I had thought that dude ranches, the kind of places out west where you’d go to spend time galloping across the plains or desert with a background of mountain ranches, were out of the past. Popular around the time of Theodore Roosevelt who loved to ride and hunt, dude ranches first became big shortly after the Battle of Little Big Horn (though why a massacre of U.S. troops would be beguiling I don’t know) back in the 1880s, they attracted people not only from America but also Europe.
But unlike,western movies which had their heyday between the 1930s and 1960s and now are hardly ever made anymore, dude ranches have survived. Now called guest ranches, their numbers have fallen because the land they occupy is sold to developers for higher prices than owners can make offering lodging and horseback riding.
And so, when my husband saw a deal for a long weekend at the White Stallion Ranch outside of Tucson, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I like to horseback ride,and I loved the idea that on Saturday nights they served a ranch-style dinner that had been cooked all day inside an adobe oven fueled by wood. Would we have to kick tumbleweeds aside to get into an old rickety cabin that smelled like horses? Would we sing along around a roaring campfire as the stars shone across the desert sky.
Yes,to the later and no to the first. The cottages are adobe baked to a rust color and though the décoris decidedly western, it’s not tacky (excuse the pun) at all. Indeed, White Stallion Ranch (the name was originally Black Stallion but then the owners realized that the initials BS wouldn’t quite work)has received numerous awards including The 12 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the United States for 2019 by SmartTraveler and Voted #1 Best Family Resort by USA Today 10 BEST Readers’ Choice Awards in 2018.
They’re running specials now because of Covid though as Russell True told me, social distancing is easy on a ranch. Russell is the son of the Allen and Cynthia True who bought the ranch in 1965, packing up their kids (Russell was five, his brother Michael was a baby) and moving from their very successful middle class life in Denver, Colorado. The whole place was rough and tumble to hear Russell describe it and much more isolated as the interstate some five miles away hadn’t been built yet and Tucson’s population was about 260,000—now it’s close to a million and rapidly growing.
When founded as a cattle ranch in the late 1800s, before Arizona became a state in 1912, about 5100 people lived in Tucson. Phoenix, about 100 miles north, had the same population back then but now they’re almost five times larger than Tucson.
The 3000 acres, located in the Sonoran Desert, backs up to the Tucson Mountains and is surrounded by the Saguaro National Forest and populated by ancient saguaros, those friendly looking cactus whose branches or limbs go up in the air like happy arms waiting to greet you. Movies are filmed here starting in in 1939 when William Holden and Jean Arthur starred in “Arizona.” In 1978, the James Garner film, “The New Maverick,” was filmed on the ranch and two years later Robert Conrad arrived for the making of “Wild, Wild West Once More.” Even better for George Clooney aficionados, the actor along with Sam Rockwell starred in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” in 2002.
It’s all much comfier than 55 years ago when the Trues arrived. The main building wasn’t the gleaming glass, stone, and wood mid-century modern style it is today. When the Trues bought the 200-acre ranch there were 17 rooms and the same number of horses. Now operated by second and third generation Trues, the ranch encompasses 3000 acres. The horse population around 175 and there are 43 rooms and as well as 5-bedroom hacienda. Many of the True family members live on property including Russell’s son Steven and his wife.
But despite all these changes, the old west feeling is reflected not only in the cookery, trail rides, weekly rodeos, the cattle who range freely (have no fear, their prime practice is lolling under a shady mesquite watching people ride by) and the landscape but also in the chance to sign up for cattle drives, archery, rock climbing, hiking, heading to the shooting range and real-life lessons on how to pen cattle.
Over the years, there were many offers but Al True always turned them down.
“Do you know how much money you’re saying no to?” one developer asked him, emphasizing the amount added up to a gasp-inspiring millions of dollars.
But land was more important than cash to the Trues and Al replied that riches were a poor substitute for their life on the ranch. But the lure of money is one of the reasons that of the 30 ranches once in business here north of Tucson when the Trues moved to the neighborhood have dwindled to three.
The food served is international but there’s definitely an overriding western/southwestern theme with taquitos, tacos, ribs, and steaks grilled outside. But the big paean to the past history is their signature Indian Oven Dinner on Saturdays. That’s a hard one to replicate at home, but just think of slowed braised pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Serve with flour or corn tortillas to add a little more western flair. They also offer food oriented guided trail rides including picnic luncheons, the Wine & Cheese ride, and a Beer & Cheetos ride.
The following recipes are courtesy of White Stallion Ranch and are among the favorite served there.
Prickly Pear Margaritas
Note: this makes a very large batch, if you’re not that thirsty or having a small get together, you may want to reduce the quantities.
1.75-liter bottle of Margarita Mix (your choice)
3/4 of a liter of Pepe Lopez Tequila
3 cans of 7-Up
1/4 bottle of Triple Sec
18 ounces of Prickly Pear Syrup
Peanut Butter Bars
¾ cup shortening
¾ cup peanut butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 c white sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cups flour
1 ¼ cup oatmeal
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven 350° degrees or 300° convection oven.
Cream the shortening, peanut butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla well. Mix together the flour, oatmeal, soda, and salt.
Beat the flour mixture into the creamed mixture. Spread the dough by hand over sprayed and floured 9”x13” baking pan. Bake 25 minutes until still chewy. Immediately sprinkle on the chocolate chips and spread over the bars when melted.
1 cup powdered sugar
½ cup peanut butter
1 cup chocolate chips
2-4 tablespoons milk, as needed
Beat topping ingredients well, using enough milk to get a creamy consistency, then swirl over the chocolate. Cut and serve.
White Stallion Ranch Trail Mix
6 cups dry roasted peanuts
1 family sized box or 2 regular boxes of Wheat Thins
8 c small twisted pretzels
8 cups thin pretzel sticks
8 cups corn nuts
2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups melted butter
4 tablespoons chili powder
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
10 drops Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Lawry’s seasoning salt (or make your own using the copycat recipe below)
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Mix peanuts, corn nuts and pretzels in large roasting pan. Mix oil and melted butter, chili powder, Worcestershire, Tabasco sauce, garlic salt, seasoned salt, and cumin; pour over pretzels, mixing well.
If using a convection oven, cook at 300° F. for 15 minutes. If using a conventional oven, cook at 300° F. for about 45 minutes. Stir frequently to distribute the seasoning.
Remove from oven and let cool before serving, still serving frequently.
Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons white sugar
¾ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cornstarch
Whisk salt, sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion powder, garlic powder, and cornstarch together in a bowl.
Potato Chip Cookies
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
1 cup Crisco
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 6-ounce package white chocolate chips
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups coarsely crushed potato chips
Cream Crisco and sugars. Add eggs, vanilla and beat well.
Add crushed potato chips and white chocolate chips. Sift flour and soda. Stir into creamed mixture. Drop on greased cookie sheet. Cook 10-12 minutes.