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Horseshoes and hayrides

Special to The Times

Caliente, Calif.

We crawled up and around the mountain just before dusk, winding along a skinny highway noteworthy for its spectacular sunset views, hairpin turns and an army of fearless cattle that graze the slopes and regularly amble into the middle of the road.

Cows far outnumber people in this wild pocket of Southern California’s Tehachapi Mountains, 2 1/2 hours north -- and another universe entirely -- from Los Angeles. The trek up the mountain is only nine miles, but it took us a good half-hour to drive to the top, where the road twisted through a final set of curves, then spilled into a lush valley, home to one of California’s oldest family ranches.

A small, easy-to-miss wooden sign on the right side of the road finally pointed the way to the Quarter Circle U Rankin Ranch. We turned down an unpaved road in the twilight, moving past a thick grove of lilacs as a cottontail rabbit darted for cover. My husband, two children and I barely had stepped out of our car when 14-year-old Gaby flipped open her cellphone and the bellowing commenced.

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“No service! There’s no service here!”

Exactly.

There also are no telephones in the wood-paneled cabins secluded among the ranch’s enormous pine and locust trees. No televisions. No DVD players. No Wi-Fi. Not a video game in sight. Take a breath: Unplugging is part of the experience here, and essential to enjoying the timeless charm of Rankin Ranch.

This 31,000-acre slice of California heaven has been a working cattle ranch since Walter Rankin imported the first herd of white-faced Herefords in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War. Cattle is still the family business 144 years later. But for the last four decades, the Rankin clan also has opened the ranch for six months of the year to weekend cowboys and nature lovers who come to cast their lines in mountain lakes, hike the backcountry trails, marvel at the dazzling starscape each night far from city lights, and, most of all, saddle up and ride. Unlike many other guest ranches, Rankin’s rates include riding, along with meals and just about everything else at the remote ranch.

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Rankin Ranch sits in Walker’s Basin, a dramatic expanse of big sky, rolling hills filled with wildflowers and acre upon acre of willowy rye grass shimmying in the wind. It feels more like Wyoming than Southern California. The simple décor and, perhaps more important, the warm and generous sensibility here recall a gentler, more innocent era. That’s largely because members of the Rankin family -- we met dad Bill, daughter Sarah Rankin Wilder and her husband, Clint Wilder, during our visit -- stay right in the thick of everything at the ranch, from breakfast to barbecues to bingo, preserving cherished traditions. This includes weekly hayrides, horseshoe contests and regular sessions of square dancing with Omar Krumm.

For four decades, Omar has driven up from Bakersfield on weekends with his big, white cowboy hat, record player and collection of vintage 45s. He calls out the square dances, while his silver-haired wife, Lois, in white flats, skillfully demonstrates each step and turn. Omar and Lois have been teaching visitors how to promenade, line dance and master the rolling vine since the guest ranch first opened in 1965.

“One more thing,” Omar likes to say, and he and Lois explain yet another move to a roomful of novices. “I’m just gonna add one more thing.”

The Krumms are irresistible. Even my reluctant teenager gave her pink iPod a rest and joined 30-odd strangers and her parents on the dance floor on a recent Saturday night. Almost immediately Gaby was laughing as she partnered up with her 8-year-old brother, Eben, while Omar worked through his stack of 45s, from the “Hokey Pokey” to “New York, New York.”

“I didn’t know square dancing could be so much fun,” Gaby said afterward, as we walked back to our cabin in the pitch-black mountain night lighted only by the stars above.

A ROSTER OF REGULARS

Unlike most of the other guests we met, Ed, Gaby, Eben and I were first-timers at Rankin Ranch, which closes down in fall for the calving season but offers some special scrapbooking weekends in October. The ranch opens for a new season in spring, and returning guests often book months ahead to secure their annual vacation spots. We got lucky in early May when a weekend cancellation left a last-minute opening in the Comantha cabin. We had left Seal Beach around 3 p.m. on a Friday, planning to reach the ranch before the Rankins rang the 6:30 dinner bell. Then we got bogged down in traffic on Interstate 5 nearly all the way to the Grapevine and didn’t make it up the mountain until 7:30 p.m.

When we arrived, we found a handwritten note taped outside the ranch office, directing us to the Garden Room. There, a lovely candlelit table sat, topped with four salads and carafes of hot coffee and ice water. A waiter appeared soon after with plates heaped with some of the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever tasted, dirty rice, steamed broccoli and homemade biscuits. While we were eating, Sarah popped in to say hello and invited us to her 8 p.m. bingo game in the ranch’s main house. Who could turn down such a friendly offer?

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On Saturday morning, we were back in the Garden Room by 7:30 a.m. for a big breakfast (all of the meals here are hearty) before wandering down to the stables for our first ride of the day.

