Hitting the Desert Trail
High and Dry
Holiday Ranch: Wickenburg sits 2,100 feet high, 55 miles northwest of Phoenix, and sports three dude ranches—excuse me—guest ranches. While most Western ranches are open for the summer, these open in the fall and close when the desert starts heating up, around April 30.
Wickenburg, on the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert and on the banks of the Hassayampa River, was once known as the guest-ranch capital, but only three survive, covering the spectrum from the resort-like Rancho de los Caballeros to the rustic Kay El Bar Guest Ranch. We were headed for the Flying E Ranch, somewhere in between, where we would have 20,000 acres of desert to explore on horseback.
Sue mounted a little mustang named Chief and I climbed on Scotty, a big red, with a wrangler in the lead. (These ranches do not let you just ride out on your own.) Don’t think of the high desert as one big sand pile. We rode a landscape studded with giant, many-armed saguaros, ocotillos, and light green chollas. Floppy-eared jackrabbits dashed across our path.
We climbed hills for panoramic views of the land, with Wickenburg in the distance. I would not want to be out there when the temperature climbs to 115 or more.
Back at the ranch, as the cowboy movies always said, we were fed three meals a day family-style. After one dinner you know just about everybody. A family group flew in from the Boise area and one day about 30 Canadian snowbirds arrived, refugees from the cold. The weather was so pleasant that the Canadian kids plunged into the pool.
Guest ranches are wonderful places for families. Kids helped decorate the tree and cowboy singer Ray Calloway serenaded us for hours one evening, singing tunes from the Sons of the Pioneers, Willie Nelson, and many other old favorites. After Roy sang White Christmas, I asked for Blue Christmas and Roy sang it Elvis Presley style. He also sang the local tune Out Wickenburg Way. One night there was a dance up in the barn’s second floor, with a guest caller.
We dropped into the marvelous Desert Caballeros Western Museum, full of 400 works of western art plus saddles, photos from the Wild West days, and a stunning collection of six-guns and rifles. It’s a must even if you’re just passing through town.
On our last morning we rode out for a cookout: sausages, eggs, juice, hotcakes, and cowboy coffee. Tiny tots and others rode in the hay wagon. And way out there on the prairie stood a lonely but necessary outhouse.
That day we dropped in at Kay El Bar Guest Ranch, the smallest of the three, maximum capacity 24. It hails back to 1926 and is listed on the National and Arizona Register of Historic Places. The main lodge, dominated by a huge fireplace, looks like it was lifted from a movie set. Some rides go out along the Hassayampa, an Apache word roughly translating as “river that runs upside down,” because it occasionally runs underground.
If you want luxury on the range, Rancho de los Caballeros is the place. Sure, you can ride if you’ve a mind to, but the big thing is the well-tended, highly rated, par-72 golf course. The rooms are lovely and you can enjoy your privacy at individual dinner tables.
And just up the road, the Vulture Mine, a former gold mine with a ghost town feel, is open for tours.