Cuyama Buckhorn Is an Undiscovered Gem in California’s High Desert

The Cuyama Buckhorn hotel in New Cuyama, CA
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When considering a Southern California weekend getaway, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from. A weekend by the pool in Palm Springs. Hopping a ferry to Catalina Island. Exploring the desert in Joshua Tree. Cruising along the coast to sip wine in Santa Barbara. There’s just one problem with all those destinations: Everyone else knows about them. But that’s not an issue at Cuyama Buckhorn, a recently renovated 1950s motel tucked away in rural Cuyama Valley, about two and half hours north of Los Angeles. If spending a night in a decades-old motel surrounded by carrot fields sounds like the setup to a horror film, don’t worry: This place checks all the boxes for a weekend getaway. Good food, fine wine, and plenty of desert charm—the Buckhorn definitely deserves a spot on your hit list this year.

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The Buckhorn was built in 1952 as a motel, situated in New Cuyama, a town established in the 1950s after the discovery of oil in the valley. It changed hands a few times over the years before the current owners, two L.A.-based architects, purchased the property in March 2018.

The pool at the Cuyama Buckhorn hotel
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They set about giving the Buckhorn a thorough refresh while preserving its history as a meeting place in the valley. The result? A 21-room boutique hotel with a farm-to-table restaurant, coffee shop, and bar serving up craft cocktails for locals and visitors alike. The sprawling parking lot has been reborn as an inviting outdoor space complete with olive trees, a pool table and bocce ball court, fire pits (each guest gets a s’mores kit at check-in), jacuzzi, pool, and sauna.

The Buckhorn has long been a popular stop for motorcyclists, car clubs, and local farmers and ranchers—and that remains true today. From the two-lane highway that runs through town, you’ll first notice the hotel’s massive sign (now restored to its midcentury glory) and, as you get closer, you’ll notice vintage cars mingling with bikes and farm trucks parked out front.

The valley is ringed by mountains, surrounded by miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. It’s also a stellar place for stargazing. But that’s just a sampling. Here’s what you need to know if you plan a visit.

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A room at the Cuyama Buckhorn hotel
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Where to Eat

For fine dining, the Buckhorn is pretty much the only game in town, though that hardly seems like a compromise. The kitchen (helmed by chef Daniel Horn) has built a network of relationships with surrounding farms to source fresh, local ingredients for a range of creative dishes. Featuring everything from locally raised eggs to olives grown just a few miles down the road, the menu celebrates the abundance of the valley and also Central California cuisine, like Santa Maria barbecue. Don’t head home without trying the fantastic tri-tip sandwich, which is made with meat smoked over the Buckhorn’s own red oak grill.

The bar is another highlight. The menu features delicious cocktails, wines from the valley’s vineyards, and craft beers. The decor leans into the cowboy theme: You’ll be joined by several mounted bucks gazing out from the wall. If there’s daylight left, grab a drink and head outside to shoot some pool as the sun drops behind the San Rafael Mountains. It sure beats an evening spent in a dark, dusty dive bar.

The patio and white chairs at the Cuyama Buckhorn hotel
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Things to Do

Sagebrush Annie’s

Most wine tastings follow a similar format: Show up at a trendy storefront or patio, get some info on each pour from the sommelier, sip, and move on. Sagebrush Annie’s is a markedly different experience. The tasting room is a clapboard storefront that looks straight out of an old Western, and the proprietor is real-life cowboy Larry Hogan, who worked in the cattle industry before starting the winery with his wife, Karina. Take a seat and he’ll regale you with stories while you sip award-winning reds made from grapes grown right on the property.

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Hidden Creek Ranch

Archery is fun. Horseback riding is fun. Why not combine them and unleash your inner Mongolian warrior with the horseback archery experience at Hidden Creek Ranch? Heather Lomax, an experienced horse trainer and expert in horseback archery, will be your guide as you learn the basics of working with a bow, nocking an arrow, hitting a target—then doing it all while riding a horse. Even if you miss your target, you’ll certainly end the day a better multitasker. And when you do land a bullseye? You’ll feel just like Genghis Khan (for a moment).

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Los Padres National Forest

The Cuyama Valley is surrounded by spectacular public lands and wilderness areas, including the Los Padres National Forest. There are miles of hiking and mountain biking trails to explore—hike the McPherson Trail for gorgeous views of the valley and head over to McGill Trail for a taste of the area’s twisty, technical mountain biking.

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Carrizo Plain National Monument

Carrizo Plain protects the largest expanse of native grassland in California and is home to the highest concentration of threatened and endangered wildlife in the state. If you happen to visit during the spring, this is the place to go for spectacular wildflower viewing—winter rains can create a blanket of wildflowers that covers the entire valley floor and the surrounding hills, too.

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The area around the Buckhorn, with its minimal light pollution, is some of the best territory for stargazing in the entire state of California. On a clear night, grab your star chart and drive up to Mt. Pinos, an 8,800-foot peak that offers incredible views of the night sky. (Check out this guide for tips on proper stargazing etiquette.)

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