Bill Rankin takes a minute to reflect about the people who have come to stay at his Rankin Guest Ranch over the years. He says he just got an email about one of his favorite guests passing away. He sadly names a few more longtime guests who are now gone, but then he quickly perks up as he recalls one family in particular who invited the Rankins to their daughter's wedding.
"I don't know of anyplace I've ever visited on vacation where I wanted to invite the owner of the place to a family wedding," he says in his unmistakable cattleman's drawl.
And that's Bill Rankin's way of explaining the difference between a vacation at his ranch and one at a typical resort. When guests come to the Rankin Ranch, more than likely they, too, will become part of Bill's extended "family" — legions of repeat customers who now account for 75 percent of ranch guests. While most resorts would be happy to get guests to come back every couple of years, Rankin guests tend to return every year for decades at a time. In some cases, a whole new generation is following a family tradition of vacationing each summer at Rankin Ranch.
So what is it about this particular ranch that keeps them coming back? Part of it could be the area's beauty — a majestic tapestry of meadows and pine forests found in the mountains about 40 miles east of Bakersfield. Part of it could be the boundless recreational opportunities in the area, including several daily horseback rides at the ranch. And part of it could be the Kids Program that provides trained counselors for the youngsters almost any time of day.
While all of that's appealing, we have our own theory why people get hooked on Rankin Ranch: The Rankin family.
There's just something that feels good about experiencing a few days in the life of a hard-working ranch family where old-fashioned family values aren't really old-fashioned. Bill and his wife, Glenda, set an example for a son and three daughters who have been raised on ranch chores and self-reliance. Throughout their stay, guests will encounter family members cooking, serving, organizing and, yes, making sure those ranch chores still get done every day.
Of course three of the Rankin kids are now married so theyget a little help from their spouses. As Clint Wilder remembers, his then wife-to-be Sarah Rankin matter-of-factly explained that she was very excited to marry him but she wasn't going to leave the ranch. It was goodbye lumber mill job, hello Rankin ranch-hand, and Clint has absolutely no regrets.
For guests, the pace around Rankin Ranch can be as busy or laid-back as you want it to be. We kept busy with daily rides, swimming, hiking and the social activities that accompanied most meals. At night, there's no sitting in your room watching television because there is no TV. You could just sit back and read a good book but then you'd miss out on the family-style shows the Rankins put on for their guests. Some people might think dancing the hokey-pokey with your fellow guests is'well...hokey, but then no one can resist when it's pointed out that dance instructors Omar and Lois Krumm have been performing at the ranch for 40 years. Or consider the talents of Daniel Houghtaling, another ranch fixture who performs magic while, in the same show, showing live snakes.
As you might expect, a visit to a guest ranch is all about the riding and the food, and Rankin is no exception. Wrangler David Staats is one of the best we've seen at a guest ranch — he has a calm, helpful demeanor and carefully matches each rider with the horse that is most appropriate for the rider's experience level. The horses seem well-trained and the trails offer plenty of variety. While insurance requirements won't allow the ranch to let guests actually round up cattle, experienced riders will get to run their horses in nearby meadows.
It's also no surprise that a cattle ranch would offer plenty of tasty beef for many of the meals and "Rudy" and his kitchen staff serve up steaks as good as any high-priced steakhouse. During our weekend stay we enjoyed steaks, roast beef and top-quality hamburgers all cooked to perfection and offered up with fresh potatoes, vegetables, pastas, salads and scrumptious home-cooked desserts. Full breakfasts also are served each morning.
All of our meals were great, but an especially rewarding family experience was the Sunday hay ride, which included a hamburger barbecue in a stand of trees about a half-mile out into the ranch pastureland. Guests were transported to the picnic area in a tractor-pulled wooden trailer lined with hay, and then everyone was invited to participate in an after-barbecue horseshoes tournament.
With so many activities, we didn't spend much time in our room. But our air-conditioned cabin was well-appointed with a queen, twin and day bed, as well as a couple of lounge chairs. There are seven cabins altogether, each with two separate units. The cabins are spaced throughout the wooded property, making each feel somewhat remote from the other cabins.
The Rankin Ranch is an especially good choice for families. We found the daily kids activities to be a nice change from the usual getaway experience in which our six-year-old daughter can't find a friend to play with who is her age. At Rankin Ranch, she quickly made friends among the 15 or so kids at the ranch during our weekend. And we found the ranch very safety-conscious with strict rules about kids not swimming without parent or counselor supervision. Whenever kids' activities were completed, a staff member would always accompany our daughter to find us.
No question, a visit to Rankin Ranch is a visit to a different time and place, a place where work-a-day cares and daily stress just seem to evaporate. As Bill Rankin observes, "people just don't slow down enough to enjoy Nature — ya know, Nature doesn't move real fast."
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Rankin Ranch is located about 40 miles east of Bakersfield near the tiny town of Caliente.
WHAT: Rankin Ranch is a historic cattle ranch that was founded in 1863. It began guest ranch operations in 1965 and has been successful at combining guest activities with a booming cattle operation.
WHEN: The guest ranch is open from Easter until early October and reservations should be made well in advance. Many returning guests will book several of the cabins for family members.
WHY: "Back to Nature" is the appeal here as well as the Kids Program and the family-focused meals and activities. Singles and couples would not feel out of place and could find plenty to enjoy with the adult rides, hiking trails, and various other recreational activities. Guests make friends here quickly and easily.
HOW: For more information, contact the Rankin Ranch at (661) 867-2511 or visit www.rankinranch.com.
Photos: Scenic pastureland at Rankin Ranch; ranch owner Bill Rankin; ranch guests Melanie and Nicole feed a calf; riders enjoy one of many trails; wrangler Dave Staats; kids are helped on their horses for the daily kids ride
Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway