A Great Escape
Between the border town of Douglas and the New Mexico state line, Arizona’s Highway 80 carves its way through lonely, open grasslands. In this isolated setting midway between Tucson and El Paso, car radios play nothing but static, cell-phone screens stubbornly proclaim that no signal can be found, and the roadside fences marking ranch boundaries offer the only hint of nearby humanity.
To the northwest, the Chiricahua Mountains conceal a labyrinth of canyons hiding ancient Apache caves, the lairs of 19th century rustlers, and cattle ranges that were once the sites of fierce battles between American Indians and the U.S. Cavalry.
It’s a region that begs to be explored from the back of a horse, an environment that inspires in passersby fantasies of long, adventurous days spent in the saddle, and of a blissful, if temporary, immunity from the demands of the outside world.
At mile marker 400, a sign points the way to Price Canyon Ranch, a secluded retreat where those fantasies become reality, a place where modern life can be left behind, and where days revolve around riding remote canyon trails, working cattle on those historic ranges, and joining with newfound friends to become part of a unique Western experience.
PRICE CANYON’S owners, Chris and Alicia Kemmerly, discovered the ranch in early 2005. The Midwest natives and longtime Arizona residents owned a working cattle outfit across the state line in New Mexico, but decided to search for a property closer to Tucson, home base for their construction business.
“I drove in here and said to myself, ‘This is it,’” Chris recalls. “I’ve been a lot of places in the West, and this is as pretty, if not prettier, than any place I’ve seen. This is still cattle and ranch country and, other than Highway 80, it hasn’t changed much in 150 years.”
Homesteaded in 1879 and named for a U.S. Army lieutenant, Price Canyon is surrounded by the Coronado National Forest, and occupies three distinct ecologic zones defined by elevation changes—grasslands rise to oak forests, which then transition to old-growth pine.
From the ranch headquarters, located inside a box canyon, a rider can explore three other picturesque canyons—Brushy, Jackwood and Price—and ascend peaks that offer views of the surrounding ranchland and of northern Mexico.
“When we bought the place, the idea was to have a second home in a ranch setting, where we could run cattle,” Alicia says, “but it was just too beautiful to keep to ourselves.”
A former Price Canyon owner, Scott Anderson, had run the ranch as a cattle outfit and small-scale guest-ranch operation for more than 40 years. The Kemmerlys decided to pick up where Anderson had left off.
“We were at a stage in our lives where we were willing to do something new,” Chris says. “We decided to give the guest operation a shot.”
The KEMMERLYS REMODELED the lodge’s five existing guest rooms, then added five more, giving each a distinct Western design, with cowboy art and photography, cowhide rugs and hardwood floors. They renovated the lodge’s common area, once a horse barn, adding a modern kitchen and creating a spacious dining area and lounge, complete with a pool table and corner bar.
The ranch has electricity, even WiFi, and the lounge has a phone, as well as satellite radio and television. Guest rooms, though, remain tranquil, low-tech havens, with no phones or TVs.
“A lot of ranches offer more resort-style amenities,” Alicia says. “But this is more authentic, closer to the way the West used to be. For us, it’s about sharing that with the guests, and letting them see what cowboy life is like.”
Fred Tullis, who describes himself as a “former painter turned cook,” signed on as the ranch’s chef, and moved south from Montana, where he’d been a full-time artist, cooking part-time for a hunting camp. Chris and Alicia recruited Arizona cowboy Colter Moore as Price Canyon’s foreman and head wrangler, and assembled a remuda of 40-some horses, mostly Quarter Horses, that could double as cow-savvy ranch mounts and saddle horses for guests of varying riding abilities.
ALICIA, CHRIS AND COLTER build guest experiences around riding, and have created a program catering to visitors of all experience levels. Novice riders start with lessons in a large outdoor arena, and can progress to trail rides at their own pace.
“We had a family of novice riders here recently,” Chris says. “They spent a day and a half in the arena, then we took them out on flatland rides. We can split riding groups by experience level, with about six riders to a group.”
More-experienced riders can enjoy horseback excursions on the trails that lead into the surrounding mountains and canyons, and into the national forest’s 500,000 acres. Popular destinations include Apache Cave, a hidden fissure where members of the Chiricahua tribe once lived; a mountain spring, seven-and-a-half miles from Price Canyon headquarters, that provides all the ranch’s water; the remains of a chapel that once stood on the ranch; and Lookout Mountain, from which the northernmost patch of Sonora, Mexico, can be seen.
“There’s also the old Rustler’s Roost,” Alicia says. “It’s a tough ride to get there, but it’s where cattle rustlers built their pens. There are still rolls of barbed wire left over.”
Many guests put their riding skills to work for the ranch, checking fences, moving cattle between pastures, and pitching in with seasonal gatherings and brandings.
“We do our branding the old way, heading and heeling, and dragging calves to a fire,” Chris says. “We try to make the experience as authentic as possible.”
Another integral part of the Price Canyon experience is the food. Assisted by his wife, Linda, a working artist who’s transformed one end of the ranch house into her painting studio, Fred prepares three hearty meals a day for guests and ranch staff. His trademark dishes—among them steaks, crab cakes and
“Price Canyon eggs”—turn each meal into a highly anticipated event, and an inevitable topic of conversation during the final hours of a long ride.
“ALICIA TAKES EVERY CALL to the ranch, and she’s very careful about making sure people understand this is rustic, that it’s a working ranch,” Chris says. “That gives us a different clientele. They want to get involved with the ranch, feed the horses, ride and get dirty.”
One guest, a steeplechase jockey from the United Kingdom, became so enamored of cowboy life that, a few days into an extended stay, he moved out of his room in the guest lodge and took up residence in the bunkhouse, with the ranch cowboys.
Chris and Alicia both contend that a mutual interest in the West, and a shared appreciation for the Price Canyon experience, seems to fuel bonding experiences among the ranch’s guests.
“A retired California prison warden and his wife became good friends with a woman from England when they all stayed here,” Chris says. “They’re coming back to the ranch, but have arranged to come back at the same time.”
And, in at least one case, an ongoing romance seems to have blossomed between two repeat guests, a development that prompts smiles from both Chris and Alicia.
“That could get interesting,” Chris says. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
“People come here as guests and leave as something more,” Alicia adds. “Like the old saying goes, ‘Come as a guest, leave as a friend.”
A.J. Mangum is the editor of Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. Price Canyon Ranch is open year-round, except from Christmas through New Year’s Day. Rates: single occupancy, $225 per night; double occupancy, $200 per night. A three-night minimum stay is required in April and October. For more information, call (800) 727-0065, or visit pricecanyon.com.