California dude ranch experience at Greenhorn Ranch
Leaving the San Francisco Bay Area traffic behind, I can literally feel the stress disappear from my body as my husband drives our truck into California’s Lost Sierra. The grand conifer trees and pine forests mingle with clear-running streams as we wind our way to Plumas County. The landscape, filled with wildlife and rugged beauty, leads me to a Northern California dude ranch experience at Greenhorn Ranch. My husband unloads my duffle bag and cowboy boots, settles me into my room and departs the ranch. Secretly, I’m fine that he’s not joining me on this horseback riding vacation. I’m ready to tap into my inner cowgirl!
Northern California Dude Ranch
Conveniently located 70 miles from Reno, Nevada and 2.5 hours from Sacramento, California, Greenhorn Ranch is tucked among the tall trees and spring-fed creeks in Plumas National Forest. The ranch is set on 600 privately-owned acres, and surrounded with 500,000 acres of trails in California’s Lost Sierra. It’s home to 80 head of horses, the ranch dog, Cedar, and a close knit team of friendly wranglers and lodge staff. You’ll have to explore yourself to see the local eagle that skims the pond searching for a tasty rainbow trout or listen for the snap of a tree branch as a doe and fawn leap across the forest floor while we ride by on horseback.
Cowboys and cowgirls at Greenhorn Ranch
The clang of the dinner bell can be heard from the lodge as cowboys and cowgirls amble toward the chuck house. Seated across from me is Jose Higuera with his two adult children, here to celebrate an early Father’s Day. Further down the sleek, wooden communal table I can hear a mother and daughter re-hash their afternoon trail ride exploits, while a spry woman with a friendly Scottish brogue accent chimes in about her horse ride.
After we pile our plates with hot barbecued ribs, several types of salads and fresh baked focaccia bread, we listen to a couple of wranglers crack jokes and share knowing looks. Soon, one of the waitstaff comes out from the kitchen, holding a slice of birthday cake, adorned with a solo flickering candle. Guests and wranglers join baritone and soprano voices as we sing happy birthday to a fellow blushing cowboy.
It was the perfect gathering of young and old, as well as beginning riders and experienced equestrians. We came together to break bread and share tales from day one of our riding holiday.
Sierra Nevada horseback riding vacation
If you are looking for an authentic, family-friendly horseback riding vacation in Northern California, Greenhorn Ranch is that place. Established in 1962, the ranch offers horses to match every riding ability with scenic trails to compliment each ride. Head Wrangler Marty Orenstein has been instructing greenhorns (definition of greenhorn by Merriam-Webster dictionary = an inexperienced person) and accomplished equestrians for over 40 years. He and his staff know how to make guests feel confident in the saddle.
I’ve been on a lot of dude ranch horseback riding vacations and what I liked about Greenhorn Ranch was the emphasis on proper riding mechanics, as well as making sure every guest has a good time out on the trail. It’s also one of the few California Dude Ranches that allows guests to do more than a nose to tail walk on horseback. However, if you want to lope (or canter for the English riders) you’ll need to pass the riding assessment.
If your goal is to do more than a walk or trot on your trail ride, you’ll need to demonstrate your riding ability. I appreciate this safety requirement; perhaps more than most equestrians, due to two hip replacements. I’ve written about how to ride after total hip replacement, but I still get nervous around other riders when we lope or canter, in case someone doesn’t have control over their horse.
Besides the pure beauty of experiencing different parts of the world on horseback, I enjoy a peaceful ride with well-behaved horses and riders. At Greenhorn Ranch, guests are asked their riding ability during a phone conversation. Riders have the opportunity to go out on horseback twice daily for ninety minutes or more. A lope assessment is asked of the rider to demonstrate that they are able to maintain a balanced seat in a western saddle without holding onto the horn, or any part of the saddle.
If you need an introduction to horseback riding or you haven’t ridden in several years, it’s best to take a riding lesson.
