Photo: Alisal Ranch

I Spent a Weekend at a Dude Ranch in California. This Is What It Was Like.

California Outdoor
by Keri Bridgwater Mar 21, 2022

Think of a dude ranch as the original western vacation. Steeped in Old West history and traditions, at California dude ranches, you can saddle up your pony to ride out against the backdrop of big skies in the morning and share stories beside the campfire at night.

For many, the feel-good factor of being around horses adds to the appeal, but you don’t have to be an experienced rider to spend time at a California dude ranch. Most ranches have children’s programs and cater as equally to beginners and novices as they do experts. But all dude ranches in California, Colorado, Wyoming, and other western states offer the opportunity to get outside and reconnect with nature.

So when I got the chance to visit Alisal Ranch in central California’s wine country, I happily dusted off my old wranglers and cowboy boots and jumped in the car to get my ranch-life fix for a couple of days.

It was easy to tell I had arrived in horse country

Three horses grazing at their California dude ranch home

Photo: Keri Bridgwater

Just on the other side of Santa Barbara, turning onto Highway 154 — a scenic back road that winds across the San Marcos Pass in the Santa Ynez Mountains — signals my arrival in horse country. The late afternoon sun casts a warm glow over rolling hills dotted with oak trees. After passing through the Danish village of Solvang, I drove south for a few miles along Alisal Road until some wild turkeys heralded the sycamore-lined entrance to my California dude ranch of choice: Alisal Ranch.

Cats and horses ruled the roost, but the luxury was undeniable

A row of cottages faces the ranch’s idyllic front pasture, where three horses were grazing. As the sun dipped behind the hills, I wandered down to take pictures of the trio, who I later found out were Ajax, Jessie, and Lane. In front of the guest reception, a tabby cat curled up fast asleep in a chair. The concierge says it’s either Tom or Jerry, one of Alisal’s “cats-in-charge.” This is my kind of place.

A working ranch since 1843, Alisal’s JRC logo stands for José Raimundo Carrillo, a Mexican-Spanish land grant recipient. Now, it’s the oldest continually operated cattle brand in California. It became a guest ranch in 1946 and was a favorite hideaway of Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, along with loyal local families who have come for generations. I’m a relative newcomer by the dude ranch’s standards.

The ‘resort’ side of Alisal includes a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a spa; this dude ranch is luxurious. Beyond that, there are two golf courses, a hiking trail, and a 100-acre bass fishing lake. When it comes to dude vacations, Alisal Ranch sits squarely in the luxury division.

My room wasn’t rustic at all, with wine and luxe furnishings

California dude ranch - Alisal hotel room

Photo: Keri Bridgwater

With not much time to explore before dinner and with light fading, I decided to get settled in my room. My dude ranch room didn’t have a phone or TV, but it had luxurious details like a Pendleton blanket and accessories, a cow-hide rug beside the fireplace, and a welcome bottle of Alisal Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. My dinner reservation was for 5:30 PM in the Creekside Dining Room (dress code: country formal, naturally) and was a three-course affair, including the warm chocolate chip cookie I took back to my room for dessert.

In the morning, I took a tour of the barns, rodeo grounds, and more

The corral at Alisal California dude ranch

Photo: Keri Bridgwater

I woke up early to wander the grounds before breakfast the next morning. It was autumn, when mornings are crisp, and fallen sycamore leaves were everywhere. It turns out Alisal is a native Chumash word meaning “grove of sycamores.” Keen to see what the horses were doing, I strolled over to the barn.

There was a breakfast ride leaving for the adobe (included with the cost of a stay), and the ranch hands were getting things ready for a wagon ride, too. Beyond the prep areas, you could see corrals and stalls, home to around 100 horses. A little further past that are the rodeo grounds that come alive in June with real-life working cowboys, barrel races, western-style barbecues, and live country music through early fall.

Head wrangler Meghan Taylor gave me a tour. She’s been at Alisal Ranch since 2019 and is their youngest-ever head wrangler and the second woman in the role. A Santa Barbara native who rode on the California High School Rodeo circuit, Taylor lives and breathes horses. Along with her team, she developed the wrangler skill workshops (sadly, none were on the schedule during my visit) and shared that every horse is matched with their rider based on skill level or personality.

In the afternoon, I was paired with an advanced horse and hit the trails

Riding Zippo on the author's california dude ranch vacation

Photo: Keri Bridgwater

Meghan paired me with Zippo for my advanced afternoon ride. He’s a sweet-looking chestnut gelding with a blaze face (a broad white stripe running down the middle). Growing up in England and riding since I was young, I’m no stranger to a stable yard and already knew how to comfortable ride on then western-style saddles since moving to California. I was joined by two ladies from the Pacific Northwest for my tour. They’re old friends who have traveled the world riding horses and had Alisal Ranch on their bucket list for years.

Once we mounted up, our horses walked single-file past another corral where the bulk of the horses not hitting the trails that day hang out. Oak trees shade our path for a while before the Santa Ynez Mountains and Los Padres National Forest fully revealed themselves. The trail ride had a beautiful view, and we stopped often for photos — you have to take some trail ride photos if you’re staying at a California dude ranch. It’s breathtaking.

