Conquer the Southwest in Oro Valley
By Nora Burba Trulsson
Pancho, the amiable wrangler and guide, sensed my city slicker anxiety as I mounted a horse for a trail ride with El Conquistador Western Adventures. “What’s my horse’s name?” I asked nervously. “Suicide,” said Pancho. He paused long enough to watch me turn pale then busted out a long chuckle. “Just kidding. His real name is Copenhagen, and he’s a big, gentle baby.”
Horseback Riding at El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort
Cowboy humor and trail rides in the sweeping high desert are all part of the charm at El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, located in the foothills of the magnificent Santa Catalina Mountains in Oro Valley, a desert community just north of Tucson.
Once we started on our one-hour trail ride, I relaxed and realized that it felt perfectly natural to see the Sonoran Desert this way. We ambled up an easy loop trail lined with prickly pear cactus and brittlebush, with views of the mountains’ craggy Pusch Ridge and the city below us. Pancho paused midway to take pictures of the group I rode with, so we could remember our adventure. The ride inspired an urge to roam free, a liberating feeling that I soon understood to be the Southwestern spirit.
Gateway to Oro Valley
My visit to El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort was in winter, when Oro Valley’s weather is mild—as it also is in fall and spring—turning the desert into a welcoming outdoor playground for adventure. But even when the summer temps turn up the heat, there are still plenty of cool activities to enjoy.
I unwound from the trail ride in my room, where I plopped down on a cozy armchair and put my feet up on a leather ottoman. Deep breath, shoulders relaxed, head back—this is the life. My room’s luxe bedding and soothing brown, cream, and blue color palette were great, but the biggest perk was the gorgeous mountain view framed in my balcony window.
The 500-acre, 428-room resort—one of the largest properties in Southern Arizona—recently completed a multi-million dollar renovation to its public spaces and rooms, refreshing its art-filled, Southwest look with a modern edge that emphasizes the scenery (much appreciated by yours truly) and indoor-outdoor living. While the interior spaces were stellar, I wanted to go outside, explore, and feel free to just be. With year-round activities and a passion for the surroundings, the resort was ready to serve as my starting point to experience Oro Valley’s lush desert, mountain peaks, and a unique Southwest experience.
For breakfast the next day, I meandered into the resort’s Grab & Go market for Starbucks coffee and a whole grain croissant (who knew indulgence could be healthy?), which I enjoyed outside on a nearby patio. My choice wasn’t easy, though, with breakfast burritos, snacks, and even bottles of Arizona wines for private happy hours on your room’s balcony or patio to choose from.
Early morning tee-time in Oro Valley
As I ate my croissant, I still felt inspired from the trail ride the day before. I wanted to chase that feeling of freedom again. But, where to begin? I considered the resort’s menu of activities. On top of one- and two-hour trail rides, the El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort also offers guided hikes into the adjacent Coronado National Forest, abundant in staghorn cholla, saguaro cactus, and in the spring, desert wildflowers—not to mention desert dwellers such as bighorn sheep, coyotes, and mule deer. Every stay also includes a bike rental, great for a pedal to check out the surrounding neighborhood and Oro Valley’s shops and restaurants. If I were a golfer or tennis player, I wouldn’t have to go far. There’s a nine-hole golf course on-site and two scenic 18-hole courses a short shuttle ride away. Sixteen illuminated tennis courts are also on-site.
Since I fancy myself as a bit of a fitness buff, I decided to get my heart pumping with a brisk, uphill guided power walk as the sun rose over Pusch Ridge. When the crisp, cool air filled my lungs, I felt energized. There are more gentle options as well, like an outdoor yoga class or stretch session at the fitness center. Elements Spa is also at the fitness center, where guests zone out with a massage or soothing body wrap. But after my power walk, I was motivated to go a bit farther afield.
Catalina State Park was a short drive away and offered several different hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking trails that wind through high-desert grasslands, into the mountains, and past seasonal pools and streams that flow after winter rains, spring snowmelt, and summer monsoons. I chose a relaxing nature loop and took my time, listening to nature, spying on wildlife, and letting the surroundings take over my senses.
When I returned to the resort, the sun was still heating the day, so I lounged by the new Desert Springs Oasis pool, which offers 84-degree waters, even in winter, with plenty of sun-lolling space plus hot and cold plunges—and, for thrill-seekers, a 143-foot waterslide. During summer weekends, a DJ spins tunes poolside and, during clear fall and winter nights, stargazing programs attest to Tucson’s leadership in the dark-sky movement. For that day, I was satisfied to just soak in vitamin D while my muscles relaxed.
Flavors of the Southwest
For dinner, I sampled Chef Josh Willet’s seasonal, locally inspired menu at Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails, a dramatic space framed with Spanish Colonial architectural elements. Still craving that connection to the desert, I requested a table on the expansive patio to enjoy al fresco dining—right next to the salsa garden, where the chef plucks jalapeños, habaneros, cilantro, and other ingredients to flavor and garnish his dishes. I started with a crab tower, made with avocado and pico de gallo, followed by the ancho pepper salmon, served with a caper-cilantro chimichurri. For dessert, I indulged in the tres leches pannacotta, sparked with strawberry-mango salsa. Every bite of each dish was as fresh and beautiful as the scenery—a perfect complement.
Before I ended my day, I indulged in the resort’s indoor-outdoor amenities a bit longer. I ordered a glass of wine from the Colibri Lobby Lounge, then headed out to the patio and listened to the Native American flute player’s concert at dusk. Clothed in traditional dress, he played calming, peaceful music while the shadows grew longer. As the music reverberated through the evening air, I watched the sunset glow wash over Pusch Ridge with no worries, no scrambled thoughts—just being. Uniquely Southwest indeed.