I felt the crisp morning air touch my cheek, so I pulled the covers up under my chin and snuggled deeper into my bed. The sound began as a low rumble, then grew in intensity. Living in Southern California, my first thought was earthquake! But then I remembered where I was — and realized the sound was 800-plus hooves stampeding past my window at a full run.
I jumped out of bed and threw open the curtains just as 200 horses ran past my window, splashing through puddles, jumping over ditches, manes and tails flowing behind them. Then I caught flashes of the 15 or so Border Collies that called the Hunewill Guest Ranch their home.
This was to be my alarm clock for the next seven mornings. As the last few stragglers trotted past my window, followed by a wrangler, I realized that it was my 50th birthday, and I was about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime!
I’d spent the better part of a year researching guest ranches, looking for the perfect place to celebrate the big 5-0, along with three friends. We agreed to head for the Hunewill Guest Ranch in Bridgeport, California.
We planned to stay from Saturday, June 27, to the following Saturday, July 4. On the Fourth of July, we’d be able to ride in Bridgeport’s annual parade, as ranch guests.
Hunewill Guest Ranch is situated in the beautiful Bridgeport Valley, 6,500 feet above sea level, in the heart of the Eastern Sierra Mountains. It was founded in 1861 by Esther and Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill, and is still owned and operated by the Hunewill family. The Circle H Guest Ranch has been part of the ranch since 1931.
Once we arrived in the quaint little town of Bridgeport, we drove the four miles to the ranch. We drove through expansive grassy meadows; in the distance were the picture-postcard snowcapped mountains of the Eastern Sierras that mark the boundary of Yosemite National Park.
We arrived at the main ranch, parked, and found our way to the office, where the smiling staff greeted us. The entire staff makes you feel like one of the family — you’re truly an honorary Hunewill!
We checked in, then drove down a dirt road to our cabin. The cabins are simple, but very comfortable. Each cabin has two rooms, with a connecting door, and a porch. Each room has a queen and single bed, plenty of windows, a wall heater, and ceiling fan. The large bathroom has a double sink, a big closet and an armoire.
Heat wasn’t an issue, thanks to the shade from aspen trees and our cabin’s ceiling fan. The daytime temperature was about 85 degrees. The nights were cool and pleasant.
After settling in, we explored the beautiful 4,500-acre cattle ranch. At 6:00 p.m. sharp, we heard the loud chiming of a bell, alerting us that dinner was in 15 minutes. This huge metal bell, the original ranch dinner bell, would summon us to the Ranch House dining room for our meals each day, as well as call us to mount up for rides.
At 6:15 p.m., the dinner bell invited us into the homey dining room. The friendly kitchen staff aims to please. Meals were filled with protein, fruits, salads, veggies, and a variety of beverages, including the freshest, cleanest-tasting well-water I’d ever experienced. And then there were the desserts!
After dinner, we had a barn orientation, known as “Horse Sense and Apple Pie.” My horse for the week was Tyson, a beautiful, sturdy bay. The ranch offers a wonderful string of talented horses suitable for all riding levels. Breeds include Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, Mustang, Appaloosa, Arabian, Morgan, Paint, and crossbreeds. The ranch also welcomes privately owned horses, if you’d like to bring your own.
We were encouraged to unsaddle, brush down, put away our own horses, and give them a treat before returning them to the pasture, an important bonding experience between horse and rider. After the orientation, we turned in. It was only 9:30, but I slept better than I had in months!
Day One, Sunday. My birthday! At breakfast, I noticed an added message on the activity board: “Happy Birthday, Lisa!” After a hearty breakfast, we headed back to our cabin to get our riding helmets, ranch-supplied saddlebags, and water. At 9:00 a.m., the bell rang, calling us to the barn. For each ride, the riders have their choice of three riding groups/levels: the Buckaroo Ride; the Intermediate Ride; and the Advanced Ride. The Buckaroo Ride is geared for beginners. The ride is the easiest, riding through meadows at a leisurely pace.
The Intermediate Ride is for the average-to-good rider, and includes loping, some ditch jumping, and a variety of terrain (meadows, hills, rivers, streams, etc.).
The Advanced Ride, for the more experienced rider, offers a chance for more loping, bigger ditches to jump, and even more diverse terrain.
We opted for the Intermediate group. The ride on this morning would be easy — all walking, with some instruction offered along the way. This was mostly a chance for rider and horse to get to know one another, as well as to get accustomed to the terrain.
We were awe-struck as we headed off the dirt road and into the wide-open spaces of the meadowlands! No trails, no road, no head-to-tail riding — nothing to tell you where you were going or what was ahead. It was just us and the occasional group of cows or horses. We had to pay attention, trust our horses, and give our horses good reason to trust us as riders.
