Wickenburg: The Old West : Would-be cowpokes find a blend of Western flavor and modern convencience at area dude ranches

Times Travel Editor

Turning off Arizona Highway 89 onto a dusty, unpaved road facing the Bradshaw Mountains, I could feel the stress peel away. Layer after layer. With the sun slipping lower in the sky, I stopped the car to listen to a silence that was disturbed only by the blowing of the wind.

While shadows fell across the land, a jack rabbit skittered through the brush and a hawk wheeled overhead. Having escaped the rush-hour traffic of Phoenix, miles behind, a peace took over that comes only with the wealth of aloneness.

I put the car in gear and rattled across a cattle guard, passing a sign that read: "Drive carefully, puppies and kittens playing."

Such was the introduction to the inviting little Kay El Bar, Arizona's friendliest dude ranch. The Kay El Bar rises alongside salt cedar trees and a 300-year-old saguaro, and as I stopped the car a couple of playful golden retrievers, Nugget and Bear, ran across the lawn, the unofficial greeters of this small, unpretentious ranch three miles north of Wickenburg.

Nugget and Bear accompanied me to the lodge, where a note from the proprietors was pinned to the front door: "Come in. Make yourself at home. We'll join you as soon as we've spiffed up for dinner."

No formalities. Just this laid-back graciousness of Arizona's second-oldest guest ranch.

A wood fire crackled in the lounge with its high, beamed ceiling. Western scenes were framed on the walls and facing the huge stone fireplace were a scattering of sofas and a shelf lined with books.

Other guests gathered by the fire included the Bob Kings of Connecticut and the Paul Ledbetters of Brea. Ledbetter, a retired plumber, is one of those red, white and blue types who won the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II but doesn't give a hoot about riding horses. Instead he gets his highs these days lounging by the pool.

The 60-acre Kay El Bar is operated by sisters Jan Martin and Jane Nash and their husbands Charlie and Jay. This is strictly a riding ranch. No tennis or golf. Just horses and a swimming pool for cooling off after one of those long rides. The ladies bought the ranch nine years ago following a love affair with dude ranches that began when they were youngsters living in the East. When their own children left the nest, the sisters grew restless. Mid-life crisis was fast approaching and they decided on a new career.

Jan's husband Charlie sells bonds and Jane's husband Jay is a computer wizard. Together they commute the 60 miles to Phoenix, returning in the evening to exchange suits and ties for jeans and cowboy shirts and to tend bar, gather firewood and exchange pleasantries with guests.

Visitors from overseas zero in on the Kay El Bar along with American guests. Only recently a group of Japanese executives--all dolled up in silk business suits and ties--galloped off into the sunset. Later, an enthusiastic member of the group was asked how he enjoyed his ride. "Fine," he replied, smiling hugely. "I only fell off twice!"

A policeman from Britain appeared at the Kay El Bar a couple of years ago decked out like a stand-in for Hopalong Cassidy. A cowboy buff from Dover who'd spent his life eyeballing Westerns, he wore boots, jeans, chaps and spurs and left two weeks later, outfitted as he'd arrived. And although his name was David, this British buckaroo insisted that the gang at the Kay El Bar call him "Tex."

Similarly, the curator of a museum from Liechtenstein took on the nickname "Rocky."

Guests who show up at the Kay El Bar without the proper duds are outfitted in Wickenburg at Ben's Saddlery. Either that or they're offered the loan of boots and hats at the ranch. One woman stayed on at the Kay El Bar for seven weeks. The oldest guest--he was in his 90s--rode daily during his stay at the Kay El Bar.

One vacationer wrote: "I am torn between the desire to tell everyone I know what a wonderful place the Kay El Bar is and wanting to keep it a secret so mobs of people won't spoil it."

Fine. But it wasn't always a charmer. Says Jane Nash: "It was a disaster when we bought it!"

Weeds sprouted everywhere and the lodge looked like early Halloween with Goodwill furnishings.

"A Motel 6 had more charm," as Jane tells it.

With loads of enthusiasm and little money, the sisters and their husbands painted, plastered, rewired and replumbed the entire ranch. And while the women tell how they adored horses as youngsters, they admit they knew absolutely nothing about ranching when they landed in Wickenburg.

Jane shudders. "For the first season we winged it."

Whatever they did, they won their spurs. Because for nine years now the Kay El Bar has been drawing repeat visitors, season after season. The personality is unchanged. It's simply a charming little dude ranch with 20 horses, 3 cows, 4 dogs and an assortment of cats. Guests are called to meals by the ringing of a locomotive bell, and the atmosphere at the dinner table is strictly informal. No one gets gussied up for dinner. "If anybody showed up wearing a tie we'd all faint," Jane says.

A message in the lounge tells it all: "Do as you please. Go to bed when you want, get up at your ease. You're welcome to share with us whatever we've got--the leak in the roof or the beans in the pot."

