The Current

A Sonoran Desert Rx For The Whole Family

Kicking off the New Year at a kid-friendly adventure resort.

The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, near Tucson.     Photo: Katie Arnold

Wild Burro Trail.

Kid-sized petroglyph spyglasses.

Pete by the pool.

Any five-star resort that turns its back on its manicured golf course and orients itself instead to the backcountry surely must be serious about its trails, and Dove Mountain doesn't disappoint.

We have been warned about the javelinas and the heat, but nothing prepares us for the best trail surprise of all. It's just after 5 p.m. on the second day of the New Year, and my husband, our two young daughters, our four-month old puppy, Pete, and I are picking our way along a rubbly stretch of desert singletrack when we first hear it: the haunting melodies of a Native American flute rising on the late-day breeze. Somewhere below us, a lone flautist is serenading Wild Burro Canyon.

The sinking sun paints the ragged, saguaro-studded Sonoran hills orange and the air is beginning to cool. This time of year, darkness settles down fast and early on the desert. With more than halfway to go, this is the point in every hike when our daughters, five and three, begin to flag and whine, and we wonder if we haven't once again overestimated their stamina. But at the first notes, Pippa and Maisy, who have been gamely scrambling over boulders unassisted, practically begin to skip, pulled forward by the soothing tones of the flute. It's hard not to be moved—literally—by the music, a plein air concert that sounds like it's just for us.

Only here at Dove Mountain, it happens every night. 

We've come to the Sonoran Desert for a much-needed post-holiday reset, a last-minute, long weekend kick-off to a new year of family adventure. Skiing was the obvious choice, but the winter storms weren't cooperating, so a few days before New Year's, we shifted to Plan B: a desert escape within driving distance of Santa Fe, where we could run and hike and swim. The forecast for Tucson was 75 and sunny. Done.

This would have been ideal conditions for "winter" camping, but after a month of pre-holiday ramp up and a houseful of guests, we needed a little R&R, so I scoured the internet for places to stay. We wanted the best of both worlds: Tucson's sere desert without the urban bustle, with easy access to plentiful trails. We didn't want to spend all our time navigating the city, or driving to find the backcountry, but we wanted to enjoy the perks of Tucson in winter (read: heated pool). A Google search of "hiking trails" and "Tucson hotels" yielded an unlikely result: The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain.

Generally speaking, we're not resort people. Given the choice, we might opt to spend a few nights sleeping outside in a wilderness river canyon or skiing into a backcountry yurt rather than lounging around a fancy hotel and spa. Relaxing doesn't come naturally to us, especially when there are peaks to climb, rivers to raft, and trails to run. Most resorts, with their elaborate golf courses or skiing infrastructure, have a tendency to separate you from nature rather than bring you closer to it. 

But with nearly 20 miles of desert trails right out the back door, The Ritz at Dove Mountain, which opened in 2010, is that rare breed of adventure resort that gives you serious access to the backcountry, wrapped in a luxe, kid- (and dog-) friendly package. You can hike or run all morning, and then return to a heated, 85-degree pool with a 235-foot-long water slide and ice-cream sundaes—or prickly-pear margaritas—delivered to your private cabana. Set at 2,900 feet at the foot of the Tortolita Mountains, about 30 minutes northeast of Tucson, it also has a daily kids' camp and last-minute rooms in January for just over $200 a night.

As soon as we arrive, I know we're in trouble, our lives as camping enthusiasts doomed forever. This will no doubt be the swankiest backcountry adventure we've ever had. Everyone we meet is outrageously attentive, and genuinely thrilled to see us, greeting us by name (including Pete), giving us maps of the hiking trails, and encouraging five-year-old Pippa to "check in" on her own. (On a sheet designated for Ritz Kids, she scrawls her name, age, favorite color and food.)

Up in our room, they've set up a small, child-size tent for two, kitted out with a fluffy featherbed, two battery-operated lanterns, and a pair of stuffed tortoises. Our two balconies overlook the sprawling pool (and tastefully camouflaged water slide) and behind that, the wide mouth of Wild Burro Canyon.

Any five-star resort that turns its back on its manicured golf course—The Ritz's is about a mile downhill—and orients itself instead to the backcountry surely must be serious about its trails, and Dove Mountain doesn't disappoint. That first afternoon, after a requisite splash in the pool, and half a dozen screaming laps on the water slide, we head out for a sunset hike on one of seven looping routes east of the hotel.

