A historic Arizona guest ranch along the Mexican border starts a new era focused on hospitality, horsemanship and cowboy traditions.
Article and photos by Jennifer Denison
When traveling at night, it’s easy to pass the dirt-road turnoff to remote Rancho de la Osa in southern Arizona, even with good directions. The sky across the Sonoran Desert is eerily dark despite being sprinkled with stars. There are few lights along Arizona State Route 286, a 45-mile stretch of two-lane highway extending from southwest of Tucson to the small border town of Sasabe. Those who miss the cutoff to the ranch soon arrive at the port of entry into Sonora, Mexico. Border Patrol officers cruising in white trucks are accustomed to tourists driving past the turnoff and gladly guide them back to it.
Nobody is certain how Rancho de la Osa, or “Ranch of the She Bear,” got its name, but pieces of its colorful past are well documented. For nearly 300 years, the ranch has served as a refuge, first as a mission outpost in the 1700s and then as a dude ranch starting in the 1920s to the present. The list of noted guests include past presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, authors Zane Grey and Margaret Mitchell, filmmaker Victor Fleming, and movie stars Joan Crawford, Tom Mix, John Wayne and Cesar Romero.
The ranch closed in 2014 when previous owners Richard and Veronica Schultz retired. In October of 2016, after two years on the real estate market, it was auctioned and sold to Robert Bucksbaum, owner of the Majestic Dude Ranch in Durango, Colorado; and Ranch Preservation Fund Partners Jaye H. Wells, Paul Bear, Kellner Brown and Russell True (co-owner of the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona). The new owners immediately started repairing and renovating the ranch and hiring staff, including managers Ross and Lynne Knox.
Ross brings more than 40 years of experience as a working cowboy, horseman and packer. He’s also a respected cowboy poet with raw wit and a gritty, genuine cowboy spirit that naturally draws people to him. He has an extensive collection of classic and original cowboy poems committed to memory, as well as many hair-raising cowboy stories he enjoys sharing.
His wife, Lynne, has years of experience guiding trail rides and working in guest services. An avid horsewoman, she competes in Extreme Cowboy Races in which she negotiates as quickly and as smoothly as possible obstacles similar to those she encounters on the trail.
For several years, Russell True has bought horses from Ross and also hired him to entertain guests at his family’s White Stallion Ranch. He thought the couple would be perfect to run Rancho de la Osa.
In February of 2017, the guest ranch was reopened with the Knoxes on staff. Guests praise the ranch’s rustic Southfriendly staff, historical significance and authentic Western experiences.
The Big Circle Back to Arizona
As the sun starts to peek through the leaves of the massive eucalyptus trees just after dawn, Ross Knox puts on his sweat-stained hat and weathered boots, ties on a silk wild rag, and then ambles down the hill from his house on the ranch to his tractor with his Border Collie, Ben, darting back and forth behind him. He starts the tractor and lets it warm up. The ranch rests at just over 3,600 feet in elevation, and it can be chilly in the mornings but warm up to the 60s and 70s in the winter, spring and fall, and into the 100s during the summer.
Ross has been up since 4 a.m., drinking coffee, reading and writing down his thoughts. Years of cowboying on big ranches and packing in steep, rocky terrain have left the 62-year-old a little stiff, sore and scarred. He left home in Oregon at age 16 to cowboy and has since led an adventurous life that took him to ranches and pack stations throughout the West and into remote country few have seen. He has watched the Northern Lights dance across the sky from his bedroll in Wyoming, and he survived several handshakes with death, including pack-train wrecks in the Grand Canyon that resulted in him being airlifted out of the canyon three times. He weaves his experiences into poetry and stories that captivate ranch guests and audiences at prestigious cowboy gatherings such as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering held in Alpine, Texas.
Once the tractor is warmed up, he moves bales of hay to the corrals and distributes flakes to the ranch’s remuda of 15 to 20 horses. Five horses are his and and Lynne’s personal mounts they use for working cow horse, ranch horse and Extreme Cowboy Racing competition.
“We use our own horses on the ranch so we keep them conditioned,” says Lynne as she watches her husband over the corral fence with young German Shepherd, Bravo, by her side. “They’re really super broke and sensitive performance horses we can put experienced riders on and show them the next level of horsemanship they can achieve if they keep going.”
