Dude Ranch Vacations: A Remote Possibility
Want a ranch where you can really get away? Try Blue, Ariz. If you can find it.

By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 9, 2002

WE SEE HER COMING FROM A WAYS OFF, 12-year-old Marci riding bareback on her horse, splashing across the creek, weaving between the sycamores, dramatic wall of mountain in the background. Soon she's at our front door with a plate of her mother's homemade cookies. Yesterday it was six fresh eggs, a gift from her chickens.

Marci sticks around, talks to us from high atop Snit's back. She tells us she'll be one of three students this fall in the one-room schoolhouse down the road, and any time the river floods she'll get the day off. We are in Blue, Ariz., in the middle of the state's remotest, wildest mountain country, an hour and a half from the nearest paved road, being spoiled silly at the most hospitable ranch in the world.

If you thought Arizona meant desert, hot, dry, think again. Think: dramatic mountains plunging to lush river canyons; surefooted horses on winding trails with dizzying views; bright mornings and cool nights. My sister and I do our hiking and riding early, head for the shade in the afternoon with a beer and a book, and wait for the brief, drenching storms.

Summer is monsoon season in Arizona, and wildflowers are in wild flower, the secret high meadows are bright with new grass, and the creeks are rushing along full of cold, noisy water. When summer turns to fall, a second perfect season will begin -- the green, mellow time after the rains end.

White-Knuckle Drive

The drive to Blue -- about seven hours east of Phoenix -- is a lesson in astonishment management. If you pass the lesson, you know you're in the right place. About 280 miles out of Phoenix, just past the town of Alpine, the road turns to dirt and goes south along the Blue River, which starts out barely a stream. It's easy driving at first, lazing through grassland and ponderosa pine, though we're at 7,000 feet, crossing an old volcanic table land. We assume we'll climb as we head into the Blue Range, but in fact we never do -- the road merely follows the river into the canyon it carves, the mountains rising around it.

The country sneaks up on us. The road starts changing. Its curves tighten and its sides become steep. Soon the river becomes a real river, fast and loud, and the road runs above it, beside it, above it again. The big trees are gone and we have twisted mesquite, prickly pear cactus, lots of rock, tumbled slopes of rock, sheer walls of rock, overhangs and caves in the rock. Some of it is igneous, the spewings of old volcanoes, black and purple pock-marked stuff, and some is red and yellow sedimentary rock, wildly tilted and eroded.

By the time we reach what they call the Lower Blue, the road is coiling around cliffs, shooting us out onto screaming precipices and yanking us back by the collar. We do hairpin switchback routines down to the bottom, because in places there is nowhere else for the road to go. We ford the river, dropping the truck into four-wheel high to ease it through the knee-deep current. "Anything coming?" I ask Lucy, and we look both ways before we cross. Anywhere they've tried to put a bridge down here, it has always washed away.

I can't decide if I'm squeamish or exhilarated, then settle on exhilarated. The road is wild, but not unsafe. The biggest drawback is that you can't really drive and look at the same time. Lucy and I take turns, and we toodle along like the tourists we are, waving the locals past when they roll up behind us in their brown-dusted, mud-fendered old pickups. This place is for four-wheel-drive vehicles only, unless you have some special telepathic knowledge that the river is planning to stay really low. Marci's parents will escort you if you are timid.

However you get there, it's worth it. You are in the middle of the Blue Range Primitive Area, the only designated primitive area in the entire National Forest system, which means no snowmobiles, no dirt bikes -- only hikers and horses allowed. There are a handful of century-old homesteads scattered along the canyon, but no other human habitation. And not a single road for hundreds of square miles, apart from this one tenuous artery.

Mountain People

Downs' Ranch, where Marci lives with her parents, Bill and Mona Bunnell, is tucked into a grove of sycamore and locust in the tiny valley formed by KP Creek. Half a dozen horses who have never seen the inside of a stable graze companionably, all day long, wherever they please. Chickens cruise around, leaving eggs in odd places, and guinea fowl shout raucous greetings at the guests until they get to know them. Hummingbirds zip around the feeders at the house, a stately old place of big pine logs and stone, built as a gambling lodge by some rich Texans in the early 1900s.

Lucy and I have a hummingbird feeder of our own, another gift from Marci, at our cabin, which is across the creek and downstream in a sweet, private spot. We're secluded but never really alone. There are mice in the crawl space under the house, and they run back and forth there early in the morning.

"I thought I set those mice for 5:30, but it's only 5:15," complains Lucy as she staggers into the kitchen for coffee. It's not the Hilton, it's not even Motel 6, but as long as you don't mind the sound of invisible rodents doing their dawn workout, it's blissful.

