ORACLE -- Oracle was in its infancy as a mining and cattle ranching community around 1891 when it was mentioned in a medical journal. The article stated that the area north of Tucson was a great place for people with respiratory problems and diseases like tuberculosis. That was a big deal at the time. In the 1880s, according to the CDC, one in seven people in the United States and Europe were killed by tuberculosis.
The Acadia Ranch opened in the 1880s as a place of lodging, and even before that journal article, some of the clientele were wealthy Easterners with respiratory problems, according to Patrick Schifano, author of “Oracle Speaks: A History of the Town, the Kannally Family, and the Park.” In the 1890s the Mountain View Hotel opened its doors, often to people with tuberculosis or asthma.
Cattle ranching in the United States peaked in 1918 and then fell sharply for years, pushed downward by drought in the 1920s and the Great Depression in the 1930s. To survive, many former cattle ranches became “dude ranches,” offering overnight guests horseback riding and other “Old West” activities that couldn’t be found in the city.
George Wilson came to Oracle in 1906 with breathing problems. He raised cattle but converted his ranch, Rancho Linda Vista, into a dude ranch in 1924. The Triangle L Ranch, the 3C Ranch and El Rancho Robles also became dude ranches in the first half of the century.
“Oracle has hospitality in its blood,” said Zach Nichols, who works in business development for 3C Ranch, a guest ranch 7 miles southeast of Oracle.
Even today, decades after tuberculosis was cured and dude ranches fell out of favor, the Oracle area has more than its fair share of guest ranches.
Oracle guest ranch operators say the area is an attractive place for them because of its climate, vegetation, elevation and lack of artificial light.
In 1936 Nichols’ grandmother came to the area from New York to try to kick tuberculosis, and she stayed. Nichols grew up in Tucson and also stayed in the area.
“This is why I live here and everybody else is dying,” said Nichols about the dry, 90-degree air at the 3C Ranch while leading a tour in July, comparing it to the triple-digit heat in Tucson and Phoenix.
“The mountain atmosphere and the weather is a huge part,” said Mark Lanese, manager of El Rancho Robles guest ranch. “It’s a destination town for people, for people to get out of the town they’re in.”
At the northern base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet, Oracle has trees and vegetation that lower-lying desert areas around it lack.
“People are always so shocked by how much green is up here,” said Jennifer Dadow of Oracle, who works at 3C Ranch.
Oracle has also become a destination for stargazers. Oracle State Park was designated an International Dark Sky Park, the first of its kind in Arizona, in 2014. The lack of artificial light makes it easier to clearly see the stars in the night sky.
“It’s a great place to relax and recharge and see the stars,” said Sharon Holnback, owner of the Triangle L ranch.
Here’s a closer look at three historic guest ranches in the Oracle area:
When Dadow was planning her wedding, she found a venue she liked enough to put down a $1,000 non-refundable deposit.
Then she visited the 3C, a fairly isolated plot of land in the hills 7 miles southeast of Oracle. The property has been undergoing massive improvements since Charley and Connie Goff bought it in 2017.
A new upstairs and downstairs bar was built with all new furniture in the clubhouse. A restaurant has been built there too, although it was still awaiting inspection by the county in July. Basketball and bocce courts are outside.
The ranch has six units with 13 bedrooms and sleeps about 40 guests right now. Two of the units are known as Nixon Houses because President Nixon stayed there. The cabins have been upgraded and updated, including new TVs and luxuries such as granite countertops. Although the ranch looks rustic from the outside, according to Nichols, hoity-toity types from the big city are impressed with the overnight units.
“They feel right at home,” Nichols said.
Dadow liked it enough that she forfeited that $1,000 deposit and got married on March 23 at the 3C Ranch. If that wasn’t enough, she recently took a job there, too.
“It was perfect,” Dadow said.
Future plans include a pool, fire pit and hiking trails. After the expansion, the ranch will be able to accommodate 60 to 65 overnight guests at a time, Nichols said. The Goffs recently opened an archery range on the property. According to Nichols, on opening day, 50 people were waiting at the gate at 7 in the morning.
The Goffs own the business next door, Arizona Zipline Adventures, and most of the cows you’ll see wandering in the area.
The 3C Ranch got its name because years ago it was owned by Columbia Cattle Co. An attorney named Mary West bought the property in 1945 and then bought other ranches in the area, resulting in 36,000 acres of land owned or leased by the ranch. Plans for a subdivision in the 1970s and a big-game shooting preserve in the 1980s never came to fruition. When the Goffs bought it, it was being operated as a bed and breakfast.
“We’ve turned it into an events center,” Nichols said.
In addition to weddings, the venue hosts bridal parties, family reunions and other signature events that can be repeated annually. For the Mount Lemmon Gravel Grinder, a bicycle race held every October, the ranch plans a beer garden and live music this year.
Frequent guests also include mountain bikers, side-by-side riders and hunters.
