Get away from it all at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- It's not just a marketing ploy or a gimmicky name; herds of wild horses do roam the desert near the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass resort. And the resort really does lie close to a pass between the Estrella Mountains and South Mountain.

This resort, with two courses -- Cattail and Devil's Claw -- was built on the Gila River Indian Community (population 18,000) where open land stretches for mile after tumbleweed-studded mile. Yet Wild Horse Pass is only minutes away from suburban shopping centers and 11 miles south of Sky Harbor Airport.

Wild Horse Pass is one of three new mega-resorts built in the Phoenix area last year, and its developers capitalized on its setting to create a Wild West flavor in the place. In contrast, the other two resorts -- JW Marriott Desert Ridge and Westin Kierland -- are both in Scottsdale areas crowded with houses and shopping. Wild Horse Pass offers a real getaway-from-it-all feeling that seems missing from many resorts in the Phoenix area.

There's an emphasis here on the Indian tribes -- the Pima and Maricopa -- that built the resort. A lofty dome over the lobby has been painted with 10 panels of scenes of life among the tribes -- elders, youth, games, singing, hunting, basket weaving and pottery making. Around every corner are murals, paintings, drawings, quilts, ceremonial dresses and jewelry that were created by the two tribes.

The hotel even hired Sara Bird-in-Ground, from the Gila River Community Pima tribe, to give tours of its art to guests, says Heather Gray, in public relations for the Sheraton.

Obviously, the resort was built to create jobs for tribe members, and about 75 percent of the workforce is from the reservation. Another goal is to attract players to the tribe's casino, but the casino is by no means on top of the hotel. The resort and casino are completely separate operations, Gray said. No blackjack and slot machines in the lobby here.

Like most new resorts in the Phoenix area, Wild Horse Pass has the requisite water features -- ponds, falls and also "a river" re-created from old photographs of what the Gila River used to look like in its wilder days. "The actually placed rocks in some of the same configurations," says Gray.

The river trickles down a cliff in the hotel lobby and flows outdoors. At a dock just outside the hotel, guests can catch rides on a regularly running boat to the casino, about a half mile away, or even to the golf club, just across the parking lot.

Wild Horse Pass has a spa, almost a requirement these days at Phoenix resorts, but the Aji Spa at this hotel is one of the most distinctive and attractive in the Valley of the Sun. For $160, try the Blue Coyote Wrap, and have special blue mud slathered all over your body, followed by a treatment in a steam capsule while your head is being massaged.

Wild Horse Pass is the smallest of the three new resorts with 500 rooms and perhaps that's why it has fewer restaurants than the other two -- only five, compared with about 10 at each of the others. Its premier dining spot, Kai, however, is scooping up awards for innovative cuisine, using Native American ingredients and produce grown on the Gila River Reservation. Stop off before dinner at the Kai Bread Bar, where appetizers using freshly baked Indian frybread are served with drinks. Martinis are the specialty.

If shopping's your thing, you're going to have to drive over to the malls of nearby Chandler to spend your money right now. But the resort is in the process of developing a riverwalk of boutiques on its grounds.

Wild Horse Pass does offer tennis courts, however, and the Koli Equestrian Center where you can take trail rides that often bring you up close and personal with those wild horses.

What about the golf?

If you follow the Nationwide Tour, you may have seen Wild Horse Pass on the Golf Channel this month. For three years now, the resort has hosted the Gila River Classic for the tour. For two years, the PGA hopefuls played on the Devil's Claw course; this fall they took on the Cattail.

Both courses were designed by Scottsdale architect Gary Panks, known for his work on the Raven at South Mountain and the Talon Course at Grayhawk.

These sprawling courses cover vast stretches of ground. Devil's Claw, for example, takes in 92 acres of turf and 150 acres of desert. Like most reservation courses, there are no subdivisions and tract houses. The tribe intends to keep it that way forever.

The Claw, opened in 2000, is the shorter of the two but still measures 7,017 yards from the back tees. The fairways slope uphill to the landing area and then downhill toward the green.

"Devil's Claw has severely deep bunkers, but the better player can navigate around them," says Rich Carter, director of golf at Wild Horse Pass. "They can be tough on the high handicapper."

Cattail which opened in October 2002 plays at more than 7,300 yards from the back tees.

Although Cattail has narrower fairways, Carter says, "It's easier for the high handicapper because there are not as many forced carries and the greens have a more gradual incline."

The toughest section of the course is Nos. 10, 11 and 12 -- all bordering water. Watch the slopes of the fairways and greens to avoid trouble. Those guys on the go-low tour didn't struggle too much with them though.

Both courses make use of saguaro cactus, palo verde, mesquite and cottonwood trees. Only plants indigenous to the Gila River were used in landscaping. But this is not a lush environment; it's a harsher landscape with more rugged mountains than you'll see around Scottsdale resorts.

You may catch sight of those wild horses from the fairway, but don't count on it. Fences have been set up along the course to keep them from eating the Bermuda before the hackers can get to it.

If you want to play golf

You don't have to stay at the resort to play the courses at Whirlwind. Green fees range from $45 in the summer to $150 in the winter high season. For golf reservations, call 800-767-3574.

If you want to stay

To reach the resort take Highway I-10 east to Tucson from Phoenix and then take the Maricopa exit. Follow the signs to the resort.

Rooms range in price from about $89 in summer to $175 in winter with suites going for $500. For reservations call (800) 325-3535 or (602) 225-0100. Web site:

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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