After watching the others saddle up at the Hunewill Ranch, it was my turn. It seemed so easy for others to mount their steed in one smooth motion. It was a big leap of faith for me. Nine hundred pounds of flesh stood before me, with her own cognitive system. I was well aware that Ruby was capable of making her own decisions about whether I should stay or go once I was astride. I fervently hoped that she was a placid female and not prone to histrionics.
“Would you like to use the mounting block?” Ely, the wrangler, said sensing my hesitation. It had seemed like a good idea when it was described the night before in our orientation. But I had noticed that it was little used. I surmised that real cowboys and cowgirls don’t use mounting blocks. In the old westerns, they’d just grab ahold of the horn while the horse was at a full gallop and be up in a flash.
“No, I’ll give it try. It’s my first time,” I said. Ely didn’t look surprised.
“Grab the horn with one hand, hop up and swing your leg over,” said Ely. Ruby stood still, probably wondering how long it was going to take for this greenhorn to mount.
I grabbed, hopped and swung. Miraculously I slid into the Western saddle. That wasn’t so bad. Ely handed me the reins, told me to hold them like an ice cream cone and to pull back to stop. That’s all the instruction I needed for the moment. I sat stock still, hoping that Ruby would do the same. After a few minutes, I relaxed enough to look around. Horses with riders were milling around with slow steps, so when Rudy decided to walk I let her. Then I pulled back gently on the reins. She stopped. I pressed on her round belly with my feet. She went forward. Wow, this was fun.
I started talking to the woman next to me, also on horseback, but when Ruby started inching forward I didn’t know what to do. I turned my head further and further to keep talking, finally saying, “Sorry, I don’t know how to get her to back up.”
“Do you want me to show you?” she asked, laughing.
“Sure, I’m a sponge,” I said. She showed me how to squeeze my legs together while pulling up on the reins. Magically, Ruby took a few steps back. Either horseback riding was the easiest thing in the world to do or these horses were amazingly sensitive to touch. I had a feeling it was the latter.
The Hunewill (pronounced “Honeywell”) Circle H Ranch, located near the town of Bridgeport, is nestled into a cleft of the Eastern Sierra Nevada where the Bridgeport Valley meets the range. The snow-clad peaks of the Sierra reach over 12,000 feet, towering over the ranch, which is at 6,500 feet. Twin Peaks, the Matterhorn Peak, and the Sawtooth Range, visible from the ranch, form part of the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park. Within the adjacent Hoover Wilderness is 11,713 foot Hunewill Peak, named for the founder of the ranch, Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill. Hunewill played a big part in the history of the area, establishing a sawmill in 1861 that supplied lumber to the booming gold mines in Bodie, Aurora and Lundy. Later, he kept the miners fed by starting a cattle ranch. Today, after multiple generations of Hunewills, the tradition of stewardship continues. Three generations of Hunewills (the 4th, 5th and 6th generations) are currently involved with operating the ranch: Jan Hunewill, her three children, Jeff, Betsy and Megan (along with spouses), and six grandchildren.
Today, Hunewill Ranch is a working cattle ranch with a thriving guest component that features horseback riding in the 26,000-acre meadow and adjacent forests. From May through November around 60 guests can be accommodated during specified times. Three, four and seven-day packages are available, some with a particular focus. There are adult-only times, a cowgirl getaway, photography workshop weekend and herding, when the cattle are moved from the high country to the ranch. The highlight of the season is a big cattle drive at the end of autumn, now in its 106th year. Guests can act as drovers moving 600 cattle from Bridgeport to the winter range in Smith Valley, Nevada.
Riding horses is the main activity at Hunewill Ranch so it’s not surprising that many guests are avid riders. But not all. Sometimes it’s one person in a couple or family who has experience while others may be along for the ride, so to speak. Horseback outings are scheduled twice a day, morning and afternoon unless a longer, all day ride is planned. For the first few days, the group self-selects into three different groups, advanced, intermediate or beginner. The beginners are also known as the Buckaroos, from the Spanish word vaquero, a term used to describe Great Basin or California cowboys. There are no riding tests or limitations as to who goes to which group; each rider picks the group they feel comfortable in.
Since I hadn’t been on a horse in 20 years, and that was a one-time event, there was clearly only one group for me. I held Ruby back as the other groups departed from the stable the first morning and lined up with the other Buckaroos. Megan Hunewill led while her two daughters, 15-year-old Rhiannon and younger sister Aspen, helped out in the rear. The friskiest horse of the group was Aspen’s, but she had obviously been riding soon after birth. She expertly controlled the energetic animal and declined an offer from her mom to switch to a different horse. I was thankful that Ruby was so good natured, especially after someone said that this was the first guest group of the season so the horses weren’t used to the routine yet. Good to know. I didn’t let my guard down and paid close attention to Megan’s instructions as she went through the basics of horsemanship.