But you wouldn't be here at all if you weren't a bit adventurous. Like the Blue's first settlers, the Mogollon Indians, who stayed 1,500 years and left traces of themselves up and down the canyon. They must have had a name of their own for this land, though we don't know what that was. And although no one knows what they called themselves -- Mogollon (mugga-yun) is a Spanish explorer's name -- it is said they probably just thought of themselves as the People.

These first inhabitants lived peacefully in the millennium and a half they were here, leaving no evidence of warfare in their petroglyphs. They fished and hunted and raised maize and beans in the places where the canyon walls open to small, green floodplains. The ruins they left are all well above the reach of floods -- burial mounds are on hills above the river and their ceremonial caves are high in the canyon walls. Some of these areas are virtually inaccessible, though looters still got to many of them, long ago.

Grave robbers have been known to pay a high price, as in the case of a man known only as Mr. Kidd, an outsider who came through the area about 40 years ago. Locals, noticing his car after a while, went looking for him and found that he had descended by rope over the lip of the canyon but that the rope had been too short to reach the cave he was after. All they found hanging was that rope dangling in space.

Fortunately, there is still lots of evidence, all along the Blue River, of the ancient Native Americans who lived there. Lucy and I found arrowheads and bits of exquisite black-on-white pottery at a burial site we visited. We were careful to leave these as we found them, not wishing to incur the displeasure of their original owners.

The extensive ruins at Casa Malpais, not far from Alpine on the way into Blue, is the best place to appreciate these long-vanished people. A ranger leads informal tours through the ruins, beginning with an easy walk up a low mesa above the Little Colorado River, a stunning spot with wide views of the valley and the mountains beyond. The tour begins with the pueblo's simple homes, networks of small, square rooms with crawl-through doors connecting them. Then it moves to the kiva, a grand ceremonial gathering place with expertly laid stone walls, unusual among ancient kivas for being rectangular rather than circular. It then leads up a dramatic passageway, a staircase through the rock, bringing us onto the very top of the mesa, with sweeping, green views in every direction under a huge blue sky.

Coming down again, we see the big circular observatory, where equinoxes and solstices were attended, precise gaps in the stone walls lining up with these celestial events. By this point, we are awe-struck by the kind of life we see represented by this place. I think of the words of John Wesley Powell, the explorer who surveyed much of the Southwest and knew its Indians well. Speaking of a group he knew on the Little Colorado, a later people but perhaps related to the Mogollon, he noted, enviously, that their lives were "equally divided between labor, worship and play."

Finally, our guide tells us of the secret catacombs and shows us the general area of the entrance -- in the dirt floor of a small nondescript room, found accidentally by archaeologists a few years ago. Somebody asks the ranger to point to a more specific spot, but she shakes her head. The catacombs are off limits, which is fitting.

Untamed Wilderness

The Mogollon were the first rugged but gentle people drawn to this land, though they weren't the only ones. The ranchers along the Blue seem similar in spirit. Since they came into the country 100 years ago, theirs have always been modest, family operations, their ranches small, although the mountain lands around them, where they grazed their cattle, are wild and endless.

Their way of life changed little with the passing decades until recently, when the endangered loach minnow, championed by the Department of the Interior, forced a drastic reduction in their herds and put an end to ranching for most of them. The friendly mutts who lope around Downs' Ranch are retired cowdogs; the horses are out-of-work cowhorses. Bill and Mona are former ranchers, down-to-earth and friendly, who share their world with people like Lucy and me as a way to stay here, in the only place they've ever wanted to be.

"I've never felt like I needed to travel to see new places," says freckly, round-faced Mona. "Any time I want to see someplace new, I just ride over the mountain some other direction where I haven't been before."

Bill is more traveled. A soft-spoken man who seems tall because he's so lean, he left when he was young to go to college, where he majored, by his own account, in partying and rodeo. He rode broncs, drove tractor trailers, explored the West, came home again and married Mona. He's an expert horse trainer, a licensed wilderness guide and an EMT with a search-and-rescue team -- an all-around good guy to know in Blue.

Mona, however, is the one with the cushy job. She is Blue's postmaster on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, because those are the days the mail comes. The postal service is often more reliable than the phones, which can go out in the canyon for a couple of weeks at a time. If you call, don't be surprised if a bunch of different people answer and start talking in a neighborly way among themselves. It's a party line, and the folks don't always pay attention to whether it's their ring or not.

Marci and Mona and Bill live quietly, in love with this place. I think to myself, as I watch Marci ride around on her lovely chestnut horse, an elegant bareback pair walking slowly under the sycamores, that the ancient ones who once lived here would have liked these folks.

