The Alisal Escape

Article and Photography by Mark Bedor
_dsc3216More than 38 million people live in California—nearly 10 million in Los Angeles County alone. But just a couple hours or so north of the traffic jams and other ills of that urban life lies an amazing remnant of what drew all those people to the Golden State in the first place: a 10,000-acre oasis of unspoiled natural beauty known as the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort.
You can almost hear your soul breathe out a sigh of relaxed relief as you ride the quiet trails that wind over giant grass-covered hills, through groves of sprawling oak and sycamore, and along the shore of the Alisal’s well-stocked private lake. The bearded moss that drapes many of the big trees gives them a unique appearance—it’s not something you usually see in the West. Combined with the morning fog that often rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, the pristine landscape takes on a bit of a mysterious quality. This peaceful ranch is captivating, absorbing and whisks you away from the troubles of the outside world. A ride along the trails of the Alisal is soothing … relaxing … rejuvenating. Many have been smitten by the charm of this place.
“We drive through that gate every year, and it’s like your troubles go away,” guest Linda Vandenbroeke said.
Linda is part of a group of 14 family members and friends from the L.A.-area making their annual escape to the Alisal.
“We have a great time here,” her friend Nikki said. “It’s just beautiful.”
_dsc4813These serious equestrians even brought their trainer along for the trip. The appeal of the ranch to serious horsemen and –women isn’t uncommon, Alisal Head Wrangler Tony Thompson says.
“Unless you know somebody that’s got a lot of land, or you’re invited to go to a branding or a gathering or something like that, you don’t get an opportunity to ride on such a historical ranch,” he explained.
That history dates to 1843, when Raimundo Carrillo was granted this land in exchange for services to the Mexican government that then ruled the area.  The area, known to its original Native inhabitants as “Nojoqui,” became “Rancho Nojoqui,” before taking on the Spanish name, “Alisal,” which means “grove of sycamores.”
With the exception of a terrible drought in the 1860s, cattle have almost always grazed the property. Subsequent owners included Charles E. Perkins, who raised beef cattle along with Thoroughbreds, including Kentucky Derby winner Flying Ebony. Charles Pete Jackson Jr. bought the ranch in 1943, and taking the advice of his manager, opened the property to dude-ranch guests three years later; the Jackson family has been welcoming visitors ever since.
Clark Gable was married here. Doris Day was a regular. Movie stars still come, sometimes for work, as in the case of the film Sideways, much of which was shot on the Alisal and in the surrounding area.
Luxe Living
It’s no wonder those who can afford to go anywhere come here. This property with the
_dsc3476feel of Old California is gorgeous. The accommodations are wonderful. And one of their best qualities is the absence of both a television and a telephone.
Savoring the food is part of the fun. And the halibut, swordfish, Angus beef tenderloin and other delectable offerings on the menu are as delicious as you can imagine. Jackets are mandatory for men at dinner, a reminder that you are a guest at a special place with a rich heritage.
There’s a fitness center and spa, a six-court tennis program, archery, and two 18-hole championship golf courses. But what’s most unique about the Alisal is the land itself. And the human accomplishment most celebrated here is the care with which this rare, unspoiled remnant of California has been preserved; the abundant wildlife that lives on the ranch is testament to that. Mule deer, coyotes, great blue herons and magnificent bald eagles grace the property.
_dsc5028Horseback riding is a perfect way to experience everything Alisal has to offer. Guests ride along the trail that winds around the ranch’s private 100-acre spring-fed lake. The horses you ride become part of the memories you make on those trails.
With about 100 horses calling Alisal home, there’s no shortage of suitable mounts. The head wrangler handpicks the mounts for each guest. They include a number of registered American Paint Horses, including Logical Prospect, Gallant Del Bandit and Peppys Blazin Boots.
Nearby Escapes
Alisal borders the property of a famous horseman who once called the White House home: Ronald Reagan—you can glimpse his helicopter landing pad on a distant hilltop. They say Reagan took one look at the views from his property and bought the place without even checking out the house, and it’s easy to see why. Alisal borders the Los Padres National Forest and is nestled within the Santa Ynez Mountains, one of the rare mountain ranges that runs east to west. The vistas are magnificent.
One ridge overlooks the Santa Ynez Valley, which is still home to historic Mission Santa Ines, founded by the missionary padres in 1804. The town of Santa Ynez dates to the Old West days of 1882 and still has a rich Western flavor. Western music stars like Ian Tyson, Dave Stamey, Brenn Hill and many others have graced the stage of the Ranch & Reata Roadhouse, which offers fine cuisine as well. A few steps away is KJ Murphy’s, the custom hat shop of craftsman Kevin Murphy. Nearby is the Parks-Janeways Carriage House, home to one of the finest collections of horse drawn vehicles in the West. This small town also has big shopping opportunities with a Western flair, including an art gallery, boutique clothing shops and gift stores.
Just outside Alisal’s gate is the quaint Danish hamlet of Solvang. And all of it’s in the heart of California wine country.
_dsc5199But to explore those other areas, you’ll first have to pry yourself away from the Alisal. As you immerse yourself in its world, it’s easy to forget about the one outside. Friends are easy to find here; everyone seems caught up in the magic of the place. When you find yourself yearning to return, you can immerse yourself even deeper into the Alisal experience through a number of special couple’s getaway weekends featuring romantic dinners, wine tasting and lots of riding.  Horseback therapy you might call it. That’s available to anyone who saddles up on this historic ranch that offers a rare opportunity to see California as it once was—and still is. You might be just a couple hours north of L.A., but you’ll feel like you’re a million miles away.

Mark Bedor is a special contributor to Chrome and MyChromeLife.com. For more great stories like this, check out Chrome magazine, free with your American Paint Horse Association membership. Join or subscribe today!