Into The Old West
California’s Hunewill Ranch: History and Tradition
History is hard to escape in these mountains and valleys. It’s easy to imagine these hills 140 years ago, when the cries of cattle were replaced by the shouts of loggers as they moved lumber down into the valley to sell to miners in Bodie.
As children we watched the great Western films, falling in love with charismatic cowboys, fleet-footed ranch horses and sweeping Western vistas. John Wayne always got the bad guys and saved the girl while Clint Eastwood, scowl entrenched, emerged on the side of good, guns a-blazing. Something about the West captured our hearts, tickling our imaginations and summoning daydreams of sage-covered ranges, dusty towns, and nights spent being lulled to sleep by lowing cattle.
While the Old West is merely a dream for most of us, for others it’s a reality. For the Hunewill family, ranchers in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, riding the ranges, running a working ranch, and managing recalcitrant cattle are part of their daily routine. Six generations of Hunewills have worked the 4,500-acre ranch, and family members still gather for daily meals in the original ranch house built in 1880 by family patriarch Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill.
Even today, their daily routine is dictated by horse and cattle, weather and water. The Hunewill Ranch is a working cattle ranch, and there are always chores to be done. Horses are saddled for the day’s work each morning, be it gathering cattle in the mountains, roping young calves for doctoring, or simply working around the ranch. And while modern technology makes the day-to-day routine easier – the family relies on a fleet of old ranch trucks, trailers and utility vehicles – nothing beats the surefootedness and cattle-savvy of a well-trained ranch horse.
Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill first arrived in nearby Buckeye Canyon, not far from what is now Yosemite National Park, in 1861. He started a lumber mill in the canyon, using ox carts to supply the nearby mining town of Bodie with timber. The stones from the foundation of their small cabin, beneath pine trees near a hot spring in the canyon, can still be seen today. When the rail industry came through the area in the 1870s, the family moved into the Bridgeport Valley where they began to raise cattle to supply the Bodie miners with beef. The original ranch house and barn buildings, built in 1880, are still in use by his descendants today.
History is hard to escape in these mountains and valleys. I’m riding a chestnut gelding named Blaze along the creek in Buckeye Canyon when Megan, one of the current generations of Hunewills, pauses and points out the stones marking that first cabin. Higher up, on the other side of the canyon, an abandoned ox cart lies nestled in the pine trees, one trunk growing right through the rotting boards. It’s easy to imagine these hills 140 years ago, when the cries of cattle were replaced by the shouts of loggers as they moved lumber down into the valley to sell to miners in Bodie.
Now, though, as I peer through the dust and pine trees at my fellow riders, I see not the weathered faces of working cowboys but lawyers and doctors, schoolteachers and construction workers. When the Great Depression hit the Hunewill Ranch in the early 1930s, Stanley and Lenore Hunewill decided to open up the ranch to guests, combining a working cattle ranch with a guest ranch. Now, nearly 80 years later, it’s a tradition that has grown into a lifestyle.
My visit falls in early September, when summer nights give way to frosty mornings, and it’s time for the fall cattle gather. Herds of cattle have been grazing high in Buckeye Canyon and nearby Eagle Creek, enjoying the mountain grasses and wild streams. It’s heaven for any cow, but now it’s time for them to return to the valley, where they’ll remain for several weeks before being driven 97km to winter pasture in Smith Valley, Nevada – a process that takes five long days on horseback.
We’re mounted on Hunewill horses, many of whom have been (or still are) working ranch horses. My horse, Blaze, is a stout chestnut Quarter Horse; the white stripe on his nose makes him easy to spot amongst the sea of horses rounded up each morning. Mellow enough to not mind ropes or dangling cameras, he’s happy to leave the herd and head into the mountains so I can shoot images, proving himself a trustworthy companion on the craggy mountain trails cattle favour. The hillsides and pathways throughout the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where the cattle graze in summer pasture, can be challenging for horses not used to the varied terrain. The air is heavy with dust and the scent of sage, tinted with an undercurrent of something that could only be described as autumn.
Life on the ranch quickly falls into a rhythm. The first day, there’s a hearty dinner at the ranch house, followed by generous slices of apple pie and a ‘horse sense’ talk in the old, historic barn. I feel rather like I’m in the midst of a family gathering; there is a sense of homecoming as we eat homemade pie and listen to Jeff Hunewill talk about the week’s plan. Ranch life is dictated by early starts, and so by 9.00pm nearly everyone has retired in preparation for an early start in the morning.
After breakfast, the wranglers saddle and bridle the horses, and – once everyone is mounted up – the Hunewills themselves hop on their horses and lead the way to the day’s work. The first afternoon we gather cattle in a valley pasture, getting to know our horses and even sparing time for a quick lope across a lush field. In the afternoon we head into the hills, a steady mountain breeze kicking up dust and cooling the sweat on our brows. Dry conditions and wind both contribute to wildfire risk, and everyone eagerly awaits the arrival of fall rains to bring an end to the fire season.
