Circle Bar B Proves Some Places Are Better than Home

by Michelle Drown • Photographs by Jeff Cable

“There’s no place like home,” the saying goes, but after
spending two nights at Circle Bar B, I beg to differ. The staffers
are so friendly and hospitable; the accommodations so cozy and
comfortable; the homemade food so delicious — it’s better than
being at home. It’s more like staying with your best friend, who
just happens to have 18 guest houses, a pool and hot tub, a game
room, a sitting room with a huge stone fireplace and saloon-style
bar, a stable full of horses, and a dinner theater.

I didn’t know as much until a few weeks ago, when the Circle Bar
B invited me up for a little getaway. To make the trip
authentically family-like, I brought along my sister, her husband,
and my seven-year-old nephew and four-year-old niece to spend two
nights there. Founded by Florence Brown in 1939, Circle Bar B sits
nestled in a canyon three miles inland from Highway 101, a mere 25
miles north of Santa Barbara on Refugio Road. As we drove inland
from the 101 through avocado and lemon orchards, over creek
crossings, and beneath oak trees, the smell of hot earth and spicy
chaparral filled my nose as that feeling of escaping the city
enveloped me.

When we arrived at the ranch, we were greeted by the sweet scent
of hay and horses. After we registered, Brian Harwell, Circle Bar
B’s director of sales, gave us a tour of the grounds and graciously
answered all our questions. For the past eight years, the guest
ranch has been under renovation, upgrading the 60-year-old
buildings while also constructing four new cabins. The result is
unassuming, aesthetically pleasing structures that have the look of
old ranch homes. The main house consists of a central gathering
space — where stag heads on the wall overlook cushy couches, a
fireplace, and cowhide chairs that hug the long bar — and an
adjacent dining area. A stone’s throw away is the game room and a
bit farther, the swimming pool stands ready for hot-day dips.

A short walk up the hill was our cabin, a newly built
one-bedroom that smelled of pine and remained cool despite the
outside heat. The place was spotlessly clean and the décor was a
perfect mix of modern pastoral and age-old elegance with its
cream-colored walls, leather chairs, log door and window frames,
and wrought iron accents. The bedroom was inviting and the
bathroom’s shower was large enough to accommodate the lot of us at
once, had we been so inclined. A vase of freshly cut flowers and a
bowl of candy — chocolates and hard candies of the tastiest
kind — made for a warm welcome. This attention to detail is
trademark Circle Bar B; although Florence is no longer with us, her
kin, who now own the place, stay true to her dream.

When Florence started Circle Bar B in the late 1930s, she had a
vision of the type of guest ranch she wanted to run, one that
offered “all the security and remoteness of pioneer life surrounded
by beautiful scenery, in an ideally healthy climate and happy
homelike atmosphere,” as the original brochure reads. “Rustic
cabins — large, homey dining room where excellent home-cooked meals
are served family style. Just a clean, healthy, friendly place
where you can really relax and rest.” Florence, who was born and
raised in Ojai, still achieves this more than 60 years later thanks
to the determination and dedication of her son Jim, granddaughter
Kathy, and grandson Pat.

At Home on the Range

circlebarb.jpgAfter settling in, we headed to the
pool. The kids had a great time swimming with their parents while I
relaxed in the sparkling clean hot tub. (The pool is open
indeterminably as there is no hard and fast policy on swim times.)
At 5:30 p.m., we headed back to the cabin and changed clothes for
dinner. Meals at the ranch are served family style and the long
tables are set with placards with guests’ surnames, inviting
mingling with fellow vacationers.

The food was excellent — we had a choice of chicken tarragon,
catfish, salad, sun-dried tomato pasta salad, freshly baked bread,
chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and steamed vegetables. I
asked my nephew how he liked his dinner of nuggets (his favorite
food) and mac and cheese (his other favorite food) and he replied,
“It’s good. Tasty,” adding that they were better than the ones from
Trader Joe’s, his staple. Plates were cleared to make way for the
chocolate raspberry mousse cake, which was the cherry on the dinner
sundae, so to speak.

