Horseback Riding and Relaxation at Circle Bar B Guest Ranch
Robbie Franks looks as if he just stepped off the set of a classic Western movie. He tips his hat and strides up to me in cowboy boots, denim, and a white button-down with a vest and a scarf tied in a low knot. His beard is grizzled with age, but there’s a youthful twinkle in his eyes. “Hey sweetie,” he says to me in a welcoming, kind-hearted drawl, “You looking to do a trail ride?”
Robbie is the manager of the stables at Circle Bar B, a fourth-generation guest ranch in a remote, coastal mountain canyon in Santa Barbara County. Robbie and his team of wranglers offer personalized horseback rides through 1,100 acres of private, rugged terrain. The rides climb through fern-lined canyons, across streams, and past waterfalls to stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. Along the trail, riders can catch sight of deer, bobcats, gray foxes, and even black bears while red tail hawks circle overhead. The ranch offers a variety of horseback riding experiences for all ages and abilities and is open year-round.
All the record-setting rain the ranch received over the winter promises to make for epic trail riding this year. One of the highlights of the trail—an 80-foot waterfall that drops into a crystal-clear pool—normally slows to a trickle by late spring. But this year, the waterfall is expected to run well into the summer. The rain has also created a dazzling wildflower show. Right now, the trails are lined with wild sunflowers, poppies, aster, bluebells, and morning glory.
Robbie grew up on a ranch in Colorado and has been riding horses since he was four. He’s worked on 80 different ranches across the western U.S., but of all the places he’s been, he says that Circle Bar B is “the prettiest place you could ever ride a horse.”
In 1939, a single mom named Florence Brown purchased acreage from what had originally been part of the Ortega-Stokes 1843 Mexican Land Grant. She thought the pristine beauty of the Refugio Canyon would make an ideal place for a children’s camp. She founded Circle Bar B as a camp, and it later evolved into a guest ranch. The ranch has remained in the Brown family for over 80 years and is currently run by Florence’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In addition to the scenic horseback rides and hikes through the 1,100-acre ranch, Circle Bar B offers overnight accommodations in a range of cabins and guest rooms. The newly renovated Canyon Cabins blend rustic ranch style with a light and airy modern aesthetic. The cabins feature private decks, wood-burning stoves, vaulted ceilings, king beds, and beautiful modern baths with sliding barn doors. Further up the hill, the spacious Ranch Rooms are ideal for families. Decorated in traditional Western décor, these rooms feature king beds with twin bunk beds or sleeper sofas. The rooms open to a large, shared deck with incredible views.
All stays at Circle Bar B include complimentary breakfasts and dinners served buffet-style each day in the dining room of the historic main lodge. The ranch uses the freshest local ingredients and prides itself on infusing casual ranch-style dining with a gourmet flair. Guests also have access to a common kitchen with self-serve beverages and snacks.
The centerpiece of the main lodge is the living room and bar featuring a large stone fireplace, vaulted ceilings, and exposed wood beams. Guests can gather around the fire in the evenings or belly bar up to the bar for a nightcap. Upstairs, a loft overlooking the living room offers a library and more cozy seating.
In the rec room next to the main lodge, guests can play billiards, foosball, or ping pong or just hang out on comfy couches and watch TV. An outdoor swimming pool, hot tub, and fire pit provide additional spots for relaxing after a day on the trail.
Circle Bar B is 30 minutes west of Santa Barbara, 30 minutes south of Solvang, and less than four miles from the beach. The beaches along this stretch of Santa Barbara’s Gaviota Coast are far less crowded but no less beautiful.
Huge palm trees line a quiet crescent of sand at Refugio State Beach. Picnic beneath the palms and watch the surfers catch waves near the point. The beach is also great for swimming and standup paddleboarding. A two-a-half-mile coastal trail connects Refugio State Beach with neighboring El Capitan State Beach. The upland reaches of nearby Gaviota State Park rewards hikers with impressive wind-weathered rock formations, hot springs, and ocean views.
Traveling over the mountains on Highway 101 drops visitors into the Santa Ynez Valley and its famed wine appellation. The first vineyard along the route is the magical Folded Hills Winery. Owned by descendants of the Anheuser-Busch family, this 600-acre ranch cultivates Rhône varietals alongside organic row crops and orchards using sustainable, biodynamic principles. The family also raises a variety of exotic and domestic farm animals. Visitors to the winery’s tasting room have the chance to see sheep grazing in the vineyards, potbellied pigs, alpacas, donkeys, a zebra, a camel, and a couple of Budweiser Clydesdales.