Riding through the vast meadow ringed with mountains was thrilling. We kept a slow, controlled pace as we threaded our way through the mooing cattle herd, over creeks and through gates. When we were in the middle of the meadow we paused while Rhiannon spoke of the history of the Hunewill’s and explained what the names of the surrounding peaks were, already a polished guide and horsewoman.
I could tell right away that riding uses very different muscles than anything activity I ever do, and by the time I dismounted a couple of hours later I was glad to stretch my legs. When it came time for the afternoon ride, though, I was ready for more, despite the dark clouds and a brisk wind. Riding out to the meadow a few of my fellow Buckaroos had trouble getting their horses to move. When the hail started the horses got a little balkier and, in unison, ten horses turned right around and pointed their rear ends at the wind. None of us knew what was going on until Megan explained that they don’t like hail in their eyes so they’ll do what they can to get away. We all thought our horses were pretty smart.
The second day we practiced some trotting and loping. Trotting, where you post up and down, felt really natural so I was excited to try loping, which everyone says is so much more comfortable. I couldn’t adjust to loping, but I think it was operator error more than anything. The increased speed made me nervous and Ruby and I would eventually deteriorate into a trot. But that was ok because we weren’t chasing bandits or anything. Nobody really cared whether we trotted or loped.
By the third day, I participated in an all-day ride to Buckeye Canyon in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. I joined a couple of the Buckaroos and the more experienced riders, led by Benny, a long time rancher and wrangler with lots of old timer stories. Only ten people went on the all-day ride that day, with the rest of the group splitting into meadow rides or rounding up cattle. We rode out to where NB Hunewill had had his sawmill. I could see why he built his original house there, next to the natural hot springs in a lovely forested area. We rode through second growth forest with the sun filtering through the Jeffrey pines and cedars, following a burbling creek deep into a canyon topped with snow-covered ridges. We stopped at a magical spot to picnic on a grassy knoll beside the creek, tethering the horses to nearby trees while we lazed in the warm spring sun looking at the postcard-worthy view. Following lunch, Ruby was eager to cross the creek, but she had a surprise for me. After three days in the saddle, I was feeling pretty confident until she walked straight into the thick branches of a pine tree and tried to brush me off. It startled me, but I remembered Megan’s instructions to be in command of the situation. I drew my reins in tight, gave a nudge and spit some pine needles out of my mouth as she gave up on her prank. I was on to her tricks by then, and we gave a wide berth to all low-hanging branches after that.
I reflected on how surprising it was that with the right horse and the right instruction a rank beginner like me could feel comfortable on an all-day ride into the wilderness after just three days. I was pretty impressed with the Hunewill method.
Every evening there were group festivities for those who wanted to participate. After-dinner activities included a sing-along, bingo, hay rides, roping practice with dummy cows and a talent show where guests played musical instruments, read poetry or told a story. A highlight of the talent show was a poetry reading, sans notes, by Jan Hunewill, the matriarch of the family. Another guest played piano in the parlor of the original Hunewill home, and we all gathered around to see photographs of the original Hunewills and admire their fine Native American basket collection. Several people opted out of riding during the day if they wanted to laze around, take a drive out to nearby Twin Lakes, visit the hot springs near the original Hunewill homestead, or go fishing.
Guests stay in comfortable, basic cabins with private bath grouped around a grassy open area behind the original ranch house. It’s a short walk to the historic barn, built in the 1800s, that is the nexus of the ranch. Everyone gathers here once or twice a day when the bell rings. A large selection of cowboy boots and hats is available for guest use in one of the small outbuildings.
Meals were served family style in the dining room of the homestead. We were assigned to a table full of people from Sonoma, where we live, so right away we had a lot to talk about. The Deck family, celebrating their 18th reunion at the ranch, dominated the room with their large group, but easily folded the rest of us into their warm embrace, and pretty soon it felt like one big, happy family.
Breakfasts were different every day, featuring eggs, French toast or Eggs Benedict, but oatmeal and fruit salad was also available each morning. Spaghetti was served for lunch one rainy day in the dining room, but on the second day an all-day ride included a chuck wagon BBQ by Robinson Creek and the third day we made our own sack lunches with the deli foods spread out on the counter. Dinners were hearty, with burritos stuffed with tender skirt steak one night and meaty ribs another. Vegetarian options were provided upon request. No one went hungry.
By the end of our stay, I could mount and dismount with relative ease though it still surprised me every time. Riding in the shadow of the Sierra, whether in the big, open meadow or narrow canyons, offered spectacular views and a sense of mastery in a short period of time.
The Hunewill Ranch is a perfect getaway for experienced and novice horseback riders alike. Novices gain basic skills quickly and everyone has a good time in the relaxed environment and beautiful setting. It’s a great way to experience the Sierra.
Member of the Dude Rancher’s Association
Rates vary by package and range from $927-2210 per person. All meals are included.
To reach Bridgeport from San Francisco by car (approximately 4 hours, depending on traffic and weather):
All photos by Steve Mullen.
Disclaimer: Lodging was provided, courtesy of the Hunewill Guest Ranch, in return for this honest review.