Mild Mild West: A City Slicker at the White Stallion Ranch

I’m driving my rental car to the White Stallion Ranch, northwest of Tucson,  Arizona, trying to make a 3pm check-in.  After a long, confusing drive into the hot, flat desert, I mistakenly pull into the employee’s driveway and stop my car for a group of dusty horseback riders queuing to dismount.

White Stallion Ranch, Tucson Arizona photo credit: John Cameron
White Stallion Ranch, Tucson Arizona photo credit: John Cameron

Without warning, a young woman falls off her horse, flat on her back, right in front of my car. I already had my doubts about the dude ranch experience and now I just wanted to turn around and forget the whole thing, having had a few bad horseback riding incidents in my past atop runaways.

But as I soon discovered, there’s more to dude ranches than scary horse stories. At first glance, the whole scene looks like a cowboy equivalent of a re-enactors club, complete with lazy farm dogs sniffing around the outdoor patio tables despite the “Please don’t feed the dogs” signs. I feel out of place in a spaghetti-strap sundress and matching flat sandals when everyone is fully decked out in cowboy duds.

Red Tony Lamas at White Stallion Ranch
Red Tony Lamas at White Stallion Ranch photo credit: Sherel Purcell

But I’m in luck. The friendly staff rustles up a pair of long-abandoned cowboy boots, which fit almost perfectly. And they’re Tony Lama’s. The well-broken in boots feature pointy toes and red leather up to the ankle and a fetching black and brown design all the way to the top.

The boots really are proof that footwear makes the woman. Strutting about in my new old boots with the two-inch heel, I feel more confident in a swaggering sort of way that produces an unintended seductive hip sway. Plus, they go really well with my denim skirt and red and blue floral tights. Pretty soon I’m walking around like I own the place.

Horses at White Stallion Ranch, Tucson Arizona
Horses at White Stallion Ranch, photo credit: Sherel Purcell

Of the many choices of daily group rides at the White Stallion Ranch, the only one that really appeals to me is the Beer and Cheetos ride. It’s a 30-minute slow ride out to a picnic area in the desert with a makeshift bar. The bar break allows the crafty drinker-rider time to down three beers while swapping riding stories with the more horse-savvy group members.

I’m riding sweet-natured, 12-year old Laredo. Because the wranglers can see I’m easily spooked, I’m placed directly behind Devin, a young female wrangler, who unfortunately has been saddled with Margarita, a feisty stubborn mare, who keeps trying to nip Laredo, causing me some anxiety. “I’m going to need a few margaritas after dealing with this project horse all day,” says the talented Sioux wrangler.

Devin is an excellent instructor and assures me that I’m a “natural”. I carefully follow her instructions to keep Laredo in line and prevent him from chewing on the creosote bush flowers. Nothing apparently is good for the horse’s teeth when wearing a bit.

Team penning at White Stallion Ranch
Team penning at White Stallion Ranch photo credit: Sherel Purcell

But dude ranching is about more than riding. Cowbells ring to announce the excellent communal meals – which lean towards quality comfort food – awakening tired riders lulled by the soft sounds of New Country from their afternoon naps around the outdoor pool. The office keeps a stash of horse cookies on hand for those who want to practice their horse-whispering skills too.

Evening at White Stallion Ranch photo credit: John Cameron
Evening at White Stallion Ranch photo credit: John Cameron

Evening entertainment includes art classes and a campfire sing-along, with more drinks around the fire for sharing the days’ adventures with new and old friends. There’s an extensive DVD library in the mini theater where I was happy to discover the Billy Crystal movie, City Slickers, but alas, the box was empty.

White Stallion Ranch, Tucson Arizona
White Stallion Ranch, Tucson Arizona photo credit: Sherel Purcell

Guided and individual hikes are another way to enjoy the desert scenery. On my third day, after a long, hot, self-directed walk through the desert, I was so absorbed with taking photos I suddenly realized I had walked a long way without water and had an hour’s walk back.

Fortunately I arrived back just in time for happy hour which features a wet and dry bar where parched cowgirls and cowboys can purchase reasonably-priced beer and wine on the honor system. Some folks show up at the White Stallion Ranch the same time every year to hang out with friends they made in previous years.

Discover California’s Highway 1

California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route is the perfect road trip where you’ll find cool beach towns connected by a winding two-lane highway hugging the dramatic Pacific coastline. One option is to start in Morro Bay and cruise the central coast north past the Hearst Castle up to the Piedras Blanca Elephant Seal Rookery. And since it’s California, don’t miss wine tasting at some of the boutique wineries that make up the Pacific Coast Wine Trail.

Morro Bay

Morro Bay Harbor
Morro Bay Harbor photo credit: John Cameron

Stay at the Front Street Inn and Spa, located steps from Morro Bay on Embarcardero and you can watch fishing boats from your room. Tourism and commercial fishing are Morro Bay’s main industries. Grab breakfast next door with locals at La Parisienne, known for their croissants.

Windows on The Water, Morro Bay
Windows on The Water, Morro Bay photo credit: John Cameron

Top restaurants in town, both with great views of Morro Bay, include Windows on the Water and The Galley Seafood Grill and Bar. At Windows, try their fresh sand dabs or the locally-sourced Abalone presented in the shell on a bed of seaweed and cucumber salad.

