By Nicola Bridges
Brushing on horseback past Palo Verde and mesquite trees along dry creek beds with views of mountains and mesas as far as the eye can see, I can hear the laughter of children on the trail ahead on a kids ride, listening to wrangler Debbie in her singsong voice telling tales of the trail and having the kids giggling and playing games.
She tells them about the plants along the way and snaps a small branch off a creosote plant, passing it back to the boy behind her and having each mini dude and dudette place it on a bush they pass for the next in line to grab as they plod along on their ponies. She talks about the animals they might see — jackrabbits, brown-and-yellow shelled Sonoran Desert tortoises, doe-eyed deer and rattlesnakes, and we hear excited shrieks.
I'm at Rancho de los Caballeros, an authentic dude ranch and desert golf and spa resort in Wickenburg, Arizona, just an hour northwest of Phoenix, clearly a favorite for kids who have come prepared, dressed in their cute cowboy and cowgirl duds. Many of their parents came as kids themselves and have returned annually over generations since their own parents and grandparents first came, going back to the resort's opening 70 years ago.
Family is key to brother-and-sister owners Rusty and Suzy Gant, whose father, Dallas, opened the 20,000-acre dude ranch in the heart of the Sonoran Desert in 1948 with the intention to create a high-end resort for families. Today, Rancho de los Caballeros boasts an 18-hole golf course — ranked in the top 100 nationally and top 10 in Arizona by Golf Digest — tennis courts, both with a pro-coaches, and a luxury spa where parents can relax while their kids are in the capable hands of the corral staff.
Earlier that morning, I'd rushed down to the corral to check in for the 10 a.m. ride with The Colonel, Paul D. Vance, nicknamed for his white Western mustache, beard and background playing historical horse characters at the Kentucky Horse Park in Georgetown, Kentucky, a popular state-run attraction and museum. He invited me to sit a while and "conversate" as the wranglers got everyone saddled and shared his lifelong love of the cowboy life. "Miss Nikki, now you can like your dreams or you can live your dreams," he said, a glint in his eye, "and all my life I've lived my cowboy dream out loud."
He's a favorite character at the corral, beloved by the kids and adults alike.
The wranglers at Rancho de los Caballeros are real-McCoy cowboys, including a former ranked professional bull-rider and champion team-ropers who return from dude ranches in the Northwest each fall-through-spring season (October to May), when Rancho de los Caballeros reopens after closing during the 110-plus-degree high heat of Arizona summers.
In the afternoon, after Debbie and I talk about our shared love of gemstones and crystals, she takes me on a solo loping ride to a special trail that sparkles from horseback, littered with indigenous rose quartz, turquoise, basalt and lava-flow rocks. She tells me of the gold-mining history of the area and points out Vulture Peak Gold Mine (no longer a working mine but open to the public) in the shadow of the mountain for which it's named.
We come to a rise high above the desert floor, rest the horses and sit in silence as we breathe in the majestic views of the Bradshaw Mountains and sprawling homesteads below of people who live on the residential portion of the Rancho de los Caballeros acreage. There are also snowbird mansions that presidential families, politicians and corporate moguls have called their second or third homes.
Returning to the corral, dusty and ravenous after my rides, I take a meditative moment to wander through the resort's stone labyrinth on my way back to my room to change for the evening's hayride to a cowboy cookout. After the day of getting to know each other on the trail, fellow guests feel like new friends and family, and we chatter as we trundle along on a trailer of hay bales behind the tractor pulling us past the skeet range and cattle to where our frontier feast of barbecue, beans and delectable desserts (handmade by the resident ranch pastry chef) awaits us round a roaring fire.
We chow down, softly serenaded by a couple of old cowboys singing old country-western songs, strumming guitars on the steps of a covered wagon. And as the kiddos laugh and play around the camp, we adults huddle closer to the fire, cocktail in hand, watching the sunset and sharing the great memories we've made on this magical desert day.
WHEN YOU GO
Rancho de los Caballeros is an all-inclusive resort: www.ranchodeloscaballeros.com. To reserve rides, spa and tee times ahead: 800-684-5030.
Nicola Bridges is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Guests at Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, Arizona, take time during a ride to enjoy the scenery. Photo courtesy of Nicola Bridges.