By Chris Erskine
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Back in the day, Warner Springs Ranch, a no-frills resort about two hours southeast of Los Angeles, was an escape for the likes of Clark Gable, John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin, who fled here to soak in the legendary mineral pools, ride the endless horse trails and gaze into the starry, starry night. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald retreated here to work on "The Great Gatsby," shaping his famous book about the excesses of the Jazz Age against the backdrop of this one-time stagecoach stop.
Think of Warner Springs Ranch as they did: rehab from your increasingly frantic and demanding life.
Cupeno Indians discovered the place hundreds of years ago, attracted by the abundant fresh water and mineral hot springs. (Their refurbished adobe cottages are still used as lodging and work rooms.)
In 1844, New Englander John Warner established a trading post on the land, which became a pit stop for weary travelers headed to Los Angeles. Less than 10 years later, his ranch and trading post were burned by Indians who were protesting government taxation. Warner left and never returned. Despite this bitter setback at the hands of the Cupenos, as a state senator he would later fight for their rights and protections.
The ranch grew slowly during the last century, gaining a golf course, dining and dance halls and more cabins. After various ownership changes, it became a collectively owned property operated much like a country club. Its 1,300 owners don't own the individual units but have first dibs on reservations for any of the 240 cottages. The public gets the leftovers, starting at less than $100 a person a night.
Warner Springs is part-Catskills retreat, part-California dude ranch. Summer activities include crafts, horseshoes and riding clinics. Three pools offer famed mineral baths and freshwater swimming. The 6,892-yard championship golf course has stunning views--that's the Mt. Palomar Observatory you'll see off the 15th tee. Best of all, you can cowboy-up, just as the Duke did, on one of the ranch's 75 horses, a selection of Arabians, thoroughbreds and quarter horses that travel the nearby Pacific Crest Trail.
The equestrian options set this broad-shouldered resort apart from most family vacation spots. Trails pass through creeks, brimming this spring, and across meadows, ridges and hills dotted with oaks, manzanita and sage.
"That's what makes it so fun," says Janet Worts, equestrian manager on the 2,500-acre property. "When people think of Warner Springs, they think it'll be desert. But we're set in the mountains of San Diego County."
Children younger than 6 take free pony rides, while beginners age 6 and and older sign up for clinics and private or group lessons. Kids 6 and up can also go on trail rides.
Hesitant to get on a horse? A beautiful palomino-colored Belgian draft team pulls the breakfast wagon out on the trail, where groups of up to 25 or as many as 15 individual riders can dine. Cooks from the ranch make the breakfast on-site.
"We have a carriage as well that we use for weddings," Worts says.
Aside from horse-drawn carriages, there are few luxuries here. There are no phones or TVs in the rooms (phones and complimentary Internet are available in the lodge).
The dining options are basic. There's a spa, but if you want world-class pampering, head to La Costa 90 minutes away and get a Dead Sea salt scrub and Egyptian milk bath.
Still, Warner Springs Ranch is soothing in ways La Costa and other resorts can never match. Not for everybody, no. It's dusty, occasionally fragrant, with the DNA of the Old West still in its hide. But early California mystique like this is a real find.
And the solitude? Well, quite great, Gatsby.
WHERE TO STAY
Warner Springs Ranch, 31652 California Highway 79; (760) 782-4200, www.warnersprings.com.
Hundreds of cottages in a pristine mountain setting. Best views: units 308 to 312. There are no streetlights, so bring a flashlight. On week-
ends, cottages start at $92.50 per person (double occupancy); equestrian and golf packages, $129. Riding clinics for beginners start at $10. Wildflower lunch specials--trail rides plus a picnic--are on Saturdays this month. ($47.50).
WHERE TO EAT
The Anza Ranch House. Light fare plus hearty ranch grub--ribs, chops, steaks--in a rustic '30s dining hall. Main courses range from $11 to 27. Dinner nightly, breakfast on weekends. (760) 782-4243. Golf Grill serves breakfast and lunch in a casual dining room or patio. Main courses from $5 to $10. (760) 782-4271.
The Cantina features pizza, hot dogs and Sierra Nevada on tap. A poolside grill is open weekends.
TO LEARN MORE
Southern California Equestrian Directory lists riding options and services throughout the region at www.socalequine.com.
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