The daughter of a U.S. Navy officer, Lynne grew up on naval bases and loved riding horses and watching Westerns with her father. When she graduated from high school, her father retired from the military and moved the family to Arizona. She rode friends’ horses, but didn’t get her own horse until she was 29 years old.
“It was a green Thoroughbred off the track,” she recalls. “I realized really quickly that I didn’t know anything [about training horses]. I started following clinicians like John Lyons and Pat Parelli to learn how horses think and how I could better understand and work with them. I was really hungry for knowledge and to get the right answers to the problems I was having. When I did and the horse responded [ favorably], I became even more hungry for knowledge.”
An avid trail rider, she bought her first mule, a yearling buckskin she named Bobbie Jo Gentry, in the mid-2000s and started to train it to ride and pack. About that time, Saguaro National Park had just hired Ross as a packer and revived its pack string. Lynne, who worked for the horseback search-and-rescue unit at the park, heard the news and went to see the pack string and meet the new packer. The couple instantly connected.
“I really enjoyed talking to him about mules, and I tapped into his training knowledge so I made as few mistakes as possible with my mule,” says Lynne.
The couple married in 2008 and stayed in Tucson a couple more years until the park implemented a mandatory helmet rule for anyone horseback. Ross refused to take off his cowboy hat and put on a helmet, so the couple moved to Benson, Arizona, where Ross day-worked on ranches and bought, trained and sold horses. In 2010, he accepted a government packing position in Yosemite National Park and the couple moved to California. While Ross packed supplies and equipment into the backcountry, Lynne became the corral boss at the park’s stables, guiding and coordinating trail rides.
With Ross’ help and support, she also started competing in Extreme Cowboy Racing to challenge herself and her horses.
“Ross brought years of experience and practical knowledge to my horsemanship,” she says. “He pushed me, tearfully, past my comfort zone many times and I’ll always be grateful to him because I do things horseback now that I never thought I would 20 years ago.”
All of their experiences with horses and people have prepared the Knoxes for their roles at Rancho de la Osa. Ironically, however, when True first offered the job to the Knoxes, they graciously declined because they enjoyed their jobs in California. They were also concerned about how Ross would adapt to guiding group trail rides after spending most of his life packing solo into the backcountry.
“It never crossed my mind being a dude wrangler, and that was everyone’s main concern,” laughs Ross. “All everyone knows me for is being on top of a mountain somewhere. I could’ve packed a whole lot longer, but both Lynne and I love living in Arizona and I trust Russell True, so we decided to take the job. It’s unlikely I would’ve made this move, let alone come look at the ranch for anyone else, but the Trues are top-shelf people and their family has been in the guest ranch business in Arizona for years; they know what they’re doing.”
Life on the Border
Since they arrived at the ranch nearly two years ago, the Knoxes have started fixing fences and corrals, settling into ranch routines and developing activities to accommodate guests of all ages and walks of life from around the world. Horses are the heart of the ranch, and the crew takes pride in finding mounts that are suitable for all levels of riders, from first-timers to seasoned hands.
“I like it when someone has never ridden before and we can introduce them to really nice horses and teach them basic horsemanship,” says Lynne, who is sensitive to rider fear and insecurity. “It’s so rewarding when they come back from a ride and say it was the best experience they’ve had in their lives. I love it when we show them something and the light bulb goes off and they’re no longer afraid of their horse. It really translates through the rest of their lives. Some people leave here and say they’re going to go home and take lessons because they want to get the connection they see Ross and I have with our horses and what’s possible, and it really excites them.”
The ranch has an outdoor arena with obstacles that Lynne uses when she’s not on the trail to tune up her horses for competition. Ross has a mechanical flag system set up on one side of the arena he uses to hone his cow horses’ skills and focus. He also allows interested guests to watch him and even try the flag to expose them to different disciplines and styles of horsemanship. The ranch keeps a small herd of Criollo cattle that guests can track and sort with Ross’s guidance. Working cattle and the flag with Ross is appealing to advanced riders wanting to expand their horsemanship, and he’s willing to spend one-on-one time with guests who are interested in learning.