“This was my first experience on a ranch, and first time horseback riding for two hours through the woods. It has been spectacular,” said Mariel Higuera of San Diego, California. “Greenhorn Ranch is absolutely gorgeous. The people are very friendly and the wranglers made me feel safe and confident about horseback riding. By the end of the weekend, I felt connected to my horse and would like to continue horseback riding in the near future.”
Mother daughter horse riding holiday
“We were looking for a mother/daughter get away in California with a lot of horseback riding,” said Michelle Evans of Redwood City, California. “We liked that it wasn’t nose to tail riding. My daughter, Haley, is an experienced rider so she wanted an opportunity for loping. The ranch does a lope test and I didn’t initially pass. That was incredibly disappointing, but the head wrangler, Marty, gave us a lesson in the arena and had us loping that morning!”
Family-friendly dude ranch experience
If you are traveling on holiday with children, Greenhorn Ranch has it dialed down with kid’s programs. There’s a huge, heated swimming pool, a pond for trout fishing (catch and release) or an extra fee if you really want to have chef cook your fish for dinner, and plenty of other family friendly activities. Bring a warm jacket for movie night under the stars or gather around the campfire for s’mores.
Monday evening is a candlelight dinner in the chuck house for adults only while the kids are kept well-fed and entertained. Tuesday night, catch frogs for Wednesday’s frog race in the saloon (no frogs are harmed.) There’s horseshoe painting, card and game night, corn hole and horse shoes, karaoke and dancing with a live DJ! Don’t miss the Thursday Adios Party and I’ve heard from the General Manager Jill Rivoli that a kid’s rodeo is in the works.
As I mentioned earlier, I was ready to tap into my inner cowgirl this vacation. When I travel solo, it forces me to step out of my comfort zone and strike up conversations with people that I might not normally interact with. Fortunately on this riding holiday, I met a kindred spirit.
“My husband and I had traveled to the United States for the last 20 years, mainly driving, and did a ranch holiday many years ago,” said Margaret Logie of Scotland. “Since he passed away, I am now a solo traveler.
My son lives in Sacramento, so Greenhorn Ranch was within driving distance. I made contact by phone and received a great deal of information and encouragement. The ranch has lived up to my expectations; comfortable room, excellent food, friendly staff and most of all, a great variety of riding trails. Marty and his team gave good instruction to make the rides safe.
I would certainly consider coming back here, but also intend to venture to other states for Dude Ranch vacations while I’m able! I liked that the ranch was close to an airport, easily accessible and not too large.”
Need to Know:
SPECIAL OFFER Use code NBROWN19 when making your reservation at Greenhorn Ranch! (530) 283-0930
All inclusive rates $495.75 adults ages 16+ per night. Children ages 6-15 $392.53 per night as of this writing. Check website for current rates and specials.
Are you curious to know what to pack for a horseback riding vacation? There is a packing list on the ranch website. Dress is casual. Pack cowboy boots with a heel so your boots don’t slip through the stirrups. Pack a reusable water bottle as it is important to stay hydrated in the Sierra mountains. Your saddle will have a place to hold your water bottle. Leave the fancy camera with the heavy zoom lens in your cabin if you plan to ride a horse.
While most everything on your all-inclusive ranch vacation is included, you’ll need to pay for alcohol, fly-fishing, massage & golf. Tips are not included, but may be charged to a credit card at the end of your stay.
The ranch has 12 lodge rooms and 16 cabins, in addition to Airstream trailers. If you are into horses, this would be an ideal place to have a wedding. You can even buy out the entire lodge for your special event!
The ranch has a team of draft horses and wagon that can take guests to a cook out location or around the grounds if you prefer not to go on a trail ride.
Be sure not to miss the running of the horses. This special photo op takes place in the morning when the horses come down from the pasture, or in the afternoon, when the horses have finished their last ride. Ask your wrangler where to be to capture this moment for your Instagram or Facebook page. For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown and GreenhornRanch.
If You Go:
Greenhorn Ranch (530) 283-0930
2116 Greenhorn Ranch Road
California dude ranch experience at Greenhorn Ranch review, video and all photography by travel writer Nancy D. Brown. I was a guest of Greenhorn Ranch, however, all opinions are my own.