If the truth be told, the grub at the Kay El Bar leans more to shrimp stuffed with crab, barbecued ribs, spinach salads, chicken enchiladas and chicken pot pie. Chef Caroline Waters--who came to the ranch by way of Ohio, Florida, Texas and Colorado--turns out homemade breads, cakes, cookies and pies, which inspired Charlie Martin to remark that the Kay El Bar is a "reverse fat farm."

With its old adobe buildings, the Kay El Bar has gained itself a listing on the National Registry of Historic Places. Jan describes it as a "regular old-time family oriented dude ranch providing the alternative for vacationers who want something homey and relaxing."

At the Kay El Bar there's a sense of skipping out on the real world. The ranch spreads along the Hassayampa River--"a warm, kick-your-shoes-off kind of place"--with puzzles and a piano in the lounge and rides that are led by wranglers Dave Lookingbill and his sidekick Gary Stedman, who carries a Smith & Wesson .357-caliber magnum strapped to his hip. That's just to remind everyone that the Old West is still a trifle wild and woolly.

In the '40s and '50s, Wickenburg gained a reputation as the dude ranch capital of the world. Not just the West mind you, but the world. There was the choice of a dozen ranches. Guests arrived by train, lugging along steamer trunks and their own horses, and they stayed on for weeks. Jack and Sophie Burden's Remuda Ranch was the first on the scene.

Wickenburg was the Old West every dude from Dayton to Denver envisioned. As the town became well known, more ranches sprung up. But the stall began with World War II. After this came the Jet Age, and slowly the exodus of guests took place as Americans turned their attention to destinations overseas. Suddenly Europe was in, the West was out.

By the late '60s the average stay at a guest ranch was down to three or four days. Presently Wickenburg claims only a handful of ranches, and of those that remain, only the Kay El Bar and Vi Wellik's low-key Flying E (the site of a stagecoach ambush by Apache Indians in 1871) carry on the old traditions of the ma-and-pa dude ranch.

Stunning View

Rising on a mesa at the 2,400-foot level, the Flying E provides a stunning view of the desert floor, with Vulture Peak branded on the horizon. At the Flying E, guests help check out pastures and chase after an occasional runaway calf. Evenings they gather in the Slopping Buzzard bar and retreat to rooms that are so silent "you can hear the quiet," Vi Wellik says.

Still, with all its Western flavor, the Flying E has added a number of modern touches: a heated swimming pool, spa, sauna and a tennis court. Vi Wellik describes the Flying E as "a working ranch where informality comes as naturally as a summer rain."

Wickenburg was founded in 1863 on the wealth of the famed Vulture mine. In its heyday, the Vulture produced $50 million in bullion. But tourism is its salvation now. In February crowds gather for Gold Rush Days, and in November they take in the Wickenburg Blue Grass Festival. McDonald's has arrived. So has Burger King. And a retirement community is growing. Still, Wickenburg has lost little of its appeal.

Its star attraction, the 20,000-acre Rancho de los Caballeros, provides a spread of air-conditioned casitas with beehive fireplaces and hand-crafted furniture. Los Cab is a five-star resort with a stable of horses, tennis, a swimming pool, trap and skeet shooting and an 18-hole championship golf course with man-made lakes that encircle the ranch.

At Los Cab, guests are accommodated in 74 snug rooms with beamed ceilings and picture windows. With or without telephone. It's up to the guest.

Chaperoning Small Fry

Wranglers deliver vacationers to cookouts at Skyline Ridge, Vulture Peak and South Yucca Flats. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Los Cab chaperones the small fry while parents play billiards in the lounge or jog along mesquite-lined trails where jack rabbits cross their paths and deer and coyotes put in an occasional appearance.

Los Cab is an upscale resort where guests arrive with their own horses. Others fly in by private jet.

In the same class, the multimillion-dollar Wickenburg Inn features adobe casitas, a roomy lodge and an impressive restaurant/bar that's romantically lit at night. Deluxe casitas come equipped with sun decks, private patios, wet bars, fireplaces and Jacuzzis. Meals and tennis are part of the package, along with free arts and crafts lessons. With its 11 tennis courts, the inn is known as the Wimbledon of Wickenburg. Spread across 4,700 acres, the inn is home to road runners, quail, cottontails, birds and other desert wildlife. Sunsets are stunning. The Milky Way hangs like a lighted hood, and coyotes howl at the moon.

All this and the blowing of the wind.

--Kay El Bar, Box 2480, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358. Telephone (602) 684-7593. Rate: $80 per day single and $145 double (including all meals and horseback riding).

--Flying E Ranch, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358. Telephone (602) 684-2690. Rates: From $95 single, $155 double to $190 for suites. (Riding is extra.)

--Rancho de los Caballeros, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358. Telephone (602) 684-5484. Rates: From $106/$148 single, $168/$216 double. (Riding, golf extra.)

--Wickenburg Inn, P.O. Box P, Wickenburg, Ariz. 85358. Telephone (602) 684-7811 or toll-free (800) 528-4227. Rates: From $80 to $170 single, $130 to $260 double (including meals, riding, tennis, arts and crafts, etc.).

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