California Highway 154’s winding, hilly route from Santa Barbara to the Santa Ynez wine country is one of my favorite Southern California drives. Each curve brings a new wonder: sprawling forests, idyllic pastures, foothills carpeted with gold and purple wildflowers. Horses and cows graze on ranches seemingly unfazed by time, hawks and bald eagles soaring overhead. And 20 miles from the city, a shimmering blue lake appears out of nowhere, peeking through thick stands of trees.
I’ve been itching to stay in the heart of the peaceful Santa Ynez Valley and finally got the chance when I scored a last-minute, spring break reservation at Cachuma Lake. The location sounded ideal: a lakefront yurt that sleeps six and boasts a skylight to the heavens. The price sounded even better: just $70 a night.
There was only one hitch: Would my resort-and-hot-tub-loving family actually go for sleeping in a glorified tent with no bathroom in shouting distance and a beat-up heater the size of a toaster oven as the sole luxury? I took my chances and snapped up a two-night reservation, though three nights were available. I figured my crew could survive two nights of nature but that three would be pushing it.
Fortunately, a revolt never materialized. When I brought up the trip at dinner, my husband and two kids expressed interest, even curiosity. I talked up the lake’s wildlife cruises, the hiking and fishing, and the novelty of having our own yurt.
I assured my 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son that no one would be sleeping on the ground (their main beef whenever the subject of camping comes up). Yes, we’d be roughing it, but gently, in bunk beds and with electricity. My husband was sold once I mentioned that Cachuma Lake is just a few miles down the highway from the string of bucolic wine country towns we’ve roamed (and happily sampled) on past trips to the Santa Barbara area.
On a Wednesday afternoon in April, we cruised Highway 154 from Santa Barbara, but this time we slowed for the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area we usually race past. As we checked in, a ranger handed us a small electric heater and directed us toward a remote grassy area along the lake. The park has just three yurts -- sturdy wood-frame and canvas structures with locking front doors rather than a tent-like flap opening -- and they sit atop a bluff overlooking the water. (Campsites and cabins also are available in the park’s interior.) Our yurt, named Lupine, waited beside an oak tree, picnic table and a fire pit. Inside we found a compact space with wood flooring, two double-decker beds (queen-sized mattresses on bottom, singles up top), a small overhead light and a stack of plastic patio chairs. The windows had canvas coverings that, we found out later that night, smack hard and rather noisily against the sides of the yurt when the chill night wind kicks up. All in all: a no-frills, spotless, lovely location.
The best feature of the yurt was its wrap-around wooden porch overlooking vast Cachuma Lake, which does double duty as a wildlife haven and a reservoir for Santa Barbara County’s drinking water. That glorious porch was irresistible. Before long my husband, Ed, and I had grabbed cold beers from the cooler and settled outside to soak up the late-afternoon sunshine and the seemingly endless expanse of mountain, sky and crystalline water. The kids scrambled down the shoreline to explore, but we were content to do nothing except savor the quiet and watch the endless stream of birds flying across the water. There was not a soul in sight, aside from the occasional boater in the distance.
Sometime later, we unpacked the deli picnic we’d brought along and enjoyed our dinner on the lake as a spectacular sunset bathed the entire setting in a dazzling burst of orange. We realized that we had forgotten to pack the all-essential ingredients for making s’mores, but the lake’s small general store supplied a quick fix of marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers.
We built a fire as the sun faded into twilight, and then made gooey desserts and played Yahtzee into the night.
We also came up with our plan for the next two days. We’d hike a little to explore the wilderness around us, maybe try some fishing. And when we got tired of nature, we’d roam the back roads of the Santa Ynez Valley, which brim with small farms, choice restaurants, rolling vineyards and roadside curiosities such as miniature horses, llamas, emus and ostriches.
On Thursday morning, we woke up to sunshine streaming onto our sleeping bags and the sound of the UC Santa Barbara rowing team going through its daily paces on the lake. After a breakfast of granola bars and juice (and a futile attempt to get a cup of coffee at the general store), we set out to explore the park and wandered over to the boat docks. The kids also wanted to check out the swimming pool, even though it wasn’t open for the summer season until Memorial Day weekend. We eventually made our way to Lake Cachuma’s charming nature center, a modest white building with a wealth of local history and kid-pleasing, hands-on exhibits.
The center’s back room opens out to a wondrous bird feeding station with a mirrored picture window where we could see dozens of wild birds up close, but they couldn’t see us. My daughter, Gaby, and I were mesmerized and stayed for a long time enjoying each new arrival.
