Since the time of Lewis and Clark, folks have been fascinated with the American West. In the late 19th century, romantic accounts of the open range and Western adventurers like Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill circulated back East, and those itching to escape the congestion of the city vacationed out West to get a taste of life on the wild frontier. For a few bucks, these travelers—called “dudes”—could enjoy the full ranching experience at outfits that offered grub, bunks, and plenty of saddle time to their guests. 

In some ways, dude ranching today has come a long way from its early years (most ranches no longer pick guests up at the train depot in a horse-drawn wagon), but in the most important ways, dude and guest ranches haven’t changed hardly at all in the last century—they still offer horses and hospitality, and share their love for the Western way of life with people from around the world. 

Circle Z, 120+ years old
Patagonia, Ariz.
Seasons: Oct.–May 

The Circle Z, located in Patagonia, Ariz., is nestled along the ever-running Sonoita Creek and beneath the walls of Sanford Butte. Today’s ranch guests know the butte as Circle Z Mountain—from most directions, the sight of the butte signals the way home. Pottery shards and arrowheads from one of its caves dating back to before any recorded history of the area suggests that signaling people home is likely a task the butte has been performing for a long time. 

The ranch has also been in operation for quite a while, originally run as a sheep camp in the 1880s. In 1926, it opened its doors to its first guests, and after 88 years of Western hospitality, the ranch stakes the claim as the longest continuously operating guest ranch in Arizona. The adobe cabins and structures that were erected when the ranch was first built are still standing today. 

In 1976, the state of Arizona opened Patagonia Lake State Park just to the south of the ranch. Between the Sonoita Creek (one of the few streams that flows all year in Arizona) and the new lake, the Circle Z is situated amongst some incredibly prized resources. That same year, the ranch was purchased by the Nash family, who had been visiting the ranch since 1936 and continue to run the ranch today.

Understanding the value of the Circle Z’s ecology, in 2013, the Nash family placed 3,300 acres of their ranch into a conservation easement that protects much of the land between the ranch and the town of Patagonia, shielding the Circle Z from suburban sprawl. This way, future generations of ranch guests will still be able to enjoy what other ranch guests have been enjoying since 1926: horses, history, and hospitality.

The Circle Z herd includes a number of horses that have been bred and raised right on the ranch and the rides they provide have long been a highlight of visiting the Circle Z. And, thanks to the resources provided by the desert waters of Sonoita Creek and Lake Patagonia, the ranch and the neighboring Patagonia Nature Preserve have also gained worldwide recognition for bird watching, providing a lush riparian habitat for nesting and migratory birds. 

Additionally, the Circle Z offers home-cooked meals that are often prepared with vegetables and meats raised on the ranch. In between meals, guests will have no trouble busying themselves with a hike up Sanford Butte or a game of tennis or shuffleboard. In the evenings, a good campfire stick for roasting marshmallows is all that’s needed to sit back and enjoy some cowboy tales and sing-alongs under the night sky. 

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