The Alisal is an all-inclusive dude ranch set on 10,000 acres just outside Santa Barbara, California — here's what it was like taking a family vacation there during COVID-19

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  • The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort is an all-inclusive dude ranch just 45 minutes outside Santa Barbara in Solvang, California.
  • All rooms have private entrances and the resort is set on 10,000 acres, making for easy social distancing. 
  • I recently stayed in a mid-tier Select Suite with my , which typically starts at $710 per night. Last-minute entry-level rooms start from $550.
  • While this may seem pricey at first glance, the rate includes meals, alcohol, and most activities, actually making it an excellent value. 

Living in Los Angeles, my family and I have muddled through more than half a year of of the toughest restrictions in the country. Because we have a young infant — a lockdown baby born in April — my husband and I have been especially conservative about recreation. However, after months of staying at home, we were on the hunt for a safe getaway.

Our conditions were many. We wanted someplace within easy driving distance from LA that was family-friendly and easy with a baby. It also needed to have excellent social distancing and rooms with private entrances and no crowded hotel corridors, per current expert advice. Ample outdoor offerings, plus al fresco dining, were also on the must-have list.  

Our winner: The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, California.

Just 45 minutes outside Santa Barbara in Santa Ynez Valley, the all-inclusive dude ranch has been welcoming families and travelers for nearly 75 years. Set on 10,000 acres with a 100-acre lake, it has outdoor offerings galore and features cottages, studios, and suites, all with private entrances. 

It's also the type of hotel where people often book their next stay while checking out. I myself first stayed at The Alisal two years ago and was eager to return. Plus, with the resort currently only booking 50% capacity and implementing strong new -19 protocols, we had even more peace of mind.

Rates typically start around $700 per night, and the initial sticker shock can be off-putting. But, as an all-inclusive resort where the nightly rate includes breakfast, dinner, an alcohol package, and numerous activities from kid's adventure excursions to yoga and tennis, what initially seems expensive is actually an excellent deal when you sit down to crunch the numbers. You can also occasionally find last-minute deals that start closer to $550 if you're vigilant about checking the website. And, for an additional value play, the hotel offers many featured packages with bundles that can help bring the rates down.   

I stayed in a mid-tier Select Suite with the Alisal Golf Awaits package, which typically runs $710 per night based on double adult occupancy. While I paid a media rate of $350, I found the package to be an exceptional value and would gladly return at the full cost.  

  • First impression
  • Room
  • On-site amenities
  • What's nearby
  • What others say
  • What you need to know
  • policies
  • The bottom line
  • Book a room at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort starting at $550 per night

Keep reading to see I was so impressed by The Alisal. 

Depending on whether you're coming from the north or the south, there two entrances to the Alisal, and I've taken both. On this trip, our GPS took us around the back of the property, driving over miles of dirt road, weaving through shaded trees, and past Alisal's lake. We finally pulled into the main area of the property near the rodeo grounds and stables. 

It was quite the impression, reminding us that we were on a gigantic, sprawling ranch in the middle of nowhere, which was a good feeling amidst the .

The lobby is a small, quaint wooden building, but guests are no longer allowed . Instead, check-in was via the building's windows, with social distancing signs clearly marked. The fact that everything, even check-in, took place outdoors set the tone for our stay. A giant sign, placed between large potted plants, blocked the doors to the building and clearly stated that masks were required. 

We arrived just after 4 p.m. and our room was ready to go. Check-in only took a couple of minutes, and we received an envelope with the schedule for our stay, which included a book of activities we booked online in advance, as well as our breakfast and dinner time for each day. Our keys were safely sealed in a plastic ziplock bag, along with a map of the property. 

We walked across the nearby bridge surrounded by greenery and flowers, leading over a dry riverbed to the main part of the property. As we reached the end of the bridge the sprawling accommodations suddenly came into sight: casitas and Spanish Colonial-style abodes arranged around a village green, with the pool at the center of one area, and the main dining building the anchor of a second area. We quickly located our own suite and headed inside.

A sticker on the door confirming that our suite had been thoroughly sanitized with no one entering after was a nice first reassurance. Our room was a 550-square-foot Select Suite, one of the smallest suite offerings. Still, it was supremely comfortable and felt plenty spacious, with two couches that converted into twin beds in the living room, a half bath, and both a walk-in shower and a bathtub, in an ADA configuration.

Although the Alisal is luxurious, it's unpretentious, laid-back luxury. Our suite had plenty of natural light, a king-sized bed, a private front patio with seating, and a wood-burning fireplace. The decor was on theme for a ranch stay, and distinctly western. As is standard with all rooms, we received a bottle of Alisal wine from the local Santa Ynez Valley, as well as two refillable water bottles, plus an amenity kit including sanitizing wipes and sanitizing gel.

It's important to note there is no air conditioning at the ranch. However, for the hottest days, portable fans are available, and there are also vigorous ceiling fans in each room. All windows open and have screens to prevent bugs, and our front door also had a screen door. At night, with the windows open and the fans roaring, our room became glacial; in fact, we chose to turn off the fans in the middle of the night and were then comfortably cool. 

