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people on the dock at Alisal Lake

City Girl Meets
Dude Ranch

Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego. These are just a few of the cities I have lived in throughout my life. A far cry from the golden hills of Western California. Never would I have imagined spending my summer vacation on a dude ranch. This is a girl (ahem, woman), who chose Manhattan during the holidays as a honeymoon destination. Yet, I found myself on Alisal Ranch in the heart of summer, wondering if I was turning a little bit country.

Alisal Lake with paddle boards

Our Arrival

My husband and two sons joined me on this midweek adventure. We arrived prior to check-in to take advantage of the swimming pool which staff told me stays a perfect 82 degrees year-round. The outside temperature was in the 90’s (Farenheit) and we knew we would be in the sun all afternoon so a dip in the pool was the perfect way to cool off before exploring the Ranch. We quickly learned that the Chuck Wagon offered soft serve ice cream cones and margaritas (the latter for the grown ups, of course). Our vacation was off to a great start!

Parents need vacations, too

We had made plans to meet up with our new friends from dinner for drinks in the Oak Room but first we needed to get the kids to bed. We’re very lucky that one is a teenager and the other a tween. I’ll be honest, we have never left them in a hotel room alone despite them being old enough to do so. However, the Oak Room was a short walk from the suite and our kids were exhausted from a fun-filled day in the sun, so we felt confident in this decision. Our boys tend to argue if they have to share a bed so having a sleeper sofa and a twin Murphy bed in the living area of the suite was a dream come true for us. Off we went to meet our new friends and enjoy some quality time as adults. When we returned we were able to close the door to the primary bedroom and enjoy peace and quiet. These are details that you might not be able to find on a resort website but, if you are a parent, you know how crucial these details can be in making it a vacation rather than just a trip. We didn’t take advantage of the Kids Club since our kids are older but this would also be a “win” for parents if we had younger children.


Being sensitive to the heat, I was sure to plan our adventures so that we avoided breaking a sweat in the hottest parts of the day. Fortunately, by working with the concierge team ahead of time, I was able to use their guidance to plan our activities around our family’s needs. The first activity we scheduled was a trip to Alisal Lake for air rifle and archery. As a mom of two boys, this was a guaranteed hit to help them forget we wouldn’t be using our devices at all on this trip. Fortunately, they didn’t even notice we were unplugged. The excitement of being able to shoot targets with our air rifles followed by a couple rounds of archery was the perfect way to start our vacation. As a competitive family, it was fun to challenge each other to hit certain targets, whether the moving ones or the small, hard-to-hit items. Thanks to the instructions from staff, I did pretty well for a first-timer and my family had a blast. By the time we started archery the sun was high in the sky and it was quite warm but we did just fine thanks to the shaded awnings above each activity. My only tip would be to bring water with you and dress for the weather (shorts are fine for these two activities and a must for those times when the moderate California temperature turns hot). We were going to go boating after but decided to check into our room and then explore the lake more during the Lake BBQ that evening.

A Private Lake Party

After checking into our suite, which honestly surprised me with its perfect combination of Western luxury and casual comfort, we headed toward the main entrance to take the haywagon to the Lake BBQ. On our way, we were greeted by several staff. It reminded me of my time living in the South. That hospitality is hard to come by and it didn’t go unnoticed. We rode the haywagon up to the lake for dinner. On our drive, I noticed I was sitting across from a bonafide celebrity. I don’t normally get excited by celebrities after living in New York and Los Angeles but this was an icon in my childhood. I won’t say who it is but let’s just say her character attended Bayside High. Playing it cool, my family and I focused on the scenery and spotted a whole flock of wild turkeys (which I have just learned from a quick google search is actually called a “rafter of turkeys”). We arrive to the lake as the sun was starting to go down which made the water shimmer like diamonds. This was the perfect backdrop to the mouth-watering buffet that was set up for us to enjoy along with the open bar (did I mention drinks are included in your stay here?!). Seating was family style which led us to introduce ourselves to a very sweet couple celebrating a birthday. By the end of the dinner, it felt like we were old friends. After gorging ourselves on grilled meats, seafood, delicious salads and grilled vegetables and tasty desserts, we decided to take advantage of the lake. Fortunately staff were still on call to set us up with kayaks and we took a sunset paddle as the air cooled down and the world seemed to stand still. As we paddled we caught sight of a bald eagle (pictured in this photo from Alisal Ranch), heron and egrets. While my family and I will never forget that gorgeous evening kayak ride, we likely won’t ever forget how delicious the food was, too.

Back in the Saddle Again

In the morning, the boys woke us up, raring to go for our 9:00 a.m. horseback ride. We enjoyed a full breakfast (delicious!) and headed over to the barn to get ready for the ride. It had been years since either my husband or I had ridden a horse and our kids were experiencing it for the first time. I was super nervous about how my youngest was going to do on the horse but it turned out I was the slow poke in the line. My horse liked to take it easy which was good after a night at the Oak Room. Honestly, whenever I’ve gone horseback riding in the past it always felt like the ride was over before it begun. Not at Alisal Ranch! Every section of the ride provided new gorgeous views of the surrounding Santa Ynez mountains. We rode through the backcountry of the Ranch and spotted wild turkeys, cows, two coyote and the bald eagle and her babies. It was honestly thrilling. Riding next to and above the lake is an almost spiritual experience that ground us in a way that is often missing from family vacations. Each member of my family walked away from the experience feeling invigorated. It meant a lot to us that the wrangler leading our ride took the time to take photos of each family above Alisal Lake.

My Aha! Moment

Towards the end of trip, I had a moment of clarity. What I had originally considered to be an expensive trip for our family, really wasn’t. It struck me that not having to worry about tracking snacks, drinks, breakfast and dinner made this a true vacation. Having to pay for snacks and drinks throughout a vacation can really add up. As a family on a budget, we were grateful not to have to worry about tracking each expense and, after the trip was over and I tallied it all up, the “inclusive” nature of Alisal Ranch was a terrific value. I call it “inclusive” because it doesn’t include lunch but lunch is very affordable on the Ranch (we enjoyed lunch the next day before we left at the Chuckwagon Grill next to the pool). When sharing stories about our vacations we rarely talk about costs because it can be considered tacky. I feel like I need to break this unspoken rule when recounting my Alisal Ranch trip because it’s not clear how great the value is for families looking for a true vacation.

City girl loves dude ranch

These were just the highlights from our trip (there were no lowlights!) but I can honestly say that I enjoyed my dude ranch vacation more than I would ever imagine. It was truly an adventure and a bonding experience for our family of four. We would go back in a heartbeat and would love to take advantage of some of their other activities such as star gazing, paddle boarding, the ropes course and the ride to the Adobe. Alisal Ranch, we’ll be back!

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