Now be honest: Back when television news reports showed Ronald Reagan chopping wood and riding horseback on his Santa Barbara ranch, didn't you feel even a slight yearning to saddle up and take command of your own ranch, far away from your everyday work world?
Now it's possible to do just that. The ranch won't exactly be yours, and you won't be in charge, but you'll be riding horseback close to some of the very same countryside that Reagan loved so much. Tucked back a few miles into the Santa Ynez mountains — and just three miles from the Reagan Ranch — is the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch, a down-home kind of place that is just 20 miles from Santa Barbara, but light years away from Santa Barbara chic.
This may not be your typical Southern California vacation: Folks don't visit the Circle Bar B to find the latest fashion trends or neuvo cuisine, but rather to cozy up in a cabin or guest room and enjoy ranch hospitality in a spectacular outdoor setting. Instead of inroom jacuzzi spas and chocolates on the pillows, it's bunk beds for the kids and a comfortable four-poster for Mom and Dad. Instead of Pheasant under Glass, it's Kathy Williams' killer baby back ribs. Instead of preppie valets and uniformed bellhops, it's a cast of colorful, seasoned cowhands and a family of owners who all help out with the chores.
Throw in a dinner theater that's been entertaining guests for 34 consecutive years, and you have the recipe for a most unusual getaway experience.
Jovial Jim Brown is the one who got this all going several decades ago, long before he met his personable wife, Betty, when she came up to the ranch as a customer back in the 50's. Today Jim and Betty still live and work at the ranch, but they've bred their own new management team that now includes their daughter, Kathy Williams, and their son, Pat Brown.
The ranch has grown up over the years as Pat Brown has busied himself building cabins and renovating rooms to the extent that the ranch now has an overnight capacity of 45 guests. The Circle Bar B boasts several other newly renovated areas such as the great room, full service bar, dining room and game room. Outside the main lodge is a swimming pool, set in a grassy area amongst the oak trees that populate many parts of the property (landscaping courtesy of another Brown son, James).
Not far away are the barns and corrals, and a group of mild-mannered horses that, several times each day, take guests onto many miles of nearby trails and roads.
After our late afternoon arrival it was just a short time before we heard the 6 p.m. dinner bell — a signal to all ranch guests to join the owners for dinner in the dining room. Served buffet-style, the food is hearty and plentiful — guests were encouraged to return for second helpings of ribs, potatoes, tasty vegetables, salad and dessert. The menu varies, and we're guessing whatever Kathy Williams prepares will be good — we were impressed enough with her baked ribs to take home the recipe.
Guests dine together at group tables and we were fortunate to be seated with owners Jim and Betty, who shared with us the story behind the dinner theater that Jim manages at the ranch. It seems that back in the early 70s a guest had visited the ranch and brought up the idea of staging plays on the property. Jim had no theater or performance background but was still anxious to give it a try. Now, 34 years later, the plays continue — three or four productions a year, put on by local actors and musicians with only a few "dark" weeks in between the productions to rehearse and stage the next play. The ranch's indoor theater can seat close to 100, and tour buses bring in patrons from all over Southern California.
After dinner it was some relaxation by the pool, popular with the several families who were staying at the ranch this particular Thursday night. Guests quickly get to know each other at the ranch and it was soon apparent that these visitors were not only from California, but from as far away as Connecticut. Finally, it was off to a restful, quiet mountain sleep with our trail rides planned for the next morning.
The breakfast bell rang promptly at 8:30 a.m. — judging from the turnout, perhaps a bit early for some of the guests. After a ranch breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs it was time to join the first trail ride of the day at 9:30 a.m. Guests can choose between 90-minute rides and longer half-day rides.
Now a dude ranch just simply would not be a dude ranch without cowboys out of Central Casting — in this case, "Skinner" and "Joe." They dressed the part, of course, but it soon became apparent that they were both the real deal. On Joe's ride, it really was a riding lesson with tips all along the way on how to better handle our horses. Joe also would stop periodically and walk his horse back by the guests making sure there were no problems. Each change in terrain would be preceded by instructions on how to manage our horses in that particular circumstance.
Equally professional was Skinner, although part of the fun on his ride was listening to stories about his colorful career. A former movie stuntman, Skinner has worked on many well-known movies and, most recently, was the horse handler for the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He also tells the story of how, in his younger days, he was picking up a saddle one day when a big-city ad executive asked him to pose as a cowboy in an ad for Kodak. He later became "famous" and was hounded for his autograph when the ad appeared in national magazines.
The rides we experienced at Circle Bar B were gentle compared with some we've experienced at other dude ranches. The terrain is generally easy for these well-trained horses and allows for good footing and enough space between horses so that you don't run into problems even if one of the animals becomes a little spirited. There are no narrow "goat trails" on mountain ledges where you are just hoping your horse stays upright.
Best of all, there are the views of the Santa Ynez Mountains as you nudge up against the Reagan Ranch — property so grand, in fact, that it was once reserved for the President of the United States.
For us, it was a quick, drop-in visit to the Circle Bar B, but long enough to get the sense that the Browns are doing more than just earning a living at the Circle Bar B. They're actually sharing a way of life with visitors from the outside world — visitors who probably go away yearning even more to be sitting tall in the saddle on their own Reagan-style ranch.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Circle Bar B Guest Ranch is at 1800 Refugio Road, about 20 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara. Refugio Road is directly accessible from Highway 1.
WHAT: Circle Bar B Guest Ranch is an opportunity to experience horseback riding in a scenic setting with good food and country hospitality. It can be an overnight stay, which includes three meals per day, or a day ride while you're in the Santa Barbara area. There are also several California wineries in the region.
WHEN: The climate in the Santa Barbara area offers a year-round riding experience. The 9:30 a.m. ride is apt to have more overcast, while the sun is more likely to come out for the 11:30 a.m. or afternoon rides. Regardless of the time of year, always check for any travel deals or vacation packages that might be currently in effect.
WHY: Trail rides are a great way to enjoy the Great Outdoors. In this case, there are terrific views, 1,000 acres of backcountry, and a comfortable climate that all add to the experience. Guest ranch holidays are not especially cheap vacations, but they're all-inclusive and offer something for every member of the family.
HOW: For more information on the Circle Bar B Ranch, near Santa Barbara, phone (805) 968-1113, or go to www.circlebarb.com. You can email the ranch at email@example.com. Accommodations at the Circle B Ranch range from $225 for a room or cabin for two to $285 for a two-bedroom suite cabin for two. All prices include three meals per day. Horseback riding for guests is $28 for a 90-minute ride, $30 for non-overnights. The four-hour ride is $55 for guests, $65 for non-overnights and includes a picnic lunch. Dinner theater is seasonal on Fridays and Saturdays and is $11 per person, advance reservations required.