If you're looking for a midwinter break with a twist, consider a dude ranch in southern Arizona. With sunny days and cool clear nights, the area offers glimpses into the Arizona Territory of years gone by, when the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were becoming legends.
Dude ranches have evolved from the days when working cattle ranches hosted a few paying guests from back East to help with ropin' and ridin'. Modern guest ranches still raise cattle, but they offer comfortable lodging, gourmet meals, and as much (or little) horseback riding as you want.
We began our search with the Dude Ranchers' Association, a nonprofit organization that requires member ranches to adhere to strict standards for hospitality, horse safety, and preserving Western heritage. Our knowledge of riding was limited to a few pony rides as children at the county fair, so we selected three ranches that cater to all abilities.
Just outside Tucson, the White Stallion Ranch provides a full resort experience in the Sonoran Desert. Many of the trail rides wind through the giant cacti and rocky buttes of adjacent Saguaro National Park.
In the Patagonia Mountains south of Tucson, the Circle Z Ranch offers a more intimate experience, with only 40 guests. The higher altitude is the setting for lush clusters of trees, sweeping views, and a wide variety of birds. One of the rides winds through the scenic high chaparral where the movie Oklahoma! was filmed.
After visiting the historic OK Corral in the town of Tombstone, we headed to nearby Tombstone Monument Ranch, where the guest rooms are clustered in buildings that resemble an old Western town. Trail rides in the surrounding dry creek beds end with a pass down Main Street, making it easy to imagine we had moseyed into our own personal movie.
We had found midwinter sun and scenery, plus our own slice of the Wild West. For more information, go to http://www.duderanch.org/.