Bellies stuffed, we moseyed down to the nearby stables to pet
the horses as they ate their meals. Soon, other guests joined us
and chit chat ensued. As many other kids gathered ’round, my
delighted nephew exclaimed happily, “There are so many new friends
to make.” We grown-ups had the same reaction as we exchanged “Where
are you from?” and “How’d you hear about this place?” while the
kids played.

As the sun set, people migrated to the main house for drinks and
conversation, to the pool for a nighttime swim, or to the game
room, which is where we went. My niece and nephew played Foosball
and billiards with their new pals, while we engaged in some fierce
ping-pong matches. Meanwhile, the staff was tirelessly and
cheerfully working behind the scenes to prepare for the next day
and ensure each guest’s experience was special.

The ranch’s pervasively intimate atmosphere struck me as
uncommon, but it’s of the utmost importance to the Browns. Kathy
does a smashing job running the guest ranch and lends a hand in the
kitchen; Pat has been overseeing renovations and runs the stables;
and patriarch Jim regales guests with tales of the ranch’s history
and mans the weekend barbecue, cooking up tri-tip for dinner
theater patrons.

Back in the Saddle Again

At four years old, my niece has been a horse fanatic half her
life. So when day broke, our thoughts turned equestrian. We’d
inquired about the chance of her and her brother trotting horseback
around the corral, and stables foreman Jack Roe said no problem. As
another cowboy named Adam Shute lifted her onto the saddle, her
face beamed with pure delight. She hung on tightly, grinning all
the while, as Adam walked the horse back and forth the length of
the corral a couple times. My nephew played it a bit cooler, but
had an equally thrilling time. Then my brother-in-law took the kids
to the pool, and my sister and I finally had our turn for riding

In my youth, I’d been on the back of a horse a fair amount and
had even felt confident enough in my skills to let my steed trot
and canter. That was more than 10 years ago, however, and this time
I was a bit nervous that the horse would immediately be hip to my
fear and mess with me. When our trail guide, Adam, brought out the
horse I was meant to ride, I was pleased that he was relatively
small and had the innocuous name of Muffin. I was lined up right
behind Adam, which was comforting, since I figured he could grab
the reins when Muffin made a run for it. Adam entertained us with
stories and jokes as our horses ambled along the trail, which cut
through a canyon and up a hill to a high-elevation lookout point
from which we could see the ocean. Muffin proved a good boy and did
all I asked of him. But when I commented on Muffin’s good nature,
Adam said he was one of the meanest horses of the bunch, pointing
out a large scar Muffin had on his neck from fighting. Apparently
Muffin was cranky with his own kind, but with me he was gentle,
easy, and gave a delightful ride.

The stables at Circle Bar B are amazingly clean, evidence that
the ranch’s 55 horses are well cared for. You can choose from
several different rides — including a sunset outing or a four-hour
jaunt with a picnic — that cut through nearly 1,000 acres of
countryside. You don’t have to be a guest to go horseback riding,
and it is well worth the 25-minute drive from Santa Barbara to
spend time with these noble creatures amid the gorgeous landscape
of Refugio Canyon.

That evening we had another fabulous dinner before meandering
over to the quaint barn-like theater, the ranch’s main attraction
for city folk. Although the theater is owned by the Browns,
producers Susie and David Couch run the productions; the show that
night was the musical comedy Suds.The play was so
entertaining — there was singing, dancing, comedy, and other
silliness — that even the children sat riveted. After the play, the
actors milled around outside to chat with the audience. My niece,
who had never been to a play before, wanted to meet them, not
believing they were actual people. She hugged a few and shyly said
hello to some of the others. On our way back to the cabin she
declared, “I love actors.”

We checked out the next morning, much to our general
disappointment — the kids wanted to live permanently at Circle Bar
B. Still, we took comfort in knowing that the ranch is merely up
the road from our homes in Santa Barbara and that we can return
when we like. I’m already plotting a winter visit — I can’t think
of anything cozier than sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs in
the main house, sipping a warm drink, and talking with new friends
as the fire crackles in the fireplace.

4·1·1 Circle Bar B, 1800 Refugio Road, is open
seven days per week, year-round. Prices start at $328 for double
occupancy, which includes meals. For guest ranch reservations or
information, call 968-1113 or visit For horseback riding, call
968-3901 or visit For theater
information, call 967-1962 or visit


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