GILA COUNTY, Ariz. - When life feels like a lot, we start to look for a place to get away. Have you ever tried visiting a dude ranch?
A few hours from Phoenix is a place called Cherry Creek Lodge in Gila County. It sits on a working cattle ranch, with trees all around, a beautiful lake, and plenty of peace and quiet.
About 3 hours away from the hustle and bustle of Phoenix, down a long winding dirt road, in the middle of the Tonto National Forest is a place Michael and Sharon Lechter call a peaceful oasis.
"You start feeling your body release. We have clean air, incredible views everywhere you look," Sharon said.
Back in 2005, they were searching for a place to escape life’s chaos. They found about 300 acres and decided to give it new life.
"There was no cattle operation when we got here. We knew it would take a number of years for cattle operations to actually generate cash," Michael said. So, they built Cherry Creek Lodge on the Tilting H Ranch.
It’s off the grid and a place where you can stay, relax and enjoy living on ranch time.
"You might arrive as guests but when you walk in those doors, you are immediately family," said Carol Wilkerson, the lodge manager.
She's likely the first person you’ll meet when you arrive.
"We always have goodies out for you, some drinks, everything that you could need," Wilkerson said.
You’ll see comfy recliners, stunning views of the ranch, the lake, and the smell of chocolate chip cookies filling the living room. The lodge is much more luxurious than your typical cabin in the forest.
There are about 20 beds. Five guest rooms in the lodge, four on the main floor, and one upstairs. For a short walk down the road, you could choose to stay in the bunk house, which is a bit more private with 3 rooms.
If you want to truly experience the outdoors, you could go "glamping." Your bed sits inside a tent next to Cherry Creek, and there’s an added bonus.
"Once upon a time it was a horse trailer," Michael said, showing off a trailer turned into a safe and nice place to camp.
Cherry Creek Lodge
Reflection, hope and vision
Once you’re settled, there’s plenty to do on the ranch.
If you need some time to unwind, Sharon recommends the 7-circuit labyrinth built from river rock.
"It's a place of reflection of hope, vision," she said. You follow the trail without crossing your path before reaching the center.
You can also fish.
"When you walk in, you see the forest and as you come out, you see the beauty of the lake. If you want the full lake experience, you can try fishing," she said.
The lake is stocked with bass if you want to sit back and cast your line to pass the time.
Before the sun starts to set, you can also hop on board a horse-drawn wagon for a peaceful ride through nature. A perfect way to wind down before dinner.
Back at the lodge, there’s always a meal being prepared. Wilkerson and lodge hostess, Emma Burke, will never let you leave hungry.
"We do try to see what's available this time of year and then see what we can do with it to make it unique, and maybe you've had it before, maybe not," Wilkerson said.
The menu is carefully crafted and unique, incorporating locally-sourced vegetables and beef fresh from the ranch. Once you’ve had your fill, the rest of the night is up to you.
You can end the day with s'mores by a fire, or if you’re celebrating, why not saber a champagne bottle?
Life is what you make it at the lodge. As the sun sets, the hope is you feel relaxed, at peace, and at home.
"Glamping" at Cherry Creek Lodge
‘Just like they did a hundred years ago’
At the ranch, you can also learn what cowboy life is like. After all, this is the southwest.
As the sun rises over the Cherry Creek Lodge on Tilting H Ranch, cowboys Kenny Nix and Reece Shima are already hard at work.
"Checking fence, or checking the rest of the herd. We have 300 other mother cows to check on," Nix said.
They saddle up the horses, load up the dogs, and head out for another busy day.
"There's no way you can work this cattle in this type of country without a horse. You gotta have horses and dogs just like they did a hundred years ago. The dogs keep the cattle in line," Nix said. "If we can't see them because it's so thick, those dogs will go and find them for us."
When the cowboys aren’t looking after the cows, they’re organizing activities for guests, even teaching you how to shoot.
"Whenever you get handed a gun, treat it like it's loaded, always point it at the ground," Shima said.
Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, you’ll learn how to hit the target. Or at least, come close.
Out on the ranch, you’re really getting a feel for what the wild west was like, and Michael is happy to share some history.
"Every cowboy movie you've ever seen has a little piece of something called the Pleasant Valley War. It was a range war that occurred back in the 1880s," Michael explained.
One of the most infamous gunfights of that war happened on Tilting H Ranch.
"Started with a feud between two families. The Tewksburys and the Grahams. This was the Tewksbury's Ranch," Michael said. Some people were killed, and you can still see the grave sites marked by the National Forest Service.
Nix, Shima, and the cattle dogs are typically at the helm of a horseback ride down a long beautiful trail.
"The idea of getting on a horse, and creating a sort of team," Michael said. "Getting this great big animal to go where you want it to go – it's magical."
The dogs run ahead as the horses trot along the trees and through Cherry Creek for a refreshing dip in the water.
You’ll reach a spot everyone at the ranch calls "The Box Canyon" where you can stop and admire the walls of rock around you.
After the ride, when you get back to the lodge you can sit and enjoy the sunset, and you might even hear the sound of the elk whistling in the distance.
However, the day isn’t done for Nix and Shima.
"A lot of people think oh, those guys just sit on a horse and ride around all the time," Nix said. "Well, it's not just that easy."
Each day is different and there are chores to complete before they head home to their families at night and a new day on the ranch begins.
"It's not just a job, it's not just a career, it's a lifestyle."