Our trail guide told me Zippo likes being at the back (we were officially the caboose), and as we rode through a large swathe of belly-height grass, Zippo took the opportunity to nibble on a quick snack — he knows this trail well. Like me, it wasn’t his first rodeo. We got to lope and gallop in several sections, and Zippo responded in a sparky but steady way that left me feeling confident he wasn’t going to do anything too crazy. Galloping through the hills in California on a sunny afternoon is every bit as fantastic as it sounds.

I learned why it’s called a “dude ranch”

It’s not all gorgeous views at Alisal Ranch – there’s history also. Our guide lead us through what was once a native Chumash campground. There’s a large rock at its center with deep holes made by Native Americans using rocks to mash and process grain.

We learned that back in the 1800s when cattle ranching was booming across the American West, East Coast city slickers (or “dudes,” as the cowboys called them) started moving out west to taste the cowboy lifestyle for a few weeks at a time in places like Wyoming and the Dakota Badlands. In the early days, it was considered insulting if you offered to pay to experience life on the ranches. But when ranchers hit hard times in the 1920s, many partnered with the Northern Pacific Railway to form the Dude Ranchers’ Association, offering hospitality and the “Wild West” experience in exchange for income. So essentially, a “dude ranch” has been a place for city slickers to experience western life since the concept was first established.

As we finished our horseback tour, it was hard not to think about everyone who had used the land now occupied by this California dude ranch, from native people and early Spanish and Mexican settlers to ranchers and Alisal guests.

I thanked Zippo for a great ride then headed to my room to relax before dinner. I finished with a cup of tea beside the fire before bed and turned in, knowing that I’d wake up tomorrow to live the dude ranch life for one more day.

There’s plenty to do other than horseback riding

If you’ve never been to a dude ranch in California or elsewhere, you may think the agenda is just backcountry trail rides across the open range. But many dude ranches also run wrangler workshops to learn riding techniques like sitting correctly in the saddle and holding the reins with one hand and working cowboy skills from roping and cattle sorting to penning (moving cows into a pen).

Ever wondered what it’s like to catch a steer? You’ll want to take a roping class to learn to swing a loop and eventually “catch” a stationary cow-shaped dummy.

You can get deeper into the skills you’ll need to leave your city-slicker life behind by taking a sorting class in which you’ll learn the fundamentals of sorting cattle for branding, doctoring, or transportation purposes. I was assigned to a small team to separate a few cows from the herd and move them across an arena.

If that sounds like too much hard work, most ranches provide alternative outdoor activities from fly fishing and sharpshooting to hiking and rafting. Alisal Ranch has cycling and e-bike tours, paddle rentals, birdwatching tours, and a high-end spa.

What to pack for a dude ranch vacation

Author on horseback at Alisal Ranch

Author on horseback at Alisal Ranch. Photo: Keri Bridgwater

Think classic western apparel: cowboy hats (felt for cooler months, straw for summer), plaid shirts, silver belt buckles, and cowboy boots. If you’re planning to spend a few hours in the saddle each day, invest in at least one pair of western jeans. The inseam is two inches longer than a standard pair so they hang nicely over boots.

Non-cotton breathable tops like you’d wear hiking are great for layering, and an insulated vest is a good suitcase addition for staying warm without adding too much bulk. Leather boots with a protected toe and one-inch heel work well if you don’t have cowboy boots, while a bandana will protect your face from the dust. If in doubt, catch a few episodes of the hit TV show Yellowstone for style tips or just visit your nearest Boot Barn. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to gear up, but you don’t want to try to ride a horse in sweatpants.

Other dude ranches where you can saddle up in the American West

Not near any California dude ranches? No problem. There are lots of dude ranches west of the Rocky Mountains that range from camping retreats where you’ll drive cattle and horses to more luxe affairs with turn-down service and cozy lodgings.

We hope you love the dude ranch stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.

At the Burnt Well Guest Ranch in Roswell, New Mexico, the Regulator Ride and campout across Billy the Kid country will appeal to more seasoned riders. It includes a horse for the week, all your necessary tack, a “cowboy bedroll” and cot, and Dutch oven-cooked meals every night. On the luxury side, Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana, runs a five-day Cowgirl Getaway every fall packed with morning yoga sessions and trail rides – including one at sunset with wine tasting – and guided tours into Yellowstone National Park.

After a week of riding, guests at C Lazy U Ranch (a Colorado dude ranch in Granby) can demonstrate their newly learned horsemanship skills during the weekly Saturday afternoon “Shodeo.” In Arizona, riders of all levels get to meet and groom their horses before riding out among giant saguaros in the Sonoran Desert at Kay El Bar Guest Ranch, welcoming guests since 1918.

Besides the trail rides and western riding technique classes at The Lodge at Blue Sky near Park City in Utah, guests can sign up for natural horsemanship lessons held at the nearby Saving Gracie Equine Healing Foundation. Founded by Blue Sky owner Barb Phillips, the sanctuary rehabilitates rescue horses (or becomes their forever home). Guests can meet, groom, and help feed the rescues.

For a fast-paced experience in the Sierra Nevada, riders can visit a different version of a California dude ranch, joining in on a twice-yearly old-time working trail drive with Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit. Guests will help move the herd of horses and mules between their winter and summer pastures, the latter of which is at Mammoth Lakes. Usually held in June and September, guests can look forward to camping out along the trail, having meals around the chuckwagon, and enjoying classic cowboy entertainment in the evenings.

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