Family Road Trip: Black Butte Ranch

July 24, 2013 (Updated August 15, 2014)

There is no smile more satisfying than one on the face of your own child. I am looking at two of these gorgeous smile specimens — huge toothy grins plastered on the visages of my daughters, each of whom rides astride her very own horse. The sun rising this Saturday morning in July is bright and hot already, shining on the meadows of Black Butte Ranch, in Central Oregon. I haven’t stayed at this resort since I was practically the same age as my kids are now. Those memories are warm and happy in my mind, and I hope that this weekend they will be recreated.

So far, everything is shaping up fabulously. “Go, horsey!” hollers Maris to Lonesome, her Palomino-for-hire. Sixty-five horses a day are saddled at the Ranch’s stables during the summer season, lending visitors just one of many opportunities to sample the authentic daily flavor of this working ranch. Minimum age for trail riders is seven, and since my little buckaroos are three- and five-years-old, we’re partaking in the guardian-led Lil’ Buckaroos program instead. My father, Bob, leads Lonesome (and Maris) around an enormous corral. His grin is nearly as large as his granddaughter’s. My stepmother, Beverly, leads Libby and Paladin, while I take photos.

The five of us checked into Spring House #10 the night prior, finding ourselves the happy temporary residents of a comfortable, beautifully remodeled home situated in a wood of pine, cedar and aspen. The air upon arrival was fresh and clean, infused with the sweet spiciness of snowbrush. Temperatures in the high desert drop quickly at sunset, and after dinner we flipped on the fireplace and settled in for a night of books and conversation. I awoke at 5 a.m. this morning (some habits die hard, even on vacation) and watched the full moon track across the sky through the high transom windows over my cozy, pillow-populated bed. My husband won’t arrive until today, so I have the peaceful room to myself.

Black Butte Ranch has 1250 home sites as well as several groupings of condominiums. A couple hundred fortunate folks live here all year — the remainder visit periodically for rest, rejuvenation and loads of shared fun. Black Butte Ranch is, for many, a family tradition. Some familial groups come back year after year, and have since the Ranch was founded, over 40 years ago. This weekend it’s the six of us, and we’re about to find out why so many families have made Black Butte Ranch their destination of choice.
Next to the stables, near the General Store, we find a small but bountiful Saturday Market, hosted by Schoolhouse Produce out of nearby Redmond. Potatoes, corn, nectarines, apples, greens, berries and more spill from overflowing tables, providing color as much as temptation. We acquire a juicy peach for each child and purposefully set out on our way. As Libby puts it, it’s time for “Swimming, swimming, swimming!”

Glaze Meadow Recreation Center has an indoor and outdoor pool, as well as a fitness center, equipment rental shop and snack stand. (The Ranch also boasts three other swimming pools, as well as 19 tennis courts and two 18-hole championship golf courses). The High Desert sun has peaked now, the heat urging us toward water. Central Oregon enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year, and the arid air, scented by Ponderosa pine, smells particularly sweet in summer. The outdoor pool is a masterpiece, with a green grass perimeter, waterfall, children’s pool, fountain play area, hot tub big enough for 18 and lots and lots of comfortable lawn chairs.

Thank goodness for grandmothers — Beverly takes over swimming duty while I make the acquaintance of a chaise lounge. As she and the girls giggle and swim and splash, I soak up Vitamin D and a perfectly delightful mystery novel I picked up at our rental house. I almost sink into a nap…until I hear the piercing scream of my eldest child. It’s a joyful scream, but still, I am summoned to investigate. It seems my trio of girls has discovered the water slide at the indoor pool — a steep and fast contraption that elicits a happy yelp out of Libby a good 25 times. Luckily my husband, Karl, arrives just in time to help contain the excitement.

By the time we arrive at Robert’s Pub several hours later for our early dinner reservation, the whole bunch of us is worn out, happy and relaxed. The view of Big Meadow golf course and Black Butte (a perfectly conical cinder cone butte and the Ranch’s namesake) is lovely from this casually elegant restaurant, where we enjoy local microbrews (Central Oregon, and Oregon in general, is rich with independent breweries), hamburgers, salmon salads and halibut sandwiches. There is, naturally, plentiful ice cream for dessert.

Paulina Springs burbles out of the ground right next to one of the Ranch’s walking/biking paths. These trails — 18 miles of them, total— are the heart and soul of Black Butte. They connect, flow, and allow for exploration of every corner of the sprawling 1800-acre resort. Sunday morning, Libby and Maris hop upon bicycles with training wheels; the rest of us walk alongside. My father, a retired forester, identifies trees and shrubs for us as we stroll — snowberry, aspen, grand fir, alder, chinkapin, huckleberry. Karl strides ahead to make sure no girl veers off course, and Beverly and I walk behind and chat. The weather could not be lovelier — clear skies and 75 degrees. We reach Paulina Springs and take a look around. This place is picture-perfect and peaceful; the girls barrel into the trees, pretending to be forest nymphs. Past the springs, the trail emerges into the Ranch’s large central meadow, where cattle feed and bald eagles, geese and songbirds glide overhead. In addition to Black Butte, we see the Cascade Range peaks Mt. Washington, Three Finger Jack and Mt. Jefferson on the horizon. We hardly see another soul, but maybe that’s because the day is young. We had to get our walk in early, as Beverly and I have a date with the spa.

The Spa at Black Butte Ranch is small but nice. The relaxation space has reading material, tea, snacks and comfortable sofas. We each choose a massage — mine is deep tissue with refreshing eucalyptus oil — before returning to the pool and its lovely, welcoming chairs. We have some time to ourselves, because the men took the kids to nearby Camp Sherman, to the headwaters of the Metolius River and the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. I’ve been there before, and can imagine the kids throwing bits of fish food into pools as trout leap and fight for nibbles. An hour later they join us at the pool for more watery frolicking, until the weather begins to change. Wind blows off of the mountains and clouds roll through the sky, so we return to Spring House #10 to regroup.

Tonight is date night for Karl and me. We are destined for the Ranch’s exquisite Lodge Restaurant, while the grandparents and kids are headed back to Robert’s Pub for more burgers. I’m pretty sure we’ve gotten the better end of this deal. For decades, the Lodge Restaurant has maintained a reputation of excellence, for good reasons. The setting is one. The building isn’t new, but the design — a multilevel structure with lots of huge windows and killer views at every turn — is timeless.

We begin with cocktails in the Aspen Lounge on the top floor before proceeding down to the dining room and what will be one of my most memorable fine dining experiences. Between sips of an excellent Cabernet blend from Maryhill Winery, we study the menu — a compendium of decadent Pacific Northwest cuisine practically impossible to choose from. We settle on crab cakes, cooked impeccably, to start. For an entrée, I try the halibut while Karl enjoys the salmon. “This is one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in a long time,” says Karl as the evening light reflects off of the pond and glows through the windows next to our table. I agree wholeheartedly. Satisfied and happy, we return to Spring House #10 for one more restful night and one more moonrise through our private windows before returning to home, and real life.

About The

Kim Cooper Findling
Kim Cooper Findling grew up on the Oregon Coast and became a Central Oregon girl in the mid-90s, taking in the sunny skies and never looking back (except a few wistful glances at the ocean). She is the managing editor of "Bend Magazine" and the author of “Bend, Oregon Daycations: Day Trips for Curious Travelers,” "Day Trips From Portland: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler” and “Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir.” Catch her around the state sampling microbrews, hiking river trails, walking beaches, and hanging out with her family.