The two-mile Lower Javelina Trail sounds promising, but with just an hour of daylight left, the concierge takes one look at our small, rambunctious children and our even smaller, more rambunctious puppy, and urges us, in the politest, Ritziest of ways, to consider the mile-long Hotel Loop instead. "You can see the resort the whole time," the young man offers helpfully, as though staring down on a five-story hotel is a plus. It's the first of many gentle, cautionary suggestions we'll receive from the hotel staff over the next few days. I can practically see the thought bubble pop up over his head: "Liability waiting to happen."

In genteel spirit of the Ritz, we nod in agreement, and I'm glad we do. The trail leaves from the front of the hotel, and right away climbs a the short but steep Atlatl Ridge, with views to the Santa Rita Mountains. There are saguaro everywhere, crawling up hillsides, reaching their stately arms into the air as though giving thanks for living in this starkly beautiful, surreal landscape. I feel the same way.

The children aren't whining or demanding shoulder rides, and Pete is scampering along, obediently keeping us in sight and staying on the trail, except when he accidentally detours straight into a teddy bear cactus, and steps on a spiny pad almost as big as my fist. Extracting it is a team effort: Steve struggles to pry out the barbs, while I restrain an agonized Pete, and the girls cover their eyes and squeal. Just as I'm thinking that Sonoran Desert hiking might be more extreme than we thought, cue the melodious flute. 

In the morning I stick a map in my pocket, fill a water bottle, and duck out early for a sunrise run out Wild Burro Trail. The first mile or so climbs gradually through the sandy wash before switchbacking up the technical, rock-strewn north side of the canyon, bringing me onto a high, open plateau where the trail turns to soft, forgiving dirt threading through a forest of saguaro. I feel like I could run forever out here forever—it stretches for more than 25 miles into the Tortolita Mountains—but I told Steve I'd be back in an hour.

So I turn around after four miles, just past a small cross propped up in a pile of rocks. The inscription reads "Molly, 1989-2012," and laments her young age and lack of a cure. I decide she must have suffered a terrible, terminal illness, and that she loved this trail so much that she wanted to be honored here.

When I get back to the room, Steve and Pete and the girls are breakfasting on the balcony in preparation for a family hike on Lower Javelina, which traverses both sides of the canyon. We fill a pack with several bottles of water and sunscreen, a pair of kids' binoculars, and a leash for Pete. The night before, it had been gently suggested to Steve that packs of wild javelina roam the canyon and might be prone to attacking small dogs, especially after dark. It was broad daylight, but when it comes to a 25-pound puppy, not to mention two small girls who don't weigh much more, you can't be too careful.

Without the flute song and in the unforgiving glare of mid-morning, the hike is less successful than the evening before, but we distract the girls with small trailside boulders which they scale again and again, and cut the hike short in the wash when the protesting begins in earnest. Pete survives, unscathed by wild pigs, and we strategically avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion (it's 70, tops) and promptly hit the pool.

The pools—in fact, there are two—are the perfect complement to the trails and vice versa. One without the other would either seem too hardcore for the first days of the new year, or too self-indulgent. But now that we've had our fresh air and adventure for the day, we can lounge guilt-free poolside all afternoon.

The water slide is steep and long enough so that you practically catch air on a couple of sections, especially when clutching a small child on your lap—an adrenaline sport in its own right—and various giant inflatable whales and turtles bob around in the shallows, fawned and fought over by a steady stream of little ones. For such an upscale resort, I'm heartened to see that The Ritz is crawling with young families, instant and willing playmates for Pippa and Maisy and more R&R for Steve and me. Even Pete is pampered here. A pool butler promptly arrives with a bowl of water and thoughtfully moves an umbrella so that he's lying in the shade, where he will sleep all afternoon. 

Resort life is easy to abide: hike or run all morning, loll and swim all afternoon. With three restaurants right on site, we don't have to drive anywhere. The girls in their tent sleep like logs for the first time in months, and therefore so do we. I've read almost an entire book and soaked up enough Vitamin D to make it through the month. And Pete, too, is noticeably calmer than when we arrived.

The next day we drop Pippa and Maisy off at Ritz Kids camp on the ground floor, where they'll spend the morning with Ranger Ron, one of three rangers employed by the hotel to lead nature hikes and teach guests about desert wildlife. They're the only children enrolled for the day, but they're so distracted by the walls lined with terrariums that they don't seem to care. When it comes time for us to leave, they're pressing their faces against the glass, shining infrared flashlights on the resident scorpions and tarantulas. They barely register our departure.