I jumped my first ditch (albeit a small one) and felt like I was flying! Tyson turned out to be a very good horse; he did what I asked and didn’t spook. His attitude was “no sweat, trust me, I’ve done this hundreds of times.” After a 1½-hour ride, we returned for lunch, which included a “Happy Birthday” song from the staff and guests, and the most amazing homemade birthday cake I’d ever seen.
After lunch, we relaxed until the 2:00 p.m. bell called us to the barn. The afternoon ride was much like the morning ride, except longer. A highlight was a cowboy poetry reading. Several of the wranglers not only recite the poetry from memory, but compose and recite their own poems. We were lucky enough to experience this several times during our stay.
That night, instead of dinner in the dining room, we were all invited to a creek-side cookout at Robinson Creek. It was another amazing meal: hamburgers cooked over an open grill, salad, fruit, desserts, and plenty of beverages.
Day 2, Monday. We experienced our first lope across open meadows. The wranglers chose the safest place for the perfect lope. I’d taken a bad fall from a horse eight months prior, so I was still very canter shy. I shared my apprehension with one of the wranglers, and he stayed by my side the entire time.
Day 3, Tuesday. We were up bright and early, mounted our horses, and were on our way to the Breakfast Cookout before 9 a.m. We rode across a rushing river — a first for our little group!
As I navigated Tyson over the rocky bottom and through the rushing water, I remembered to look up and ahead. I helped him keep his balance by keeping mine. And, of course, I trusted that he had done this hundreds of times. After the cookout, we mounted up for the ride home. I decided to take the easier, and shorter, ride home, so I trotted off with the Buckaroos. Several of us agreed that the Buckaroo ride is the best-kept secret on the ranch. We splashed through puddles and loped through meadows — it was a blast!
I was so pleasantly exhausted that I opted out of the afternoon ride. Instead, I sat on the porch with a good book and enjoyed watching the dogs herding the children around the quad area. Little did I realize what I would actually miss! That afternoon, my friends and other guests moved (“pushed”) cattle. Although I enjoyed my relaxing afternoon, I was disappointed to have missed the chance to learn how to herd cows.
That night, after dinner, Jan and Stan Hunewill, the Hunewill family matriarch and patriarch, gave square dancing lessons in the Summer House. It was great fun for kids and adults.
Day 4, Wednesday. Normally, this is the day guests choose between two all-day rides: one to East Lake in the Sierras (the horses are trailered to the trailhead), and the other to one of the many surrounding lower lakes, called the Lower Buckeye. Both rides would offer plenty of time to wander, explore, or just relax.
Today, however, they added another activity: the chance to “push” several more cattle herds from one pasture to another. I’d get my chance to herd cows! And afterward, a wrangler would escort us to the Lower Buckeye for lunch.
It ended up being just a small band of cattle pushers against several hundred cows, calves and two huge bulls — who fought each other the entire time! It was an amazing experience! And Tyson ended up being an amazing cattle horse!
That night over dinner, we all shared our day’s adventures. At 7:30 p.m. we were invited to a hayride, followed by a campfire and sing-a-long. Betsy Hunewill Elliott played her guitar and led us all in song. This was the perfect end to a perfect day.
Day 5, Thursday. Today, I chose to participate in the horseback games, known as “The Hunewill Gymkhana.” It was amazing and fun. That night was a talent show. It was great fun. The kids put on skits and sang songs; guests and staff alike recited cowboy poetry, sang, danced, and told jokes. Betsy lent us her guitar skills, as our little group performed our original rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
Day 6, Friday. Our last official day of riding. Where did the week go? After riding, the day ended with a big cookout right at the ranch. Afterward, we were treated to a sheepdog demonstration by noted trainer and handler Haley Howard, and her dogs, Bodie and Ross.
Day 7, Saturday. As I mentioned, the City of Bridgeport has a big Fourth of July celebration, topped off with the parade down Main Street. We were lucky enough to ride in the parade and represent the ranch. We all wore blue jeans, a white shirt, and red bandana. Each horse was decked out in red-white-and-blue saddle blankets.
Between the cheering crowds, honking horns, occasional firecracker, waving flags, and general commotion, it was a miracle how calm the horses were. Hunewill won first place in the “Mounted” category! After the parade, it was back to Hunewill, with good-byes all around.
I recommend this ranch 100 percent. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re an experienced equestrian or ride once or twice a year. You couldn’t find a better place to spend your vacation for such a reasonable price.
For more information on Hunewill Ranch, call (760) 932-7710, or visit www.hunewillranch.com.