Our suite had two bathrooms. In addition to the small powder room off the living room, there was a larger bathroom off the bedroom. The water did take a few minutes to get warm, but once it got going it stayed hot. The Alisal-branded in-bath amenities were nothing to write home about, but perfectly acceptable. The bath counter had a decent amount of space to spread out toiletries from two people.

Our room also featured a refrigerator, a coffee machine with complimentary coffee and tea provided, a filtered water dispenser, and two robes. There are no TVs in any rooms, on purpose, to encourage guests to get out and enjoy the property. The Wi-Fi, however, was surprisingly great; our kindergartener even Zoomed into her remote classes the morning after we arrived.

Housekeeping is paused during the pandemic. Instead, we received a card in our room with instructions on how to get fresh towels, as well as a checklist of amenities we wanted to be replenished.  

Overall, the room felt extremely clean and very tidy. Where it matters, the Alisal was a sumptuous stay: the beds were heavenly, the robes plush, the complimentary bottle of wine was delicious, and the feeling of having a safe entrance and exit without having to use an elevator or pass other people in an enclosed hallway was priceless.

Rooms and suites are dotted throughout the property, like summer camp cabins, and each accommodation has its own parking space, making for very easy loading and unloading of bags. Most rooms and suites are two to a casita, although some of the larger suites have an entire building to themselves. Ours shared a wall with another family, although we didn't hear a peep from them during our stay. 

The Alisal features several different accommodation categories that generally range from studios, starting at $550 to $700 depending on the season, to massive suites, which start from $895 per night and can sleep up to five. For couples, the studio rooms are more than sufficient, though I would certainly recommend upgrading to a more spacious suite if you plan to with your family as I did.

Rooms are usually at their least pricey between November and March. All rates are based on double occupancy since meals, drinks, and activities are factored into the room price, though children under 6 are no charge.

Compare room types and prices for The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort

The myriad on-site amenities are where The Alisal shines and why people come in the first place. There is a 20% service charge, which covers staff gratuities as well as the tremendous number of included amenities. While this can seem like a lot on top of the already pricey room rates, I felt it was more than reasonable given how much was included in our stay. Additionally, tipping is folded into the service charge.

One of the reasons the Alisal is so popular and beloved by guests is its summer camp feel. Every day brings something new in the way of rotating activities and fun offerings. 

The stars of the show at the Alisal are the horses and the working cattle ranch. The daily activities available at the Equine Center are many, including rides for all levels on over 100 miles of trails.

However, unless you've selected one of the packages with certain rides included, horseback is one of the few activities that come with a fee — generally between $50 and $100 depending on the length of the ride and age of the rider. I found this annoying given the steep price we were already paying. However, kids' lead-around rides are free and offered twice daily. If you do want to book a ride, do so early as they fill up fast.

If horses aren't your thing, or you don't feel like paying extra, it's not hard to pack your schedule with alternatives. It's common to see people playing shuffleboard on the lawn or kids making arts and crafts on their patios with takeaway crafting kits from The Laurel Room kids club. Other highlights include tennis and pickleball courts and classes — my daughter joined a group tennis lesson for kids, everybody masked up and distanced — while there are also two 18-hole golf courses. 

Other complimentary highlights include a daily mindful yoga walk, a breakfast haywagon ride, outdoor meditation, biking, country dancing, family bingo, croquet, horseshoeing, star gazing, ping pong, family karaoke, and the Alisal Rodeo, which takes place once a week. 

The pool is a big draw and a lovely spot to relax. Due to COVID-19, guests currently sign up for pool times before they arrive. We chose a 3 p.m. slot and were pleased to see that it was nearly empty during that time. The rush is during and after lunch, but even then, it's not particularly crowded and easy to distance from other sunbathers and swimmers.

Another classic Alisal highlight is fine dining in the Ranch Room or Sycamore Room, two areas of the dining pavilion off the Grassy Oval. Each atmospheric room features a roaring fire, western tapestries, white tablecloths, and wooden and stone walls. Dressing up for dinner in "country formal" style is a favorite Alisal tradition, with men wearing sport coats and cowboy hats, and women wearing dresses and boots. Guests get very into it, and it's fun to experience.

Because of COVID, dining has migrated creekside underneath a canopy of lighted sycamore trees, complete with heat lamps and a crackling fire pit on which to roast s'mores. It's the same signature experience, simply al fresco and with well-spaced tables.

Guests choose their dining time in advance and get the same table each night. We felt safely distanced away from other groups, with ample space between us and the next table. Some guests did choose to eat indoors, but they were few and far between, and spread out on far corners of the room. 

For breakfast, guests can order a la carte from a menu — think pancakes, bacon, and eggs however you like them — or venture briefly inside to the Oak Room (normally a bar, but closed due to COVID) to a custom omelet station, a buffet of fresh fruit, pastries, sausages, pancakes, hash browns, and more. The buffet was manned by masked workers and was not self-serve; guests indicated which foods they'd like and each item was plated by staff.  

