My first horseback ride was at the age of 10, when, clutching for dear life on to a black and white pony named Domino, I screamed and cried during a three-minute trot around the arena at a Girl Scouts dude ranch. Having sworn off all contact with transport animals since, I’ve prided myself on being entrenched in urban life, in which my feet almost always touch the ground. But when the opportunity to explore my latent cowgirl side came to me, I finally decided to grab hold of the reins, and I flew to Arizona for some serious southwestern fun.
Tucson is the perfect gateway for a Western adventure, although it takes an additional three-and-a-half hour car ride along Highway 80 before reaching what seems to be total wild isolation. Along the way, what look more like clichés snatched from an old Western pic than real life, the red, rocky scenery levels out into dry, grassy hills with cattle grazing on the roadsides. At Tombstone, historic Allen Street is set as it was when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday took on rogue outlaws in the now immortalized Gunfight at O.K. Corrall in 1881. Men dressed in black three-piece suits, with handlebar mustaches and sinister smiles roam the streets today, but whether they are reenactors or Western lore enthusiasts who’ve retired to this town is hard to say.
Further into Cochise County, upon reaching a portion of highway adopted by the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the barren terrain becomes more mountainous and houses begin to appear along the road the way they would on the harborside hills of a Mediterranean village. Resembling someplace more like Greece than one’s image of Arizona, the town of Bisbee is the state’s hotbed of gay life, albeit the mature kind. This former mining town has lured retiring hippies from around the country for decades, and its quaint, winding Main Street is lined with exactly the amenities such a person would want or establish. Antiques shops, craft stores, coffeehouses and organic co-ops make this unlikely spot a remote wonderland for gay and lesbian travelers and settlers.
Finally, after swinging through Douglas, Mile Marker 400 and some tumbling tumbleweed indicate the turn onto a seven-mile dirt road leading to Price Canyon Ranch (from $225/night, pricecanyon.com). This picture-perfect, isolated working ranch is nestled within the Coronado National Forest. The ranch itself, which can accommodate up to 20 guests, consists of 230 deeded acres, but it allows access to about half a million surrounding acres of nationally protected land, giving possibility to long horseback rides on open terrain, unmarred by beaten paths and nose-to-tail regulations common at many guest ranches.
Three nights at Price Canyon are enough to convert a citified nature non-enthusiast into a complete horse lover and ranching fiend. By the first dinner, prepared passionately to order by in-house chef Fred Tullis, my defenses were coming down. The dining room/lodge, like each of the unique guest rooms, was designed by Alicia Kemmerly, who owns the ranch with her husband Chris. Multi-textured décor with various animal elements is not vegan-friendly, but it is tasteful and authentic. Stretch out on a couch in the lodge by a warm fire with a glass of whiskey (it’s BYO) and a good book, or challenge the other guests to a game of pool. Or, after a long day in the countryside, retire early. Each bedroom has its own individual look—some with working heat stoves, chaise lounges and Western artwork—and an incredibly fluffy bed for total sexy comfort.
Daytime activities can include hiking or dipping in the hot tub, but the main attraction is assisting Colton Moore, aka “Colt” (is there any better name for a cowboy?), Price Canyon’s head wrangler, in rounding up stray cattle. Rides can be either leisurely or challenging, depending on the guests’ moods. Flat terrain lends itself perfectly to loping (Western riding’s version of cantering), and more mountainous rides through the trees can be rugged, scratchy and wonderfully picturesque upon reaching peaks. Also on this land are several archaeological sites belonging to Apache Indian culture, including a cave once used as a firing furnace for pottery, accessible by horseback and a short climb.
Not having been on a horse since the Girl Scouts disaster, I greeted my first morning ride with trepidation, but, as the other guests were all experienced riders, I decided to keep my fears to myself and bite the bullet. By the time I left Price Canyon three days and six rides later, though unbelievably sore, I felt like a near-pro. The unbridled beauty and freedom to roam the land lacked only a sweeping, emotional John Williams score. My inner cowgirl was finally being set free.
For a different ranching experience, White Stallion Ranch (from $155/night, wsranch.com) is a family-friendly dude ranch on the outskirts of Tucson. Accommodating up to 80 guests, White Stallion lacks the intimate attention that Price Canyon offers, but it does provide a welcoming experience for social butterflies and solo travelers, and a more comforting approach to riding for beginners. Set on the brink of the Saguaro National Park, the dusty desert terrain here is craggy and dotted with an endless sea of the phallic saguaro cacti—as well as half a dozen other types of the prickly plants. A slow ride on a well-beaten path yields fascinatingly creepy vistas, with some of the saguaro looming at over 30 feet.
Guests here have the option of taking lessons in the arena with the patient and friendly staff, engaging in cattle penning competitions and choosing rides that are any combination of slow, fast, flat, mountainous, short or long. They are all, however, conducted in single-file. A heated outdoor pool and steamy hot tub help with sore knees and bums. Evening activities change nightly, and can include a performance by an expert roper, a singing cowboy poet and a Saturday rodeo show.
After experiencing all the great outdoors has to offer, spend some time exploring the city of Tucson. It’s not conducive to walking, as there’s no one central downtown, but there are some interesting districts to visit for shopping or historic sightseeing. Old Town Artisans (Court Ave, north of Alameda St) is the shopping highlight of the Presidio District. A restored 150-year-old adobe complex features restaurants, galleries and shops selling handmade items.
Main Gate Square, at the University of Arizona, is accessible via the historic Old Pueblo Trolley, and is lively district for shopping and pub crawling with a younger crowd. The Marriott Hotel (from $279/night, 880 E 2nd St, marriotttucson.com) is located within walking distance of the square. A few miles south, rows of former warehouses at the Lost Barrio (Park Ave, south of Broadway Blvd) now house shops with diverse items from around the world, including Mexican imports.
Fourth Avenue is a six-block stretch containing Tucson’s highest concentration of gay life. More than 100 unique shops are found here, including Rainbow Planet Coffee House (606 N 4th Ave, 520-620-1770), a gay hotspot featuring free wi-fi, a patio and their renowned Tucson chai. IBT’s (616 N 4th Ave, 520-882-2053) is the city’s best known gay dance club, but 10 minutes away by car, Ain’t Nobody’s Biz (2900 E Broadway, 520-318-4838) draws the most lesbians. “The Biz” also features hip-hop, Latin and ’80s nights, karaoke and a weekly drag show.
To end your trip with the ultimate in luxury and relaxation, stay at the Westin La Paloma (from $299/night, 3800 E Sunrise Dr, westin.com/lapaloma) in northern Tuscon, at the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. The resort sprawls over the grounds, where multiple pools, hot tubs and even waterfalls beckon swimmers, while tennis courts, a state-of-the-art gym, stores and Janos and J Bar (two acclaimed on-site restaurants helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder) provide visitors with somewhere to sweat, shop and eat in style. Their Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa may pamper away tight muscles from the week’s adventures on horseback, but the memories of your cowgirl adventure won’t fade any time soon.
For more information on Price Canyon, White Stallion and other ranches, contact The Dude Ranchers’ Association (dude-ranch.org). Their comprehensive brochure provides detailed information about member ranches throughout the West.
More information about gay life in Tucson is available through the Tucson GLBT Chamber of Commerce (tucsonglbtchamber.org) and Wingspan, Tucson’s GLBT Community Center (wingspan.org).
The Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau (visittucson.org) provides invaluable information on sightseeing and staying in Tucson, while Cochise County (explorecochise.com) provides more details on Bisbee, Tombstone and other parts of southeastern Arizona.