Home on the range at Circle Z Ranch — Photo courtesy of Circle Z Ranch
There are many good reasons that the Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, Arizona, is ranked No. 5 on the USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards for Best Dude Ranch 2023, but perhaps the main reason is all about family. For while Circle Z has welcomed guests to the ranch for over 90 years, in the past 50 years, one family has owned the ranch and one family has always had the responsibility of running the ranch. This all-in-the-families dedication to making the ranch an ideal Wild West vacation getaway is reflected in everything they do at Circle Z, from creating a welcoming, comfortable place for vacationers right down to raising, breaking, and caring for the nearly 120 horses that also call the ranch home — and who are definitely part of the extended family.
A family-friendly dude ranch
All in a dude ranch family with George, Jennie, and Miko Lorta — Photo courtesy of Circle Z Ranch
Rick and Diana Nash are the Circle Z owners, continuing the legacy of Lucia Nash, who bought the 6,000 acres of southern Arizona land that comprise the ranch, which is abutted by the Coronado National Forest and other protected state lands.
Located 13 miles from the Mexican border and 60 miles south of Tucson International Airport, the Nash’s ranch encompasses grasslands, canyons, mountains, lakes, and a section of the Sonoita Creek. The family depends on the Lorta clan — George and Jennie, who have managed the Circle Z for close to 50 years, and their son Miko, who has helped out on the ranch since he was a boy and is now the dude ranch foreman.
Relaxation and adventure in Patagonia, Arizona
Creature comforts at Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, Arizona — Photo courtesy of Circle Z Ranch
With only enough rooms for 36 guests and not a television on site, Circle Z Ranch is a place where one can get away from it all for true relaxation and escape from the everyday. Guests have access to a swimming pool, game room, tennis, and pickleball courts and a cantina. Along with horseback riding lessons, clinics, and trail riding, there’s a host of ranching activities and nature explorations to truly embrace the natural beauty of Patagonia, Arizona.
Circle Z Ranch welcomes guests from October to May each year, but that doesn’t slow down Miko Lorta, the ranch foreman, who is living out life in his dream job, all year round. We asked him to tell us more about what running a dude ranch means to the 36-year-old foreman; not surprisingly, it starts with a love of both the ranch and the horses.
10Best: When did you realize you wanted to be the ranch foreman?
Lorta: From when I was little, and always. There was no second guess. I always pretty much knew what I wanted to do. I really didn’t say it out loud, ‘I want to take over my dad’s job,’ but I knew that I could follow in his footsteps. But it’s kind of hard to follow in his footsteps, because I’ll never be as good as he was. I hope I can come close. He’s perfected the job for so long!
Miko and George Lorta of Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, Arizona — Photo courtesy of Circle Z Ranch
10Best: When did you take over? And tell us what the job really entails at the Circle Z Ranch?
Lorta: I worked for one year in the summer for the Forest Service in 2005. And then my dad’s back went out, so I made a decision and came straight back and started working here full time. Day to day, things change all the time here, but mainly I take care of all the horses. I’m up at 5:30 a.m., and so is my crew of seven. They go feed the horses, and, by 6:30 a.m., we have breakfast. Then I assign all the horses and saddles to the individual guests.
Sometimes I shoe a horse too. By 9:30 a.m., I separate all our rides for the day. That depends on how many people we have and how many rides I have posted. I don’t go on the rides. I have people to do that, but I go every once in a while.
The rest of the day, I am fixing something. There’s always something to be fixed on a ranch! We also have cattle to check on and horses that need to be doctored. I pretty much do anything that needs to be done: fix a water pipe in the kitchen, help birth a foal, whatever needs to be done.
I’m even the cook sometimes. I do some grilling. I’m always doing something when we are cooking on picnic days. We cook barbecue ribs and chicken. On Mondays, we have steak nights. I’m pretty much everywhere on the ranch!
Ranked among the best dude ranches in the US
Horseback riding at Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, Arizona — Photo courtesy of Circle Z Ranch
10Best: Why do you think the ranch was voted among the 10 best dude ranches in the United States?
Lorta: I think what sets us apart is that our ranch is a smaller operation. We take about 30 people maximum in a week. And the people that come and visit us, our guests, we really treat them like family here. We want them to come back, come back every year. And we know they come to ride. I’m going to say 100 percent of the people that come down here come to ride. And we give it to them. If they stay a full week, they’ll probably get close to 70 or 80 miles of riding.
10Best: Is there a next generation coming up in the Lorta family that plans to keep up the tradition of being the dude ranch foreman?
Lorta: I’m very fortunate to have my wife and my daughter here on the ranch with me. My daughter is 11, and I’m raising my daughter like I was raised. She rides; she helps out on the ranch. But right now, she’s playing volleyball, basketball, and softball, so she’s got a busy schedule. I encourage her to be the best she can, whatever she decides to do.