Courtesy Visit Buellton
Credit: Courtesy Visit Buellton

by David Webb

You probably don’t know a lot about Buellton, California.

Historically a roadhouse stop for travellers heading north from Los Angeles, there are many reasons to extend your stay in this Central Coast town. Here are 10 of the best activities in — and around — Buellton:

1. Just Beat It

Michael Jackson’s famous Neverland Ranch is only a 15-minute drive from downtown Buellton, via scenic Figueroa Mountain Road. Of course, since the singer’s death in 2009, the ranch is under new ownership — but pop-culture-curious types still make the jaunt to the ranch’s stone gates for a looksee. You’ll discover a plethora of fandom strewn about, as well as some pilgrimaging superfans (blink and you’d miss it) — it’s a unique destination certainly worthy of the time. (Exact directions are available from the Buellton Visitor’s Center.)

2. Sideways Wine Tour

Despite being set in Napa Valley, the Oscar-winning movie Sideways was actually shot in and around Buellton. In fact, some local landmarks feature prominently in the film — the Hitching Post II restaurant and Ostrichland, for example. Stop by the Buellton Visitors Center and grab the “Sideways Map,” which will lead you on a self-guided tour of wineries and destinations featured in the film. Travelling winos would be wise to start with the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, a scenic drive that meanders past seven quality wineries. Or, if you’re looking for an active twist on wine appreciation, contact Santa Barbara Wine Country Cycling Tours.

3. Go Green

As you drive closer to Buellton, you’ll notice an increasing frequency of billboards touting its “world famous pea soup.” They’re referring to Pea Soup Andersen’s, arguably the town’s most well-regarded destination. Currently celebrating its 90th year of operation, Andersen’s has served their classic soup to weary travellers since the horse-and-buggy days. One part museum, one part restaurant (guess what their signature dish is) and one part motel, Pea Soup Andersen’s is kitschy roadside Americana at its best. 

4. Brews & Spirits

The Santa Ynez Valley is considered one of California’s premier wine producing regions, but don’t go thinking beer and spirits have been left by the wayside. Follow the Santa Ynez Beer Trail through town and sip brews at Figueroa Mountain Brewery and Firestone Walker Brewing Co., among others. Then visit Ascendant Spirits — the first distillery to open in Santa Barbara County since Prohibition — for craft-made bourbon, vodka, gin, single-malt whiskey, rye and even moonshine. (A designated driver is a must.)

5. Outdoor Wonders

It wouldn’t be California without outdoor adventure — and Buellton’s central location makes it a convenient hub for accessing local activities. Hikers should head to sprawling and diverse Los Padres National Forest — a 7,700-sq-km nature preserve that showcases ecosystems from the Pacific coastline to 2,500 metres above it. Looking for something more sedate? Buellton’s Riverview Park is an accessible walk-and-picnic destination. Beach lovers can make the short drive to Refugio Beach State Park. Or cruise southeast to Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, a hotbed of regional biodiversity (learn more at the Neal Taylor Nature Center).

6. Get High

Fully appreciating Santa Ynez Valley’s unique east-west running topography, as well as its expansive vineyards and dramatic coastline, is best done from a bird’s eye view. Enter local tour operators like Santa Barbara Soaring and Sky’s the Limit Ballooning Adventures. The former pairs FAA certified glider pilots with adventurous types who wish to silently soar above the valley in a motor-less airplane. The latter is a more social affair; FAA certified pilots take romantics on a slow-speed airship tour above vineyards and maybe even Neverland Ranch.

7. For the Birds

One of the more memorable scenes in the film Sideways sees actor Paul Giamatti (Miles) running past an oddball ostrich farm. Yes, this farm exists — in Buellton. Interested in a close-up look at a 100-kilogram bird? Perhaps you’d like to purchase some ostrich memorabilia, or even farm-fresh ostrich eggs, emu oil or an ostrich feather-duster? You’re in luck — Ostrichland is open seven days per week and admission is only $4 for adults and $1 for kids. It’s also the best place to bone-up on your ostrich trivia — such as the fact that ostrich’s do not bury their heads in the sand. (So don’t ask.)

8. Horse Sense

The rolling, arid hills of Santa Barbara County create ideal horse country. And several tourism operators have caught on to this draw. Circle Bar B Stables & Guest Ranch offers sunset, sunrise, 90-minute and half-day rides in the scenic Refugio Canyon (south of Buellton). Further east, Rancho Oso merges history with action via guided rides set on a famous Spanish Land Grant. Or, if you’ve brought the little ones, Quicksilver Ranch has some little ones of their own — miniature horses. These steeds are about the size of a great dane and their calm temperament make them ideal for interaction with kids.

9. Understand “Petroliana”

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know what “petroliana” is. Effectively, it’s all things related to gas stations and the petroleum industry. In Buellton, Jack Mendenhall has become one of the most famous curators of the stuff, with his Mendenhall Museum of Gasoline Pumps & Petroliana. Visitors are treated to a Technicolor knockout of nostalgia: signage, licence plates, gas pumps and memorabilia collected over Mendenhall’s decades in the petroleum industry (contact to schedule a tour). And if that doesn’t fill your tank, drive to neighbouring Solvang for a tour of the Vintage Motorcycle Museum where 95 drool-worthy bikes are on display.

10. Agritourism Abounds

The Santa Ynez Valley is rife with agritourism. Families looking for some quality, productive time in the sun should drop by Santa Barbara Blueberries. Located southwest of Buellton, venture out among 40,000 pesticide-free berry plants and pick a bucketful. Raw honey is also available on-site. Beyond the berries, other nearby local agri-destinations include Andre Organic Lavender, Chaotic Exotics Orchids and Morell nut & Berry Farm.

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