On the 75-minute desert drive from Phoenix to Wickenburg, stress falls away with every passing mile. An awesome emptiness soon replaces business corridors; the sky grows bigger, giving wheeling hawks room to maneuver. In this bleached frontier, worries seem out of place.
Other than a couple of flimsy trading posts, a cactus ranch and the rhythmic monotony of telephone poles, the traveler is alone. It's the kind of uncluttered landscape that leaves plenty of time for daydreams.
By the time motorists turn off the highway toward one of the area's dude ranches, they've been lulled into an Old West reverie. The mood has been set for horseback rides that clatter through forests of saguaro cactus, for spotting coyotes lurking on hillsides and for chowing down at moonlight barbecues in the foothills of the Vulture Mountains. This is the west that every drugstore cowboy dreams about.
Like an oasis on the range, Rancho de los Caballeros stands out for its amenities, which include not only a string of 70 horses, four tennis courts, trap and skeet shooting and a swimming pool, but the championship golf course that was ranked as one of Arizona's top 10 by Golf Digest. Bending to changing vacation patterns and to the opportunity of hosting small business groups, Rusty Gant, son of the founder, added the golf course in 1980.
"I don't see any less enthusiasm in the people who love to ride," says Mr. Gant. "But golf has become our major activity."
The lodge combines Southwestern style with down-home comfort: beehive fireplaces in guest rooms, an enormous copper hood over the main fireplace and hand-crafted furniture. Los Cab has been expanded and gussied up since it was opened in 1947 so that it now holds 150 guests, among whom have numbered Richard Nixon, Cary Grant and Dan Quayle.
"The pace of leisure has picked up. Some families still check in for a couple of weeks, or even a month, but our average stay is five days," says Mr. Gant.
Vacation patterns have changed, but the mealtime bounty that has been a mainstay of Los Cab remains. The gutsy breakfast menu encompasses fruit, juice, cereal, eggs, breads and a griddle specialty such as raspberry pancakes. The awesome poolside lunch includes 25 salad bar items, two hot entrees, four home-baked breads and a table groaning with desserts and heaped with cookies.
At the candlelight dinner, Los Cab assigns guests to a private table and requests that men wear jackets. It's a less convivial arrangement than at most ranches, where meals are eaten family-style.
But all formalities are dropped when dudes head to the corral. (Riders can get outfitted at the Double D in town.) Easy and advanced rides meander through 22,000 acres toward the Bradshaw Mountains and through nearly lush foothills thick with yellow-blooming desert holly, thick-leaved jojoba bushes, towering saguaros and beaver-tail prickly pear cactus. It's not unusual to see coyotes lurking on the golf greens or pack rat nests that top 4 feet.
Along with Tucson, Wickenburg is a hub for winter dude ranch vacations. In the 1940s and 1950s, this central Arizona valley counted atleast nine family-run operations. Today, only two remain.
One is the Kay El Bar, which, with its 80-year-old adobe buildings shaded by enormous salt cedar trees, has secured a spot on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Sisters Jane Nash and Jan Martin run the 20-guest ranch with the help of their husbands, Jay and Charlie, and a golden-haired dog, Bear.
It's a friendly, consciously simple outpost where riders and their steeds get to know each other well as they climb the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains and lope down sandy washes of the Hassayampa River. "You could be here two weeks and not go on the same trail," says Charlie Martin. "We have morning rides, afternoon rides, lunch rides and all-day rides. We pretty much do whatever people want."
When miner Henry Wickenburg and his burro stuck pay dirt at the Vulture Mine in 1863, Wickenburg was on the map. Vulture Mine produced $10 million in gold, and today, Wickenburg is a still-charming ranching and retirement community that depends on the mother lode of tourists for its survival. The biggest draws are the Bluegrass Festival and Fiddle championship in early November and the annual Gold Rush Days in early February. The local museum, open seven days a week, is a charmer. Historic Vulture Mine is also open for tours.
The Flying E Ranch strides a 2,400-foot mesa, practically in the shadow of Vulture Peak. At the end of a straight-as-an-arrow dirt road through raw, crumbly desert, this working ranch sprawls over 21,000 acres.
Like the Kay El Bar, this small, family-run ranch revolves around horses. Guests scout the hillsides with wranglers, searching for newborn calves, seeking out vistas for lunch cookouts or chuck wagon dinners, and loping down dusty arroyos. Modern ranch amenities include a swimming pool, spa and sauna and a tennis court.
If you go . . .
Temperature: Wickenburg is generally 10 degrees cooler than Phoenix.
Lodging: The following rates are American plan, double occupancy, and do not include a 6 percent sales tax and a customary 15 percent gratuity:
Flying E Ranch, Box EEE, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358; (602) 684-2690. Rates from $175 to $200; rides extra: $12 for one ride a day, $18 for two rides a day); November to May 1.
Kay El Bar Ranch, Box 2480, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358; (602) 684-7593. From $175, including one horseback ride daily; Oct. 11 to May 3.
Rancho de los Caballeros, Box 1148, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358; (602) 684-5484. From $210 October to January, $240 February to May, rides extra; counselor for children 5 to 12.
Information: Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Drawer CC, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358; (602) 684-5479.