REFUGIO CANYON — For folks searching for a small family-run guest ranch in the Southland, the Circle Bar B comes riding to the rescue.
It's 25 miles west of Santa Barbara and has been operating since the 1940s. Recently the third generation of the Brown family has spurred it to new life.
Florence Brown started a children's camp in this quiet, tree-filled canyon during World War II, and soon converted it to a family vacation ranch. Until a year ago guests were still bedding down in the rustic rooms that once bunked the kids.
Then Florence's four grandchildren decided to update the place and build new lodgings. In the summer of 1986 they opened six deluxe cabins, each with a wood-burning fireplace, down comforters on the beds and porches overlooking the rural scenery.
Grandson Pat took over the stable operation and has 15 well-trained steeds for guests who want to explore the 1,000-acre ranch on horseback. One trail ride leads to the border of neighboring Rancho del Cielo, the western retreat of President Reagan.
As an antidote for guests' saddle-sore muscles the family added an outdoor Jacuzzi this summer. They rebuilt the ranch's spring-fed swimming pool and sun decks, too.
What hasn't changed around Circle Bar B is the casual and contented mood that envelops visitors. City life is soon forgotten; the most noise you'll hear is the dinner bell, or the call of raucous peacocks that strut around the property.
In good weather, meals are served outdoors on picnic tables beneath ancient walnut trees. The walnuts sometimes appear in the ranch's home-baked pies that are made from family recipes.
A special treat at the Circle Bar B is the weekend comedy dinner theater that's in its 16th season. The lighthearted shows are presented in an old barn that was converted into a 90-seat playhouse.
On stage every Friday and Saturday night through Nov. 28 is "Not Now Darling," the last of this season's four shows.
The 8 p.m. curtain time is preceded by a Western barbecue dinner: tri-tip steak, ranch beans, tossed, potato and fruit salads, garlic bread, dessert, fruit punch and coffee.
Dinner and the show costs $22, but if you're staying at the ranch a ticket for the theater is $9. That's because the Circle Bar B is on the full American plan (FAP), and all meals are included in the room rate.
Three Hearty Meals
A couple can spend the night in one of the new cabins and enjoy three hearty meals for $168. An extra adult can sleep in the loft for $70; or $55 for a child age 3 through 18.
Five small camp rooms from the 1940s have been renovated by the Browns and also include private baths. Their rates with all meals are $128 double, $72 single. An extra adult is $60, child $45. The ranch has a two-night minimum on weekends.
Guests never go hungry. A wake-up bell at 8 a.m. announces that in half an hour you can expect a cowboy breakfast: eggs, bacon, pancakes, toast, fruit and fresh-brewed coffee. At lunch, salads, sandwiches and fruit are on the menu.
Adventurous visitors can go for lunch along the trail by signing on for the half-day horseback ride that winds up Refugio Canyon to the gate of President Reagan's ranch. You'll be atop the Santa Ynez Mountains and enjoy vistas of Los Padres National Forest.
From Circle Bar B Stables you also can mount up for a 90-minute trail ride that goes through the woods to a waterfall on the ranch, then on to a mountain crest that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands.
The shorter wrangler-led ride costs $20, while the four-hour outing with lunch is $40 for ranch guests, $50 for others. Make reservations by calling Circle Bar B Stables at (805) 968-3901.
Gather Before Dinner
Before dinner, guests often gather for libations in the living room of the rustic ranch house or outdoors on the patio. Guests must bring their own beer, wine or cocktails because the ranch has no liquor license.
The evening meal is usually served family style and features such all-American entrees as barbecue ribs or beef stew. On theater nights it's always a steak buffet, often with Florence's son, Jim, or grandson, Pat, manning the massive barbecue grill.
Jim also coordinates the dinner theater, while Pat serves as head wrangler and horseshoer. Florence's granddaughter, Kathy Brown, graduated in business administration two years ago from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and has become manager of the guest ranch.
Florence is recovering from a stroke, but you can see the active life she's led by looking through the scrapbooks of her world travels. You'll find them in the ranch house living room, where there also are photo albums of guests. They go back to the 1930s when Florence and her sister ran a guest ranch 35 miles northwest at Los Alamos.