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While the rodeo's away, Tucson's cowboys still play
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While the rodeo's away, Tucson's cowboys still play

The Tucson Rodeo Grounds are quiet this weekend, and there are no horses clip-clopping down South Park Avenue for the annual Tucson Rodeo Parade.

But that doesn’t mean Tucson is putting its love of its Old West history on the shelf because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can still get a cowboy steak dinner that rivals the best offered in the rodeo capitals of Texas and Wyoming, and a handful of Tucson country singers have gigs this weekend at the legendary Maverick King of Clubs and the newbie Whiskey Roads in Marana.

There are dude ranches and horseback trails that can fill some of the void after the organizers of the 96th annual La Fiesta de los Vaqueros rodeo postponed the event until February 2022.

Saddle bronc rider Jesse Wright rides No Show Jones during the saddle bronc riding event that he won at last year’s La Fiesta de los Vaqueros.

The rodeo was set to go Feb. 20-28, but officials announced in late November that it was off as the state’s COVID-19 rates continued to rise late last year.

Less than a week later, organizers of the parade, which is celebrating its 95th year, pulled the plug in a move officials called proactive, given the pandemic’s state of affairs.

The rodeo, billed as the largest winter rodeo in the U.S., has been a tradition for generations of Tucsonans. It’s an official school holiday — kids get two days off from school this weekend, a tradition that has been ongoing for as long as most can remember — and parents often plan a long weekend around rodeo break.

But just because that’s changing this year doesn’t mean you can’t create your own homage to all things Tucson rodeo.

Cowboy food

Let’s start with the ubiquitous cowboy grub — steak grilled on an open flame. Most serve it with cowboy or ranch beans, Texas toast and a baked potato.

Daisy Mae’s Steak House

2735 W. Anklam Road, 792-8888; daisymaessteakhouse.com

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, until 9 p.m. Sundays

They have dollar bills scribbled with notes stapled and taped to the wall, and every once in a long while they will take those bills down and donate them to a worthy cause. But the big draw here is sitting in the dining room and peeking out on the patio to see the embers from the mesquite wood flicker as a juicy steak hits the grill. They have rib eye, porterhouse, T-bones and sirloin cuts, all served with their hearty cowboy beans, a side salad and baked potato. (You’ll want to ask for a doggie bag so you can save room for their housemade apple pie a la mode or fudgey, creamy turtle cheesecake.)

A cowboy suit worn by legendary Western performer Tom Mix is on display at El Corral restaurant in Tucson.

El Corral

2201 E. River Road, 299-6092; elcorraltucson.com

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. daily, takeout available beginning at 2 p.m.

This is where you go for some of the area’s best prime rib, and the folks at El Corral have spent more than 50 years perfecting their slow-roasted, perfectly pink, almost fork-tender beef, served with a side of their house-favorite tamale pie. You can order the signature El Corral cut, or go for the Catalina Cut, billed as “big as the Catalinas.” El Corral is one of the area’s oldest steakhouses, dating to 1926, and one of their rodeo staples is the Rocky Mountain Oysters, made from veal testicles. Even though the rodeo is off, the oysters will be on the menu, said General Manager Debbie Backous.

Li’l Abner’s Steakhouse

8501 N. Silverbell Road in Marana, 744 2800; lilabnerssteakhouse.com

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Old license plates from around the country line the walls of this rustic steakhouse mainstay, a restaurant that started life as a bar along the then barren expanse of farmland and open fields against the backdrop of the nearby Tucson Mountains. Drive down North Silverbell Road on a warm spring night with your windows rolled down to inhale the succulent fragrance of mesquite smoke from the giant outdoor grill, where the pitmasters put a nice sear on the house specialties: Cowboy porterhouse, ribeye or top sirloin, served with smokey ranch beans and a thick cut of Texas garlic toast. In the summertime, Abner’s is the best place to be to watch the monsoons roll in. The restaurant has live music on weekends.

Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse and Saloon

6541 E. Tanque Verde Road in Trail Dust Town, 296-0911; pinnaclepeaktucson.com

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. daily

What better way to recreate the rodeo experience than a trip to the east side’s perennial tourist favorite Trail Dust Town, where cute-as-heck wooden A-frame shops sit on wooden sidewalks festooned with 1800s-era-ish street lights and a wagon minus its horses parked in front of Tucson’s iconic Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse and Saloon. In non-COVID times, you could see actors perform shootouts in the “town square” or from the saloon. And while all of that is on hold, the steakhouse is open and still drawing in fans of the Wild West. But once you take your seat, after passing through the no-ties inspection — yep that’s still a thing here; anyone wearing a tie will have it cut in half before they are seated — the restaurant’s self-proclaimed “Famous Cowboy Steak Dinner” will steal the show. It’s a steak with baked potato and fruit cobbler for dessert. Steaks are cooked over a mesquite fire and come in sizes for all appetites and cuts including filet mignon, ribeye and New York strip.

Bartender Jill Birnbaum rings up an order at the bar at The Maverick. The club will act as if a rodeo is in town this weeknd.

Cowboy fun

After dinner, boot-scoot over to one of our country-music bars for some live entertainment.

The Maverick King of Clubs

6622 E. Tanque Verde Road, 298-0430; tucsonmaverick.com

Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays

The Maverick, Tucson’s oldest country bar where big-name national artists introduced themselves and local artists have found a home before loyal fans, is getting into the rodeo spirit with its “Dust Settles & Rodeo is Back in the Saddle Party Week.”

“Even though there isn’t a rodeo, we’re trying to still have some fun,” said GM Karen Markovich, who came up with the club’s “Dust Settles” festival. “We’re even selling Coors 16-ounce cans like the ones you would get at the rodeo and there will be roping out front.”

The idea, she said, is to keep the spirit of the rodeo alive until “we’re back in the saddle again.

“I’m hoping that people will dress the way they normally will during the rodeo,” she added.

The weekend series kicked off Wednesday and continues through Saturday; admission is free.

Caiden Brewer Band

  • performs at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25.
  • Phoenix country singer

Harry Luge

  • is on stage at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26.

Jack Bishop and Charles Lolmaugh share the stage at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27.

Guitarist Jerry Moreno gets into his solo as the band Panic Station performs onstage at Whiskey Roads, this year’s official Tucson Rodeo bar.

Whiskey Roads

2265 W. Ina Road, 219-0134; whiskeyroadstucson.com

Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays

The year-old Marana restaurant and country nightclub was dubbed the official Tucson Rodeo bar this year, according to entertainment and marketing manager Duhamel “DJ Du” Cassell. And even though the honor is kind of a moot point given that the rodeo was canceled, Whiskey Roads is hosting a rodeo-worthy lineup of live acts throughout the weekend, beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday and continuing at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.

Bartender Brittany Cotter mixes up a drink at the bar at the year-old Whiskey Roads in Marana.

The lineup includes:

Country cover bar Backroads

  • kicks things off Thursday, Feb. 25.
  • Rising country act

Mark Miller Band

  • is on deck Friday, Feb. 26.
  • Country party band

Panic Station

  • is making the trip from Cochise County to headline Saturday, Feb. 27.

Whiskey River Dogs

  • wraps things up Sunday, Feb. 28.

Cowboy life

Looking for a full weekend of riding, roping and cowboy culture? Book a stay at one of Southern Arizona’s western-themed guest ranches.

According to the Dude Ranchers’ Association’s website, six ranches can be found within 90 minutes of downtown Tucson, including Rancho de la Osa Guest Ranch in Sasabe and Tombstone Monument Guest Ranch in Tombstone.

Keep it even closer to home with a stay at the Tanque Verde Ranch on the far east side of town or the White Stallion Ranch in Marana.

A rider takes a photo while on a walking ride at Tanque Verde Ranch, 14301 E. Speedway, on Feb. 20, 2021.

