Southern California’s “Hidden Valley of Enchantment” is so true to its name that virtually nobody knows about it. An inspired new roadside resort with deep valley roots—Cuyama Buckhorn—aims to change that.
If you roam around Southern California for any length of time (like, say, 28 years), you’re bound to collect your share of favorite spots and long-familiar places to return to as often as possible.
They might include the languid state parks of Malibu, the oak-studded winelands of Santa Ynez, the kelp forests of Catalina Island, the Kern River, Joshua Tree, the friend-of-a-friend’s villa in Montecito, the winding mountainscapes of Angeles National Forest, the sizzling grid of Palm Springs with its cool mid-century inns and hidden hill towns up the road, and so on.
But what about those not-yet-discovered spots still somehow hiding out there? Are there any bona fide “hidden gems” left in thoroughly charted SoCal?
Until meandering into the Cuyama Valley (aka the Hidden Valley of Enchantment) for the first time—and checking in to its revamped historic roadside resort, Cuyama Buckhorn, for an eye-opening weekend—I didn’t think so.
Concealed in plain view between California’s south-central basin and the coast, the Cuyama Valley—a sequestered expanse of high desert defined by lonely mountain ranges, sprawling farmlands, old ranches, hidden canyons and preserves, and some of the most non-attention-seeking locals in this half of the state—has made a lengthy habit of eluding detection over the last, oh, 9,000 years. The valley’s original Native American residents, the Cuyama Chumash, were here for most of that time until the Spanish padres pulled in—followed by a revolving cast of vaqueros, homesteaders, oilmen, farmers, and midcentury copywriters behind the area’s “Hidden Valley of Enchantment” alter-moniker.
The latest change-inducing arrivals in the valley: a pair of top L.A.-based designers set on creating—while preserving—the area’s one and only getaway resort tucked in the valley’s “urban hub” of New Cuyama (population 660).
Until recently, I’d never been to the Cuyama Valley, which is located barely two hours from my home in Los Angeles. I’d driven past its borders and access routes gazillions of times (all exaggeration aside), but I’d never even heard of it—let alone Cuyama Buckhorn in any of its many earlier manifestations. Apparently, that’s not so unusual. Even folks driving directly through this valley tend to miss it all, according to longtime local Jane Slama in her seminal history of the area, In This Country: A Chronicle of the Cuyama Valley.
“Few travelers see that there is much more here than meets the eye as they whizz past along the highway,” Slama writes. “Most people rarely think of stopping let alone resting here—thinking all the valley has to offer is a quick meal on the way to Bakersfield or the coast.”
Slama herself spent years living in nearby Santa Barbara before happening upon New Cuyama—“30 miles away by air, 118 miles by road, and by other measurements several decades back in time.” Eventually, she and her husband moved there, planning to stay for just a little while—which turned into 16 years. “Either the valley grabs hold of you and pulls you in,” writes Slama, “or it kicks you out within a year or so.” With most folks out here, she says, it’s the latter.
During my own maiden voyage into the Cuyama Valley on a balmy 104-degree morning in June, I’m initially sensing that this place wants to kick me out before I even arrive. Whizzing west toward New Cuyama along the valley’s two-lane Route 166—a popular truck corridor between the central basin and the coast—I’m sandwiched between a couple of semis in a raging hurry to get somewhere else. Especially the one behind me.
Rows of corporate farms blur past. Beyond that, the barren brown mountains of the aptly named Caliente Range hulk in the distant north. To the south are the Sierra Madres and the lonely outskirts of vast Los Padres National Forest. In the middle, a flat, arid nowheresville stretches to all horizons with an 18-wheeler runway blasting through it.
Where am I again?
Locked in a vise grip of speeding trucks turning me into a 76-mph steel sandwich, it’s hard to get a real sense of this isolated valley from behind a windshield until the tiny outpost of New Cuyama suddenly appears. All eight streets of it are plunked in the dead center of an isolated valley—lying “in a quaint and placid slumber,” as Slama nicely describes this hidden community, “as if in a desultory enactment of a simpler era.”
Needless to say, it’s easy enough to find the newly unveiled Cuyama Buckhorn without Google Maps. It’s the only game in town—right on Route 166, with a giant CUYAMA BUCKHORN sign. Can’t miss it.
