I have been coming to Highland Ranch every year for five years typically with one or all of my kids. Isolated in the hills and redwood forests of rural Mendocino County, all you hear is the wind blowing through the trees and you see the stars at night. This is one of the most beautiful settings you can imagine. It is where I bring the family for down time and to unwind.
The Gaines family has run the place for many years and are wonderful, down to earth hosts. Rob is a fabulous cook and is now co-manager. The food is plentiful and delicious, and Rob always accommodates my dietary peculiarities.
My family's favorite activities are horseback riding and hiking on the forest trails, fishing in the ponds, swimming in the pool or ponds, reading in one of the hammocks, playing board games in the main house and some tennis. The boys are particularly excited to come shoot clay pigeons. A variety of cats and dogs roam the property and we usually bring our golden retrievers along.
Highland Ranch is a rustic, family-style place. Beautiful but not elegant. The cabins are old, creaky and drafty. The main house is warm and cozy and a great place to hang out. If you are looking for fancy rooms and elegant dining this is not the place.
The setting for this rustic, laid-back lodge is gorgeous, the food very good, and the staff exceptionally nice and friendly. There is much to do here, but I recommend that you really understand in advance what you are paying for up front and what will be additional cost. While it was a wedding event, with three meals arranged and paid for by the bride and groom, there was still outlandish ranch fees for daily meals and "facility use." Since it was October and no pool, there were hiking and other "activities" to do, but really we were there for a wedding and all wedding activities were provided by the bride and groom. On top of your daily "facility use" fees there are fees for each horseback ride, etc. which makes an already expensive stay even more expensive. I went into it knowing the expense and thinking I was subsidizing the wedding, but really I was padding the pockets of the owners for fees they really didn't "earn" for meals and activities already paid for by the bride and groom.
Highland Ranch is in a beautiful setting with air about as clean and fresh as it gets. The horseback rides are through gorgeous terrain and the guides very knowledgeable. For those who want to leave the property, wine country is just a few minutes away with ample opportunities for tasting wonderful wine and beer. If you're looking for luxury, you won't find it here, but the cabins and main house are comfortable and true to ranch life. Jim and Susie and Rob and the rest of the staff are nothing short of fabulous and the food--well--I can't say enough about the food. It's all homemade, fresh, plentiful and as good as it gets. Be prepared to gain a few pounds! Also, it's a wonderful place for kids. Ours had such a great time, they didn't want to leave--catching their first fish, befriending the horses and dogs and hunting for frogs were highlights for them. The yoga and massage offerings are a must while you're there. The only thing I'd change is the pool temperature--it needs to be heated because for most of our stay (which was in August) the pool was too cold to be enjoyable.
We just returned from a one week family reunion at Highland Ranch. We went in 2006 and enjoyed it so much we went back again in 2007.
This is such a wonderful getaway because you really get to relax at a leisurely pace.
There are tons of things to do. You can go on the trail rides with any of the fantastic wranglers that work there. They will tailor the ride to your level so whether it is your first or fiftieth time on a horse - you will enjoy.
There is swimming in the pool or the lake/pond which you can also see by row boat.
There are great trails for walking, running or biking. There are even tennis courts.
The food is outstanding!!! It is not only delicious but healthy. I had high hopes of not eating too much this year but...I would just recommend eating light before you go so you can indulge while there.
We had a large group of kids with us (ages 1-8) and they absolutely loved it. They played outside almost the entire week and went on pony rides. My daughter took a few lessons and made enormous strides.
At the risk of making it more difficult for me to get a reservation I most sincerely recommend staying at Highland Ranch!
From the moment we arrived towards the end of our California Road Movie (August 2006) we felt at home. The redwoods opened up to reveal the yellow ranch house, the coral and the cabins dotted around the lake. Dogs and cats hanging out by the house. We knew immediately this would be fun.
Suzie and Jim (a film buff turned ranch owner, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Colin Firth) were there to welcome us.
We stayed for four nights in mid-August, driving up from friends in Modesto in the Central valley (+/- 4.30 hours on a Sunday). It was a week of foggy mornings before the hot sun burns through around 9.00, sunny days and cool evenings.
The thing that immediately strikes you is the relaxed atmosphere. With around 25 guests, mainly families, the pace of things - whether on horseback or in hammocks tied between the trees - is calm and chilled.
But this wasn't just "camp for adults" as one review puts it, this was camp for kids as well. Our two boys, 8 and 10 immediately started making friends with the other kids there after a first evening bonding around melted marshmallows. For them, this was a running round, outside oasis in an otherwise busy car-based trip.
But what makes the day tick? A big ranch breakfast. Time on your hands. Learning something new as a famliy, but also alongside the other guests. You eat together, drink cocktails together and ride together (mornings and/or afternoons). We were all beginners, but the horses - Rupert, Tuff, Milo (aka the Belgian) and the others - managed us very well.
And sometimes we even managed them.
Riding under the guidance of Robin, the head wrangler, and Bob - the ex-Rodeo rider who showed us some rope tricks, you went out for one / one and half hour " walks" through beautiful woodland, rich with the smell of pinewood and mint, but there was the chance for advanced riders to do much more than that.
When not riding, there is tennis, table-tennis, a swimming pool, a lake for fishing, another for swimming and canoeing and the house is fully equipped with a piano, other instruments, books, and board games. Suzie started the day with an hour and half's yoga for anyone who wanted to join. Massages could be booked as well.
Oh, I shouldn't forget the clay pidgeon shooting. Again my wife and I were complete newbies and under Jim's guidance actually managed to wing some of the pidgeons rather than each other.
The evening starts with cocktails, Martinis, Manhattens, Margaritas, care of Jim, Suzie and Rob, and then spreads into a long, leasurely dinner discussing and joking with the hosts and other guests, washed down by Anderson valley wines. Jim's father who started the ranch on retiring from an international business career was popped in a couple of times.
By now the kids are outside in the dusk or playing games. Rob - the Chef - not only delivers delicious inventive food, but also takes care of the music and has been known to entertain the kids.
The cabin accommodation is good, mixing rustic with jazzy photos by local photographers, but there is so much to do around the central house that the cabin is mainly for sleeping.
So what gives this place it's special magic. Well, I think it's above all the ranch team. This is their home, and that's how you feel as you leave as if you had just stayed a few days with friends - probably good ones that you've known for years.
I had hunted around looking for a good riding experience among the 7 or 8 Californian ranches that you find on the web. I was attracted to this not only by it's small scale, but by Jim's pursuasive, friendly e-mails. We weren't disappointed. These were the best moments of a fantastic California adventure.
Oh, and about that arrival! Do persevere. Once you head off the public road and onto the ranch you follow a long, winding, single track, dirt road for what seems like an age. You start to worry that you have missed a turn. You pass a tennis court. You worry some more. You'll be driving in second gear for probably 15 to 20 minutes, but you are on the right route. The ranch does finally appear. And perhaps the road is there just to slow you down and help you switch down to a more gentle pace of life - life at a trot rather than the daily gallop.
We'll be back.