As the search continues for ways to carefully get a break from the pandemic without taking a flight, an excellent option is a working dude ranch. Boasting a happy trifecta of nature, fresh air and animals, a dude ranch may be the ultimate way to escape while safely socially distancing.
About a four-hour drive from San Francisco, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort is under a canopy of mature, towering sycamore trees that are so perfect they seem straight out of the prop department at central casting. While it originally was solely a working cattle ranch when the Jackson family bought the property in 1943, the owners decided to invite guests to come and experience the ranch. Thus, cattlemen’s quarters were converted to accommodations and in 1946 Alisal opened to its first guests. https://alisal.com
Sitting on just over 10,000 hilly acres, Alisal remains in the Jackson family and the original cattlemen’s quarters now house the ranch’s main restaurant.
Alisal’s 73 suites and studios are naturally spread out making social distancing easy. My 400-square –foot deluxe studio shared only one common wall and felt completely private. With high pitched ceilings, a wood-burning fireplace and lounge chairs, it was spacious and comfortable. Large framed maps, a few well-placed Western relics and Old West décor lent a reassuring sense of place.
My door had a neon green sticker that insured no one had entered after its thorough cleaning. The coffee machine had been sanitized and sealed in plastic and hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes were also provided. High-count sheets, a dreamy bed and blackout curtains guaranteed restful sleep. My studio also had a patio to enjoy the pastoral views.
I thought I might undergo news withdrawal since Alisal has no in room televisions. However Wi-Fi was incredibly fast and strong so my news addiction was satiated. It was also strong enough to enjoy a movie on my laptop before retiring. For those that must see a large screen, there is a television in the ranch’s comfortable library.
As Alisal provided excellent Peerless certified organic coffee in room, and I had morning activities planned, I never made it to the Creekside restaurant for breakfast. However, given the dinners I enjoyed there, I imagine breakfasts were likewise tasty.
Although tables inside the spacious dining areas were socially distant and well over six feet apart, out of an abundance of caution, I opted to eat outside. While the temperature was a bit nippy, under powerful heaters I was toasty and happy.
Executive Chef Anthony Endy sees to it that dinners are not simply Western fare. While one night the menu had classic steak frites and herb crusted prime rib for the carnivores among us, there was also sesame mustard ahi tuna, seared duck breast, vegetarian squash ravioli and a vegan grilled cauliflower steak — something literally for everyone.
Even though that would have been enough of a selection for a several night stay, the menu changes nightly. Another night included Wagyu sirloin, chicken fried steak, Dijon grilled rack of lamb, Jidori chicken, pork shank chile verde and vegan chipotle chili with grilled polenta. There was also Skuna Bay salmon with an outstanding pomegranate and walnut salsa.
The issue du jour was really the necessity of making a choice among those good options. Fresh salads and wonderful homemade soups rounded out the entrée choices. If that weren’t enough, pastry chef Fernando Yapez prepared an extensive dessert menu. Personal favorites included the classic mud pie, vegan cheesecake and killer chocolate chip cookies. I must return to Alisal as I need to have a date with both chef Yapez’s lemon meringue tart and his coconut cream pie.
Good thing there is plenty to do at Alisal to work off all those yummy caloric creations.
With 98 horses and 50 riding trails, Alisal is an equestrian smorgasbord. Daily there are beginning, intermediate and advanced scenic group trail rides along paths where livestock are often milling about the trail.
On the first of my two, two-hour trail rides, I was the only rider. So my knowledgeable and affable wrangler, Jen Sorenson, and I had a bit more flexibility and we enjoyed quite a bit of trotting in truly perfect weather. As my intuitive horse Rocko seemed to enjoy the ride as much as I did, I requested him again for my ride the next day.
From several vantage points on the hilly rides, Alisal Lake was in full view. This 100-acre manmade lake is fed by natural springs and provides the ultimate visual backdrop. For those who like to catch and release, the lake contains largemouth bass, perch and bluegill.
For budding ornithologists the ranch is also laden with blue heron, egrets, cormorants, mallard ducks, red-winged blackbirds, osprey, magpies and even a pair of bald eagles who procreate annually. Though I thankfully didn’t see any bobcats during my visit, I was told sightings are regular. I did however see two large, very hairy tarantulas while riding and was quite content to be seated high atop the imposing Rocko.
A great aspect of Alisal is that one need not be an equestrian to thoroughly enjoy it. There’s a large heated pool and golfers can play one of two beautiful courses: the 6,550-yard Ranch Course and the 6,800-yard River Course. Both are par 72 and open year-round. There’s the Deer Canyon hiking trail starting from Alisal’s entry gate and dozens of wineries and tasting rooms in the region to sample.
Alisal also has six tennis courts and two pickle ball courts. Tennis pro Chris DeVaux polished my serve during an informative private lesson. Then joining him and another couple to finally learn the game of pickleball – the fastest growing sport in the U.S. – I didn’t believe Chris when he said we would learn the entire game and be able to play within an hour. Chris was 100 percent right, pickleball is a blast and now I understand why its popularity grew 14 percent last year. I’m completely hooked.
The following day, after practicing my ground stroke and backhand with Bernie the ball machine for an hour, I joined a clinic taught by Maddie Seeds who made every stroke look simple. So ended a perfect stay at Alisal.
The lesson learned
There are so many reasons to love Alisal and in three days, I just barely scratched the surface. That Alisal can be thoroughly enjoyed and savored in spite of these terribly strange times is just one more reason to tip my cowboy hat to the visionary patriarch of the Jackson family. In the words of our former governor, “I’ll be back.”
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com. This property hosted the writer, but content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the author’s opinion.