Despite its early history as home to hundreds of cattle ranches, California has only a handful of guest ranches where you can get a taste of the Old West. Best known is the Alisal near Solvang, but there's another historic ranch in the Southland where would-be cowboys also are welcome.
It's the Rankin Ranch, hidden high in the mountains of eastern Kern County. Rankin is one of the largest working cattle ranches in the state, sprawling across 31,000 acres of ruggedly beautiful countryside.
Walker Rankin established the spread in 1863 and it's been in the same family ever since. Today the ranch is run by Helen Rankin, who decided to open it to a few guests in 1965 after her husband died.
She envisioned hosting a big house party rather than running a fancy resort facility. Among the shade trees near the main ranch house, the Rankin family built six duplex-style cabins to accommodate no more than 36 guests.
The highlight for most visitors is swinging into their saddles for trail rides. The morning outing might follow a trout stream into the wooded mountains past grazing cattle and an occasional deer. In the afternoon the horses often head across the grassy meadow of Walker's Basin, where the stables and ranch house are located.
By Covered Wagon
Walker Rankin and his family arrived from Pennsylvania in a covered wagon and followed a stream bed into the isolated basin. He decided cattle would do well there and imported the area's first white-face Herefords to his Quarter Circle U ranch.
Helen lives in the original ranch house that's more than a century old. It's now attached to a spacious dining room where guests enjoy their meals amid photographs of Rankin cowboys enlarged from the family album.
Visitors soon become part of the Rankin family. One couple has returned every summer since Helen began welcoming guests more than two decades ago. In fact, more than 70% of her guests are repeaters. Most learned of the ranch by word of mouth.
It's not a place you pass on the way to anywhere else. Rankin Ranch is reached via the Caliente-Bodfish Road, once a stagecoach route winding between the Piute and Greenhorn mountains. Major landmarks are Lake Isabella to the north and Tehachapi to the south.
The ranch's remote location promises relief from hectic life styles and big-city concerns. Instead of idle TV watching (there's no set in sight), the Rankins organize evening activities that range from square-dance lessons to a pool tournament.
One night during our visit the teen-agers headed off on a moonlight walk to the old Rankin family cemetery where the tombstones date back to 1887.
Besides horseback riding (and a Sunday hay-wagon ride into the meadow for a barbecue), daytime diversions include fishing, swimming in the ranch pool and tennis on the hard court. There are shuffleboard, horseshoes, Ping-Pong and volleyball too.
Guests bring their own rods and tackle to try for trout in Rankin's private stream and tiny Julia Lake; a 25-inch rainbow is this year's record catch. The limit is one fish per day per guest, and the cook is happy to fry them for your breakfast.
Three hearty home-cooked meals are prepared daily, with lunch and dinner served all-you-can-eat buffet style. Beef comes right from the ranch, and the corn bread, peach cobbler, apple cake and other breads and pastries are freshly baked in the kitchen.
Meals are called by the ringing of a cast-iron dinner bell, and dress is always informal. But there are touches of style as well, such as linen tablecloths and napkins, fresh flowers and candlelight at dinner.
Helen Rankin makes visitors feel at home by hosting an adult cocktail hour at 5:30 p.m. on the patio. Acquaintances are made easily in this peaceful outdoor setting. Guests bring their own libations (the ranch doesn't have a liquor license) but Helen provides mixes and snacks and introduces everyone.
To help parents unwind, the ranch offers a holiday children's program that keeps kids 4 through 11 busy throughout the day. During Easter week, Memorial Day weekend and in the summer they have their own trail rides, craft sessions, talent shows, swim meets, picnics, games and other events.
Single visitors as well as couples and families are welcome at Rankin Ranch. It's open seasonally, beginning at Easter and closing in late October. This year's close is Oct. 26.
Accommodations are in spacious wood-paneled rooms with vintage iron bedsteads and electric blankets to keep you warm on cool fall nights. We went to sleep with the sound of crickets and were awakened in the morning by a bawling calf.
The guest ranch operates on the American plan, with meals, horseback rides and everything else included. Many visitors spend a week, but shorter stays are welcome.
During the current off-season, two adults in one room pay $73.50 daily per person on Friday and Saturday nights, $62.50 Sunday through Thursday nights.
Additional adults in the same room, including children 12 and older, pay $68.50 and $58.50. Kids under 12 pay $46.50 and $40.50. Single rates are $83.50 and $73.50. (Add 10% to all rates for one-night stays.)
For more information or reservations, call (805) 867-2511 or write to Rankin Ranch, Box 36, Caliente, Calif. 93518.
Get to the guest ranch from Los Angeles by driving north on Interstate 5 and California 99; exit east on California 223/Bear Mountain Boulevard through Arvin to California 58. Head east and turn left at the first exit, Caliente, then go north 15 miles.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Rankin Ranch is 272 miles.