The Alisal: Golfing Part of the Fun at Memorable Dude Ranch

By David R. Holland, Contributor

There is a very unique place in a very unique town in Central California, that if you told some guys back in Jersey about it they would say: "Get outta here."

It's the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort -- what we used to call a dude ranch.

California's premier guest ranch has been a low-profile retreat for Hollywood stars for 52 years. Clark Gable married Lady Silvia in the original library on the grounds and today you might see Cheryl Ladd, Efram and Stephanie Zimbalist, Jimmy Connors, Al Gieberger and sons or even Steve Pate on the links.

James Garner used to be a golf member and Art Linkletter also was a frequent visitor. To this day you might see Bo Derek in for lunch at the Ranch Grill -- her ranch is just minutes away. Fess Parker is another well-known local. He owns a winery just up the road. Barbra Streisand, John Travolta, Doris Day, Nanette Fabray, Goldie Hawn, Tom Poston, Kurt Russell, James Brolin, Don Knotts, Jeff and Beau Bridges and Kevin Costner have also enjoyed the hospitality.

What you have is a laid-back resort with no telephones or televisions in the rooms (they can be found in the library and other spots), 5-star service and food, horseback riding, backpacking, fly-fishing instruction, winery escapes, and two championship golf courses.

The scenery includes huge eucalyptus groves and 300-year-old live oaks and sycamore trees that will make you stop, stare and say: "Golly, that's a big tree."

The Ranch Course, built in 1945 as a nine-hole course (designed by Billy Bell), now measures 6,551, a par 72, but its tight fairways, huge trees, many with branches overhanging in to the fairways, makes it a tough test. Undulating and fast greens also will challenge you.

The Ranch Course is only open only to resort guests and members, but the River Course, a par 72, 6,830 yards long, built in 1992, is open to anyone. Both courses offer spectacular views of the Santa Ynez River and nearby Santa Ynez Mountains.

Master PGA professional John Hardy has been around the Ranch Course for 16 years and he arrived in the USA from England in 1957. He says things have never been better.

"Five years ago we renovated the greens, bunkers and tees and two years ago we hired David Rosenstrauch as superintendent," Hardy said. "So you might say this course has blossomed. It is in the best condition it has ever been. This area has always been a wonderful setting and you get great ambiance at The Alisal."

But it's been a lot of hard work. El Niño brought lots of destruction to the golf course and hopefully all the rebuilding and new drainage efforts will prevent future devastation.

"The Ranch Course is no pushover," Hardy said. "It plays longer than the yardage because you don't get much roll. The greens on the front side are reasonably flat, but the greens on the back nine can produce three putts easily. We normally have them at nine on the Stimp Meter, but we can turn that in to 10 or 11." Hardy thinks the finishing holes -- 8 and 9 then 17 and 18 are as challenging as you will find. No. 8 is a 416-yard par-4 beauty. Keep your drive on the left-center of the fairway or you will have to deal with a creek crossing and some huge sycamore branches overhanging the fairway on the right.

No. 9 is a 208-yard par-3 with a tee shot through a narrow chute of trees. The green is severe. The 17th is a 420-yard par-4 that requires a long and strong slight draw off the tee in order to cross a creek on the second shot. The shorter hitters will definitely have to layup and go for the green on their third shot.

No. 18 is an uphill par-3 measuring 188 yards. Average players should take a big stick to have a chance to reach it in one.

The River Course is not as tight, but it is beautifully manicured and a fun course. The par-3s are memorable. No. 9 is 172 yards downhill over a barranca and the 17th is only 123, but the green is almost entirely surrounded by sand and miss-hit it just a little right and you will be wet.

The River Course will cost you $45 on weekdays and $55 on weekends. Carts are $26. Seniors can play on Thursday for $27. The Ranch Course costs $75.

The Alisal, which has had many repeat visitors over several generations, is located in the one-time homeland of the Chumash Indians just a 35-mile drive northwest of Santa Barbara. Chumash means "grove of sycamores".

Operating under a "modified American plan", the resort fee includes breakfast and dinner. With a string of more than 100 horses (50 miles of riding trails), the breakfast ride to the Adobe Camp three times a week in summer and twice each week during the off-season, is one of the favorites. Fishing is also a favorite on the resort's own private 100-acre Alisal Lake.

All 73 cottage studios and suites feature wood-burning fireplaces and refrigerators. There's a swimming pool and spa and the children can also enjoy ping pong, croquet, billiards, a petting zoo and a crafts room. The Alisal is also equipped for corporate meetings with five well-appointed conference rooms with audio visual capabilities and a combined 6,000 sq. ft. of space accommodating 10 to 150 people.

Sunset Magazine says The Alisal is one of the "50 Best Dude Ranches" in the West and Family Circle gave it the "Family Resort of the Year" distinction.

Solvang is a Danish-American colony that some have said looks more like Denmark than Denmark. It is filled with trendy shops and restaurants and Danish pastry shops are on every corner.

Oh yea, Michael Jackson isn't a dude or a golfer, but his Never Never Land (whatever!) is just minutes away for what that's worth.

Ranch Course Pro Shop: (805) 688-4215
River Course Pro Shop: (805) 688-6042

The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort
1054 Alisal Road
Solvang, California 93463
Phone: (805) 688-6411
Fax: (805) 688-2510
Reservations: (800) 4-ALISAL

Directions: The Alisal is located 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California, just outside Solvang (Danish for "sunny fields"). Midway between San Francisco and San Diego, and approximately a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles. The Ranch is easily reached from scenic Highway 101. Private aircraft are welcome at Santa Ynez Airport.

Editor's note: Since this story first appeared, Mike Hegarty has assumed duties as the golf pro at Alisal. His direct line to the pro shop is 1-805-686-7667 or The resort offers a number of golf packages: Golf Getaway, Golf Classic and Women's Golf, which can all be found under packages at

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • The Alisal and Clark Gable

    Bobby Dias wrote on: Dec 9, 2010

    I was visting my friend Pete Jackson when Clark Gable and Kay Williams came to get married there, I was 8 years old.
    They asked to be the ring bearer, which was their mistake/happiness because when
    Clark asked me for the ring I leaned over and said to Kay: "Shall I give him the ring or will you marry me?".