And if your idea of heaven is an early morning ride or leisurely lope along a desert trail, then spending a holiday at Tanque Verde may feel like you’ve passed through the pearly gates — complete with saguaro cactus, prickly pear margaritas, and cowboy barbecues.
When I had the chance to join some colleagues for a few days at Tanque Verde, my first thought was, “Hmm, maybe not.” I’m a novice, and rather hesitant, horseback rider, and I was worried that I wouldn’t find enough to do if I didn’t want to ride every day.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Tanque Verde feels like an ideal summer camp — with scads of things to do and none of the mean kids who stole your underwear and ran it up the flagpole.
Every day, the ranch offers three scheduled trail rides, as well as several levels of riding lessons and activities like “team penning” (where riders try to herd a group of cows into one end of the corral). In high season, Tanque Verde typically has 160-180 horses on the property.
You can also choose from desert hikes that range from easy to strenuous, mountain biking, fishing, tennis, volleyball, and more.
Kids ages 4-12 have their own supervised programs, with riding lessons, hiking, arts and crafts, and nature activities.
One morning, I took a three-hour guided hike among the giant cactus in Saguaro National Park, which borders the ranch.
Another day, I had my first lesson in mountain biking. With a patient instructor and a well-maintained bike, it was an excellent introduction to the sport.
I enjoyed a relaxing yoga class outside on the lawn and found time to hang out by the pool (the ranch has two). The ranch’s setting, overlooking the Rincon Mountains, is spectacular.
Many of the guests were multi-generational families. According to ranch general manager Jim Bankson, more than sixty percent of ranch guests are returning visitors, many of whom have been coming back year after year for decades.
Twice a week, the ranch hosts a breakfast cookout in the nearby hills, with blueberry pancakes griddled over an open fire (that’s ranch owner Bob Cote wielding the spatula, above).
You can saddle up for an early morning ride to the cookout, head out by mountain bike, or go on foot, as I did, with a spry senior guide who pointed out various desert plants along the way.
Other days, there are picnic lunches or evening barbecues, complete with a cowboy crooner. One night, I asked the BBQ chef, who was cooking up burgers, hot dogs, and chicken, what he’d recommend.
“The turkey,” he replied.
I hadn’t even noticed the pan of smoky, tender turkey slices, and yes, it was delicious, particularly with side dishes of beans, greens, and corn bread.
Room rates include these special meals, as well as regular breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in the camp-style dining hall. The dining room is built around the property’s original homestead, which dates back to the 1860s.
In the morning, you can help yourself to a hot and cold buffet, or have omelets cooked to order.
At lunch and dinner, there’s a salad bar, as well as hearty dishes like prime rib, cider-braised pork chops, burgers, and excellent fish tacos. The food may not wow a molecular gastronomist, but it’s substantial, fresh, and well-prepared.
Tanque Verde is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise place. Most people seem so exhausted from their full schedule of activities (I know I was!) that they turn in shortly after supper.
Some evenings, there are storytelling events or other programs, or you can hang out or play pool in The Doghouse saloon. One of the bar’s specialties is a magenta-hued prickly pear margarita, made with the juice of local prickly pear cactus. The bartender concocted an excellent non-alcoholic alternative for me, with prickly pear syrup, fresh lime juice, and sparkling water.
The bar even has an old-fashioned help-yourself popcorn machine. And it’s not just the kids who enjoy it.
Guest Rooms and Amenities
Tanque Verde’s 69 guest rooms are located in pink stucco buildings around the property, all within a short walk of the dining room, pools, and other facilities. They’re comfortable and homey, outfitted with sturdy southwestern wood furniture and decorated in desert hues.
Rooms intentionally don’t have TVs, although if you’re desperate, there’s a satellite TV in the bar.
The 31 “salas” are the smallest units, standard double rooms with either one queen, one king, or two queen-sized beds.
The 22 “casitas” are junior suites, with fireplaces, sitting areas, and private patios.
I stayed in one of the 16 larger “haciendas,” a one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit, which also had a private terrace. In addition to an overstuffed leather sofa and chairs, the spacious, high-ceilinged living room was equipped with two Murphy beds that could fold out from the wall to accommodate the kids or extra adults.
The bathroom was quite large as well, with double sinks, a separate shower area, and a whirlpool tub.
Rates are all-inclusive, covering lodging, food, Wi-Fi, and nearly all activities.
Standard nightly rates range from $575 to $760 double occupancy.
May through September is low season, with slightly discounted nightly rates of $500-600 for two. Check the Tanque Verde website for discounts and other packages, particularly during the low season.
Rates do jump up during the “holiday” season, which includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the spring break period (mid-March through mid-April), ranging from $615-$1,195 per night.
For each additional person sharing the room, there’s a charge of $125-225 per night, depending on the season.
Harmony with Horses
Even as a reluctant rider, I couldn’t stay at Tanque Verde without trying out the horseback riding program. Not only did I join an easy evening trail ride, but my colleagues and I sampled a session of the ranch’s specialized “Harmony with Horses” program.
Lisa Bedient, who runs the “Harmony” program and has been working at the ranch since 1998, started us in the corral, with the basics of grooming a horse. The idea is to begin bonding with your horse before you climb into the saddle.
One detail that I found especially useful was Lisa’s explanation of where a horse can see — so you know where to stand and not surprise it.
She then instructed us on how the horse is trained to respond to verbal commands, tension on the reins, pressure from your feet, and the way you sit in the saddle.
Perhaps these instructions are second-nature to experienced riders, but I found them fascinating, and this knowledge helped relieve some of my horse-related anxiety. As my horse and I began to walk around the corral, we practiced stopping and starting, turning left and right, and even trotting for short stretches.
I’m not sure I’d say that I’m now in complete harmony with horses, but at Tanque Verde Ranch, I did actually ride.
And as you can from the photo (above), I’m smiling.
Hotel review by Vancouver-based travel, food, and feature writer Carolyn B. Heller, author of the books, Moon Handbooks: Ontario and Living Abroad in Canada. Carolyn-on-a-horse photo courtesy of J Public Relations. Other photos © Carolyn B. Heller. Tanque Verde Ranch hosted my stay for review purposes.