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Weekend Escape: Kern County

It's Family Time, Dude

Kids' programs, friendly feelings at a working cattle ranch


WALKER BASIN, Calif. — I sat 5 feet off the ground on the back of a glistening quarter horse named Cappuccino listening to the wind whistle in my ears and rustle through the surrounding meadow of wildflowers. As far as I could see there was nothing but nature, a small portion of it sowed to fields of grain, but mostly the rough terrain of mountainous cattle country.

Rankin Ranch, located in the Tehachapi Mountains, about 125 miles north of our urban Hollywood home, probably doesn't look much different today than it did 135 years ago when Walker Rankin Sr. rode in and homesteaded 160 acres. Looking over the verdant countryside--nourished by three times the usual rainfall--it wasn't hard to understand why, five generations later, the Rankin family is still here.

Lucky for the rest of us that they are. In 1965, the family opened their cattle ranch (now 31,000 acres) to paying guests--up to 36 at a time, who come from April to early October. Here, the Rankins practice a dedication to the old ways that makes the city seem a century away.

We came because I love to ride and don't get enough chances at home. My husband, Richard, was game, though he'd only been on horses a couple of times. Our daughter Rachel is almost 3, and a year too young to be left in the supervised children's program.

But when I called to make our reservation, Glenda Rankin assured me that Rachel could play with the other children and participate in all the kids' programs, as long as one of us was with her or we arranged with them in advance for a special baby-sitter. We knew Rachel would enjoy older kids, and we didn't want to wait another year to go, so we decided to take turns spending time with her.

The emphasis is on horses. About 30 stallions are kept at the ranch for guests, and anyone over age 6 can ride twice daily. Two wranglers take out groups of no more than 12 riders each morning and afternoon, each outing following a somewhat different trail.

For a mid-June three-day weekend, we arrived on Friday afternoon at about 4 after an easy freeway ride followed by a foggy drive up the steep hill from the tiny town of Caliente. Despite the late-spring date, it was cold in the mountains and a bit rainy, so we were more than a little concerned about what our time at the ranch would be like. Coming into the lodge, we met a guest who had decided to sleep through the afternoon ride, opting out of the rainy trek. Others, however, had gone anyway, and gotten soaked. Rides, evidently, are available whatever the weather.

After settling into our room--one-half of a duplex cabin--which included a double and single bed and a sleeper couch as well as a private bath, we joined the rest of the guests in the lodge for some card games and coloring (for Rachel) before dinner. Promptly at 6:30, the dinner bell rang.

Everything at Rankin is covered on the American plan, including all meals--almost a necessity since the ranch is so remote. Accommodations are ample and the food, served only during designated mealtimes, is homemade, fresh and healthy, mostly of the meat-and-potatoes variety, with hefty breakfasts of eggs, hash browns and meat. Prices for adults depend on how many are sharing a room, and kids' prices depend on age.


There are no TVs, and the only telephone is a pay phone in the lodge. To say the Rankin family is friendly is almost to understate the warmth with which they operate their hostelry. Bill Rankin, who oversees the farm and cattle ranch for the family, signed us in when we arrived; his mother, matriarch Helen Rankin, whose watercolors of wildflowers adorned our room, joined Friday's dinner, and Glenda Rankin, Bill's wife, participated in many of the weekend's activities.

From their enthusiasm, you'd never guess they've been open to the public for 33 years. The result is that many visitors are regulars, and reservations can be hard to get. When I called in mid-May, only two weekends before Labor Day had openings. There are sometimes cancellations, however.

The ranch has six duplex cabins, with another under construction. We stayed in the one farthest from the lodge. The draw, though, is the outdoors, and even in the wet, cold evening of our first night we could tell that the landscape is spectacular. When we woke to clear blue skies, it was obvious that we were in luck.

My first ride, on Cappuccino, was my favorite of the three I took. Maybe I'd just been away from nature for too long, but every minute seemed incredibly alive. David Staats, the ranch's head wrangler, led the group, along with his assistant, Jeff Haynie, and we covered enough ground to make the ranch house, adjacent barns and stables seem remote.

Richard went out next, and Rachel and I joined the kids' group for a hike along the creek, which included a snack and a hunt for tadpoles in a small creek-side pond.

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