Grapevine Canyon Ranch

Grapevine Canyon Ranch

Arizonan desert heat; Grapevine is an intimate guest ranch with a working cattle ranch alongside, open all year round. Good riding, adequate accommodation and food. The intimacy is either refreshing or claustrophobic; your reaction is up to you. I've been twice, both times with children, and I intend to go again.


Driving out from Tucson you rise up 2,000 feet; the oven warmth of the Arizonan lowlands is replaced by the slightly cooler heat of the uplands. I-10 cuts a line through the prickly pear and saguaro towards, eventually, El Paso in Texas, rising up into the jumbled rocky exhibits beyond Benson. The turn-off on Grapevine's recommended route is just before Willcox, passing the Amerind Foundation at Dragoon. The flat valley between the Cochise Stronghold and the Chiracaua Mountains is old rancher country, peppered with prickly pear, mesquite, creosote, pistachio plantations and ghost towns.

The names of towns as we near our destination tell a story - Sunsites and Sunizona are transients trailer towns for the winter sunbird visitors, retirees escaping the northern winters, and long term residents bringing their grey dollars to the local communities. The nearest town to Grapevine is Pearce, a vanished mining ghost town that is barely hanging on and still appears on the maps. We turn off the tarmac at Sunsites, onto a grid of dirt trails that mark out the street map of a much bigger town that doesn't exist, its city blocks marked by the countless drill sites of every well dug for the few individual mock adobe homes in the area.

Our hire car skims the hard ripples in the dust surface, and fishtails in the deep dust lining the dry washes that cross the streets. As the land starts to rise up towards the Stronghold, the grid ends, and we reach a gate and sign recognised from old images on their web site; a comic graveyard just behind the gate for the bones of the last visitor that left the gate open. We stop and I kick up the dust I wade through to open the gate to let us in.

It is a couple of minutes further on that I reach the wooden building of the office to check in, just before the corral and the rest of the ranch buildings, all in rustic style. Two hours from Tucson, a hundred years from England. Here at last.


Grapevine's closest neighbours are ghost towns, indian relics, and ranches. It is around an hour to any of the nearest sites of consequence, Tombstone, Bisbee, Karchner Caverns, and the lesser known Willcox and Douglas, the latter at the Mexican border. Visitors to the area shouldn't miss the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum or the Pima Air and Space Museums at Tucson, the winter ski resort of Mount Lemmon, or the missions of San Xavier del Bac and Tubac, between Tucson and the Mexican border town of Nogales.

The best of the area is the Desert Museum, a misnamed zoo set in the lands of the Sonoran desert just outside the Saguaro National Park. Inside you find snakes, spiders, humming birds, coyotes, javelina, big horned sheep and black bear, as well as the desert flowers, succulents and cactuses typical of the area.

In the area close to Grapevine, agave, prickly pear and mesquite are the main large flora. The owners, Eve and Gerry Searle, also run a small cattle ranch next door to Grapevine, sharing most of the same staff; and of the "working cattle" features of Grapevine really belong to the Cobre Loma (sp?) Ranch.


Casitas (that I have stayed in) accommodate two to four persons, a short, and at night dark and starry, walk from the main buildings. There is a games room with table tennis and darts, always empty when I have been there, a TV room with a collection of Western videos, including rodeo stars as well as Western films. The main building combines the dining room, and a general area for lazing.

Close to the main buildings is the swimming pool, and in the opposite direction the barn and corral.

I believe that a maximum of thirty guests can be catered for; in the summer, 8 - 20 is more likely, although I believe it is busier the rest of the year, apart from a routine shutdown period in early December.


Food is served buffet style; there are three big round tables, and everything comes on metal plates with three compartments. The cooking is plain and wholesome - not a gourmet delight, but you won't go hungry either. Drinks (soft) can be taken from the refrigerator, using the honour system; beer and possibly wine can be ordered from the catering staff - I'm a little hazy on this, as I don't think I had anything alcoholic there ever.


Most times I went back to the casita between rides and meals and slept - I partly blame jet lag, and partly extreme unfitness. On long afternoons I might drive out to one of the local sights, perhaps to Tombstone or Bisbee. Tucson would just be in reach for a flying visit without skipping a meal.

One evening a week is a country music and dancing evening, music provided by some professional musicians among the staff. Otherwise, if you still aren't tired out, the local bar is a fifteen minute drive away, and provides pool and conversation with the clientele.

Some of the material about the ranch talks about local golf courses - in practice, that isn't something that is well supported by the staff. Nature walks can be interesting - there is a lot of interesting flora and fauna (a surprising amount of which aren't rattlesnakes), as well as an old Apache gathering area close to the ranch house.


I go to ranches for one thing - riding. In the summer at Grapevine, there are two ride times per day; just after breakfast, and just before sunset. Each ride may be split into fast and walking, although I think this really only applied to the morning ride. An option several days a week is an all-day ride, all at a slow pace, often because the terrain demands it, with a packed lunch. The rides into the Cochise Stronghold, along the Middlemarch road, and to Fort Bowie can all be recommended.

On Sundays the morning ride is to the Cobre Loma ranch, owned by the same family and a proper (small) cattle ranch, where breakfast is served. After breakfast, you might be able to participate in ranch chores - riding fences, or bringing back some of the horse herd from their break.

You can request lessons, although the provision of these we found to be rather fickle, depending very much on the whims of the instructor. For example, we asked if we could arrange one on Tuesday, and it was completely impossible (we were leaving on Saturday).

I found the horses to be fit and healthy, with some care being taken by the wranglers to look out for girth galls and other injuries. I didn't find any that appeared to be sour, or suffer from bucking or excessive pulling - and this is high praise. There were only a couple suitable for larger riders; I weighed approx 230 lbs when I was there, and would inevitably be started off on some lumbering beast before being swapped onto a better horse on my next ride - again, both are good signs, and matches the weight range Grapevine claims to support.

Rides, apart from the aforementioned all day rides, are either out front, which is mainly flat cow pasture, good for racing the lizards on, or in the hills at the back, which is mainly slower. The flat ground isn't trappy anywhere that I could tell, although there probably really is a rattlesnake under every bush.

You can expect to see rattlesnakes, little lizards, mule deer and possibly some javelina, as well as the usual profuse Arizona bird life - which I have absolutely zero interest in, and so can't remember any details of.

Flashes of Memory

There are always a few moments from any good trip that embed themselves in full colour at the back of your eyeballs. These are a few of the ones for me:

Cantering along one of the dirt tracks, and looking down to see a rattlesnake sliding between my horses hooves. Another time, on the same set of tracks, watching a six inch lizard accelerate up alongside my horse before speeding off into the brush alongside.

Going into one of the pastures after the Sunday breakfast cookout with a couple of the more experienced guests to round up some of the horse herd and bring them back in; the wrangler with us got very involved with a young horse and an awkward crossing, so we were dashing to and fro to head off the herd as they switched back and forth, playing their game of seeking freedom.

The corral gate not quite shutting when I was turning my horse out into the corral, and having an escapee slip out behind me. I was basically out maneuvered with horse body language.

My son, David's, horse going lame on a ride into the Cochise Stronghold. It turned out to be a simple matter of a stone trapped between the shoe and his hoof - but the stone was fully as wide across as the shoe was.