Last Updated on July 22, 2023
(This article originally appeared in 2009 on the former Examiner.com website.)
Sometimes, I just need to get out of town, even if that means I’ll be off the grid. Before I got to Warner Springs Ranch, located in the rustic terrain of East County San Diego, I was warned that there were no phones or TVs in the rooms, wireless only in the lodge, and, because I have AT&T, absolutely no cell coverage. I couldn’t drive fast enough.
Located just south of Temecula and a short drive from the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the town of Warner Springs (population 208) consists mainly of the ranch and the nearby airport, which also sports the area’s only glider planes. But that still leaves plenty to do — or not to do, if you prefer to heed the call of the namesake hot springs and simply float about in the gargantuan, naturally heated pool. In my short weekend, I managed to make room for this activity twice, including a late-night dip during which I gazed up from my pool-noodle raft at a sky full of stars. I would make the drive just for that experience.
Divas, be forewarned: Warner Springs is rustic. Although you’re not really roughing it (there’s a full-service spa on the grounds), it’s not a luxury resort, which is the attraction for its many repeat guests. Lodging consists mainly of historic adobes, many of which once housed native Kupa some 150 years ago, while others were the homes of such famed Old West legends as Kit Carson. Although they’ve been retrofitted with heat, electricity, and bathrooms, the rooms are not what you find at the Four Seasons — and that’s the utter charm. As soon as I opened my door and smelled the decades of fires that had burned in the hearth, I felt at home.
A mule-packing class was first up on the agenda, and several seasoned pros demonstrated the fine but little-known art of prepping a pack animal for extended time on the trail. A variety of horse and mule breeds call Warner Springs home, and the equestrian options are pretty unlimited, especially when you consider the property’s miles and miles of scenic trails, many of which lead straight to the famed Pacific Crest Trail. (The ranch’s proximity to the PCT makes it a favorite stop for through-hikers, who will be starting their annual sojourn in just a few weeks.)
After a quick hike around the property — during which I spotted many signs of native Kupa life, including numerous morteros (grinding stones) — I’d worked up an appetite, and so headed to the Butterfield Cantina, named for the stagecoach stop that once stood on the grounds, for some grub and a drink or three. One thing that impressed me about Warner Springs was that, although they easily could have jacked up prices knowing that there were no other dining options in town, the price range for meals was exceptionally reasonable. In the Cantina, I had the option of ordering off the menu from the more upscale dining room, The Anza Ranch House, or from the Cantina itself, which had many smaller options starting at $6.
After satisfying myself with the spinach and carrot risotto, a specialty of the new chef, I went for my first hot springs dip, despite the fact it was roughly 40F outside. Warmed by the waters, which averaged around 100F that night, I strolled back to my room still in my bathing suit and didn’t feel a stitch of cold.
Sunday saw me up earlier than usual, as I had a date with a horse. For the next hour and a half, my trusty guide Shayna led me down manzanita-lined trails and snow-white creekbeds, pointing out landmarks and telling second-hand tales of the ghosts that haunt the grounds. This news was nicely timed, of course, as we were passing the Kupa graveyard, located just next to the Church of St. Francis, which was built in the 1800s and is still in use today. A last dip in the hot springs, and I was off to try the glider planes and take a long-planned peek at Palomar Observatory.
Now, I covered San Diego and its environs for AOL CityGuide for close to five years, and I’d never before heard of Warner Springs Ranch — that’s how much of a secret it is. Too well kept, I say, because people are missing out. Although the majority of the visitors are equity owners of the ranch, non-owners can visit as well, and the ranch makes sure to entice with plenty of packages, not all of which are showcased on the website, so be sure to call and ask.