Judging from the history of Warner Springs Ranch, there was once a time when the current situation was reversed - Americans went to Mexico to seek their fortune and were sometimes rewarded handsomely for their efforts. Ranch founder John Warner must have thought it was a particularly good day when the Mexican government awarded him a 48,000-square-acre land grant just for becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen.
Of course, Warner had a little pull: he had married Anita Gale, who was raised as a ward of the soon-to-be governor of California. For a 37-year-old Connecticut native, Warner had done well for himself.
Warner's little piece of Mexico - dubbed Valle de San Jose - was renamed Warner's Ranch and, by the late 1840's, this idyllic stretch of property became the only inhabited stopping place for wagon trains and Butterfield stagecoaches between New Mexico and Los Angeles. Located near the eastern border of today's San Diego County, Warner's Ranch was visited by such stagecoach travelers as Kit Carson, Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant, and many other notables.
One of the main attractions in those days was the hot mineral springs that were included in Warner's little gift from the Mexican government. One can only imagine how good this early-day hot tub felt for those tired stagecoach travelers after a hard day of fighting Indians or just riding in a rickety wagon on washboard roads. The California Spa experience had been born.
Somewhere along the way, Warner's oasis became known as Warner Springs Ranch and its proximity to Los Angeles - just a hundred miles or so - made it popular with Hollywood stars such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, John Wayne and Bing Crosby. Clearly, Warner Springs Ranch had passed the test of time, and that has since led to several generations of California families who have grown up enjoying their vacations in Warner Springs.
Whether coming from San Diego or pointsnorth, the drive to Warner Springs Ranch takes you through and around 6000-foot mountain ranges, across high-desert plateaus and along winding rivers and streams. It's a pleasant drive far away from the bustle of the city and light-years apart from the Southern California beach vacations that are, as the crow flies, about 40 miles away.
At the end of your journey is the ranch, nestled in the foothills of Palomar Mountain. For a resort offering 240 cottages, we noticed on a recent visit that it doesn't seem nearly that expansive from the road. Warner Springs Ranch really is like a small town by the side of the road that doesn't offer much of a hint about what's inside this gated community. Once inside, however, we could see that there was much to explore and do without even leaving the ranch.
First stop was our adobe cottage. Obviously built many decades ago, this house included a spacious living room area with cathedral ceilings and a couch that folded out into a double bed. The thick adobe walls - about two feet wide measuring the window insets - keep these units cool year around, but a stone fireplace was at the ready. Adjacent to the living room area was a bedroom and bath area. This was quite a historic building and nothing in our unit was particularly fancy -- in fact, many might consider the accommodations and furnishings rather rustic. But there are degrees of rustic, and many Warner Springs units have been nicely renovated to be bright and airy and really quite spotless.
The centerpiece of the resort grounds is the hot springs area, where stone walls surround the springs and add still more historic flavor. The water is piped down to a 100-by-48-foot pool where the temperature is kept at a steady 104 degrees. Within minutes of our arrival we were joining another few dozen guests relaxing and luxuriating in the soothing waters. For us, this was truly a highlight of visiting Warner Springs and, compared with many hot springs we've visited out in wilderness areas, this pool just seemed more civilized. Private changing rooms were at pool's edge and there was none of the nudity you often find in mineral springs that are more remote.
Next to the mineral pool is a standard pool of about the same size, and heated to between 75 and 85 degrees year-round. But there is much more to do at Warner Springs Ranch than soak or swim - for the active vacationer, there are many more attractions including a 6,892-yard, par 72 golf course, several tennis courts - a pro is on duty to give lessons - and another major part of the ranch, horseback riding.
While we didn't get a chance to saddle up during our brief visit, there are regular rides along an extensive system of trails, each offering different views of the valley and neighboring mountains. One of those trails is the Pacific Crest Trail, where we did set out on foot for an afternoon, envisioning what it must be like to hike this trail from the Canadian border all the way to Mexico. As Arnold would say, our little hike was more the girlie-man version of the PCT, but none the less scenic and seemingly just as remote. The advantage, of course, was we would sleep in our cozy cottage and dine in style at the resort's Anza Dining Room.
The Anza seems to be the social center of the resort. As mentioned previously, generations of Californians have been coming to Warner Springs Ranch and many of the cottages are privately owned, encouraging frequent trips back to the ranch. Sit down for dinner in the Anza and you get the feeling that most people in the room are friends or vacation acquaintances. On a given Saturday night it's not a quiet, romantic dinner spot - the room is more like a dining hall - but the food is expertly prepared, and the buffet option loads you up with several gourmet entries for under $18.
Near the Anza is the Cantina, a colorful bar located in the actual adobe where John Warner lived when he took possession of the ranch. The only nightlife in the area, the Cantina comes alive with bands and entertainers most weekends.
The "morning after" at Warner Springs will feel much better than usual if you take advantage of the spa services -- like most spa resorts, Warner Springs strives to provide a complete vacation experience.
If you are able to stay any length of time, there are many attractions in the area that are either adjacent to the ranch or within easy driving distance. Just a couple of miles from the ranch is the Warner Springs Airport where you can go up in a glider. The thermals over the ranch area provide a significant lift for the gliders operating out of the Warner Springs airport and, on weekends, it's not uncommon to see flight-after-flight of sailplanes taking tourists up for a quick look at the valley from an engine-less aircraft. The gliders can seat two guests side-by-side.
Julian is a historic gold mining town that is less than an hour's drive from Warner Springs. A frequent getaway for San Diego area residents, Julian offers an Old West main street with colorful shops, restaurants and old-time bars. In summer, western gunfights are sometimes staged on Main Street.
In fact, Warner Springs and Julian are great bookends for California's history - a visit to this part of San Diego County will make you wish you'd gotten your own little 48,000-acre piece of this gorgeous California countryside.
WHERE: Warner Springs is located about a 90-minute drive northeast from San Diego, or about two and a half hours southeast from Los Angeles. It's easily included on any Southern California vacation itinerary.
WHAT: Warner Springs Ranch is a historic resort that, over the years, has provided many vacation memories for many Californians. Today it has evolved into one of the state's most unique spa resorts, with lodging, three restaurants, golf, horseback riding, tennis, and many more activities.
WHEN: Year-round. While the area can get a little warm in summer, the climate is generally temperate because of its 3,000-foot elevation. It gets its share of San Diego County sunshine. Be sure to check for special travel deals and vacation packages offered by the resort. If you have last minute travel plans for a summer weekend, you may be out of luck -- the resort runs at capacity every weekend in summer, and many in winter.
WHY: It's a family resort - nothing too fancy, although you're apt to find lots of luxury cars parked by the adobe cottages. Numerous activities on the ranch and nearby will keep you busy for even long vacation periods. As spa resorts go, this one is probably more economical than most and a great choice for a Southern California vacation.
HOW: For more information on Warner Springs Ranch, phone 760-782-4200 or visit www.warnersprings.com. Accommodations start at $160 for a weekend night for two people including breakfast. Sailplane adventures start at $120 for a 20-minute ride for two people.