Monday 14 October 2019

Raising Arizona: Cowboy College and the Grand Canyon in Scottsdale

Scottsdale, Arizona

Riders on a dirt path in Arizona.
Riders on a dirt path in Arizona.
E Main Street, Old Town, Scottsdale. Photo: Deposit
Kirsty Blake Knox hot air ballooning in Arizona
Hotel Valley Ho, Arizona
The Sonoran Desert is one of the world's lushest.
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Fancy a US break with a difference? Kirsty Blake Knox channels her inner Calamity Jane on a trip to the Wild West.

It's not often in life you get to barrel down a staircase and yell: "Honey! I'm off to Cowboy College in the morning. Whip, crack away!"

But then, it's not often you get to mosey over to Scottsdale in the USA.

Dubbed "The West's most western town", Scottsdale, Arizona is a rootin-tootin' cowboy haven where you can dust down your Stetson, hike around triangular canyons and eat grits and guacamole by the gallon load. As part of my trip, I would be saddling up at Arizona's official Cowboy College and channelling my inner Calamity Jane.

"Finally," I thought. "An excuse to wear chaps."

Established in 1969, the Cowboy College ranch is run by Lori Bridwell; a straight-shooter who barks out orders one minute and whispers sweet nothings into a gelding's ears the next.

"What in the hell you doin?" she yells as I trot around the yard. "Loosen them hips up girl - how do you expect that there horse to relax when you can't?"

Lori's ranch was the setting of the 2003 reality TV series Cowboy U, which saw city slickers swapping their suits for spurs. "This is the real deal," Lori tells me. "A proper working ranch."

E Main Street, Old Town, Scottsdale. Photo: Deposit
E Main Street, Old Town, Scottsdale. Photo: Deposit

Accommodation is pretty basic; groups rest their heads on rickety bunks. "It's not the Hilton," Lori says. "But it's a good place to rest your head when you're done roping and riding."

Wandering around the yard, she introduces me to every horse, pig, donkey, and ranch mutt. "He's a brat, she's always eating, he's flighty, she lost a baby last month - poor dear."

I had thought cantering around the desert would work up a sweat, but in February, temperatures had dropped drastically and heavy white clouds hung in the air. As we sat back in those deep American saddles - they feel like armchairs - on our quarter horses, it started to snow. Lightly at first, then heavier sleet.

"Now there's something you don't see every day," Lori shouted at me. "Snow in the Sonoran desert." Stretching across California, Arizona and Northwest Mexico, this is one of the world's lushest deserts, with Teddy Bear Cactus and Jojoba plants scattered across the plains.

Back at the ranch, we warmed up by stomping our feet on the bridle room floor before heading into downtown Scottsdale.

I was staying at the Hotel Valley Ho - which seemed a million miles away from Cowboy College. Built in the 1950s, the place is a louche and sexy retro dream - complete with a Martini glass-shaped swimming pool, and Jetson-style sofas in the lobby. I felt as if I'd floated through a lava lamp and landed slap bang in the middle of the Mad Men set.

Hotel Valley Ho, Arizona
Hotel Valley Ho, Arizona

"This is exactly the sort of hotel I'd like to have an affair in," I told the receptionist as The Platters softly played in the background. But instead, I headed to my room with a Tom Collins and soaked in the glorious free-standing tub at its centre.

Scottsdale is more than just a cowboy town. Sure, the Pony Express still stops here but there's also a thriving arts community. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used to 'winter' here at his Taliesin West home - which allows tourists to snoop around. My knowledge of his work is limited, but I love wandering around other people's houses and finding out what their bathroom is like, so this was my kind of thing.

Frank's toilet was amazing - chrome with low ceilings. "Small man syndrome," our guide explained. "He thought any one or thing over six foot was a waste of space."

After the tour, we made our way to the legendary Rusty Spur Saloon. Once the Farmers Bank of Scottsdale, the old bank vault is now a refrigerator and contains liquid gold. American flags are hammered to the walls and men with crevassed faces howl out country tunes late into the night.

A 5am start after a fuzzy night like that isn't easy, but the prospect of hitching a plane ride over the Grand Canyon is too enticing to turn down.

Kirsty Blake Knox hot air ballooning in Arizona
Kirsty Blake Knox hot air ballooning in Arizona

Bleary-eyed, we arrived at Westwind Air Services and clambered into a small Cessna Grand Caravan plane. The propeller started to spin, and we took off gliding over the Painted Desert, through the Navajo Indian Reservation and past the San Francisco Peaks. The further we travelled, the more spectacular it got.

I thought I had no 'wows' left to utter, but then suddenly it happened; we lurched over the edge of the North rim of the Grand Canyon. Nothing could have prepared me for its sheer scale and size.

"It's humongous!" I shouted. "And the good news is it keeps getting bigger and better," our pilot yelled back.

We landed just outside the Grand Canyon national park and plodded along the rim, stopping every five seconds to take pictures and talk about just how amazing it all was. After several hours, we stopped at a grand old hotel for pints of hot cider before bundling back into the tinny plane.

"Taking your feet off the ground gives you a whole lot of perspective," the pilot said. She wasn't lying.

I was saddle sore and hungover, but just like the Grand Canyon, my love of all things mid-western was getting bigger and better by the minute.

Getting there

British Airways ( offers direct flights from London Heathrow to Phoenix, Arizona from around €758 (connections are available from Dublin).

Kirsty travelled as a guest of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. For more info on Scottsdale, visit

Where to stay

Standard room rates at Hotel Valley Ho ( start from around €145 per night in low season and €299 in high season. Traditional rooms at the Westin Kierland ( start from €135 per night in low season and increase to €617 in the high season.

Fying high

Is there a better way to start the day than watching the sun rise while soaring 5,000ft over the desert in a hot air balloon? Short answer - no. Hot Air Expeditions ( offer sunrise and sunset tours capped with a champagne breakfast/supper. Perfection.


The food in Scottsdale is sensational, and with over 600 restaurants you’re spoilt for choice. Get a flavour of it all on A Taste of Old Town Scotsdale  food tour. My favourite spot was the Mission, a Mexican restaurant where waiters mix guacamole at your table, and the margaritas pack a punch.


American bars are the best bars – they stay open late and free pour their spirits. My favourite was Counter Intuitive (7133 E Stetson Dr.), a speakeasy undergoing a radical makeover every three months. It’s one of the city’s newest watering holes. When we visited the theme was Downtown Chinatown.


Fashion City is your typical and terrifyingly large American mall. Veer off the beaten path and checking out the vintage shops crammed full of 1950s prom dresses, costume jewelery and 80s puff ball skirts. Vintage by Robert Black in Old Town was an Aladdin’s Cave of wonderfulness (7144 E 1st Ave).

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