I pull over, letting the truck traffic barrel past and their engines fade back into desert wind. Just like that, the scene morphs into something straight out of a desolate scene from a midcentury western flick. Directly beside the hotel, a field of abandoned old farm equipment sits like an outdoor museum, which it turns out it sort of is. Across the road, another giant sign indicating “CAFE” looms above a shuttered shack called the “urger Bar,” the first “B” dangling below—a set designer’s obvious move just before I arrived. A few blocks away, an old airplane runway bakes in the sun like a cement company’s wrong turn (who in the world is flying here?). … When I say a piece of tumbleweed rolls by on cue right then, I know you won’t believe me. But I swear to you, it does.
Smack in this cinematic Wild West hinterland is the new Cuyama Buckhorn. Its lovingly restored sign, recently planted olive trees, gleaming coffee shop windows, metal-smithed “Hotel Lobby” arch, and cherry red “Cuyama Buckhorn”-labeled vintage Ford pickup parked out front appear like a 100-megapixel implant in a borderless vintage image.
Opened in 1952, the original Cuyama Buckhorn was a motel-style barracks of sorts for ARCO employees back when New Cuyama was an active drilling site (which explains that old, vacant runway for long-gone oil execs). Several varied chapters later, the place would recently do time as a short-lived biker bar before acclaimed Los Angeles designers Jeff Vance and Ferial Sadeghian of iDGroup acquired the place and, incongruously enough, added it to their portfolio a few years ago.
How did a pair of top designers in L.A. come to buy a heritage motel with a checkered past in the Cuyama Valley—and then spend years during a pandemic turning it into something truly special?
“That wasn’t exactly the original plan.” Ferial laughs, then explains that before the Cuyama Buckhorn project entered the picture they’d made an offer on some nearby ranch land in the Cuyama Valley, somewhat on a whim. “The guy got back to us and said, ‘Can you do $16,000 more?’” she says. “We thought it must be a mistake. Is that all he’s asking for?”
They bought the ranch, which is still sitting dormant. But it also alerted them to the suddenly available Cuyama Buckhorn, ignited their interest and creative passions, and led to the unique property’s purchase and next big chapter.
This includes design features that have adeptly preserved some of its inherent midcentury-motel charms while entirely reinventing the place. A brand-new pool deck is now outfitted with a jacuzzi and barrel sauna. A fully reimagined grassy courtyard (formerly a parking lot) is now outfitted with a European crushed-oyster-shell bocce court, a movie-screening lawn, and Zen fountains made (with a wink to the past) from repurposed ARCO oil drums and pipes. An al fresco dining area is outfitted with a greenhouse for private events with front-row sunset views in the tranquil high desert. Twenty-one guest rooms—once bare-bones company dorms—are now cozy retreats appointed with custom furnishings, modern amenities, and thoughtful touches everywhere, including a s’mores welcome kit, ’50s-style modern appliances, and a dog-eared paperback of Cowboy Poetry on the night table.
“This place has been through so many iterations since the ’50s; it’s pretty unbelievable when you start peeling off all of those layers, which we have,” says co-owner Jeff Vance, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and has worked with many a famous name in L.A. Today, he appears right at home holding court with his dedicated hotel staff of New Cuyamans and their families—eating tacos this afternoon in the recently opened pool court during an employee party. When I check in, I’m told there’s a private staff shindig by the pool, but I’m welcome to join in and grab a taco and a brew. Cuyama Buckhorn is that kind of place.
“We didn’t get a holiday party last year because of COVID, so we’re having one now,” says Jeff, casually clad in a tan fedora, plaid shirt, and work boots. He hands me a Tecate. “Frankly, I like being up here a lot more than down there,” he says, flipping a thumb in the vague direction of Hollywood, 130 miles and several light years away. “Not that this place doesn’t have its own unique set of challenges.”
One of the big ones was taking on a project of this magnitude right before COVID hit.
“We never closed during that whole time,” Ferial says proudly. “There were a lot of logistics and precautions that came with staying open, of course, but it was extremely important to us and the community. We’re like a big family here.”
In Cuyama Buckhorn’s Buck Stop Coffee Shop & Market—a bright, inviting space with a Specials chalkboard far surpassing standard coffee shop fare (BBQ Brisket Tostada with Aji Amarillo Crema, Red Fife Wheat Rigatoni Arrabiata—the extended family includes a small crowd of local patrons mingling with the staff like they’ve known each other for much of their lives—which, in many cases, they have.
