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WEEKEND ESCAPE

In Santa Ynez Valley, how the West was fun

Horseback riding and kids' activities lure a mom and daughter to Rancho Oso.

September 07, 2003|Susan Lendroth | Special to The Times

Santa Barbara — Far below the twists and turns of Highway 154, the Pacific shimmered like a mirror in the sunset. "Goodbye, ocean," called my 8-year-old daughter, Kyla, when the water slipped from view.

I too felt wistful at the thought of cool sea breezes as we drove away from the coast last month and toward Rancho Oso, a guest ranch in the golden hills northwest of Santa Barbara. Inland temperatures were expected to soar to 100. But we soldiered on, following signs to the ranch's check-in gate.

Then they appeared: a family of deer materializing out of the dusk, next to our car. The doe, buck and spotted fawn delicately stepped across the road to the pasture on the other side.

Kyla was entranced. All regrets about bypassed beaches vanished. Rancho Oso had begun imparting its own brand of magic.

I had attended horse camp here as a child, but the property had long since been transformed from a summer place for kids to a guest ranch for all ages. Thousand Trails Inc. operates the 310-acre ranch as part of its nationwide network of private camps, but you don't need a membership to stay here.

I booked one of Rancho Oso's five Western-themed cabins for $69 plus tax per night. Each comes with a double bed, twin bunks, mini refrigerator, ceiling fan and barbecue grill. Bathrooms are a short walk away. Guests really intent on an Old West experience can stay in covered wagons, each with four cots and no lights.

By the time we pulled up to our small cabin, stars dusted the sky. The cabins, lined up in a row, sported false Western fronts like a miniature Dodge City. The "Livery" sign on ours seemed well matched to the horses grazing in the adjacent corral.

Kyla opened the back window to listen to soft nickers. Moonlight silvered a nearby steed. First deer, now horses -- Rancho Oso was the best place ever, according to my daughter.

The cabin interior maintained the rustic theme with knotty pine walls and hewn-log furniture that looked like something crafted by trained beavers. The ceiling fan did a fair job cooling us once both windows were open.

We fell asleep to a chorus of crickets and were awake by 7 the next morning. Wild turkeys pecked for stray grain in the yellowed grass, and a squirrel stood sentinel near a fence. I wondered if I could pull Kyla away from this wild kingdom long enough for breakfast.

Showing her the day's activity schedule did the trick. Rancho Oso offers a full slate of family fun on weekends, and Kyla wanted to try everything.

We ate breakfast in the Stone Lodge, built in the early 1900s as a residence. All along the fireplace mantel, the late cowboy artist John Edward Borein had painted a mural of a cattle drive -- supposedly one animal for every free steak dinner he received in return.

The lodge serves as the ranch's hub, where guests can play organized games, do crafts, watch satellite TV or buy breakfast and dinner. I ordered pancakes, and Kyla had eggs and hash browns. With orange juice, our breakfast tab came to $7 plus tax. And we didn't have to paint a single cow.

Between bites of egg, Kyla ran in and out of the dining room, mingling with a pack of kids on a quest for a golden horseshoe. The staff posted the first clues to the treasure hunt at 9 a.m., launching a day of Candy Bar Bingo and other activities, all free to guests.

For Kyla, part of Rancho Oso's appeal was the abundance of other children. She never lacked a playmate for Foosball, tether ball or keep-away. Kids roamed the grounds -- heady freedom for a girl raised on play dates and structured day care. I was surprised that Kyla still found time to hang with her mom.

We met Tammy Lopez, the ranch's recreation director, on a wagon ride. A pickup truck towed the wagon through oak groves while Lopez pointed out a Chumash grinding stone and woodpecker colonies that stored acorns.

We bought lunch at the Chuckwagon, a fast-food stand. My veggie patty wasn't bad, but I was glad we had bought peaches and carrots from Los Angeles. Of course, that didn't keep us from an ice cream social later.

The temperature rose but remained pleasant, and by late afternoon we were ready for the pool. Kyla plunged in for an informal underwater handstand contest. I chose a lounge chair in the shade and settled in with a book.

For dinner guests could order charbroiled sirloin and barbecued chicken breast with all the trimmings, eaten family style. Lopez lighted the fire pit afterward and passed out toasting irons and marshmallows for s'mores.

On Sunday, Kyla and I headed for the stables for an hourlong trail ride. This was Kyla's first time handling a grown horse on her own, and she just squeaked past the age requirement.

Wrangler Mike Hicks led us around the perimeter of the ranch. We ambled beneath sycamores and cottonwoods that will blaze with color in autumn, then forded the Santa Ynez River, where minnows darted past the hoofs.

"Reach over and pick a piece of that," Hicks called back to me. I snapped off a sprig of yellow flowers.

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