Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Stables (reviewed above) is in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara. During our week-long stay here, we found that it’s truly a fascinating place. At the Stone Lodge, a plaque informed us that a Chumash village existed here thousands of years ago and as recently as well into the 18th century. Ceremonial and burial grounds have been found on Rancho Oso property. Chumash is thought to mean "seashell people." At time of initial White contact, Chumash society was structured, complex, and thriving. Village wots (leaders) attended Chumash confederation meetings to discuss regional issues. Olivella shells were used as currency to pay for trade goods and specialized crafts such as baskets, bows, and canoes. The society was composed of hunters, fisherman, traders, leaders, craftspeople, and artisans. Missionization, beginning in 1772, resulted in decimation of Chumash populations due to diseases imported by White people and forced abandonment of subsistence practices such as hunting, gathering, fishing, and selective burning to promote growth of seed-bearing plants. Today, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians runs a successful casino and resort southwest of Santa Ynez, off Highway 101.
Rancho las Prietas y Nagalayegua was the long, melodious name given to the parcel (including present-day Rancho Oso) granted to José Dominquez by California governor Pio Pico in 1845. The Flores adobe standing at the entrance to Rancho Oso was built shortly after. From the late 1800s to the present, the land passed through several ownerships, first called E. W. Ranch, later T. P. Ranch, a favorite hangout of silent movie stars of the ‘20s and cowboy artist Edward Borein. Sold and bought a couple more times, owner M. K. Duryea named Rancho Oso (Bear Ranch) in 1949. Its last private owners were the Jamisons, enjoying Rancho Oso for over 30 years, until 1984. Today, the ranch, managed by Thousand Trails/NACO West, is a part of Los Padres National Forest.
Horseback riding has been and remains central to Rancho Oso. Wranglers lead trail rides, ranging from the 1-hour Rancho Oso Loop ($30/per person) to the 4-hour Arroyo Burro Trail ($90/per person). They were a bit beyond our budget, and there were plenty of free activities to keep us busy, such as using our own two feet to take several short hikes.
Wildflower extravaganza: The exceptionally rainy winter and spring had caused luxuriant growth and an explosion of wildflowers that were still in full glory by mid-May. I picked up a few maps from the ranger at the entrance kiosk. The Waterfall Trail began right behind the back circle of covered wagons. Up a dirt road past the water tank, the trail crisscrossed the bubbling stream several times before arriving at a small but lovely waterfall. Another afternoon, I took a dustier trail used as part of the Loop horse trail winding around Rancho Oso. Around every bend, I came across more wildflowers in all colors: purple, yellow, blue, pink, white, and cream. Some I recognized: lupines, poppies, and blue dicks. Others I had to look up in my field guide: mariposa lilies, golden yarrow, thick fields of bird’s eye gilias, and hairy nettle lupine with small purple flowers. On yet another walk from the RV area to the entrance, ground squirrels were popping up from their burrows and popping back down or scurrying away at my approach, with squeaks of alarm. I almost stepped on a burrow right by the roadside, from which three baby ground squirrels were peeking out, apparently too young yet to fear me. They looked curious as I snapped several photos (see below).
1000 trails… It was a pity we couldn’t stay longer, as so many trails beckoned longer hikes. Aliso Canyon Loop from Sage Hill Campground was reportedly overgrown with just about every kind of wildflower to be found in Santa Barbara County. From Rancho Oso, the Bath Tub Trail turns into strenuous Arroyo Burro. Snyder’s Trail passes some falls and eventually a mysterious structure signed on the map as "Knatt’s Castle (ruins)," about which I wasn’t able to find any information. For backpackers, Camuesa and Santa Cruz trails lead deeper into the mountains. It is truly a place where "Thousand Trails" almost lives up to its name!
Trail hazards… Shortly after arriving at Rancho Oso, I’d spotted signs on the restroom/laundry house bulletin board that caught my eye. Things to watch out for. It included cautionary remarks about poison oak and rattlesnakes, the former oft encountered, the latter seldom, on the extensive trail system in and surrounding Rancho Oso. Ticks are also prevalent here. Los Padres National Forest, with its bountiful wildlife, lies on all sides of Rancho Oso. The third sign was very specific about how humans should respond to a mountain lion encounter. Do NOT run, do NOT turn your back, and do NOT bend over. These actions will cause you to be perceived as prey. DO look directly at the cougar, raise your arms above your head, and make a lot of noise. You will more likely be perceived as a threat, and the big cat will retreat. And, of course, hiking alone is best avoided.