Tony Thompson is all business this warm morning. He and a dozen other Alisal Guest Ranch wranglers have only a couple of hours to catch and saddle 63 horses for guests going on this morning's breakfast ride. As the horses are brought in from the fields, Thompson checks them over before scribbling notes on a whiteboard outside the barn.
With the help of Jake Copass, a cowboy who came to the Alisal in 1946, when the 10,000-acre spread in the Santa Ynez Valley first opened, 9-year-old Tristan climbs into the saddle. But Tristan's horse, Biscuit, ignores his command to giddyup. "Make out like you're mad at your mom and give your pony a little whack in the rear," Copass whispers.
It seems improbable--a 10,000-acre riding and roping ranch occupying the expensive real estate that is contemporary Southern California. And yet this region holds three long-established guest ranches: the Alisal and nearby Circle Bar B Guest Ranch, both in Santa Barbara County, and Rankin Ranch in Kern County. A fourth recently joined their ranks: Rancho Temescal in Ventura County. The horsey quartet give city and suburb slickers a chance to play cowpoke for a week or a weekend.
If the Alisal is the grand caballero of Southern California ranches, Rancho Temescal is the aspiring newcomer. Jed Cohen and his family purchased Rancho Temescal ― which encompasses 6,000 acres of rugged terrain near Lake Piru, 40 miles north of Los Angeles ― four years ago, as a place to raise thoroughbred racehorses. After adding lavish Spanish-style stables, they decided to open the ranch to the public.
Like the Alisal, Rancho Temescal is a working ranch. (Guests spend the night 1/2 mile away in the town of Piru, at a restored 1888 Italianate hotel christened the Heritage Valley Inn.) And, like the Alisal, it can seem a pricey way to spend a vacation: Rates run from $495 a night for two. Still, guest-ranch rates look less expensive when you factor in meals (usually included) and the number of activities offered. (Be sure to ask about weekday and off-season packages too.)
And then there are the perks that no mere motel can offer. At Rancho Temescal, you can go for a trail ride to Piru Creek and spend the afternoon napping beneath the shade of a tree or you can toss a line into a private pond stocked with rainbow trout. But most guests prefer a more active role on the ranch: herding cattle from one pasture to another, rounding up strays, and learning team penning, roping, or cutting. That said, horsemanship isn't a prerequisite to a fun stay. Jed Cohen's son, Tim, says that about half the people who visit Rancho Temescal have never been on a horse before. But since guests ride the same horses used by ranch cowboys to work the cattle, "Even if you don't know what you're doing, your horse does," he says.
The horse always knows. Back at the Alisal, Jake Copass watches young Tristan give Biscuit a tiny whack on his rear. Biscuit obligingly trots out to join the first group of horses and riders heading off into the oak-covered hills. A new cowboy is being born. With a slow drawl, Copass delivers a line he has probably repeated a thousand times but nonetheless rings true right now: "You can play the stock exchange and die young or play cowboy and live forever."
The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. With two 18-hole golf courses, it's more resort than ranch. Very family-oriented, with plenty of kid activities. 73 cottages and suites from $425 per night (ask which activities and meals are included in room price), two-night minimum and 250-guest maximum. 1054 Alisal Rd., Solvang; www.alisal.com or 800/425-4725.
Circle Bar B Guest Ranch. Perched in a canyon in the Santa Ynez Mountains, 1,000-acre Circle Bar B is a moderately priced alternative to the Alisal. 14 ranch-style rooms and 1 cabin from $225 (not including horseback riding), two-night minimum and 45-guest maximum. 1800 Refugio Rd., Goleta; www.circlebarb.com or 805/968-1113.
Rancho Temescal. This is a true ranch experience, geared for teens and adults. From $495, two-night minimum and 20-guest maximum. 3700 Piru Canyon Rd., Piru; www.ranchotemescal.com or 805/521-0511.
Rankin Ranch. For more than 140 years, the Rankin family has operated this 31,000-acre ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains, 125 miles north of Los Angeles. Today Bill and Glenda Rankin and daughter Sarah make a stay here feel like a visit to Grandma's house in the country. Open Apr-Oct; 7 duplex cabins and 1 deluxe suite from $240 after Labor Day (10 percent additional charge for one-night stay), 48-guest maximum. 23500 Walker Basin Rd., Caliente; www.rankinranch.com or 661/867-2511.