Tanque Verde Ranch

14301 E. Speedway, 296-6275; tanqueverderanch.com

With a rich history reaching to the late 1800s, Tanque Verde Ranch sits on 640 acres of land off of East Speedway with more than 60,000 acres leased from the U.S. Forest Service for its cattle operation, according to the ranch website.

Tanque Verde offers guests several levels of horseback riding, including walking rides for beginners and loping (or trotting) rides for folks with a little more experience.

On Thursday and Sunday mornings you can take a trail ride to an abandoned homestead where wranglers serve up a hearty breakfast. The ranch also offers team penning activities, where participants on horseback work together to steer cattle into chutes.

Ranch general manager Terry Hanley said Tanque Verde did OK in 2020, getting by after the initial pandemic lockdown with business from locals looking to escape their home life for a few days and guests from places like California and New Mexico.

“There were a lot more restrictions in those states,” Hanley said, “People were able to come here and sit in restaurants, do other things.”

Hanley said Tanque Verde’s full slate of activities are all up and running, just at limited capacity.

Marty Orenstein, head wrangler at Tanque Verde Ranch, prepares a horse for a walking ride. Loping (or trotting) rides are available for those with experience.

Cowboy hopefuls have 69 rustic rooms to choose from, trail hikes, cowboy cookouts in the evening, and, if they so choose, non-Western activities, such as bike rides, guided fishing, massage sessions and tennis courts.

“There is plenty to do whether you are into riding or not,” Hanley said.

White Stallion Ranch

9251 W. Twin Peaks Road, 297-0252; whitestallion.com

Surrounded by mountains to the east in Marana, the White Stallion Ranch is a staple of dude ranch culture in Southern Arizona.

Allen and Cynthia True bought the ranch after moving to Tucson from Denver in 1965 to escape the cold of Colorado and follow a dream.

Guests saddle up and head out for a half-day trail ride at White Stallion Ranch, west of Marana.

It was one of 24 dude ranches in the Tucson area at the time.

Today, the ranch, which sits on 3,000 acres, continues to operate under the watchful eye of Allen and Cynthia’s children and grandchildren.

Son Russell True, who records a weekly podcast about cowboy culture (called Cowboy Up) with cattle rancher H. Alan Day, said in the podcast’s inaugural episode last summer that dude ranches have the means to survive during pandemics.

“What we do and how we do it is built for the times we are in,” True said. “It is outdoors, uncrowded, out of the way. You can experience dude ranching the same as it was 100 years ago, 20 years ago, two years ago, today.”

The ranch has 43 rooms and a five-bedroom Hacienda for lodging, and a wide range of activities available for guests, including horseback riding, hiking, a weekly rodeo and a shooting range, available for guests.

Cowboys of the past

If history is more your thing, the Tucson area has plenty of places to learn about its Old West roots.

More than 190 properties and districts in Pima County can be found on the National Register of Historic Places, and museums such as the Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona campus (currently closed to the public), and the Arizona Historical Society’s Arizona History Museum, 949 E. Second St., are amazing resources to tap when learning about Tucson’s past.

The Tucson Rodeo has its own museum on the rodeo grounds, 4823 S. Sixth Ave., that is open from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with last entry at 2 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

The museum looks at the rodeo’s parade history, which started in 1925 and preceded the rodeo itself, according to the museum’s website, tucsonrodeoparade.com.

Visitors can walk among more than 100 horse-drawn vehicles, many of which are still used in the parade today. The museum also has recreated scenes from early Tucson history, including a blacksmith shop, mercantile and jail cell.

On Saturday, Feb. 27, the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum will host a special event in honor of Black History Month. “History Relived – The Life of the Buffalo Soldier” will feature live entertainment by Martin Marquez from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission will be free, but donations are accepted.

The Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum is open through April 3, then closes again until next year. Admission is $12, with discounts available for children, military and seniors.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com. On Twitter @Starburch.

Contact Gerald M. Gay at

ggay@tucson.com


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