The Daily Mom Travel Diary: Our 3 Days at the Best Dude Ranch in Arizona

This spring break was a bit out of the ordinary for Elena and I (Dani) and our two kiddos. If you’ve been around Daily Mom at all, you know that we have a bad case of wanderlust, especially when it comes to us two. Half of the grand travel gestures we toss around never come to fruition, but this time was different. Elena decided to spend every extra minute she had – and trust me, there are not many extra minutes in this power woman’s day – on planning the perfect kid-friendly, with an educational twist, ten day trip on the other side of the country. Her hard work paid off, and we are currently – I’m literally sitting on the lawn of Tanque Verde Ranch writing this post – traveling through the state of Arizona, soaking in all the sunshine, desert heat, and cowboy facts we can find. Our first leg of the trip landed us in Tucson, at the best dude ranch in Arizona, the Tanque Verde Ranch. We’re pretty okay with just staying here for the whole week, as it’s a western paradise that fulfills us in every way, but our restless souls will ultimately move on tomorrow. So here is our diary entry into these last three days that were spent on an authentic ranch, together with our little cowboy and cowgal, Eli and Lexi.

Day 1 – Saturday, April 8, 2017

The day before was spent in airports, on airplanes, and in rental cars. Elena and Lexi coming from Naples, Florida and Eli and I from Charlotte, North Carolina met up at the Phoenix airport, loaded up the kids in our fancy Hyundai and drove the two hours to Tucson, where the Tanque Verde Ranch was glowingly waiting for us, lit up by soft lanterns set among two story high groves of cacti and rolling desert hills. We carried in the sleeping kids, tucked them in bed – shoes and all – and passed out until the too early morning sun hit us (a three hour time difference is no joke when it comes to mornings).

Breakfast was had in the main dining room, where all the ranch guests gather for a home cooked feast, complete with some of the best breakfast food we’ve ever had – this is no exaggeration; I suppose we don’t give cowboys enough credit when it comes to cooking, because hot damn, everything from the raspberries to the bacon to the boysenberry syrup was beyond delicious.

After our tummies were satisfied, we dropped Eli and Lexi off at the Kid’s Club where they joined other boys and girls their age in grooming and then painting horses – yes, with paint brushes and colored paints. Horses are patient creatures, eh.

Next up on the schedule was riding – it’s a dude ranch, so the highlight activity that gets repeated throughout the day, even for the littlest of cowboys, is horseback riding. Lexi, the fearless one of our travel troupe, hopped right on and learned the tools of the trade right off the bat, while Eli, who has a more timid, cautious soul, was perfectly content to watch from the brightly colored bleachers.

After riding, an educational nature walk began for the kids, complete with a tiny pony accompanying them on their stroll through the desert landscapes.

While rattlesnakes and roadrunners were being seen by five year olds, Elena and I stretched out on blankets on the vast expanse of the ranch’s perfectly manicured, bright green lawn, soaking in the dry, cool breezes and of course, working away on cell phones and laptops, because an entrepreneur’s work is never done. After knocking back some writing and social media work, we loaded up the cameras and a few products we had to shoot – including some sweet ECCO sneakers that we will inevitably destroy amidst the dusty grounds, spiky cacti, and horse shit. The ranch includes the dreamiest backdrops, and to photographers who crave being behind the lens, this is our playground.

The most fabulous part of being a professional photographer is when random people ask me to take a photo of them with their phone. Either my heart is too big – and those who know me well know that’s probably not the case – or my eyes are too greedy when it comes to beauty, because what was a simple iphone snap request turned into a complimentary mini couple’s session, featuring the most beautiful couple at the ranch. And I kid you not, this is what they were wearing; no outfit changes necessary. Swooning all over again…

After another unbelievable buffet lunch, it was time for a riding session for the kiddos, which we love to sit in on. This time, I was able to secretly slip a helmet on Eli’s head and push him towards the corral – all while holding my breath. Once he realized what was happening, he was able to procrastinate the inevitable by pitching a fit over wearing shorts instead of pants – since he gleaned that bit of info from the cowboys that pants were required to ride a horse.