The hillsides and pathways throughout the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where the cattle graze in summer pasture, can be challenging. The air is heavy with dust and the scent of sage, tinted with an undercurrent of something that could only be described as autumn.
Nights are quiet in the hills, broken only by the snorting of grazing horses, the hoot-hoot of an owl, and the yipping of distant coyotes. At one point my sleep is broken by a few cows lumbering past my tent.
But we soon climb into the mountains and the smoke plume is lost behind a veil of pine trees. We ride uphill, following a creek up to the Buckeye Pack Station: a tent, corral, and series of picnic tables that will be the team’s base of operations for the coming days. Here, we unsaddle the horses and let them into pasture, ensuring tack is stowed carefully before enjoying dinner prepared by the talented ranch kitchen staff. Some riders return to the homestead for the night, but a few have packed tents and sleeping bags, choosing instead to sleep in the absolute darkness of the mountains.
Camp grows quiet as most riders return to the valley floor, but those of us who remain quietly set up our tents before returning to the communal benches for drinks and stories. Fire danger is high and so we’re not permitted a campfire, but spirits rise with the help of a lantern and a steady supply of glowsticks. Silence falls quickly, however, once we move to our bedrolls, spread carefully throughout camp. Nights are quiet in the hills, broken only by the snorting of grazing horses, the hoot-hoot of an owl, and the yipping of distant coyotes. At one point my sleep is broken by a few cows lumbering past my tent. They nudge the fabric, muzzles tracing lines in the gathering frost, but soon move on to better grazing.
Local rancher Benny Romero and his dog Rocky have stayed in camp. A wizened career cowboy, Benny has more than enough stories to keep the laughter flowing. He tells of how he first started wrangling for the Hunewills: years ago, when he ran a neighbouring ranch, one of his bulls got mixed in with Hunewill cattle. When he came to retrieve it, the Hunewill girls asked if he’d be willing to stay the day and help lead guests on a ride, helping for the week. With a laugh, Benny notes he’s never seen a Friday yet — that ‘week’ has turned into years of working alongside the Hunewills as they work their cattle. Blessed with the affability and relaxed attitude many cowboys seem to share, Benny rides with the ease only a lifetime in the saddle can bring, but is always ready to pause and share a story and a smile.
It’s that amiable, gracious demeanour that defines the Hunewill Ranch experience. Days are long and hot, but the food is plentiful, the company friendly and welcoming, and the landscape breathtaking. This is not the typical ‘dude ranch’ experience but rather a pull-your-own-weight, get-the-work-done undertaking. The Hunewills discuss realities: what to do if horse and rider encounter the dreaded ground hornets, how to avoid deep bogs, and what to do should a horse spook or fall. Safety is paramount. No issues occur during my visit, but it’s clear this is a working ranch, not a spa experience. We end each day dusty and sweaty, but with the exhaustion, muscle soreness, and happy heart that comes from a hard day of physical work.
In the mountains, midday offers a chance to slide from the saddle and grab a hot lunch from Ted Holloway, one of the last remaining old-school gentleman cowboys in the region – and the Hunewill Ranch wagon driver. Ted, accompanied by his multicoloured standard poodle Dozer and some of the kitchen crew, mans the team of grey Percheron horses that pull the ‘chuckwagon’ – though in our case, a carriage that’s better suited to rough mountain pathways. He’s packed up a hot lunch of rib-sticking beef chilli, fresh fruit, cold watermelon, and chocolate chip cookies. We perch on logs in the shade of an aspen grove, gobbling food and stretching legs before the afternoon’s work.
This is life at its most basic: hard work, dirty hands, good food, the companionship of new friends, and the teamwork of a quality horse. There’s no better way to see the countryside than from the saddle. It’s easy to imagine we’ve been spirited back 130 years, to the time when loggers, miners, and range riders roamed these sage-dotted mountains. The arrival of 2018 marked the Hunewill family’s 157th year in Bridgeport Valley and their 87th year hosting visitors; their operation is the oldest working guest ranch in the state of California. Riding alongside the fifth and sixth generations of the family, it’s easy to see their ancestors reflected in their own faces. This place – and the act of running cattle – runs in their blood and will for generations to come.
So many of the clichés from the old Western movies are true… or at least rooted in truth and tradition. Cowboys – especially old cowboys – are persistent charmers and yet consummate gentlemen. In both the craggy mountains and verdant valleys, a good horse is worth the world. And there’s nothing like good old-fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty, dust-in-your-mouth work. For the Hunewills it’s their way of life, but for those who spend time here, a week in the saddle is the memory of a lifetime.
Hunewill Guest Ranch is located in Bridgeport, California on the eastern slope of the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains bordering Yosemite National Park. For more information and to book a horseback adventure, visit hunewillranch.com and follow them on Instagram @hunewill.ranch
Jess McGlothlin is a freelance photographer and writer based in Missoula, Montana. while on assignment in the past few years she’s learned how to throw spears at coconuts in French Polynesia, dodge saltwater crocodiles in Cuba, stand-up paddleboard down Peruvian Amazon tributaries and eat all manner of unidentifiable food.