Open Range

Posted online: October 2013

With trail rides and cowboy poets,

the ranchero style lives on at the ALISAL

by JOAN TAPPER  photographs by CORAL VON ZUMWALT

Wranglers and guests ride the bucolic trail to breakfast.

The Old Adobe, where the horses wait for the return journey.

It’s a weekly tradition: Every Wednesday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the grandstand at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort fills with families—from small fry in miniature cowboy hats and colorful boots to Western-garbed couples and a fair share of doting grandparents—who watch the wranglers ride through the arena behind the American flag for the rodeo.

As the sun casts long shadows on the golden hills, head wrangler Tony Thompson calls the events, introducing the participants and their times in feats of calf roping and barrel racing, for example, or introducing the silver-haired cowboy poet who will recite his verses in between competitions. The finale comes down to team sorting, for which several wranglers have to deftly round up three particular calves from a group and herd them speedily across a finish line. “Some claim this event started here in the Santa Ynez Valley,” says Thompson, who wears a belt buckle proclaiming his own win in the Wild Horse Race in the 1988 Santa Maria Elks Rodeo. Time for the winning team? A mere 58 seconds, which draws hearty whoops and cheers from the spectators, who then head to a mouth-watering outdoor barbecue.

Wrangler Meghan Taylor gets ready for her moment in the sun at Alisal’s rodeo.

Cattle, horses, and roundups have been part of the story here since 1843, when Raimundo Carrillo—a grandson of one of the soldiers who had accompanied the Portolá expedition through California in 1769—got a grant from the Mexican government for the 13,500 acres he would call Rancho Nojoqui. Like other ranchers of the period, Carrillo raised his cattle for hide and tallow, which could be transported over long distances. But when thousands of prospectors flooded in during the Gold Rush, he profited enormously by selling them beef.

During the next two decades, the ranch passed through several hands, and in 1868, after floods and a devastating drought wiped out the herd, ranchero Ulpiano Yndart was forced to sell out to an American, H.W. Pierce, whose family would own the property until 1907. Pierce used water from the Santa Ynez River to put in an irrigation system, and he rebuilt the cattle operation. It was probably during his tenure that the ranch was renamed Alisal, which, some say, refers to the majestic sycamores that still provide welcome shade.

The ranch changed hands again in 1927, this time to railroad magnate and racehorse aficionado Charles Perkins, who kept the cattle but also added Thoroughbreds to the mix, notably a big black horse named Flying Ebony, which won the 1933 Kentucky Derby.

Today, Flying Ebony’s stall is the tack room in the barn at the Alisal, which has been owned by the same family for 70 years, since Montecito’s Charles “Pete” Jackson bought the property in 1943. “Grandfather had ranches in a number of places,” says Jim Jackson, Pete’s grandson and now chief operating officer of the company, “and he thought of this as a feeding ranch” for calves from one of his big spreads in Nevada. Pete’s Alisal manager, however, noticed that some Hollywood people were beginning to find their way to the valley and asked why they couldn’t get stars to stay at the ranch. Why not indeed? They converted some of the buildings to cottages, added a few new ones, and opened in 1946, initially for 30 guests
in spring and summer.

In fact, in those first few years, the ranch became a desti-nation resort for celebrities like Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck and even kept a photographer on hand to record their visits and special events like Clark Gable’s wedding to Lady Sylvia Ashley in 1949. Although the famous kept coming (and still visit, albeit with less fanfare), “by the 1950s the focus was all about families,” Jackson says.

And horseback riding, of course. The popular breakfast trail ride has been on the agenda since the very first season. It’s a chance for even novice riders to glimpse what this corner of California must have been like more than a century ago: rolling hills unmarked by power lines and dotted with sycamores and oaks hung with moss; more challenging mountains carpeted with denser greenery; deer bounding across a pasture; a green heron stalking its prey. The hour-long ride leads to the Old Adobe, an atmospheric replica of a handbuilt creek-side cabin from the 1930s, and features a morning feast of fruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, hash brown potatoes, as well as flapjacks, says Thompson, flavored “with a special ingredient—eating outside.”

Tall trees shade the resort’s traditional Western-style buildings.

Thompson, who came to the Alisal 26 years ago, follows in the footsteps of iconic head wranglers—like Jake Copass, who was a crusty cowboy poet himself and sometimes staged lighthearted skits for guests during the breakfast outings. A noted storyteller, he might also regale them with tales of days when steelhead trout filled the Santa Ynez River tributaries and he could feel them bouncing off his horse’s legs. Another longtime wrangler in the 1970s and ’80s was Bill Nichols, who would rope guests as a way of starting a conversation with them.

These days, Thompson is in charge of the 100-plus horses and a dozen wranglers who lead guests on Alisal’s 50 miles of trails, give riding lessons, and sometimes compete in the Wednesday rodeos. “We go to great lengths to match horses and riders,” he says, adding that, “this is one of the few ranches where advanced riders can lope on the trail. We’ll see lots of wildlife, always deer or bobcats, even bears.”

Over the years, other guest pastimes have been added to the mix. A pool went in early, and the tennis courts have long been popular. By 1954, there was a nine-hole golf course, followed by additional holes a few years later and a second course in 1992. Palmer Jackson, Pete’s son, took over running the ranch in 1972—at 83, he still comes into the office twice a week—and created Lake Alisal, which has provided opportunities for boating and catch-and-release bass fishing as well as a nice spot for archery.

A young equestrian waits for a riding lesson at the barn.

“We added mountain biking in the last five or six years,” says Jim Jackson. The trails are moderate to almost expert. “It’s about how much of the ranch you can see,” he adds, “not how fast you can go.” Even more recent is the spa and fitness center, which, like the rest of the resort, has a low-key Western ambience.

While Alisal has grown as a guest ranch, the cattle stocker operation has continued under the supervision of Jim’s brother C.W. Roughly 1,500 calves arrive in October, add 300 pounds during the next eight months, then are rounded up and shipped off in May or June. “They’re not here in peak ranch season,” Jackson adds, so the whole ranch, which is still a hefty 10,500 acres, is open to guests.

There are now 73 studios and suites, none with phones or TVs. And it’s just that feeling of being in a more traditional, less-harried era that is prized by guests who return year after year with their children and even grandchildren for some much-cherished family time. It’s the kind of resort where a woman checking in might pull an envelope out of her purse and say, “Oh, I have something for you. It’s the key I forgot to give you when we checked out last summer.”

Yes, there are real keys, among other well-established customs: All gentlemen must don a jacket at dinner, and pianist Bill Powell continues to play tunes from the Great American Songbook and other favorites in the Oak Room, as he has since 1968.

The Alisal also maintains its place among annual Santa Ynez Valley traditions. “We’re the first stop for the Rancheros Visitadores,” says Jackson. “From Friday to Sunday, they camp here at a remote 20-acre site, ride from here to the mission, and come back before they go on to their big camp in the mountains.”

Other historic connections are a bit more elusive. There’s no evidence of structures from Raimundo Carrillo’s day, he notes. “Cowboys slept outside, but based on the contours of the land, you can guess where the cattle were.” And though the Old Adobe is not the original, it’s satisfying to know that “it’s a spot where someone built an adobe home and lived there in the old-fashioned way” into the 20th century.

And the landscape still exerts its undiminished power to awe. “I like going on the Lake Trail to Deer Canyon,” says Thompson. “You have an overlook of the Santa Ynez Valley, and you can see for miles. When I want to wow ’em, I take them up there. You come around the top—Boom!”

Roundup skills like calf roping provide excitement at the weekly ranch rodeo.

[FALL 2013]

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