Other eateries include The Chuckwagon Grill, a lunch spot overlooking the pool, and two restaurants overlooking the golf courses. However, be aware that meals at these spots aren't included in the dining plan, and prices can add up quickly.   

Two hours from Los Angeles, and four and a half hours from San Francisco, the Alisal is nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley in the charming Danish village of Solvang. The quaint town enjoys a reputation as one of the most Christmassy towns in America. However, Solvang is delightful year-round, with small boutiques, wine tasting rooms, Danish bakeries, a sausage garden, a Christmas boutique, and ample cheer. Downtown Solvang is close enough to bike to from the Alisal, and is a pedestrian-friendly town; the greater Santa Ynez area in general is also extremely bike-friendly.

Further afield, Santa Ynez Valley enjoys a reputation as one of California's best wine areas, known for its cool climate wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms a short distance away.

Sun-soaked Santa Barbara — the so-called American Riviera — is less than 40 minutes away.

Check flight prices to Solvang on Expedia

A TripAdvisor Traveler's Choice 2020 award winner, The Alisal is ranked 1 out of 12 hotels in Solvang and has more than 366 reviews, averaging 4.5 stars, and deemed "excellent."

Many reviews praise the ranch as being "relaxing," "magical" and the staff as "friendly" and "attentive but not hovering," while several note that the resort did an excellent job of maintaining the special feel despite COVID-19 restrictions. 

Negative reviews hone in on the resort's lack of air conditioning, while others dislike the extra charges for certain activities including trail rides. Many also stress the necessity of booking popular offerings in advance.

Read reviews, compare prices, and book the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort on Trip Advisor

Who stays here: Young families, groups looking for a fun, adult summer camp vibe, and multi-generational groups celebrating anniversaries or milestone birthdays can all be found here. Many guests are repeat visitors.

We like: The location makes the Alisal doubly attractive: not only is there a seemingly endless amount of on-site activities, but it's a stone's throw away from some of the best wineries in the country, making an afternoon of wine tasting an enticing proposition (if you can tear yourself away from the ranch). 

We love (don't miss this feature!): At least one horse ride while at The Alisal is an absolute must. They're up to two hours long, and cover an enormous amount of terrain, allowing you to see parts of the resort you otherwise would miss. Ask for the trail ride by the lake for the best scenery.

We think you should know: Studios and suites are comfortable but rustic and no-frills. There's no in-room air conditioning, but portable A/C units are available on request and all windows open.

We'd do this differently next time: There's genuinely too much to see and do at The Alisal in one stay. Next time, we hope to visit the restaurants by the golf course, arrive in advance of our 4 p.m. check-in so we can make better use of the grounds on our first day, and follow through with our plan to take the hay wagon ride.  

  • Masks are required on property everywhere, per a mandate from the state of California.
  • Guests will be advised to practice physical distancing by standing at least six feet away from people outside of their immediate party. This includes while standing in any line or moving around the Ranch. Restaurant dining, activities, and other physical layouts have been arranged to ensure appropriate distancing. 
  • Hand sanitizers, wash stations, and hygiene reminders will be placed at key contact areas for guests and employees.
  • Appropriate PPE will be worn by all employees based on their roles and responsibilities.
  • The Alisal uses HEPA filters in all of the guest rooms and public spaces. There is also UV lighting in filters in all public spaces. 

I was impressed with the COVID-19 policies in place. We appreciated the lack of housekeeping and the COVID amenity kit provided upon check-in, as well as the fact that staff was extremely diligent about wearing masks.

Most of the guests were similarly attentive about mask usage, though we did overhear some people at breakfast complaining about the annoyance of masks and discussing how they wore mesh masks at the gym. However, on such an enormous property, it was very easy to avoid such guests.

My husband was nervous about using the pool, as it's one of the two places — dining being the other — where people tend to take their masks off. He was especially pleased to see that the ranch encouraged guests to make pool reservations and also appreciated that the pool was practically empty during our late afternoon time slot. Overall, we felt incredibly safe throughout our entire stay.

If you're seeking a memorable, relaxing, outdoor-oriented getaway with on-site activities galore, the Alisal is absolutely unbeatable. Plus, thanks to ample social distancing, lots of ventilation and fresh air, strict new COVID-19 regulations, and rooms with private entrances, the dude ranch is especially appealing during the ongoing pandemic.

With last-minute rates starting at $550 per night and standard rates frequently starting closer to $700, the Alisal is certainly a splurge. And, at these prices, some may be disappointed that the accommodations aren't over-the-top luxurious and that there is still a service fee and additional charges for some key activities, such as trail rides.

However, with our nightly rate covering a spacious family suite, breakfast, dinner, alcoholic drinks, and a dizzying array of complimentary activities, I found the Alisal to actually be an exceptional value at the end of the day. Like so many of the ranch's repeat guests, I'm already planning my next visit.

Book a room at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort starting at $550 per night

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