Most people are accommodating to journalists who are covering their property, so allowing a sweet little boy to mount a horse without pants was allowed, even though Eli wasn’t buying it. Eventually, the cowboy who was in charge of the kids just picked Eli up and plopped him on Goldeneye – the horse Eli later couldn’t stop talking about; imagine that. Throw them in the pool so they learn how to swim – toss them on a horse so they learn how to ride.

Oh, and Lexi? She was already galloping and doing headstands before Eli even made it two steps in.

After sweating under the Arizona sunshine, pool time was on the docket. As Elena and I made it to the pool, we saw Eli and Lexi having water balloon fights with their fellow Kid’s Clubbers, with the ultimate in slingshot equipment. After their game, they joined us in the water, and jumping contests and swimming circles commenced.

When we reached our limit of sunshine and chlorine, we hiked back to our modest ranch room and let the kids rest before dinner – which actually turned into a slightly lower volume play time – while we uploaded the day’s photos and snuck in some email and editing time. Tonight’s dinner was hosted at the Cottonwoods, a short walk through the desert, to an open area that was something out of a storybook, with twinkling lights strung overhead through the trees, a dance floor set up for line dancing, horseshoe games in full force, and picnic tables full of ranch guests and covered with authentic western delicacies. Oh, and after walking there, we discovered that although we had the DSLR with us, I had forgotten to insert the SD card, so no pictures from this event, which is a crying shame really.

After chowing down on juicy watermelon and salmon, grilled veggies, and mac and cheese, Eli fell asleep on my lap, while Elena tried her legs at some line dancing, and Lexi – the girl who never sleeps – curled up on the picnic table bench exclaiming she was tired and covering herself with a sweatshirt as a blanket. Holding both children in our arms as we walked through the dark, under a full moon and a sky full of stars, we declared day one as good.

Day 2 – Sunday, April 9, 2017

Another early morning rolled around after a restful night. Today’s breakfast was again out in the desert, accessible by a hike that passed through a welcoming oasis of a stunning lake and lush vegetation.

We leisurely took our time, enjoying the stunning sights and warm sunshine, until we kept walking… and walking… and walking.

We’re not quite sure where we went wrong, but we never did reach that breakfast, so after a temper tantrum by Lexi about leaving her toys behind on the lake swing, and extra slow steps due to the now scorching overhead sun, we turned around and thankfully made it back to the ranch before utter exhaustion and starvation overtook us. French toast, sausage, and grapefruit juice never tasted so good.

Today we ventured off the resort property, and drove an hour to Kartchner Caverns State Park, where we learned about stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, and the power of one drop of water, while hiking inside of a mountain where the caverns where located. It was amazing for us and the kids to see what nature and the good Lord created. After a successful tour by an amazing tour guide, we exited the warm, damp caverns and drove through the desert back to Tanque Verde, just in time for lunch.

After a buffet of goodness, the kids joined us on the lawns, and while Elena and I worked furiously, the kids played hide and seek, tag, with their cat figurines and Power Rangers, and spent some solid hours being good old fashioned kids, as birds, horses, and the hum of ranch guests surrounded us.

When our bellies started craving Tanque Verde’s amazing cuisine again, we dropped Eli and Lexi off at the Kid’s Club for dinner and a movie. While they munched on macaroni and cheese and Jello cups to the real life Scooby Doo playing on TV, Elena and I walked the ranch grounds again, taking some more money shots of the beauty that this place effortlessly boasts.

We were lucky to be bystanders to the ranch horses being let out of the corral and running through the dust at sunset to the next corral over. It was one of the most breathtaking scenes we’ve witnessed, and the photos I captured brought me to tears. We are making sure the kids get to watch this tomorrow night, as these creatures are so magnificent in nature and power, seeing them run free is a beautiful experience.