Outside the arena, the 239-acre ranch has eight trails that meander through rolling grasslands, patches of mesquite and sandy washes with some of the most spectacular views of Baboquivari Peak towering 7,734 feet in elevation in the distance. Members of the Tohono O’odam tribe native to the area believe the sacred peak is home to their creator. Guests can also ride up to the tall metal fence, or “wall,” separating the United States and Mexico. Despite the ranch’s close proximity to the border (less than a mile), nearby Sasabe has the least traffic of the Arizona border crossings with only approximately 165 vehicles and pedestrians passing through each day. The area is also extensively patrolled.
“Sure, guests can see the wall and want to talk about the border issues,” says Ross. “But they never feel unsafe or decide not to come because of it.”
A bonus, the ranch borders Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and has access to 130,000 acres of land to ride on and spot wildlife such as mule deer, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, javelina, jackrabbits, a variety of reptiles, the rare masked bobwhite quail and more than 200 bird species.
“A lot of riders prefer to follow me and a trail, but for those who are more adventuresome they can spread out,” says Lynne. “Ross never follows a trail, and people come back from rides smiling from ear to ear because they had so much fun and saw things they’ve never seen before. It’s amazing how many people have never been off the road, and it’s really neat to be able to give them that experience.”
For those who prefer to ride their own horses, the ranch is starting to hold horsemanship clinics that allow riders to bring in outside horses and stay on the ranch. Lynne also hosts Extreme Cowboy Races on the ranch.
Guests new to the Western lifestyle or those already connected to it instantly relate to Ross and want to learn more about his gear, horses, and his life as a working cowboy and packer. Some are surprised to learn that there are cowboys who also sing and write poetry, and there are special gatherings held where they meet to honor these traditions. In the evenings, visitors gather in the cantina after dinner for a drink while sitting on one of the saddle barstools or gathering in groups at small tables to listen to cowboy poetry recited by Ross. If they’re lucky, one of his fellow cowboy poets, storytellers or musicians will be visiting, too, and might contribute to the show.
Horseback riding is a major draw for guests, but they also can hike, bird-watch, ride fat-tire bikes on trails, test their marksmanship at the shooting range, and take UTV tours up Presumido Pass to the ruins of the old village and stage stop of Presumido, and see ancient petroglyphs on canyon walls. Some guests choose to just relax, read a book on the porch, sip a drink on the patio to the sound of a trickling fountain, play
horseshoes or croquet, or nap under the comfort of a Pendleton wool blanket in their rustic room. There aren’t TVs in the rooms, but there is an essential oil diffuser and a variety of fragrances for aromatherapy. For those who want to stay connected, Wi-Fi is available.
“We’re more laid back than other guest ranches and try not to have a rigid schedule,” says Lynne. “People come here to breathe, relax and get away from their daily schedules. We want to show them a simpler, quieter, gentler way of life, and let them unplug and listen to sound of nature, hoofbeats or even silence.”
Ross adds, “I’m shocked at the number of people who have never heard silence, and it scares them.”
Guests may walk, drive or bicycle a little over a mile to Sasabe, with a population of approximately 55 people. There are no cattle in sight in the old cowtown, but the skeletons of cattle pens, loading chutes and a scale house used when cattle were trailed freely across the border to Rancho de la Osa remain. They lay in disrepair next to the port of entry, established in 1916, and an old wooden fence collides with the heavy-duty metal border fence.
There isn’t much to do in Sasabe other than shop at the Sasabe Store, a family-owned mercantile since 1932 and operated by Deborah Grider. She sells staples, sundries, hunting and camping supplies, souvenirs and even cowboy hats. A popular purchase is a T-shirt with “Where the Hell is Sasabe?” printed across the chest.
Hidden in the back of the store is the Hilltop Bar, open only Friday and Saturday evenings from 3 to 6 p.m. The small local watering hole has only nine barstools and a round table and chairs tucked into a corner. Dim lighting and neon signs give it a moody dive-bar feel, but the vintage advertisements, black-and-white cowboy photographs, quirky memorabilia, branding irons and old gear hanging on the walls make it more like a museum.
