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Experience Arizona’s First Guest Ranch: Kay El Bar

It’s always a treat to head to beautiful Wickenburg, Arizona. This trip is special, as I get to experience the hospitality of Arizona’s first guest ranch, the Kay El Bar Guest Ranch, located about an hour and a half northwest of Phoenix, Arizona. It’s easily accessible not only to locals but to anyone wanting to fly in and rent a car to experience a taste of the real west. The guest ranch season runs from late October to May, which is prime vacationing weather in Arizona, which I was able to experience firsthand.

On the drive north from Phoenix, you’ll turn off the main highway and head west, and you will be greeted with rolling desert hills. This time of the year, the wildflowers are often dotting the desert, blooming after a spring shower. There was something truly magical in the air, or maybe it was just the anticipation of what was in store for the weekend ahead. Once you get to Wickenburg, you will go all the way through town, which takes you right by one of the largest team-roping arenas in the state. It isn’t called the team roping the capital of the world for nothing. Then you will keep going a little ways until you turn off, heading down a ranch road to take you the final leg of the trip. When you pull into the driveway, you will head to the office to check in where you will be given a tour, a brief history lesson on the property, and a rundown of the schedule during your stay.

First and foremost, you should know that there are no strangers at the Kay El Bar. You will make friends in the lounge, in the dining room, around the campfire, and on horseback, it’s truly unavoidable, but that’s part of the experience. I recommend going into it with no expectations and having an open mind and heart to have a true Kay El Bar experience. Guests come from all over the world for a taste of the “real west”, much like guests did in the very beginning. They come here looking for something they didn’t even know they needed and from everything I’ve read, they find it. I came on this adventure for the sole purpose of discovering the experience of a true western guest ranch, but I left with a deeper appreciation not only for the ranch’s effort to keep a piece of Arizona history alive but also their dedication to providing a top-notch experience for the guests.

Once you get checked in and given the tour, you will have the afternoon to settle in, explore the property, enjoy one of the many lush, green lawns, take a hike, or hang out in the lodge to catch up on some of the ranch’s history and play some games. I recommend soaking in the afternoon until dinner at 6 pm. You will know it’s dinner because the cook comes out and rings the bell that can be heard across the property. The food is just what you might expect from a western guest ranch; it’s homey, rustic, and a stick-to-your-bones good kind of meal. When dinner is done, you’re once again free to start a fire in the main campfire pit, head back to the lodge for a round of Clue, Sorry! or any other board games that suit your fancy, or head to bed early to get a good night’s rest before the busy day that lies ahead of you. Make sure before you go to bed to sign up for your activities for the next day. Depending on what’s on the schedule, you might have the choice between horseback riding, shooting, or an electric bike excursion. The activities are of course optional and you can pick and choose what you want to participate in.

The Dinner Bell

That’s something else I should mention, while there is a rough outline of a schedule between your meals and your activities, don’t expect your stay to be overly structured. As someone who loves having a schedule, this was a tough adjustment for me on the first day, but it didn’t take long for me to settle into slowing down and being present for the full experience. It’s rare these days to be able to get away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Even when most of us go on vacation, there are still cellphones pinging, TVs everywhere, and rigid schedules of things we need to do. Now, your stay at the Kay El Bar? Unplugged. And while you do have cell phone service, you find yourself drawn to enjoying the warm Arizona sunshine or playing a round of cards with other guests, or flipping through one of the many historical books on the shelves of the lodge. Your life will still be waiting for you back wherever you came from, but the memories lined up for you to make at Kay El Bar are only there once, so make as many as you can. 

Speaking of memories, being a lifetime horse girl, let’s dive into my favorite activity that the Kay El Bar offers, horseback riding! After sitting down with the ranch manager, I quickly realized that the Kay El Bar takes extreme pride in their horse program and it’s one of the reasons that make it one of the best places to stay in Northwest Arizona. 

Horseback Riding at the Kay El Bar Ranch

What makes the dude ranch portion of the ranch so special is that the wranglers take special care to match the rider’s skill level to the level of the horse. While this sounds simple, there’s a little more to it than that. With a multitude of horses all at different levels, and having new people come in every few days, it takes careful skill to get the right pairing for when riders go on trail rides. First, the wranglers need to know all the horses like the back of their hand. What are their tendencies? Are they sensitive? Are they stubborn? Will they stop and eat? Are they too smart for a new rider? Horses have personalities just like people and those personalities matter when it comes to their rider. Then for the riders, the Kay El Bar has horses for anyone whether you’ve never ridden in your life, or you’re an expert like me. 