We watched hummingbirds, hooded orioles, band-tailed pigeons, bright blue scrub jays, blackbirds, acorn woodpeckers, tiny finches and creamy mourning doves. Cachuma Lake also is a favorite spot of the endangered bald eagle during winter months and a great place to find unusual and beautiful birds all year long. Birds seemed to follow us everywhere at the lake, their chatter a constant and pleasing soundtrack we heard even when we didn’t see them.
Our Day 2 excursions also included a drive on Highway 154 to the nearby town of Los Olivos, a pretty little hamlet with boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and tasting rooms along an inviting main street.
On the way we detoured to the Beckmen Vineyards, a small, family-run operation tucked down a dirt road, past a neighborhood llama farm. Beckmen is among the Central Coast growers that have switched to biodynamic cultivation methods, a form of organic farming, and it’s a small, friendly farm. The winery’s sunny tasting room and shop are housed in a red barn, far enough from the highway that the wine country tour buses usually don’t find their way there. On a Thursday afternoon, it was just us, two German tourists and a very helpful staff. Ed and I did a wine tasting (five selections for $10) while the kids went outside to look at the vineyards.
Our lunch stop was the Los Olivos Grocery & Cafe, a delectable outpost that showcases the bounty of the Santa Ynez Valley and is a great place for picking up picnic fare and other supplies. The downside: The selection of salads, cheeses, sandwiches, side dishes and sweets is so mouth-watering that it’s hard to make a choice. I couldn’t resist the curried chicken salad, while my usually fussy son, Eben, pronounced his Kobe burger the best hamburger he’d ever eaten.
We hit another home run at dinner in the nearby town of Santa Ynez. We stumbled into Grappolo, a gem of an Italian trattoria with a wood-fired oven and exceptional eggplant pizza. On the evening we visited, downtown Santa Ynez was especially quiet, but Grappolo was packed with customers, and it was easy to understand why. (Grappolo is definitely on our return list.) We skipped dessert so we could make more s’mores back at Cachuma Lake and savor our last night around the campfire.
On Friday morning, Eben had planned to go fishing, but he changed his mind when his sister suggested horseback riding instead. We’d heard about the nearby Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Stables down Paradise Road, one of the side roads that veers off Highway 154. We called to make reservations. By late morning, we had reluctantly packed up our yurt and headed back onto the highway.
Getting to the stables, down the twisting route that runs through the Los Padres National Forest, turned out to be an adventure all its own. Once there, the kids had a blast riding horses named Chili and Moe and, afterward, feeding leftover picnic apples to the goats and enormous pigs in the stable’s barnyard.
In all, the trip turned out to be a pleasantly different take on a Santa Barbara area getaway. If only I had thought to bring a coffee machine, as the couple in the yurt next-door did, it would have been a perfect vacation.
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If you go
Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, California Highway 154, Santa Barbara. Lakefront yurts cost $60 to $70 a night and have a two-night minimum on weekends and three-night minimum on holiday weekends. Campsites and cabins are available too. The lake also is a good spot for day trips; day parking is $8. Activities include boating, trout fishing, hiking, nature cruises, nature center, naturalist-led hikes, fishing workshops for kids. Swimming is not permitted in the lake, but the swimming pool opened Memorial Day weekend for the summer season.
Bring along: flashlights, toilet paper, sleeping bags, warm clothes, bug spray, food if you plan to cook, fishing gear if you plan to fish. Bicycles are a great addition too -- there are plenty of places to ride in the park; (805) 686-5054, www.sbparks.org.
Los Olivos Grocery and Cafe, 2621 W. Highway 154, Los Olivos. Open daily, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; (805) 688-5115, www.losolivosgrocery.com
Trattoria Grappolo 3687 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez. Lunch and dinner daily, except Monday lunch; (805) 688-6899, www.trattoriagrappolo.com.
Rancho Oso, 3750 Paradise Road, Santa Barbara. One-hour trail ride is $40; (805) 683-5686, www.rancho-oso.com.
Beckmen Vineyards, 2670 Ontiveros Road, Los Olivos. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; (805) 688-8664, www.beckmenvineyards.com
Cold Spring Tavern, 5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara. This funky old stagecoach stop covered with vines has been a way station for travelers trekking through the mountains since it opened in 1865. The turnoff to Stagecoach Road, along Highway 154, is about 10 miles from Cachuma Lake; (805) 967-0066, www.coldspringtavern.com.