community: Making Travel Easier. We promise to always tell you what we would tell our best friend -- what works for kids, what doesn’t and what you need to know before you go to have the Best. Family. Vacation. Ever. Our group of travel experts are ready to answer your travel questions!
The music blares, the announcer roars enthusiastically, and a young rider heads into the arena to cut a cow from the herd and move it into a corral. It’s the last day of a family trip to White Stallion Ranch, northwest of Tucson, Arizona, where the fantasies of riding the range play out for families on the largest private horse herd in the state.
Family fun on the ranch brings western flavor in a round of activities at White Stallion Ranch. Celebrating more than 75 years since it first opened, and more than 50 with the same family ownership, this dude ranch serves up family-style entertainment and activities across the whole year.
Dude ranches come in many flavors, but there are a number that cater to families as well as adults living a western dream.
White Stallion’s horse herd is large enough that horses are assigned to the rider for the duration of the visit. This allows matching rider experience and personality with the horse’s personality. For family members learning to ride, it’s an important pairing making for a very personal experience.
White Stallion Ranch offers children free riding lessons as part of the family packages that are offered periodically during the year.
Although between 2014 and 2016, I spent more time in the saddle than I had the entire rest of my life, a riding lesson would likely make sense for this writer. Common sense and travel writing aren’t always a match, and I got into the saddle from the raised platform the ranch offers for those who can’t hop up like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. They made it look so easy, as do many of the more experienced riders.
Heading out the road from the ranch, the wranglers guide guests based on experience. One group headed at a steady trot into the desert landscape, disappearing towards the horizon in a rising tail of dust. Our group, for the less experienced, moved at a comfortable, steady pace towards the Tucson Mountains and a breakfast at the desert picnic grove.
If you’re hitting the trail for breakfast, you’re going to work up a good thirst and hunger. Eggs, pancakes, sausage and bacon were waiting the arriving riders under the shady ramadas. We ate family style with second and thirds making the rounds as fast as plates were cleaned.
In addition to the controlled ride in corrals in the heart of the ranch, White Stallion combines its vast Sonoran Desert acreage with permits to ride in the adjoining Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park.
White Stallion Ranch is a full-package. Families can stay in rustic-looking, but resort-modern casitas set in a desert-landscaped reserve with groomed paths and adjoining patios. Between home on the range and the ranch center is a gift shop and resort pool.
All meals are included in the ranch packages, and served up in the main ranch house. The building includes a lounge and bar area, reading materials, games and billiards room. Snacks, breakfast on the range, campfires with cowboy poets, storytellers and singers, and much more are available at the ranch.
Rates vary with seasons, and packages with special deals are prevalent in the shoulder and summer seasons.
The mountains beckon for guided hikes to some of the towering peaks, and the heart of the ranch has a movie theater, choice of flicks – mostly westerns, of course; including many filmed at White Stallion Ranch.
Not all dude ranches are designed for families. Some are established for experienced riders and back-country enthusiasts. Others are working ranches, which mean guests do get to experience working the range. Some are spas with riding opportunities.
White Stallion is a is a recreation ranch experience. It has light resort activities – swimming, tennis, sport court and nicely-prepared meals – but it leans towards the outdoor experience. For families, a couple of other features include a petting zoo, large game room, and periodic classes and craft activities.
On our weekend at the ranch, we took to a hike of a nearby peak. The trek across the Sonoran desert brings us up close and personal to the mighty saguaro (suh-WAHR-oh) cacti, Arizona’s icon. The tall saguaro cactus with its broad arms only grows in Arizona, even though most desert depictions will include it.
On the hike, we’ll see another dozen different cactus species growing along the trail, including the aptly named “jumping cactus,” the cholla (prounounce the dual Ls as a “y,” CHOY-ah). The bright green nodules are just hanging on a thread waiting for a passing animal or person to stir the air and let the spiny cactus “jump” on to clothes. We avoid those.
At night, the lights of Tucson are generally blocked by rising hills south of the ranch, and the night sky is filled with stars and the Milky Way. White Stallion Ranch staff hosts stargazing activities on clear nights.
The world of a dude ranch makes a unique family vacations, one of those that will be among the “remember when we went” family conversations for a lifetime.
Tucson is high desert, a dry climate with more than 350 days of sunshine. In the summer days can be very hot, and the temperature will drop as much as 30 degrees in the cool of the evening. During summer monsoon season, the afternoon can quickly cloud up and a desert thunderstorm will play its way across the landscape. After the rain rapidly passes, the desert fragrance wafts gently on the wind with a touch licorice from the wet creosote and sweetness from the sage.
In the clearing evening air, dinner is grilled over fragrant mesquite wood and served on the spacious patio in front of the ranch dining hall.
A stroll to the fire circle and an hour of music and stories make for a restful end to an active day in the sun at White Stallion Ranch. Afterwards, the beds back at the casita look mighty comfortable for a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s next ride on the range.
White Stallion Ranch is located about 45 minutes northwest of Tucson International Airport. The ranch, while quite isolated, is close enough to the city to allow a parents’ escape while the kids enjoy planned activities.
The ranch hosted us for a weekend in the fall, but it is open throughout the year. This ranch has an international appeal, and the multiple flagpoles at the main entrance each carry a flag of foreign guests’ nations. There were nine flags flying the weekend we spent at the ranch.