Steve and I are going running. We've plotted a 15-mile circuit along the Wild Mustang Trail, up to a goat corral at the far end of Wild Burro, and back along the south side of the canyon via the Alamo Springs Trail. "How long do you think that will take you?" Ron asks delicately, subtly sizing up our water supply, but I can see right through him: Here comes the cautionary tale. Molly, as it turns out, was a guest who went hiking with her family in the summer, took a wrong turn on the Wild Burro Trail, and ran out of water. By the time Ranger Ron arrived with the rescue crew, she'd gone into cardiac arrest. She died on her 23rd birthday, at the spot in the trail now marked with her cross.

Chastened, I think about Molly as we run. Rationally, I know we're safe—it's the dead of winter and overcast, not even 55 degrees. We're carrying plenty of water, a map, and a cell phone with a loaded battery. Our girls are in good hands, and we're experienced trail runners. Still, I have a new respect for the desert. It's lovely and humbling, strikingly beautiful country, raw and empty, except of the swarms of saguaro which have an almost human presence. The trail weaves through prickly pear and spiky sotol cactus, and the snowy ridge of Mount Lemmon looms to the south. Passing Molly's cross for the third time in two days,  I inhale the warm air and damp, winter-desert smells and give thanks for being alive and for running and for three whole hours of freedom on the trails with Steve.

To Ranger Ron's great relief, we slide into Ritz Kids right on schedule, a few minutes before noon. The girls are decked out in khaki quick-dry Junior Ranger shirts emblazoned with pins, and they're wild with stories about the morning. Ranger Ron released the tarantulas and scorpions ("not the biting kind, Mama!" Maisy assures us) and assorted snakes from their terrariums to give the girls a closer look. They stalked the resort's resident African desert tortoise, Wamba, and went on a nature walk. They learned about the Native American tribes, drew pictures, took a quiz, and earned half a dozen junior ranger badges. We can barely drag them away from the spiders and snakes for our afternoon session at the pool.

That night, our last at Dove Mountain, we drop the girls off at Ritz Kids again and go to dinner at Core, a sublime, candlelit spot overlooking the terrace, where we're doted on in classic Ritz-style. In between bites of tender butterfish, I sneak glances outside, far across the patio, to a big flashing TV screen inside the Ritz Kids suite, where our children are dining solo with Ranger Ron. So spoiled have we become that this arrangement seems like the most natural thing in the world. When we find them a couple of hours later, draped with blankets and sitting in front of a blazing chiminea, roasting s'mores with Ranger Ron, all three are laughing hysterically, and Maisy and Pippa are each clutching a brand new ranger badge they earned for roasting marshmallows, compliments of Ranger Ron.

In the morning, Pippa and Maisy and I meet in lobby for family nature hike, offered each day at 8 a.m., while Steve and Pete take to the trails on their own. Ron is off today, so Ranger Mike's on duty, and Maisy and Pippa trail behind him, obsessed with earning their final junior ranger pin. Mike guides us to a 150-year-old saguaro sprouting tiny new arms, and shows us the spongey inside of a dead one, explaining that even though the cacti are 70 percent water, you can't just cut them open and drink. Cautionary tale No. 3, or is it 4? He can't resist ending with another one, about the mountain lions that lurk in the area, and a helpful tip: Carry a small rock in each hand and be ready to throw. (A few days later, in Santa Fe, I try it on a solo run, and feel surprisingly empowered.)

Steve meets us at Core for breakfast with one of his own: At the trailhead, he and Pete ran into a women, looking shaken. She'd been out on the trails alone when she came across a pack of javelinas, so she'd turned around. He snapped the leash on Pete and forged ahead. The trail was still in shadow, but he saw no sign of the rogue pigs, and after a while he set Pete loose and kept trekking.

It's a cool morning, and the minute we arrive at the pool, the girls are greeted with butlers bearing trays of hot chocolate and a water bowl for Pete. One last swim and soak in the hot tub, and then a fond farewell to Dove Mountain and its trails, which in just a few days have come to feel like home. Somehow we've managed the impossible: an active, legitimately adventurous family base camp weekend in the lap of luxury.

After four perfect days in the desert, as promising a launch to 2014 as I can imagine, we have our own cautionary tale to report. Once you stay at The Ritz, there's no going back. You have to go back. The girls still have one final badge to earn—geo-caching will wait until they're a little older—and there are new trails in the works for us to explore. Next time.

The Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain; doubles from $206
Kids' in-room tent camping, $99
Ritz Kids camp, from $85 per session

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