Horseback riding is my favorite way to explore new terrain, and I was not disappointed. At 8:30, the four of us joined Clint and two other families for a surprisingly brisk (though it was May, the temperature had dipped down into the 40s) and beautiful ride through the meadows, past rolling acres of grazing cattle as the wind whipped through the fields and sent the crops dancing.

We were back in the saddle again right after lunch. Gaby and I headed out for a more challenging ride into the hills, where our horses waded across a rocky creek, past clusters of poppies, sage and purple lupine, and finally reached a grassy oasis overlooking the valley.

Ed and Eben, meanwhile, set off with a group on another hillside trail, in the opposite direction across the ranch, with Eben happily perched on a giant horse named Porky.

Our fellow guests were a chatty, boisterous group -- families and friends who discovered the ranch’s charms years earlier and kept coming back. We met the Class of ’58, a group of women from Bakersfield High that has visited the ranch for the past decade and now travels from as far away as Georgia to make an annual May reunion. We also met a silver-haired cowboy with spurs from Lake Forest who stays for a week each year and likes to help run the trail rides. There also was the Rose Parade’s Western marshal and his wife, a San Marino couple who found the ranch in 1985 after they spied a tiny ad in the Wall Street Journal, and a family of four from Westchester that visits every summer and this year added a spring weekend with friends from Torrance.

SASSY TAGS ALONG

Rankin Ranch kept us active throughout the day, yet the pace was so unhurried that our visit was the most relaxing getaway we had had in a long time. We hiked a bit, with a sweet ranch dog named Sassy tagging along to keep us company, but decided to skip the fishing. We swam in the heated pool once the weather warmed up on Saturday afternoon, and Ed and I also soaked our sore riding muscles in the hot tub. Without his PlayStation, Eben became enamored with pingpong, Foosball and pool. He and Gaby played outdoor shuffleboard for the first time, then suggested we build our own court at home.

The kids and I also made repeat trips to the small barnyard, helping Jose, the ranch hand, bottle-feed the animals. Eben laughed uproariously and held on tightly as Shadow, a baby goat, greedily gulped milk from the bottle in his hands. Next, Gaby bottle-fed a young calf with big moon eyes that she called Lilac. Both kids carted clumps of alfalfa to feed the miniature horse, sheep and a coffee-colored goat that gently nibbled Eben’s clothes. We lingered past mealtimes, just sitting in the pen watching as a bold field squirrel burrowed into the chicken coop and tried to steal eggs.

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Of course, we saddled up again first thing Sunday. This time wrangler Dave took the four of us up to the hills, offering a running commentary on the wildlife and plants here, pointing out the spot where he once saw a black bear cub up a tree. A golden eagle soared overhead as we threaded our way up the slopes.

We ended our stay on Sunday with a big finish -- a hayride. Jose, a ranch resident for 21 years, got behind the wheel of the giant tractor and pulled a wagon filled with hay and families to a remote meadow, where the ranch staff already was grilling burgers. Just about all of the guests turned out for the barbecue, along with Bill Rankin and Sarah. Everyone swapped ranch stories over lunch and the horseshoe competition that followed. Ed and I got whupped in horseshoes by the couple from Torrance.

By midafternoon, after the Rankins crowned the horseshoe winners in the adult and kid divisions, everyone piled back into the wagon for the ride back to the ranch. There was such a thick blanket of fresh hay inside, and the afternoon sun was so pleasantly toasty that the slow ride was surprisingly comfortable and drowsy. No one wanted it to end.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Planning this trip

GETTING THERE

Rankin Ranch is in the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County. From Southern California, head north on Interstate 5 over the Grapevine. Take California 99 north to Bear Mountain Boulevard (California 223). Go through the small town of Arvin 11 miles to California 58. Go east toward Mojave to the Caliente turnoff. From the Caliente post office, drive about 30 minutes to the ranch.

WHERE TO STAY

Quarter Circle U Rankin Ranch, Box 36, Caliente, CA 93518; (661) 867-2511, www.rankinranch.com. The ranch is open March 30 to Sept. 30, along with two special weekends for scrapbooking hobbyists in October. Regular season rates are $190 a day for each adult (double occupancy); children under 2 are free; children under 4 are $40 per night; children 4 and 5 are $105; children 6 to 11 are $130. Rates dip for the off-season (April 15 to May 25; May 28 to June 8; Sept. 3 to 30). On weekends, off-season rates are $165 a day for each adult (double occupancy); Sundays to Thursdays, rates are $140 for each adult (double occupancy). Off-season rates also are less for children. Rates include three meals a day, horseback riding, ranch activities and a supervised children’s program during summer season. (The ranch website has a full price list.)

WHAT TO BRING

Temperatures can vary in the mountains, so pack clothing that can be layered. Bring a flashlight, swimsuit, sunscreen, boots or shoes with heels for riding, a fishing pole and, if you wish, a bottle of wine (the ranch doesn’t have a liquor license).


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