Grider enforces codes of conduct in the bar. A jar on the counter has a hand-written warning label taped to the front: “$1.00 will be charged for each curse word you use. Thank you, Hilltop Bar.” The money she collects goes to charity.
Whether guests are in Sasabe, in the saddle or at Rancho de la Osa headquarters, they don’t want to miss a Sonoran Desert sunset. At twilight, cool shades of purple and pink saturate the sky above and the rocks and sand below. Then the sky explodes into flaming reds, yellows and oranges along the horizon.
Steeped in Native American, Mexican and ranching history, Rancho de la Osa has 10 buildings that have stood the test of time, including the cantina, main hacienda, and long, rectangular buildings that are divided into 19 expansive guest rooms. Additional houses and guest rooms are being renovated for staff housing and guest rooms. The interiors are simply decorated in a way that blends regional and historical authenticity with contemporary style and casual comfort. Spanish architecture with adobe walls and wooden beams, weathered Mexican furnishings, and the earthy smell of mesquite burning in the fireplaces makes visitors feel like they’re in an old Mexican village or outpost, which harkens to the ranch’s humble beginnings.
The adobe building that’s now the cantina is the oldest continuously used building in Arizona. It was built in 1725 by Jesuit missionaries under the patronage of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645-1711), an early Spanish explorer assigned to the area that now encompasses northern Mexico, Baja California and southern Arizona. He established a vast chain of missions in the area and supplied them with livestock. The outpost was built to protect the nearby mission and also served as a trading post and place for missionaries to rest and hold religious ceremonies.
“The oldest recorded history I have come across in my research on the ranch is from Father Kino’s journal,” says Paul Bear, one of the ranch owners. “On February 7, 1699, he wrote of bringing a herd of cattle and sheep over a pass to a village with water, 5 1⁄2 leagues (roughly 16 1⁄2 miles) south of a prominent peak to trade. His description points to this ranch.”
Today, the building is a place to gather to have a cold drink, play games or listen to Ross recite poetry.
The most prominent building on the ranch is the hacienda, or main house, which was added in 1889 by Colonel William S. Sturges, a cattle baron who acquired the ranch around that time and went on to buy other ranches in the Altar Valley and established a cattle empire. Through the years, the hacienda was expanded to a 5,000-square-foot building that includes four sitting rooms, three fireplaces, and a commercial kitchen where three ranch-style square meals are prepared each day and served family style on long wooden tables in the large dining room.
To the west, a block of seven guest suites are in a building which was originally constructed in 1889 and served as the ranch church and school. Additional rooms were added in 1928 and in 2001. Another seven rooms are situated to the east of the hacienda in an adobe-brick building built in 1928 by then-owner Glenn Hardgrave.
Each guest room is named after a person who was either part of the ranch’s history or a noted guest. Popular rooms for those interested in cowboys are the Tom Mix Room and the John Wayne “The Duke” Suite. The rooms have rustic wood or adobe ceilings, painted adobe walls and fireplaces, Mexican tile or stained concrete floors. They’re furnished in simple Southwestern style with essential amenities and few frills, yet they’re warm and inviting for a restful night’s sleep. Quirky imperfections add to the ranch’s authenticity and rustic charm, and make most guests feel right at home.
For decades, generations of families have gathered at the ranch to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. The staff decorates the hacienda for the holidays and prepares traditional feasts.
“We don’t get to spend the holidays with our family [because they don’t live nearby],” says Lynne. “But our guests become family and we become part of theirs.”
Bear, a sixth-generation Arizonan, first came to the ranch as a guest in the 1950s and his uncle worked as a wrangler there. He has a photo of himself as a boy standing in front of the hacienda wearing his new Levi’s jean jacket and custom Paul Bond boots. He wants guests to have the same real ranch experiences he remembers as a child.
“We want to go back to the roots of this ranch and bring in the livestock the Spanish conquistadors raised on this land, including Rasa Aragonesa sheep, Criollo cattle and horses. A herd of 500 Mustangs once roamed here,” he says. “We also want to plant orchards and gardens like the indigenous people had, and become a self-sustaining operation for more generations to enjoy.”
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Western Horseman.