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Rankin Ranch: an undiscovered jewel

Land of Four Seasons

One of the most unique and memorable experiences you can have in California is available just 31 miles from the city of Tehachapi at the Rankin Ranch, a family cattle and guest ranch that was founded in 1863.

Nestled in the Tehachapi Mountains in the beautiful and pristine Walker Basin, the Quarter Circle U Rankin Ranch has been raising cattle in Kern County since the days of the Civil War. The sprawling ranch covers 31,000 acres, which is bigger than the five smallest countries in the world – San Marino, Tuvalu, Nauru, Monaco and Vatican City – combined. The entire city and county of San Francisco could fit within the Rankin Ranch's 48 square miles. While cattle have been raised continuously on the ranch since Walker Rankin Sr. started it nearly 150 years ago, it was a later family matriarch, Helen Rankin, who began the guest ranch in 1965. Helen had been capably running the cattle ranch since her husband died in 1954, and it was her vision to share the historic working ranch and beautiful surroundings with visitors.

In the 56 years since Helen made that momentous decision, generations of guests have enjoyed a remarkable ranch experience and the Rankin family has become well known for their warmth and hospitality. The ranch is currently run by fourth generation family members Bill and Glenda Rankin, as well as their four children – Jason, Rebecca, Sarah, and Amanda – and their spouses and children.

With safety measures, the ranch was able to remain open during COVID, and as the pandemic eases and a return to normalcy looms, the Rankin Ranch is looking forward to 2021 and beyond.

The past and present don't just coexist at the Rankin Ranch, they merge seamlessly. The main ranch house, built in the 1870s and furnished with family antiques, sits next to an inviting heated swimming pool. The newest guest room, a handsome duplex known as the "Chimo" cabin, overlooks a sweeping panoramic view of Walker Basin that has changed little since Abraham Lincoln was president.

So what does a stay at the Rankin Ranch entail? To begin with, guest lodging consists of 15 cabins, which blend in with the historic ranch buildings but aren't rustic – each guest cabin is carpeted, heated and air conditioned with its own entrance and private bath. A new addition is a covered wagon that guests can stay in. Breakfasts and dinners are typically served in the Garden Room, a spacious indoor dining area that's part of the main house. Visitors complimented the food so persistently that the Rankins published a recipe book featuring popular Quarter Circle U dishes as well as ranch history and family photos.

Lunches are usually served on a terrace overlooking the pool, though there are also barbecues down in the main meadow that are preceded by a short hay ride. A patio party for adults is held each evening in the Lightner Square courtyard, where chips, dips and mixes are provided by the Rankin Ranch (which doesn't have a liquor license) and guests can supply their own alcoholic beverage of choice.

Activities at the Rankin Ranch are many and varied: twice-daily horseback rides, trout fishing, swimming, hiking, birding, horseshoes, archery, star-gazing, tennis, volleyball, pool, square dancing and line dancing. All of them are optional, of course, and some guests prefer to go for one ride a day or none at all and just soak up the surroundings, reading a good book or socializing with family members.

And the Rankin Ranch is very family friendly – there are many children's activities during the seasonal kids' program, which includes arts and crafts, nature hikes, scavenger hunts, talent shows, swim meets and more. Sarah's Farm often has lambs and goats and chickens that children can feed, hold or pet. For children age six and up, there are also horseback rides especially for kids.

My own family arrived in Kern County in 1898 and my grandfather drove a wagon and team through Walker Basin every week in the early 1900s, so I've always known about the Rankin Ranch and driven past the place many times growing up. It is a Kern County icon.

Almost alone among guest ranches, the Rankin Ranch allows visitors to book a single night, which will include dinner the night of your arrival, lodging, and then breakfast, a morning ride and lunch the next day. Research other guest ranches in the West, and you'll find that most of them insist you stay 3, 5 or 7 days and write a check beginning at about $1,500.

At the Rankin Ranch, you can be a single person who wants to get away on a Wednesday night, call that morning and if there's a vacant cabin available your reservation will be confirmed. You don't have to have a long-standing reservation or be part of a large group, if there's a room available you'll be welcomed with friendly Rankin family hospitality.

At the Rankin Ranch, you get your own cabin, three hearty meals, trail rides, and an array of other activities, with no additional charges. The Rankins call it their "American Plan," in which everything is included, and they don't tack on additional fees left and right like the airlines do. It's like a cruise ship but on land: you pay one price and everything is included. For more information, visit rankinranch.com or call (661) 867-2511.

It is a great retreat for people from the Tehachapi Mountains and other parts of Kern County, who can drive for 40 minutes instead of three hours for an unforgettable vacation experience. The large string of Rankin Ranch horses are healthy and sure-footed but also seasoned and dependable, and you can enjoy the trail rides if you've never been on a horse before or if you're an experienced rider with horses in your own corral.

People from all over the U.S. come and stay in Walker Basin at the Rankin Ranch, but for most Kern County residents, it's an undiscovered jewel. Most of the big historic cattle ranches of the Tehachapi Mountains are gone, having been converted to housing developments; the Fickert Ranch became Bear Valley Springs, the Hill Ranch is now Stallion Springs, the Cuddeback Ranch was turned into Golden Hills, and even the giant Tejon Ranch is morphing into more housing than cattle.

And yet at the large and scenic Rankin Ranch, cattle still graze in mountain pastures just as they did when Walker Rankin first imported them there in the 1860s and tended fields of dry-farmed grain and irrigated alfalfa to provide feed for Rankin cattle and off-sale as well.

A short drive up the winding Caliente-Bodfish Road (the "Lion's Trail" to locals) brings you to another world, where stoplights and traffic jams and shopping malls are distant realities and the rhythm of the seasons and ranch life are still thriving. The Rankin Ranch is a continuing source of pride for Kern County.

Enjoy the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].