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Just because you live in a modern city doesn’t mean you can’t be a cowboy. At least for a little while, anyway. About 100 miles from the skyscrapers of Downtown Los Angeles are men and women who wrangle horses and ride them, spurs clanking, through Refugio Canyon in the Santa Ynez Mountain range set in Santa Barbara County, with ocean breezes cooling their trail. Families or couples can join them, for a weekend or a day, in a part of the country that seems like a throwback to a time when frontiersmen and women had to tame the bustling land to settle it.
It is the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch that staked its claim on the smidge of a city called Goleta in Santa Barbara County in 1939 when a single mom, Florence Brown, bought 60 acres of land and moved the children’s day camp she had been running on her sister’s property in Los Alamos over there. It was a revolutionary endeavor at the time since women had only been allowed to own land since 1848 and had just been granted the right to vote 19 years earlier. “She had help from a gentleman friend,” Brown’s granddaughter, Kathy, told us as she showed us around when we visited for an overnight anniversary celebration this summer. Brown saw the possibilities in the sprawling canyon refreshed by the sea and eventually opened the guest ranch and horse stables so city dwellers like us could retreat into this country cocoon for a split.
It’s a life dominated by nature and the appreciation of it you get when you step away from the technological windstorm in which most people live in the 21st century. Florence’s children and grandchildren took over the daily operation of the guest ranch when Florence eventually passed on.
Today, Kathy runs the day to day operation of the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch with her husband, Henry, with help from various family members and a few long term employees. Her brother, Patrick, operates the Circle Bar B Stables, where visitors who love to go horseback riding can rent a ride on a horse for 90 minutes to four hours. A crew of loyal cowboys take care of the horses and guests that ride them from the ranch’s stables through Refugio Canyon trails. It was on one of these trails that Howard proposed to me 15 years before. When I first spoke to Kathy about coming out to review her ranch, I had forgotten this was the place. I remembered horseback and the cliff but the excitement of the day blocked everything else.
There are 18 cabins settling into the hillside switchback that make up the guest ranch. Most are one-bedrooms but three have two bedrooms. The two-bedroom we stayed in had two floors and the upper floor had a bunk bed and a queen-sized bed, perfect for a young family with the grandparents — or teenagers — staying in the bottom room.
All Circle Bar B Guest Ranch cabins could be found in the pages of a Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie book. Most have no televisions but don’t worry, the cabins come with coffee makers, although breakfast and dinner are included with each stay. Also included is a pool surrounded by oaks and sycamores blowing away city concerns and a jacuzzi to finish melting them.
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Food and Drink
There is a clubhouse with a saloon-style bar where Henry is known to make a potent and tasty margarita. A stuffed grizzly bear looks down at guests who, in non-pandemic times, might hover around the couches set around a rocky mantle fireplace. Animal trophy heads decorate the cowboy hangout. A hallway down is where meals are usually served but during these times, all tables are set outside under a canopy of trees held back by a wooden overhang.
We enjoyed dinner and then bought a bottle of wine at the saloon that we shared in the adjacent game room. A lively game of pool followed by some ping pong rounded out our parental festivities.
Even in a pandemic, it’s possible to make friends. We met a couple in the attached library, full of books visitors could borrow, and a TV where they were watching a soccer game. Howard started talking to the husband, Estafan, about our boys, who also play soccer. Norma and Estafan had also come to celebrate their anniversary, turns out they shared our wedding date, only theirs was three years ago, so they still enjoyed their kid-free relationship. We told them not to hurry. We parted ways promising to seek each other out the next day before their scheduled wine tasting tour. These tours are still happening in a modified fashion with COVID restrictions in place.
Just because you live in a modern city doesn’t mean you can’t be a cowboy. At least for a little while, anyway. Read about an easy day trip from the Los Angeles area.
Horseshoes and Horses
Yes, we got to sleep in and relish the sounds of hawks calling and a creek rolling over rocks just outside our cabin. After an alfresco breakfast at our assigned table, we spotted Norma and Estafan and challenged them to a game of horseshoes before our scheduled horseback ride at 11. Turns out horseshoes is a lot harder than it looks. You know the saying about close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades but my throws weren’t even close. Howard had to retrieve many of the metal horseshoes from surrounding bushes and the road into which they rolled.
When 11 am came around, we walked down to the stables and met Cowboy Jack who made us feel welcome with his southern drawl and colorful jokes.
He introduced us to Cowboy Johnny who guided our private ride.
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Howard told him about the romantic significance of the occasion and the part it played in the history of our marriage. Although we tried to identify the cliff, hovering over trees and the ocean, where we had disembarked from our horses and Howard launched into his speech that began with, “You know how much I love you and how important you are to me…”
We realized that the riding routes the guides used had changed since that day, 16 years before, so, instead, we enjoyed listening to Johnny talk about the robbers that had used the canyon as escape routes after executing their heists and giving the canyon its notorious name.
Although we may not have broken any laws, our escape from the city into the tranquility of the country mountains left us feeling a kinship with the refugees from years past.
When To Go
According to Wikipedia, “The climate of the mountain range is Mediterranean. Summers are warm and almost entirely rainless, save for occasional monsoon showers in August and September, though in most years there is no rain between May and October.” Although, it’s still Southern California so really, anytime there will be beautiful just in different ways.
If You Bring The Kids
About 40 minutes away from the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch, south on the US-101 and up State Route 154 is Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park where Native Americans left evidence of their cosmic beliefs through easily accessible artwork. Another great opportunity to explore the past.
In the same southernly direction, you can visit the beach where dogs are welcome and people are friendly at Hendry’s Beach. It’s a small beach bordered by dramatic cliffs. Kids and dogs run leash free on the sand and waves. If you go hungry, don’t miss the incredible crabcakes at onsite restaurant, Hendry’s Boathouse.
Circle Bar B Guest Ranch is about 120 miles from downtown Los Angeles via the US-101 N
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