Califonia Bountiful

Dude ranch treats city folk to country life

July/Aug. 2005 California Country magazine

One couple's trot on the wild side took them to Rancho Temescal, among the few dude ranches in California.


San Francisco executives Daniel McLaughlin and his wife, Fran Miller, spend much of their time poring over e-mail messages, phone calls, and Palm Pilot and BlackBerry personal digital assistants. Their "spare" time is filled with doing homework with their children, Bryn and Cade, and shuttling them to sporting events and music lessons.

So where did the McLaughlins go when they sought a new adventure to escape from the concrete, traffic jams, deadlines and duties found in an urban jungle? Their trot on the wild side took them to Rancho Temescal, among the few dude ranches in California.

You'll find this unusual vacation destination in the Ventura County community of Piru, just minutes from Magic Mountain and only 55 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Rancho Temescal ( has been open to city slickers since 2002, though the 6,000-acre spread has a long, colorful history. Originally American Indian ground, Rancho Temescal (which means "sweat house" in Aztec) was a Spanish land grant, decreed in 1871. David Cook, the founder of Piru, bought the Rancho Temescal land in the late 1800s and set out to create a second "Garden of Eden," placing prolific plantings of fruit and nut trees. Most of the Cook family income came from the rich deposits of oil drilled in the area.

Jed Cohen and his family, attracted by the mild climate, abundance of room and lavish Spanish-style equestrian center, bought the ranch as their headquarters to raise thoroughbred horses. Jed's son, Tim, manages the ranch and works to ensure that guests have a good time, which means different things to different people.

"I've actually had guests want to work with my fence crew," Tim Cohen said. "They give welding a try or jump on tractors. I've had business people who spend their workdays on a computer who have never physically done anything; they get out here and pull a quarter mile of fence. My fence guys look at them like they're crazy, because they're killing themselves for nothing. It's just amazing what people get accomplished when they're out here!"

Guests visit from far and wide, although the majority of summer visitors are from overseas. The ranch has hosted visitors from Ireland, England, Finland, Germany, Australia and Switzerland.

The mountainous ranch property located just below and surrounding Lake Piru and Santa Felicia Dam, is resplendent with rushing streams and blooming wildflowers. The working ranch section of the property encompasses more than 600 acres devoted to grain, avocados, lemons and other crops, including pluots, plum and apricot hybrids-and donut peaches, along the other new stone-fruit varieties capturing consumer interest.

Ranch guests often tour the farm areas, pick lemons on hot days and make their own lemonade. The big attraction, however, is the stable of expertly trained, exquisite equines.

"It's great to be outside," Daniel said. "It's terrific! No need to worry about anything except your horse, having a new ride and enjoying time with your family. It's a pretty good deal."

Daniel McLaughlin and his family members spent their glorious spring weekend taking several guided horse rides, which included crossing a rushing stream on several occasions. They shared plenty of laughter while they had varying degrees of success herding calves in an arena on the property. The McLaughlins also were given a hands-on lesson about branding cattle, and spoke with cowboys about the unique aspects of ranch life. Guests also can go fishing or hiking, or simply relax and eat gourmet meals made on the premises.

Guests are treated to piquant dishes prepared by Tim Cohen's wife, Shannon, who was formally trained at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in the Napa Valley. Dishes are fancy but with a Western theme, and often include food grown right on the ranch. The McLaughlins dined on dishes that included a spinach salad adorned with locally grown strawberries and homemade poppy seed dressing, rib-eye steak with cheesy polenta, baked squash and chicken pesto pasta.

Guests stay at the newly remodeled, 10-bedroom Heritage Valley Inn, owned and operated by Rancho Temescal, on Main Street in Piru, only a short distance from the outdoor splendor.

The inn and ranch are familiar territory for Hollywood stars. Silent-screen married couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., stayed at the inn while filming the movie "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" in 1917. The ranch draws about two media events per month. The cast and crew of the motion picture "Seabiscuit" stayed at the inn, which has been used in scenes in "Van Helsing" and the upcoming remake of "My Friend Flicka," and was the locale for a press conference in which Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise touted their "War of the Worlds" remake.

Rates for the ranch range from $495 per person, per day, double occupancy, and include meals, accommodations and expert cowboys who customize the experience each guest is seeking.

"The main thing is showing guests how to enjoy themselves but always maintaining control," said Texas-born Dustin Ray Loftin, who ingratiates himself with the cowpokes-in-training with his big white cowboy hat and extremely polite demeanor. "We help guests get in the saddle and see the country. We can mess with the cattle on occasion, and if they have a real big hankerin' for some speed, we get in the arena where we have a more controlled environment and we can do a lot more."

The combination of a pristine, serene environment, outdoor activities and good food helps guests unwind and try their hand at other activities they haven't attempted before.

"Some of the neatest things I've seen on ranch vacations are families learning something at the same time," Tim said. "It's really a unique experience when a family all learns something new together. It's a great bonding moment."

The McLaughlins say the vacation was all it was advertised to be, with one bonus they learned more about the cowboy way of life; a knowledge foreign to many people in the cities.

"Oh, I just have a ton of respect for them," Daniel said. "They have to understand animals, understand people, and how people and animals interact. Horses can be big, dangerous animals, but the cowboys made us safe and feel safe. I respect that they work really hard all day long!" Daniel's wife agreed

"I think that it's very hard, very physical work," Fran said. "It wasn't just riding the horses; they had to take care of the cows, ear-tagging them, taking their horns off, feeding them and moving them around. It wasn't just all fun and having a pony ride!"

Fran said that the family's Old West adventure offered another benefit: it changed her perspective of the nine-to-five day.

"My job can be challenging, but not nearly as challenging as it is to herd cows," she said.

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at

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