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I-5 Oasis

Stop at Harris Ranch like visiting destination resort

By CARY ORDWAY

Few travelers speeding along Interstate 5 near Coalinga realize that those cattle they see in feedlots next to the freeway are actually In-N-Out burgers waiting to be processed. Sure, everyone knows that burgers come from cattle, but did you know In-N-Out burgers come from these cattle?

That's because the famous California-based burger chain uses the high-quality beef produced by Harris Ranch, which is really much more than a feedlot. Drive on down the interstate a piece and you come to an island of hospitality that features a resort-style inn, four restaurants and various tourist services all operated by Harris Ranch.

Just about equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco — three hours each way — Harris Ranch is often called an oasis because it comes up out of nowhere. Veterans of the drive north and south along Interstate 5 can testify to the hours of boredom as they push their vehicles 80 miles per hour and faster to get past the flat, featureless terrain of this part of the San Joaquin Valley. A few service station-and-fastfood stops appear, but none like the one at Harris Ranch.

Drive into the parking lot at Harris Ranch and what you might have thought was just another freeway-side motel is actually a resort like you would find in Palm Springs or some other major tourist destination. The Spanish stucco buildings surround a dramatic Olympic-size swimming pool. Add some palm trees and resort-style landscaping and, voila, this becomes much more than an overnight rest on your way down the freeway.

We've gone past Harris Ranch many times, but our curiosity — and a need to break up the drive from Northern to Southern California — convinced us it was time to spend the night at the "ranch." It was a Sunday night and we found the inn filled to much less than capacity. Consequently, we were swimming in that huge pool all by ourselves with only one or two couples poolside at any given time.

Our over-sized room was on the third floor offering a view of the agricultural lands that seem to stretch forever in the San Joaquin Valley. The room was not a motel room — it was a resort-style room with many added amenities and, in fact, enough space to place two reclining chairs near the television. The beds were big, soft and comfy and yet another tell-tale sign was the fluffy resort-style bathrobes. This was proving to be much more than a stop-over; it was a destination all unto itself.

That's why many California families find Harris Ranch an ideal location to meet up with relatives from the far northern and southern parts of the state. It's a big state so, depending on where you and your relatives live, you can each eliminate hours of driving and pamper yourself while you visit with each other in a resort setting.

One big benefit of spending time at Harris Ranch is that you can settle in and enjoy one of the best beef dinners you'll ever experience -- with service to match. The Harris Ranch Steakhouse is a spot to rival even the most expensive steakhouses you see in the big cities. When the restaurant owner raises the cattle, the result is unbelievably tender beef cooked to perfection. Even if we don't have time to spend the night, we will make a point to return to the Steakhouse to sample more cuts of that tasty Harris Ranch beef.

The restaurant operation is indeed a major part of the Harris Ranch operations. According to Restaurants and Institution Magazine, Harris is ranked 57th in the nation among high volume, independently owned restaurants. It's the 6th highest in California, and it takes 400 employees to maintain all of the various Harris Ranch businesses.

None of this happened by accident and, in fact, the Harris Ranch experience has been decades in the making. The present owner is John Harris, whose father and grandfather were also farmers. In 1937, John's father moved farming operations to the San Joaquin Valley. When his father, Jack, died in 1981, John took over what was still a relatively small operation and turned it into a mult-million dollar enterprise that now includes seven different businesses that range from beef processing to raising 35 different farm commodities — everything from fruit to nuts. Harris even finds time to indulge his passion, raising thoroughbred horses.

At the heart of it all is the beef operation which, at any given time, can have between 60,000 and 120,000 cattle in the feedlots or being processed at a nearby facility. Harris Ranch USDA Choice natural beef is distributed throughout the country and is sold to major chains such as Costco, Albertson's, Safeway and, yes, In-N-Out. Another good reason to stop at Harris Ranch is that visitors can buy steaks to take or ship home — they come in ice packs to keep cold.

The restaurant began back in 1977, targeting nothing more than the local farmers who would come in and have coffee or a meal now and then. Because of its convenient location on Interstate 5, the restaurant became popular with travelers looking for a rest from a long drive. The 150-room inn was built in 1987 with the idea that the accommodations should be first-rate, but still casual. There's no valet parking, for example, but the lobby driveway looks just like one that would have valets. The rooms were designed by John Harris's wife, Carole, who included such features as Ralph Lauren fabrics for curtains and bedspreads.

The Harris Ranch complex today is like a mini-shopping center with shops that offer unique gifts and collectibles, spices and other goods. The bakery is a favorite for travelers who want to take home fresh-baked items all made from scratch. And of course there are the usual traveler services such as the gas station and Subway sandwich shop, and the not-so-usual facilities such as the Harris Ranch airport.

It all combines to make Harris Ranch much more than a beef processor, much more than a farming company, much more than a roadside inn or a restaurant. This little patch of ground along the freeway really is a small city and travel destination all its own — and home to millions of future In-N-Out burgers.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Harris Ranch is about 200 miles north of Los Angeles and 200 miles south of San Francisco on Interstate 5.

WHAT: Not just a rest stop for weary travelers, Harris Ranch has grown into a resort community with restaurants, shops and other services. The well-manicured grounds even attract many couples who decide to book the ranch for their wedding functions.

WHEN: Year-round, with blue-sky weather in the summer, a little cooler with some potential fog in the winter.

WHY: Harris Ranch is the perfect spot to break up a drive between Northern and Southern California. The Steakhouse Restaurant is on a par with some of the best big-city steakhouses. The inn is on a par with many resort-area properties.

HOW: For more information, call 800-942-2333 or visit www.harrisranch.com.

Photos: Entrance to Harris Ranch Inn; resort atmosphere at the inn; Olympic-size swimming pool at the inn

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.

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