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Where to Go for an Authentic Dude Ranch Experience in California

By Michelle Baran

Jun 15, 2021

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Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort hosts rodeos every Wednesday and Friday evening during the summer.

Photo by Nicki Sebastian/Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort

Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort hosts rodeos every Wednesday and Friday evening during the summer.

If you’re looking for horses and gorgeous outdoor expanses on the West Coast, you’re in luck—there is a thriving tradition and history of guest ranches in California.

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A classic dude ranch experience has the ability to truly capture the imagination. Whether you’re ambling on a horse along remote trails, lazing on a lake while trying to catch fish, or gathering around a fire to roast s’mores, it all feels like a refreshing journey back to simpler times.

But when we think of dude ranches, we often conjure the vast wildernesses of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas—classic settings for these western escapes. There is also a thriving guest ranch culture and tradition in sunny California, however, as I learned on a recent visit to the historic Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, set on 10,500 acres of rolling hills in Southern California’s Santa Ynez Valley, slightly north of Santa Barbara.

Alisal turns 75 this year and in May joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America, making it one of about 300 U.S. properties recognized for its history and authenticity. Alisal has been a working ranch since 1843 and opened for overnight lodging in 1946. What makes it a dude ranch? A dude ranch or guest ranch (they are one and the same, according to the Dude Ranchers Association) is an all- or mostly-inclusive ranch experience that typically offers activities and events such as horseback riding, hiking, swimming, fishing, rodeos, and live music. Many dude ranches date back generations.

That deep ranching history and soul can be felt throughout the entire Alisal experience, which also benefits from the comforts and luxury of modern updates, such as the private guest cottages that are being tastefully renovated (many are already completed) with a nod to Old West style—the redone rooms are accented with artwork and artifacts from the Wild West as well as with luxury touches such as sumptuous bedding and comfortable couches upholstered and adorned with Ralph Lauren fabrics and Pendleton blankets and accessories. 

On a recent weekend at the ranch, my husband, four-year-old son, two-year-old daughter, and I got to experience some of Alisal’s rich traditions. We kicked things off (as most guests should) with a 8:30 a.m. breakfast hayride (you can also opt to do the ride by horseback) to a reconstructed historic adobe house where a feast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, coffee, and juice were served to the soundtrack of live Western music and cowboy poetry. The ride was chilly on the way out (bring layers), but warm and pleasant on the way back and the kiddos loved it.

After an early start to the day with the hayride, we headed to the pool for some playing and lounging under the warm California sun—a great plus of Alisal’s location is the weather. We spent our afternoons tooling around the property by bike (there are loaners available to guests), petting goats, pigs, and ponies at the barn (a favorite for my son Niko), and doing walk-around horseback rides with a wrangler, a great option for the tiny riders.

Guests can also opt for guided horseback rides on 50 miles of trails; fishing and kayaking on the property’s 100-acre lake; playing golf on the two 18-hole courses, hitting some balls on the six tennis courts, or relaxing at the 6,500-square-foot spa.

An added draw is Alisal’s robust culinary program. During our visit, we attended one of its California Ranch Cookouts, a series of dinners hosted by celebrated California chefs—ours was led by Brooke Williamson, season 4 winner of Bravo’s Top Chef. Williamson was on-site cooking up a menu of seafood paella with oak grilled lobster, grilled quail with soy benito glaze, charred okra, and mixed chicory salad. The offerings were rounded out by dishes from Alisal chef Anthony Endy that included smoked beef and pork ribs, Santa Maria–style (the local barbecue tradition) tri-tip, spice-crusted ahi tuna, and fire-roasted focaccia pizzas (a solid standby for picky kids).

The festive alfresco dinner, backed by live music—in our case, a classic cover band playing rock standards that our kids, OK and maybe us adults, too, had fun grooving to—feels almost like a casual wedding or a fun larger social event. Most diners get a little dressed up (we saw some cowboy hats and boots come out) and guests eat under a large white tent outside. Better still: The cookouts are no additional cost for guests, with future dates extending into the fall.

Alisal’s California Ranch Cookouts highlight barbecued, smoked, and grilled dishes.

Also included are the Alisal rodeos, which take place every Wednesday and Friday evening during the summer and Friday evenings through the fall. They include roping, barrel racing, where riders and their horses compete to see who can ride a cloverleaf pattern around barrels the fastest, and sorting, in which teams of riders drive cattle into a pen. For intermediate and advanced riders who want to join the fun, they can take sorting lessons the day of the rodeo and participate in the competition. The events are followed by a western-style barbecue, live country music, and dancing at the rodeo arena. 

Twice a year, typically in spring and fall, Alisal also hosts an immersive BBQ Bootcamp, a two-day program complete with grilling workshops, cooking demonstrations, and special receptions—a parade of barbecue meals and knowledge from regional cooks and chefs with a penchant for barbecue.

