Horseback Riding in San Luis Obispo at the Madonna Inn
For decades a hot-pink sign along U.S. 101 southwest of downtown San Luis Obispo has beckoned travelers to the Madonna Inn. Heavily floral and bedecked in hues of pink and more pink, the inn, an exuberant exercise in excess, recalls early Las Vegas, but the sage-covered volcanic hills that loom behind the complex evoke the more rugged era of the horse and cattle ranches that formerly occupied this region about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Haddie and Jesse Townsend, who run the Madonna Inn Trail Rides concession, provide a taste of that bucolic past on horseback rides through a portion of the inn’s 2,000 or so acres. The couple, which owns 30 horses of all breeds and colors, specializes in creating fun, safe, and memorable experiences for novice and proficient riders. “Most of our guests have ridden three times or less,” says Haddie, “but our horses are gentle, and our guides are great at putting newer riders at ease.”
During a recent spin through the Paso Robles grape-growing region, I and another guest took time out from sipping fine wine and chatting up winemakers to saddle up with Erica, our guide. After receiving a refresher course in rein control we headed partway up 1,292-foot-high Cerro San Luis, one of the “Nine Sisters,” a string of volcanic peaks that stretch southeast from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo. Within seconds, the hum of highway traffic receded, and cacti, lava rock, and scrubby terrain delighted the eye as we rode west. Scrub jays, woodpeckers, and a red-tailed hawk flew against the rich blue sky overhead. Riders often see roadrunners and occasionally falcons and other birds of prey, says Erica. As we ascended the hill, an ocean breeze kept us comfortable despite the mid-fall heat, and until the trail switchbacked east, facing town and highway, the scene seemed out of a Technicolor Western set in the late 1800s.
Because I hadn’t been on a horse in more than a dozen years, I’d checked “beginner” on the pre-ride questionnaire, in retrospect a mistake because the ride, though pleasant, was a little too tame. With horses as gentle as the ones here, riders with even a little competence might do well to check the questionnaire’s “intermediate” box. As Erica pointed out back at the corral post-ride, the guides are happy to tailor rides to a group’s or individual’s experience.
“The trail is pretty much the same for everybody who takes it, but there are ways to extend the ride for those whose horses walk faster,” says Erica. Given the reasonable rates ($65 an hour, $80 with a post-ride wine and cheese tasting), the cheery staffers, and the convenient location right off the highway, I’ll likely make another, more challenging pit stop the next time I’m down this way.
100 Madonna Rd.
San Luis Obispo, California 93405
Top photo Madonna Inn Trail Rides. All other photos are courtesy of Daniel Mangin.
This is a guest post by Daniel Mangin, who found himself atop a horse for the first time since the 1990s courtesy of Wild Horse Winery, which organized the ride to pay tribute to the wild horses that once roamed California’s Central coast. The author of Fodor’s Napa and Sonoma, Daniel writes about California and wine tasting for Fodor’s Travel, The California Directory of Fine Wineries, and other print and Web outlets.