When Lucia Nash bought the Circle Z Guest Ranch in 1976, she was motivated by fond memories of being a guest there in the 1930s—and by the fact that the property was about to be sold to developers.

A conservationist with a strong attachment to the Patagonia area, Nash has carried on the legacy of the ranch, the oldest of its kind in continuous operation in Arizona. She has also bought parcels of land in the area south of town, so that today the Circle Z comprises 5,000 acres, including a portion of Sonoita Creek. Quite likely, private homes would be sprinkled across these beautiful hills and the Circle Z would be a dim memory if Nash had not taken action all those years ago. We can also thank her for being instrumental in the Nature Conservancy’s purchase of the Sonoita Creek Preserve. Elderly and suffering the effects of a stroke, Mrs. Nash now lives year round in Cleveland.

On October 26, the Circle Z begins its 88th season of giving guests a taste of the west. The horses will be coming down from their summer pastures, along with Tony the donkey. Things that needed fixing are being set right, the newly seeded grass is coming up green, and the seven cottages that have stood the test of time since 1926 are spruced up and awaiting the first visitors. With horseback riding as the main ingredient, along with birding and hiking, and with a swimming pool and a tennis court as added attractions, the ranch has many return guests who spend a week or two each season.

Diana, Preston, and Rick Nash

Lucia Nash’s daughter-in-law, Diana, has been helping with staffing and overseeing preparations for the season. She and her husband, Rick, live in Montana, but this year, with their son out of the nest, they plan to be in Patagonia more often than in past years. George and Jenny Lorta, who have worked at the Circle Z for 40 years, are the newly appointed ranch managers, who will see to it that guests are taken care of and everything runs smoothly. The ranch has 15 to 20 people on its payroll. This year’s chef, who has lots of experience and cooks a wide range of dishes, comes to the Circle Z from a similar guest ranch in Sasabe, which closed.

The ranch has always been known for its good food and homey atmosphere. Cottages are booked from Sunday to Sunday, although shorter stay specials are available from November through January, and one fee covers everything. Diana says that everyone leaves having made new friends. Jean Miller of Long Realty first came to Patagonia as a Circle Z guest in 1992. She fell in love with the area and came back here to live in 2006. Now she reserves a cottage at the ranch once or twice a year to be with friends she has kept up with over many years. Carol Ford, another Long realtor, also first came to The Sky Mountains as a guest at the Circle Z.

This year Diana has decided to try offering shorter stays, along the lines of a bed and breakfast, when some of the cottages are not booked. She imagines that these guests will mostly be birders who will see this as a unique opportunity to explore uncharted territory.

Thirty is the average number of guests who sit down to dinner each night at the ranch. The dining room can accommodate 45. School holidays are usually the most crowded weeks of the year as the cottages fill with families. The daily trail rides are the high point for everyone, and even the most tenderfooted guest can learn to ride. Once each guest has found his or her compatible horse, they stay together all week. (It’s also possible to stay at the Circle Z and never get on a horse.)

There is no television at the Circle Z. Last year, Diana, says, they broke down and installed WiFi. “It’s just a reality of how we live,” she said. “Most people get their business done first thing in the morning and then enjoy the day here.”

Patagonia, of course, benefits from having such a renowned dude ranch close to town. A group of riders often heads for the Wagon Wheel for an afternoon beer, and karaoke night is a favorite. Local restaurants, galleries, massage therapists, and guides benefit throughout the fall, winter and spring, as Circle Z guests from around the world, often in a western setting for the first time, discover the uniqueness Diana, Preston, and Rick Nash of Patagonia.