For us, visiting the storied property was a true break from the rhythms and rigors of our daily lives, something we were especially grateful for after the long pandemic months we have all been through. The combination of a laid-back atmosphere around the pool and property, endless activities, beautiful horses and farm animals, well-appointed luxury cottages, and innovative cuisine allowed us parents to enjoy and indulge while our young kids played, rode, and socialized to their hearts’ content.

The property is extremely family-friendly (a big draw of dude ranches in general) so there is no shortage of potential pals. Before and after meals when our kids were too antsy to remain at the table, they quickly joined forces with other younger guests who had a similar disinterest in sitting and eating. While we enjoyed some bites and sips of great food and drinks (the cocktails were particularly delicious), we watched our kids run around with their newfound ranch buddies.

On the way out, we tacked on a couple hours in the nearby Danish village of Solvang. The town dates back to 1911 when it was established by a group of Danish immigrants from the Midwest. They built many of the buildings to reflect classic Danish style and the more than 100-year-old outpost has become a slightly cheesy but utterly charming tourist stop. We had a casual outdoor lunch at Solvang Brewing Company, and fueled up for the rest of our drive with cold brew coffees from Good Seed. We took the kids to OnederChild for some beautifully crafted toys and to the Copenhagen House for its Danish design pieces and the (kind of secret) LEGO room towards the back. 

The best time to go

The moderate Southern California weather means that Alisal is open year-round, which is not always the case with dude ranches—many shut for the winter due to weather. We went during April and while the weather was perfect, we will definitely return in summer or fall to experience a rodeo.

COVID precautions

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Alisal lends itself to physical distancing: You’re outside more often than not. There are plenty of outdoor dining options with well-spaced seating for those who don’t feel comfortable eating inside (eating indoors is also an option). I would honestly eat outside despite the pandemic because Alisal makes the experience so pleasant and fun with a large tent, occasional live music and plenty of lawn space for restless kids to run around on before and after meals.

Guests are asked to wear masks in common areas and the majority of patrons abided by and were very respectful of masking and distancing measures during our stay. Alisal’s mask policy may be updated after California officially reopens on June 15 and the majority of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

All breakfasts and dinners as well as several activities are included in Alisal’s nightly rates, which start at $450 per night for a studio and at $950 per night for one of the newly remodeled 760-square-foot luxury suites.

Alisal’s kid-friendly programming includes guided horseback walk-arounds.

Dude ranches across California

Whether you’re looking to get your ranch fix in Northern California, Southern California, or somewhere in between, grab your boots. In addition to Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, here are four other great dude ranches across California.

1. Greenhorn Ranch, Quincy

Having opened to overnight guests in 1962, Greenhorn Ranch has served as an outdoor retreat in the Eastern Sierras for nearly 60 years. Located on 600 acres, the property offers horseback riding, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and archery in its scenic forested setting. Accommodations consist of a 12-room lodge, 16 cabins that can sleep between four and six people, and a 1972 Airstream camper for two. Events and activities include a weekly rodeo, barbecues and cookouts, bonfires with s’mores making, tequila and whisky tastings, live music, and line dancing.

2. Hunewill Guest Ranch, Bridgeport

Just northeast of Yosemite, Hunewill Guest Ranch offers three-, four-, five-, and seven-night packages that include the opportunity for guests to work cattle on horseback. This ranch is for serious horse lovers and is very focused on riding, so much so that pull-on cowboy boots are not optional. The property is open from late spring to late fall (for 2021, that means May 28 through November 13) and stays include all meals, horseback riding (kids must be at least six to ride), accommodations, and activities such as hayrides, cookouts, and square dancing. The guest cabins are simple and comfortable, far from the over-the-top luxury you can expect at ranches like Alisal.

3. Rankin Ranch, Caliente

The 158-year-old Rankin Ranch (a 31,000-acre operating cattle ranch still being run by the Rankin family) is set in the Tehachapi Mountains at the southern end of the Sequoia National Forest. Like Hunewill, this is a traditional, old-school ranch with simple lodgings that consist of seven duplex cabins (14 rooms total) that can accommodate up to 50 guests. Breakfast and dinner are served in the main dining room and a buffet lunch is served on an outdoor terrace overlooking the swimming pool.

In addition to ample horseback-riding opportunities, guests can go hiking, fishing, biking, or just relax at the pool. The property also offers a daily children’s program from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (with a break from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.) with planned activities such as arts and crafts, nature hikes, and scavenger hunts for kids ages 4 through 11. Babysitters are available for an additional fee.

4. Circle Bar B Guest Ranch & Stables, Goleta

Another family-owned and operated ranch, Circle Bar B Stables is available just for horseback riding, or you can stay overnight in a deluxe room, private cabin, or an upscale two-bedroom, two-story hillside homestead. In addition to hiking and riding along the coastal mountain trails, guests at the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch & Stables have access to the pool, spa, and game room and will be provided with all daily meals (which are included in the rates). This ranch has the added advantage of being a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, so visitors can combine their western-style ranch getaway with some beach time.

>> Next: California’s Best National Parks and Monuments

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