“Pinal County is becoming known for rural ecotourism,” Nichols said. “We are working in this area to brand it as the adventure corridor.”
EL RANCHO ROBLES
In its long-ago days as a dude ranch, El Rancho Robles didn’t emphasize vigorous cowboy activities like some Western dude ranches. It sought instead to be known as a haven for repose.
Blake Campbell, an architect from New York, bought the ranch in 2012 and has restored that vibe, Lanese said.
Campbell and his wife have gone through every room and updated and modernized the furnishings and decor. Power, plumbing and other maintenance work has been done, and the arch entryway was painted with Western themes.
“The cosmetic transformation has been unbelievable,” Lanese said.
Wi-Fi has been added, but one thing you won’t find in any room is a TV.
“(Campbell) has promoted getting away from phone, TV, video games and enjoying nature. He wants to promote relaxation,” Lanese said. “Very rarely do we hear people complain about TV. They sit on the porch. They hear nothing and they see everything.”
Although the ranch is a quarter-mile from West American Avenue, the main street through Oracle, the property is quiet and secluded.
“You would never know this place is here from the road,” Lanese said. “It’s so serene here, so peaceful, so quiet. It’s an oasis in the middle of nowhere.”
The ranch is known for its large oak trees, Lanese said while leading a visitor down a path littered with small acorns.
“Native Americans love this place,” he said. “They come up here to collect acorns to make paint and paste for ceremonies.”
In Oracle’s early days, the area’s mines needed lumber and got it by cutting down any trees that workers could. Because El Rancho Robles was private property, the oaks there were spared. The shade adds to the feeling of tranquility.
The property was built as a dude ranch in the 1920s featuring distinctive Spanish architecture with elliptical arches. The main building with overnight units has skinny vertical windows because long ago horses lived there. For years, guests enjoyed campfires, playing horseshoes and a wading pool. Sometime after the dude ranch craze ended, the property was vacated. It became rundown, a local hangout for kids, Lanese said. After Campbell bought it, he offered rooms to long-term renters. Those customers were phased out in favor of nightly renters and events.
Today the ranch hosts weddings, family reunions and retreats. Especially popular, with the ranch’s reputation for relaxation, are retreats focused on meditation and/or yoga.
As the biggest of the local guest ranches, El Rancho Robles has 26 units that can accommodate 100 overnight guests. The property has a 17-foot movie screen, walking trails and a dining hall. A commercial kitchen is on site, but guests must provide their own caterer or cooks. In one building is a downstairs speakeasy with a bar and a small room-sized safe. No one knows what was kept there, but today, the El Rancho Robles remains a safe place to relax.
In 1967, the height of the hippie era, a group of artists associated with the University of Arizona took over the Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle. They turned it into an arts community where they could live with their families and pursue their creative passions.
When mixed-media artist Sharon Holnback purchased the nearby Triangle L Ranch in 2001, she had a similar vision.
“My intention was for the place to be a haven for art-related activities,” she said.
The property today includes a gift shop that sells handmade items by local artists, a fixed-up adobe barn that serves as a gallery for periodic art exhibitions and installations, and a 10-acre sculpture park. Guests walk paths through the park and see the sculptures by local artists.
The signature event each year is GLOW, a festival of art, lights and performance. For GLOW, more sculptures are added to the park and are covered with lights so that they glow in the night sky. Glowing artwork is also added to the adobe barn. Live music and theatrical performances are part of the experience. Typically, around 100 artists, musicians and performers participate each year.
This year’s event will cover four nights in September and October, and each night has a different theme. It’s scheduled around the time of the full moon for added effect. Attendees are expected to wear a costume.
“It incorporates all the things I love — the ranch, art, artists, the desert, a party with people in costumes, the night sky,” Holnback said.
In addition to Holnback, a few other artists live on the property, which operates as a bed and breakfast with five cottages that can accommodate around 14 guests.
Weddings have been held at the Triangle L, and the bed and breakfast occasionally attracts paranormal investigators because of rumors the property is haunted. Other frequent guests include hikers, mountain bikers, bird watchers and “Zen retreaters.”
Most of the focus, though, is on the art and people looking for an unusual lodging experience.
“I think that a lot of people these days are looking for something different,” she said. “It’s not a typical Holiday Inn or hotel or motel experience. ... It’s comfortable but rustic.”
In the 1880s the property was known as the “Boot Ranch” because leather was made there. The Ladd family of Boston bought it, turned it into a cattle ranch and hosted legendary cowboy Buffalo Bill Cody, according to the Triangle L’s website. William Trowbridge, a financier from New York, bought it in 1924 and turned it into a dude ranch. It became a guest ranch before Holnback took over.
“People really appreciate the authenticity and the history and they end up feeling, really, a connection to the place,” she said. “We sit around the table at breakfast and have conversations. People find some kind of common ground to talk about. It’s something really special.” | PW