Blue, Ariz., on the Blue River, in the Blue Range. Think spring, summer, fall. Think monsoon, which makes the desert bloom. But forget winter. Not because of snow, which usually doesn't fall in appreciable amounts along KP Creek (although it does make for picture-postcard scenes on the high peaks all around). Forget winter for one reason only: sudden snowmelts that flood the river, making the crossings impassable, keeping Marci out of school and her mom and dad home, too, snug and happy down on the Blue.

Downs' Ranch Hide-Away (928-339- 4952) is about a seven-hour drive east of Phoenix. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, or you can arrange transportation with the owners from the town of Alpine (about 1 1/2 hours south). Cabin rates are $60 a night, double, with a $20 surcharge for each additional person, or $250 a week ($30). Rides are $10 an hour; specialty tours -- five days in the Blue Range Primitive Area with horses, guides, lodging and meals -- are $595 a person. The ranch also offers professional guided hunts.

Sally Shivnan last wrote for Travel on visiting the desert during the winter.

Details: Planning a Trip to a Dude Ranch

The variety of dude ranch vacations is as endless as the plains. So how do you okay one corral for your next family trip?

Start with the Dude Ranchers' Association, which has extensive listings of ranches west of the Mississippi River. Call 307-587-2339 for a free copy of the group's excellent brochure, or download one from the association's Web site, www.duderanch.org.

WHERE TO GO: The majority of dude ranches are in the West. Others are sprinkled throughout the South and Midwest, and there even are some in the East. Within two hours of the Washington area is the Buck Valley Ranch (800-294-3759, www.buckvalleyranch.com), on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland in Warsfordburg, Pa. Rates start at $125, double occupancy, including lodging, two meals and two horseback-riding sessions.

WHEN TO GO: While some ranches are open year-round, most are closed in the difficult seasons -- those being the frigid winter in the north and in high elevations and the summer in dog-day locales like Texas.

WHAT TO DO: The hard part of choosing your ranch is deciding whether you want to chip in with the chores or merely soak in a sauna. And what will you do in between? It could be horseback riding, fishing, canoeing, hiking, cookouts, swimming, cattle drives, tennis or rafting.

Guides at the Wapiti Meadow Ranch (208-633-3217, www.guestranches.com/wapiti; from $1,250 per person, three-night minimum) in Cascade, Idaho, will take you along trails in the Salmon River Mountains. The Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (800-480-9635, www.horseshoecanyon.com; from $155 a night) in North Little Rock, Ark., has rock climbing for all levels. You can pan for gold after playing ping-pong at the Coffee Creek Ranch (800-545-5917, www.coffeecreekranch.com; from $945 a week) in Trinity Center, Calif.

FAMILY FUN:Some ranches, such as the Sky Corral Guest Ranch in Bellvue, Colo. (888-323-2531, www.skycorral.com; $1,430 per person, six-night minimum), specialize in children's programs, with arts and crafts, pony rides, nature hikes and rodeo games.The Dude Ranchers' Association specifies which ranches have organized children's programs.

ACCOMMODATIONS: These run the gamut, too. Hunker down in a rustic cabin at the four-generation Two Bars Seven Ranch in Tie Siding, Wyo. (307-742-6072, www.twobarssevenranch.com; from $1,163 per person, six-night minimum); sleep in a log cabin after a busy day on a working cattle ranch at McGarry Ranches in Menan, Idaho (866-593-4455, www.nstep.net/mcgarryranches; $995 a week); snooze in a thick-walled adobe dwelling at the Kay El Bar Ranch in Wickenburg, Ariz. (800-684-7583, www.kayelbar.com; from $300 a night); or pamper yourself in a historic, private cottage on a lake at Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Mont. (406-837-4391, www.averills.com; $2,275 a week).

COST: Most dude ranches charge by the week, and price depends on activities offered, accommodations, types of meals and location. In general, weekly rates range from $775 to $2,500 for accommodations, meals and activities. Some ranches, such as the Pine Grove Ranch in Kerhonhson, N.Y. (800-926-6520, www.pinegrove-ranch.com; from $150), have discounts and no minimum stays in the off season.

MORE INFO: Besides the Dude Ranchers' Association, other resources include Dude Ranch Vacations (www.duderanchvacations.com) and Guest Ranches of North America (214-912-1100, www.guestranches.com) for extensive listings, and the Family Travel Guides (www.familytravelguides.com) for a state-by-state breakdown of child-friendly ranches.

Many states have their own associations; the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association (970-887-3128, www.coloradoranch.com) and the Wyoming Dudeers' Association (307-455-2084, www.wyomingdra.com) are particularly good.

-- Elissa Leibowitz

© 2002 The Washington Post Company