Guest ranches
This year, saddle up for a great family vacation

If a complete and total escape from the city is among your California vacation objectives this year, you could hardly do better than to visit one of California's luxurious guest ranches. Located in some of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness the state has to offer, these ranches specialize in putting families back in touch with Nature — and with each other.

The summer season is prime time for guest ranching families who maybe have tried Disneyland or taken a family cruise vacation but have been searching for another unique experience that every member of the family can enjoy. A week-long stay at a guest ranch means that Mom, Dad and the kids will all be eating together -- three hearty home-cooked meals a day — and that the parents will actually have some inkling where, at any given time, they can find their kids.

If that sounds good for parents, it gets even better for kids. Most luxurious guest ranches recognize they are competing with Disneyland for the family vacation dollar and have made a point to include a long list of games and activities to make sure that even the most ornery teenager doesn't get bored. There's the obvious — horseback riding, and plenty of it — but add to that such activities as swimming, tubing on nearby rivers, volleyball, darts, fly fishing, archery and gold panning.

"We had one Australia family visit Disneyland and our ranch in the same vacation," recalled Alicia Ryan of Coffee Creek Guest Ranch, "and the family emailed us from home just to tell us that the ranch was all the kids were talking about."

Score one for luxurious guest ranches. The ranches will score a few more points with adults who deal with city traffic and crowded workplaces every day of the work week and figure the last thing they want to do on vacation is stand in long lines for theme parks and their rides. Once they're settled in at a guest ranch, they may find a total of just 50 or 60 other guests spread out over many acres with most guests out riding or involved in activities. End result: peace and quiet for Mom and Dad.

When the movie "City Slickers" came out several years back, the impact on the guest ranch industry was significant. Maybe it was the way the movie showed every-day city people adapting very well, thank you, to the Great Outdoors -- whatever the reason, ranches saw more business than ever. In recent years, some ranches have found that growth has leveled off somewhat as competitors such as cruise lines lower their prices and rising gasoline prices discourage long distance car travel. So nowadays, many luxurious guest ranches are including everything but the kitchen sink in their "all-inclusive" price.

Operators of luxurious guest ranches say that most people who come to stay at a guest ranch share a love of the outdoors, although the majority of visitors are not experienced horseback riders. The riding is probably the best way to get out and enjoy the scenery, and rides of various lengths are scheduled throughout each day. Skill levels are taken into account when deciding what horse you will be riding while at the ranch and, often, guests will get training and greatly improve their skills as the week goes on.

But not everyone who comes to stay at a luxurious guest ranch is focused on horseback riding. "That's where the swimming pool comes in," says Trish Wilburn, owner of Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch, "and the hot tub, the porch swing, the fishing pond ' they never run out of things to do."

Ranch accommodations vary, but generally these ranches offer a kind of "luxury" that is more rustic than people expect from a fancy resort. Private bathrooms are generally the rule, and  rooms and cabins are clean and nice. The only people who are disappointed, ranch operators say, are the people who expect five-star accommodations, which can be impractical in the more remote locations.

But when you consider where you are and compare the amenities with camping, these ranches are indeed "luxurious."

The home-cooked food is where most luxurious guest ranches shine — ample helpings of beef, pork, chicken and many other basics are available either buffet-style or in family-style serving dishes ready for guests on the table.

Most ranches offer all-inclusive rates that include lodging, food and activities, and sometimes unlimited horseback riding. These are not especially cheap vacations, although the all-inclusive aspect does mean you'll spend money on nothing else during your stay. Prices for a week at a guest ranch can run from $800 to $1,400 per person, per week, depending on the season and whether horseback riding, taxes and gratuities are included. Daily rates are available at some ranches while others require a one-week minimum. Also ask for family or group rates, which may save you money if you're taking a family.

There are several luxurious guest ranches located in various parts of California, most situated in mountainous, wooded terrain but easily accessible by car. Here are three examples of California guest ranches:

Greenhorn Creek Ranch — Located near Quincy, California about 70 miles northwest of Reno, NV, this ranch has been catering to California travelers for many years. For the last five years, Ralph and Trish Wilburn have operated the ranch, steadily building clientele and adding amenities. This heavily timbered part of California is known for its many lakes and streams, and ranch guests are always impressed by the area's overall beauty. The ranch can accommodate up to 80 people in 16 cabins and 12 lodge rooms. A week-long stay at Greenhorn begins with a one-hour riding lesson and basic orientation that matches each guest with the appropriate horse. Throughout the week, guests can get additional instruction and ride on various terrains ranging from gentle slopes to dirt and gravel roads to trails. Other ranch activities include trout fishing in the ranch's own pond, swimming, frog-racing, square and line dancing, hayrides, bon fires, golf, hiking and even a rodeo. For more information, phone 800-587-2418 or visit www.greenhornranch.com.

Coffee Creek Ranch — This is another Northern California vacation hotspot and is about 72 miles northwest of Redding and located in the heart of the Trinity Alps. This mountainous location is quite wooded and has long been known as an outdoorsman's favorite. Alicia Ryan is a third-generation owner of the ranch and has put together a variety of activities including horseback riding, swimming, gold panning, archery, skeet shooting and target practice, fly fishing, tubing on a local creek, kids' games, hayrides, bon fires, line and square dancing and even a talent show. All horseback rides take guests into the high country and many include meals or overnight stays. There is about one ranch employee for every two guests, and typically the ranch will accommodate around 50 people. Hiking trips can be planned, and mountain bike trails parallel the wilderness area. Summer youth programs are specially designed by age group. The ranch even has its own musical group, the "Rattlesnakes," to entertain guests. For more information, phone 800-624-4480 or visit www.coffeecreekranch.com.

Circle Bar B Ranch — This is a Southern California vacation alternative, located in the Santa Ynez mountains near Santa Barbara. It's just three miles from the famous Reagan Ranch, where President Ronald Reagan lived, worked and played. Owner Kathy Williams and her family have been entertaining guests for many years not only with the ranch and its activities, but with a dinner theater that was started 34 years ago. Pat Brown, Kathy's brother and ranch co-owner, has busied himself building cabins and renovating rooms to the extent that the ranch now has an overnight capacity of 45 guests. Outside the main lodge is a swimming pool, set in a grassy area amongst the oak trees that populate many parts of the property. 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. The rides at Circle Bar B are gentle. The terrain is generally easy for their 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. The hearty meals at the Circle Bar B are family style and the ranch owners mingle with guests at almost every meal. For more information, phone (805) 968-1113 or visit www.circlebarb.com.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a stay at a guest ranch is your idea of a great California vacation, be sure and check out other California Weekend articles on river rafting, Lake Tahoe and Twain's California.

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