Clutching the detailed driving directions from the highway, I squinted at the dusty road ahead and poked my husband’s arm.
“There, do you see it? That’s Doc Holliday Road. Turn here.”
We had turned, and turned, and turned again along a series of soft, sandy roads on our way to Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch, 40 miles from Kingman, Arizona, 14 miles from the equally-sandy town of Yucca, and about a hundred years back to a Wild Western past I had thought was dead and gone.
Passing under the archway flanked by brushy catcus, creosote bushes, and tiny poppies just beginning to bloom, the ranch buildings came into view, along with several corrals of placid horses and a museum’s worth, it seemed, of old West regalia.
(It must be noted here that my grandfather was a rancher in Montana, and my childhood summers were spent hauling hay, herding cattle, and generally getting under my grandpa’s feet as he fixed fence, doctored sick critters, and rode the range; I do not suffer “wanna-be” ranches with humor, in general. Would this place live up to my expectations?)
Traveling to south for spring vacation with my non-horsey husband and 11-year-old son, who generally find horses to be interesting but not so much so they’d give up a week of free time to hang with them, we had booked a three-night stay (the minimum) at Stagecoach Trails for the tail end of our Arizona exploration. We’d driven historic Route 66, hiked all over Grand Canyon National Park, and now found ourselves among the prickly pears and sunny skies of a warm Arizona desert before flying back to Alaska.
Stagecoach Trails – the ranch
Owner JP McCormick greeted us in the main lodge with a smile and hearty handshake, and offered to show us around on the way to our room. Accommodating only 40 guests at a time, Stagecoach Trails possesses the kind of quiet, unpretentious atmosphere I’ve come to appreciate in most Alaska properties, and I was surprised at the same laid-back, homey feel here. Common areas are key to the success of Stagecoach Trails. Open patio seating that looks out on a game yard, historic stagecoach (the namesake, I’m told), and a sweeping view of craggy, red rock mountains to the west. A dining hall provides family-style seating for three daily meals, and the lodge, a big, cool, welcoming space, featured a pool table, games, a movie room, and more amazing views.
Our room was more than comfortable, attached to the others but still separate enough that we felt independent. Front porches and rocking chairs provided me with breezy spots to sit with a glass of wine in the evening or a cup of coffee each morning, with just a few steps to reach the main lodge and dining hall. A small swimming pool and spa elicited a whoop of excitement from our son, who rarely has the opportunity to swim outdoors in chilly Alaska.
Stagecoach Trails, like many guest ranches, was designed for relaxation and experiences of the Old West, and JP mentioned as we crossed the patio that the expanse of land we were gazing at (now owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management) was once part of an 1800’s stagecoach trail transporting passengers to and from other communities in the area. Traveling at breakneck speed with four or more horses, these coaches needed to be fast and nimble, albeit a bit rough, to escape bandits bent on robbing the party. All the would-be bad guys would have to do is stand on a hillside and watch for the trail of dust. The rest, JP said, was a done deal.
Guests at Stagecoach Trails ride on or near those same routes twice a day, tracing the steps of cowboys and pioneers from a century earlier, four-stepping it up one wash and down another, hitching their hats lower to hide the sun’s glare.
What makes a good dude or guest ranch great is not just the people, it’s the equine flesh through which we become acquainted with this concept of cowboy-or-girling. Wranglers in charge of matching people with horses know that personalities are as critical as abilities, and Stagecoach’s affable wrangler Jake and his cadre of guides know their herd well. My husband was paired up with a big chesnut named ‘Pride’ and I with a twin of my teenage horse years, a reliable but slightly wheezy fellow called ‘Bo’ who stuck out his lower lip when bored. My son, a complete newbie to horses, found himself astride a small gray horse named ‘Dunnar,’ sticking his feet in the stirrups and grabbing the reins with more confidence that I would have expected for an often shy kid.
Note: If you are an experienced horseman or woman and are visiting Stagecoach Trails (or many other ranches, for that matter) wanting to whoop and holler and gallop madly across the plains, you are nickering up the wrong apple tree. With a focus on the landscape, the animals, and the history, Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch guides want you, and your horse, to arrive back at the pasture in one happy piece at the end of each 1.5-hour ride.
The first ride is always a sedate walk to become acquainted with one’s horse, its cadence, and the er, seat side of things. Sitting astride a horse is not a natural position for most folks, so that first walking tour among the bushes, cacti and old pastures is for the best, trust me.
As the days progress, guides loosen the reins a bit and encourage trotting and even loping through the sandy washes that crisscross the desert nearby. With 360,000 acres of BLM Mojave Desert to explore right at our feet, each ride became an education in discovery. When does the sun become hot, rather than just warm? What was that crawling off under a rock? Was that a jackrabbit? How would someone ever manage to survive out here 100 years ago?
So different in both texture and temperature, the Arizona desert became a playground for the three of us to expand our limited knowledge of this flora and fauna, and yet, similarities emerged too. Located far from the nearest city, the quiet of Stagecoach Trails was a retreat similar to many trips we take in Alaska. Land stretched for miles and miles, delivering us from the screaming interstates and crowds of people we had seen at the Grand Canyon. And the air. Oh, the air — so crisp in the morning you could serve it up on a platter. Sage, horse, hay, and the smell of frying bacon, it was like coming home.
At night, when the rosy sun would sink down behind that old stagecoach with the promise of another good day, guests lounging on the patio would look at each other and nod their heads in silent agreement. This place, yes, was real.
Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch: If you go
- Located about two hours from Las Vegas or three hours from Phoenix, the ranch offers a nice break from other Arizona or Nevada activities, or on its own. Busy seasons are December-January and spring break (March/April). A three-night stay is minimum, and you’ll want it, too, after that long drive. We flew Alaska Airlines into Vegas using miles and a companion fare, departing a few days before the Alaska spring break rush.
- The ranch is fully accessible and barrier-free. Call JP for details, but we were impressed by the access to every activity.
- Meals are included in the price. The ranch does not have a liquor license, so it’s all BYOB. Soft drinks are extra ($1). Everyone is welcome to use a big refrigerator in the main lodge to keep things cool. The dining hall has all-day/all-night coffee, juice, and water.
- Rides are scheduled for mid-morning and again in the late afternoon every day but Sunday, when horses receive a day of rest. Guests who stay for five or more days have the option of a longer ride that includes lunch and ventures into the nearby hills.
- Other activities at the ranch include fat bikes (even for kids), wagon rides, hikes, ATV tours (extra), and walking ‘Peanut’, the miniature horse stallion whose attitude is bigger than he. A small herd of goats populates the ranch, too, and this motley crew is always good for a laugh or two. Our son loved playing ladder ball and horseshoes during downtime, and kids can have fun on the playground or while roping sawhorses out near the patio. Some evenings JP lights the bonfire on the patio, or a visiting cowboy singer comes to the ranch with his banjo and guitar. Can’t get much more Western than that.
- Bring swimsuits, sunscreen, flat-soled shoes (boots work great, tennis shoes are fine but we found low-top hikers to work well, too), a hat to protect from bright sun, long pants for riding, drinks, and sunglasses.
NOTE: A very special thanks to the Dude Ranchers’ Association for their assistance. More thanks is due to JP and Trish, their sons Cayden and Tristan; Chef Randy; Jake and his wranglers, most especially Katie, who made a rider out of my son. Whenever an 11-year-old boy asks “Can we make reservations for next year?” you know it has to be good. ~EK