Among them is Alisha Taff, owner of Rock Front Ranch, a 300-acre regenerative property on the western edge of the Cuyama Valley about 25 miles from here. She’s dropping by with some honey samples from her organic, pesticide-free hives and a bushel of dried jujubes (datelike tree fruits) which she grows on a separate 17-acre, 2,000-tree orchard nearby. Jujubes (pronounced joo’-joo-bees) originate from Southern Asia, but they grow quite well in the Cuyama Valley if you know what you’re doing, which Alisha Taff definitely does.
“They’re what you would call a ‘superfruit,’” says Alisha—a local apiarist, organic farmer, entrepreneur, and all-around dynamo—handing me a sample bag of her very own branded jujube chips called Just Jujubes. “They’re packed to the gills with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. More important, they’re absolutely delicious!”
She hands me a second bag of Just Jujubes. “You said you were heading out on a hike later?” she says, handing me a third. “This is the perfect hiking snack.”
Alisha moved to the Cuyama Valley from the Northern California beach town of Santa Cruz in 2003. She didn’t expect to stay this long (a common theme here, I’m noticing) but quickly fell in love with the place. “We’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and we’re the redheaded stepchild of four different California counties, but we’re also one of the last bastions of true individuality and authenticity in this state if you ask me. This is a very special place.”
Alisha puts down her bushel of dried jujubes—bound for the Cuyama Buckhorn kitchen for jujube syrup—and holds out her hands to make a final point. “And this is a very, very special place,” she adds. “In a very short amount of time, Cuyama Buckhorn has become a nerve center for the entire valley.”
It doesn’t take long to notice a unique synergy happening between Cuyama Buckhorn and its immensely spread-out but tight and productive community. Local goods (honey, jujubes, eggs, mead, wine) are sold here on the Buck Stop pantry shelves and also brought into an inspired kitchen specializing in the sort of seasonal farm-to-table culinary experience you’d expect in Napa.
“There are so many incredible local farm-to-table sources happening right here, and we’re taking as much advantage of that as we can,” says Cuyama Buckhorn’s executive chef Daniel Horn, who spent over a dozen years cooking for five-star Aman resorts around the globe before somehow finding his way into the Cuyama Valley to head the most ambitious kitchen this evolving property (and valley) has seen—by far. “One of the biggest challenges is just dealing with farmer schedules. It’s such a food collaborative around here that just coordinating your shopping schedule is quite the process.”
Later that night, Horn proves his point by serving a summer salad with ingredients from no less than half a dozen different local spots: grilled apricots from Cuyama Homegrown, red and green romaine from Duncan Family Farms, olive oil from Condor’s Hope; Alpine cheese from Santa Barbara Cheese Co., rosemary from beside the Cuyama Buckhorn conference room, Badger Flame beets from … etc. Next up, Santa Maria-style ribeye steaks arrive at the table (from nearby Bakersfield), served with an English pea and gold potato hash side originating from even closer, a family farm less than 20 minutes away.
Served in cast-iron with dulce de leche, vanilla ice cream, and toasted coconut, dessert is a steaming-hot house chocolate chip cookie. “We grew this here,” Horn deadpans.
The following morning, the Cuyama Valley introduces me to my new favorite way to wake up: popping a marshmallow from my Buckhorn s’mores kit, jumping into an empty pool, breaststroking two laps, and melting in a jacuzzi to the sound of mourning doves while the desert sun sneaks up on my shoulders.
A hike in nearby Aliso Canyon—where an empty oak-canopied campground leads to a winding path into the foothills of Los Padres National Forest—will provide an extra dose of solitude in a secluded valley teeming with it. Walking along a breezy canyon trail dappled in early shadows and perfumed in sage, I’m accompanied by squawky scrub jays, butterflies orbiting my knees, and a bag of jujube chips burning a hole in my pocket.
Then, before temperatures climb into the triple digits, I’m back at the Buckhorn. A late breakfast served by Chef Horn delves even deeper into honest-to-goodness superlatives—including a fruit plate with the most perfect honeydew my palate has ever known, from nearby Weiser Family Farms, and the sweetest imaginable apricots from Rock Front Ranch.
A goat cheese and tetragonia frittata will be coming out very shortly, Horm tells me. “The eggs come from Bar SZ Ranch, 15 minutes away. They’re the creamiest eggs you’ve ever tasted.”
I’ve tasted some pretty darn creamy eggs in this life, but I’m betting he’s right.
From our July 2022 issue.