The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, Morro Bay
The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar photo credit: Sherel Purcell

At The Galley, have the amazing Blackened Pacific Rockfish. They make an excellent clam chowder too.

Things to do in Morro Bay

Central Coast Outdoors, Morro Bay
Central Coast Outdoors photo credit: John Cameron

Paddle around the shallow Morro Bay Estuary with a kayak from Central Coast Outdoors. Craig, the experienced guide, pointed out seals and sea otters and the thriving oyster farm. Enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch on the sand dunes paired with an excellent local zin and craft beers before kayaking back to the dock.

Morro Rock, a 576 foot high volcanic plug that guards the entrance to the harbor, is Morro Bay’s defining feature – it’s visible for miles around.

Farmer's Kites and Surreys, Morro Bay
Farmer’s Kites and Surreys photo credit: Sherel Purcell

Cycle to the Rock on a bike from Farmer’s Kites and Surreys, located on the Embarcadero. Another good bike trail will take you north past the beach around the cloisters, a wetland bird sanctuary.

If you’re a golfer, constant elevation changes and nary a level lie make The Morro Bay Golf Course a short but challenging track with some great views.

Stroll the Embarcadero and drop into Chateau Margene’s tasting room. Micro winery Chateau Margene, one of the ten wineries that comprise the Pacific Coast Wine Trail, produces only Bordeaux-style wines (Cabernet Sauvignons, Cabernet Franc & Meritage blends) and sells direct to customers and wine clubs.


Drive ten minutes north on Highway 1, to neighboring Cayucos and stop into the Cass House Grill for lunch.

Cass House Grill, Cayucos
Cass House Grill photo credit: John Cameron

The Cass House Grill features farm to table dishes and the best lobster roll you’ll find anywhere. Their secret? – the grilled milk bread. Try the chef’s delicious cauliflower empanadas – cauliflower, parmesan, mushroom puree, sherry vinegar and truffle oil.

Just up Ocean Avenue from the Cass House Grill is the famous Brown Butter Cookie Company. Butter browned on the stove gives these cookies a rich, nutty taste.

Brown Butter Cookies
Brown Butter Cookies photo credit: John Cameron

With flavors like citrus, almond, cocoa and espresso, you’ll want to try them all. They also have a second store in Paso Robles.


Harmony Cellars
Harmony Cellars photo credit: Sherel Purcell

Nearby, the town of Harmony is home to a boutique winery, Harmony Cellars, another one of the wineries that make up the Pacific Coast Wine Trail. Producing just 7500 cases annually, you won’t find their wine in any BevMo. Try their wonderful Grandpa Barlogio Zinfandel, available only in the tasting room.  Artisans in the glass blowing shop and pottery studio  call Harmony home. It also has the world’s tiniest chapel.



Cambria makes a perfect stopping point as the Hearst Castle is just 17 minutes away. Located minutes from downtown on Moonstone Beach,  you’re just steps away from  the ocean at The Blue Dolphin Inn.

Moonstone Beach, Cambria
Moonstone Beach, Cambria photo credit: John Cameron

The moonstone gemstone is said to bring good luck and promotes inspiration. See if you can find some of these tiny gemstones as you stroll the beach.

Top restaurants in Cambria include The Black Cat, Robin’s and Linn’s. Linn’s is THE place for a gourmet breakfast.

Linn's Restaurant Cambria
Linn’s Restaurant photo credit: John Cameron

Skip the usual English muffin and order your Eggs Benedict on a bed of polenta. The popular bakery features their famous Ollieberry pies.

At Robin’s, diners are serenaded by frogs in the beautiful indoor courtyard featuring live trumpet flower plants.

Robin's Restaurant, Cambria
Robin’s Restaurant photo credit: John Cameron

Try the spinach salad with pecans, cranberries and feta. Or the cioppino and an Indian style tofu curry with carrots and raisins.

San Simeon

William Randall Hearst chose to build his famous castle overlooking a beautiful stretch of the California Highway 1 Discovery Route near San Simeon.

Indoor Roman Pool at The Hearst Castle, San Simeon
Indoor Roman Pool photo credit: John Cameron

Don’t miss the beautiful Indoor Roman Pool, which consists of a million Murano glass tiles, some with a dazzling layer of gold leaf inside.

Hearst Ranch Winery
Hearst Ranch Winery photo credit: John Cameron

For a relaxed lunch after seeing the Hearst Castle, stop into the historic Sebastian’s Store in San Simeon which features a Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room – your $15.00 tasting fee is refunded with a purchase. Hearst Ranch Winery is another winery on the Pacific Coast Wine Trail.  Try the  tri-tip steak sandwich or a burger made with beef from the Hearst Ranch. A Hearst Ranch Tempranillo  pairs well with a green chili cheeseburger.


Our last stop on California’s Highway 1 Discovery Route is the Piedras Blancas Rookery, four miles north of the Hearst Castle.
The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery spreads over 6 miles of shoreline around Point Piedras Blancas.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery photo credit: John Cameron

Before 4 pm, visitors can chat with docents who will explain the life cycle of these huge creatures. Their eyes are ten times more sensitive than ours and their whiskers can detect motion in the water,  helpful in locating prey. The wheelchair accessible viewing areas are open every day of the year and are free.


Your Guide to an Active Vacation