SOLVANG, CALIFORNIA – 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 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.
For starters, on our first evening there I was able to set out on an “Advanced” trail ride with a small group where 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.
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…)
Meanwhile, my daughters were on an Intermediate trail ride suitable to their skill levels and having a great time (no, a parent didn’t have to accompany them at the same level–woot!). When we met up back at the barn afterward, it turns 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.
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.
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 Ranch, you may never take the same exact route twice even in a week of riding there.
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.
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 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).
But what turned out to be a most magical highlight for our family horseback riding vacation was when we all–Daddy and Grandma SueSue included–set out on the “Morning Breakfast Ride.” This 3-hour adventure starts and ends with a scenic ride (again, new trails and views for me!) to the Old Adobe–a house on the ranch property that is well over 100 years old, where a hot Western breakfast is served in the open air with live music and even a special performance by cowboy poet Chris Henrich.
Our breakfast ride was the perfect ending to our visit at The Alisal. And just before the ride back, the morning mist evaporated and revealed a perfect blue sky. And, 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 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 I instead will leave you with one of several lovely herons we also enjoyed on our family horseback vacation at The Alisal (below).
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.
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