The horses of the Kay El Bar

This is a great place to mention that I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to riding. Having ridden my whole life, I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond your regular old nose-to-tail trail ride, but I was in for a treat, starting with the horse I was put on. I was put on a hose called “Big Enough”, a short, stout little sorrel gelding who was called“Biggy” for short. He was responsive and well-behaved, not the “deadhead” type of dude horse that others might expect. We got along great, he had just enough pep to keep me entertained, and he had a quirky personality that had me smiling and laughing at his antics on our ride. For someone as skilled as me, it was refreshing to be on a horse that seemed to enjoy me as much as I enjoyed him (at least after we got to know each other). Once he realized I knew what I was doing and couldn’t get away with his little shenanigans we got along like fine wine. 

In addition to the great care that goes into matching riders and horses, the trail rides are also out of this world. I had never ridden in this part of Arizona and the hills of Wickenburg did not disappoint. There are 2-3 different riding options at the Kay El Bar, a regular trail ride, a fast ride, and cattle sorting. Everyone has to go on at least one regular ride before they do a fast ride and cattle sorting. This is just to make sure you’re comfortable with the horses and for the wranglers to see your skill level in action. I was able to do both a regular ride, cattle sorting, and a fast ride on the morning before I departed. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. 

Riding in the Slot Canyons

While the horseback riding was the highlight for me, many other guests enjoyed the E-bike excursion and the shooting just as much as they did the horseback riding.  

Regardless of where you come from, Kay El Bar gives you a perfect opportunity to both pull your boots on and kick them off to get a full western experience in one of the most historical dude ranches in Arizona. Gems like these are few and far between, and I was honored to have been a guest in the original lodge that the ranch’s first guests stayed at over 100 years ago. Become a part of history and book your stay at the Kay El Bar, you won’t regret it! 

Walter, the Head Honcho

History of the Kay El Bar Ranch

The land that the ranch sits on was purchased in 1909 by 18-year-old Romaine Loudermilk, for a whopping $1.25 per acre. He named the ranch Kay EL Bar after his mother Katherine Loudermilk. That same year, the KL brand was registered and the ranch grew from the original 160 acres to 640. Fast forward five years to 1914, which was when the first adobe building was built on the property to provide housing to the original cattle wranglers of the ranch. That building still stands today and is used as a guest house to house families, or groups during their stay at the Kay El Bar.

The Original Adobe Home built for the Ranch Hands in 1914

It wasn’t until 1918 that paying guests started showing up at the ranch for an “authentic western experience”, largely in part due to an enthusiastic newspaperman who had spread the word about the ranch in town. The news spread like wildfire and even though the ranch was still a fully operational cattle ranch, they started accepting their first paying guests. Seven years later, the operation got serious, and with the help of its new partner, Henry Warbasse, added the adobe lodge that still houses guests today.

The Entrance to the Main Lodge

Fun fact, when you’re in the main room of the lodge, the beams running across the top are from the old El Dorado gold mine that is located about 16 miles away and was originally brought by horses to the ranch. By 1926, Kay El Bar was a full-time guest ranch, bringing in guests from all over the state. Back then, most would arrive by train in Wickenburg, and then be transported back to the ranch free of charge.

According to a brochure hanging in the main lodge, the rate for one person in one room was a whopping $60 per week or $240 per month. For two people, it was $55 per week for each person. Then if you wanted daily use of the horses, it was an additional $15 per week.

In 1970, Romaine Loudermilk passed away at the ripe age of 80, leaving behind a true legacy of guest ranches in Arizona. Then within the next ten years, the ranch was placed on the State Register of Historic Places in 1975 and then on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Then in 2012, after its long standing history as a guest ranch, Kay El Bar changed back to a private ranch until reopening in 2018 on its 100th anniversary of welcoming its first paying guests. The ranch, to this day, is still dedicated to providing that welcoming, adventurous experience that guests seek out.

I was thrilled with the opportunity to experience this ranch and highly encourage you to book a stay at the Kay El Bar Ranch. If you’re looking for other guest ranch experiences, you can check out all of the True Ranch Collection locations and find the perfect experience for you. You can catch this full feature in the upcoming issue of Cowboy Lifestyle Magazine.

All photos taken by Krysta Paffrath

CLN Community & Event Sponsor

Hi everyone! I'm Krysta Paffrath, I am a proud Arizona native who has a passion for everything business and rodeo. I am beyond thrilled to be the Editor in Chief for Cowboy Lifestyle Network. With my background in digital marketing and rodeo, this was a natural fit for me to join the team. My adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit has guided me to work in many places like the WYO Quarter Horse Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyoming, a working cattle ranch in Seligman, Arizona, and many places in between. I am passionate about preserving the western way of life and working with different brands and rodeos to make that happen. If you're looking for a write-up, please shoot me an email at krysta@clngo.com. Learn more about me at krystapaffrath.com. Looking forward to hearing from you!

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