Review of The Alisal Guest Ranch | California Dude Ranch Vacations

by Shelly Rivoli
horseback riding at the alisal guest ranch in Solvang, California

SOLVANG, CALIFORNIA DUDE RANCH VACATIONS – Tired of nose-to-tail, no-trot trail rides on your family vacation? When we visited The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort this summer, the riding experiences proved to be anything but, making for an enjoyable family horseback riding vacation for all three generations of our family, and all level of riders (and levels of horseback enthusiasts) among us.

Set on 10,000 acres outside of Santa Barbara, the active cattle ranch is home to a herd of 100+ geldings. Among them, horses suitable for the youngest beginning riders (lessons offered for kids 4 to 6 years in the corral, and 7 years+ on the trail) through advanced riders. And I wasted no time getting over to the barn to see what it’s all about.


Horseback Rides for all Levels of Riders–with and without the Parents

For starters, on our first evening there I was able to set out on an “Advanced” trail ride with a small group. We were not only trotting through portions of the 2-hour ride, but we also enjoyed portions of the ride led along at full lope! In the evening light on the beautiful open hills surrounding Alisal Lake, with nary a hint of the busy Bay Area life I’d left behind, it felt at times like I was starring in my own Western film.

On horseback looking at Alisal Lake

To my delight, our wrangler Meaghan took us on a special route where we could view two bald eagle nests–one which had been far larger in the past, but was damaged in a storm. The other, the newer nest replacing it and currently inhabited by a pair of eagle parents and two eaglets. Watch closely, she advised, and you might see one. (Watch closely here, and you might just see one, too…)

n oak tree with bald eagle nests.

Wrangler Meaghan leads the way to an oak tree adorned with bald eagle nests.

Bald eagle sitting in oak tree

Lucky day! Just when I was ready to give up, I spy something up through the lacy lichen of an old oak tree.

Meanwhile, my daughters were on an Intermediate trail ride suitable to their skill levels and having a great time. And guess what? A parent didn’t have to accompany them at the same level (yes!). When we met up back at the barn afterward, it turned out we all three had bald eagle tales to tell. In their story, one of the adults swooped down beside them right at eye level above the water as they rode along the lake.

… it felt at times like I was starring in my own Western film.

woman on horseback with cowboy hat riding off into the sunset

When your wrangler literally rides off into the sunset…

The next morning was an early start for the kids with my son also saddling up for a 1-hour Instructional Trail Ride. Though he’s been on horseback rides before, the Instructional Trail Ride was a great opportunity for him and both of his sisters to brush up on the finer points of Western riding.

little boy ready for morning instructional ride at The Alisal Guest Ranch.

“Little T” ready for his morning instructional ride during his Alisal dude ranch vacation.

Shortly afterward, my daughters and I hit the trail for a 2-hour morning Intermediate trail ride. As promised, I saw plenty of new trail and views on my second ride. With more than 100 miles of trail through the hills surrounding The Alisal dude ranch, you may never take the same exact route twice even in a week of riding there.

Girl on horseback at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, Solvang

My middle kid “on her happy place,” at The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort.

Sure, there was time for the pool, an archery lesson out at the lake, a visit to the Little Barn (don’t miss the free-range guinea pig and bunny room!), and lots of eating. But for my horse-starved daughters, they were back at the barn before we could blink.


Drill Team & Rodeo Night at the Alisal Dude Ranch

It was time to train up for the Alisal’s first inaugural drill team performance. This wrangler-led group of guests ranging from 7 years to non-of-your business(!) would be the opening act in The Alisal’s weekly Rodeo Night. Interested guests of the dude ranch can sign up to practice and ride as the drill team in front of the audience (click here to see my feature on the Rodeo Night at the Alisal and see action shots of the amazing rodeo riders in my photo gallery of the American West).

Drill team riders kick off the Rodeo Night at The Alisal Guest Ranch.

Drill team riders kick off the Rodeo Night at The Alisal Guest Ranch.

The Morning Breakfast Ride at The Alisal Dude Ranch

But what turned out to be a most magical highlight for our family horseback riding vacation was when we all set out on the “Morning Breakfast Ride,” Daddy and Grandma included.  This 3-hour adventure starts and ends with a scenic ride (again, new trails and views for me!). But in this case, there is a stop at the Old Adobe, a house on the ranch property that is well over 100 years old. There, we gobbled a hot Western breakfast served in the open air, with live music and even a special performance by cowboy poet Chris Henrich.

group of people on horseback riding through oak trees with lichen

Setting out through lacy lichen-draped oaks on our breakfast ride at The Alisal Ranch.

girl on horseback in misty California morning hills

Enjoying a misty morning ride to breakfast in The Alisal hills.

row of horse's behinds lined up beneath trees

The lineup! Arriving at The Alisal’s breakfast ride hitching area.

Breakfast served hot off the griddle for guests on The Alisal's breakfast ride.

Breakfast served hot off the griddle for guests on The Alisal’s breakfast ride.

Outdoor breakfast area behind the Old Adobe for guests on the 3-hour morning breakfast ride at The Alisal.

Outdoor breakfast area behind the Old Adobe for guests on the 3-hour morning breakfast ride at The Alisal.

Bacon pancakes on a plate

But wait, there’s more! Don’t miss your chance to try the legendary bacon-pancake of the breakfast ride!

Cowboy poet Chris Henrich

Cowboy poet Chris Henrich recites favorite campfire verses for guests at The Alisal’s Breakfast Ride.

Our breakfast ride was the perfect ending to our vacation at The Alisal Guest Ranch. And just before the ride back, the morning mist evaporated and revealed a perfect blue sky. As if made-to-order, my wish for the entire family to see a bald eagle on the ride back was delivered. Threefold. Searching the trees near the eagles nests, we suddenly spotted a scrappy mess of tree bark. Yet as it moved, we realized was actually a flutter of feathers.

BOTH eaglets (brown feathers without the bald head yet) and one adult parent bald eagle dazzled us as we rode by. Unfortunately, in my excitement to try and capture the moment from horseback, the results came out rather bigfoot-like. So instead I leave you with one of several lovely herons we also enjoyed on our Alisal dude ranch vacation.


Find out More about dude ranch vacations at The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort

For more information about all of The Alisal’s horseback riding lessons, specialized trail rides, and horseback riding vacation packages, click here to visit the official site of The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort. And whether you hope to participate or just enjoy the excitement and fun (and food!), don’t miss my feature Grit and Glory: Rodeo Night at the Alisal. Full disclosure: We have a new family connection to the Alisal and enjoyed friends & family rates and discounts on most activities. As always, no promise of positive review was given, and my opinions remain my own.

heron wading in Alisal Lake

Riding back from breakfast beside Alisal Lake, a heron comes into view…

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Grit & Glory: Rodeo Night at The Alisal Guest Ranch (in Photos)

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Morro Bay with Kids – California Family Vacation Guide

One Night in the African Tent: A Review of Safari West, Santa Rosa

Yosemite on Horseback: A Ride with My Daughters and Yosemite Trails

Bend with Kids – Oregon Family Vacation Guide

Of Pirate Ships and Paddle Boards: A Review of Maui’s Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas

Nine Amazing Family Vacations Abroad

Love horses? See my “American West” gallery!


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