After we caught our breath, we grabbed a tasty dinner of tomato bisque soup, firecracker shrimp and grits, and chicken pot pie while we waited for the kids to be done with their Kid’s Club activities. We grabbed them and brought them back to the Dining Room for some ice cream, and then straight to bed we went.

Day 3 – Monday, April 10, 2017

This morning, we were happily greeted by the never ending Arizona sunshine, as we had an exciting breakfast planned. We scooted out the door and dropped the kids off at the Kid’s Club, for they were to be driven by golf cart to our breakfast spot.

Elena and I met our fellow riders at the stables and mounted Poko and Sackit, our loyal horses who would be taking us through the desert hills to our breakfast feast. We started off, and as we wound through the rocky, dusty pathways, I at least – Elena is like Lexi, they just have a knack for outdoorsy things – learned that handling a western horse is a bit trickier than the one I steered through the sands and waves of Turks and Caicos.

As I eyed the too close cacti, the huge, slippery rocks that Poko had a bit of trouble navigating, and the steep inclines and declines that made me cringe, many prayers were sent up to the heavens. But those prayers weren’t just for my protection from my fear of being thrown through the desert, impaled by hundreds of cactus spines, they were also thankful words for the sheer beauty that was surrounding me. In those moments, everywhere I looked was a masterpiece, unable to be properly captured by a photograph or video.

Our ride took us to the top of a mountain, where a western style breakfast cookout was in full swing, and our smiling kids greeted us with waves, holding plates and standing in line for Bob’s World’s Famous Western Blueberry Pancakes.

We dismounted our horses, loaded up our plates with carbs and protein, and chowed down, amidst the ranch guests, the horses, and the desert. This was one of the most memorable breakfasts we’ve ever had in our travels.

After spending some time savoring our existence among this western culture, the kids took off down the mountain in their cowboy driven golf cart, and we steered Poko and Sackit back to the ranch grounds.

It was the kid’s turn to horseback ride, so we watched them do their thing – proud of Lexi’s always eager and adventurous spirit, and Eli’s bravery and reluctant persistence.

When the helmets were hung and the horses were hugged, the kid’s played on the playground and were taken to lunch, while Elena and I lounged poolside, sneaking in a quick cat nap.

We grabbed a bite of lunch, then grabbed the kids for dessert, and resumed our trusty place on the front lawns, with blankets spread around under the trees, the scattered sunlight filtering through, and the kids running and laughing around us – no lie, there may have been some whining here and there about wanting to play games on the phone – hell no, child, this is the best game you can possibly play. Go, be, and run wild.

Lazy hours passed until it was time for an early dinner, an amazing sea bass and mushroom lentil wrap, with potato corn soup and salad bar fixins, fresh bread, a plain cheeseburger and chocolate milk for Eli – no fight in me tonight – and ice cream for dessert. The kids were on their second wind or something, because they were jumping off the walls in the dining room, interrupting the family group behind us trying to celebrate a nice passover meal together.

After a few harsh scoldings and a few more bites of food, Elena took the kids to see the horses run wild from the corral while I finished my chocolate chip ice cream in peace.

We met back together and headed to the room – early tonight, which is no bad thing. Washed up the kids and sent them to bed, while we spent all night doing loads of laundry and working, getting ready to hit the road tomorrow morning for our next Arizona destination.

Thanks Tanque Verde Ranch for welcoming us to Arizona with open arms, feeding us in the best way possible, and starting off our spring break trip with a bang!

Signing off for now… Dani & Elena

For all things Arizona, including places to stay, events, things to see and do, and more, be sure to visit Visit Arizona to get the Visitor’s Guide and start planning your trip using the most up to date and exclusive information available!
Interested in learning more about the best dude ranch in Arizona? Be sure to read Spring Breakin’ Tucson Style at Tanque Verde Ranch!

Photo Credits: Dani Nicole Photography




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Dani lives in North Carolina with her husband and two toddlers. She is a stay-at-home mom who loves to clean and organize anything and everything. Her happiness is found in Jesus, days at the spa, and dark chocolate peanut butter cups. She strives to live a simple life by being debt-free and limiting social-media.

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