Capability Ranch – A Rustic Retreat

Most people have heard of San Diego, and maybe even Escondido…but did you know about Ramona?  That charming little community in San Diego County, California, where farms have wineries for neighbors, where lakes and beaches and mountain hikes are only a stone’s throw away, where Main St. transitions from commercial to old town with lovely little spots tucked throughout like gold nuggets waiting to be discovered in Ramona’s Gold Rush days?

When my boyfriend and I were scouring airbnb for a dog-friendly place to stay for my friend’s wedding in Escondido, we perused a slew of options in the Escondido and San Diego area, including some rather posh, modern-looking spots.  The guesthouse at Capability Ranch popped up as an option in Ramona, but at first we thought it was too far – 30 minutes from the wedding venue – and perhaps a bit too small and rural.  Plus, we had never even heard of Ramona.  Still, the reasonable price was enticing, so we clicked the link and read further…and we’re so glad we did!

Nicola’s detailed description of the property and surrounding area painted a beautiful picture of a rustic retreat near a wealth of natural splendors and attractions for active outdoorsmen, animal-lovers, and alcoholics alike. My boyfriend and I were sold.  We eschewed the more glamorous city lodging in favor of a pastoral weekend escape.  Little did we know that behind Capability Ranch was a tragic yet inspirational story…but more on that later.

Beautiful scenery – green mountainsides, pretty little farms, quaint wineries – made for a very pleasant drive up the pass leading to the ranch.  And the guesthouse at Capability Ranch was adorable.  It had a gated yard that was perfect for our dog, Ares.  Yes, the guesthouse was small, but it was clean and charming, and we spent most of our weekend exploring outside.  Plus, the guesthouse sits right on a working farm, where horses and other animals roam beyond a fence!  How’s that for an escape from city life?

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After settling in at Capability Ranch, my boyfriend and I drove down Main St. to Up the Hill Grill for lunch, at Nicola’s recommendation. Up the Hill Grill is a delicious burger joint attached to Molly Molone’s Sport’s Bar, where the locals crowd together at night for the timeless combination of booze and karaoke.  The place was dim and deserted in the middle of the afternoon, so we headed to the more welcoming outdoor patio for some sun and a chill vibe.  We enjoyed beers and tasty eats – sliders for me, and shark tacos for my boyfriend.  Yeah, like real shark.  Tastes like chicken.  (Actually, it tastes like fish…a bit anticlimactic). 

After lunch, we returned to Capability Ranch.  Near the entrance, a red barn-style building was bustling with activity.  Inside, a group of enthusiastic youths and young adults were participating in an arts and crafts project, led by Nicola.  My boyfriend and I popped inside to say hello and admire the creativity that abounded.  This was a truly wonderful and worthy use of the ranch.  You see, Nicola and her husband had recently quit their full-time jobs and exhausted their life savings to buy the ranch to use as an activity center for the learning disabled.  Capability Ranch, once occupied by the Wildlife Research Institute in the Ramona Grasslands Preserve, is now a place where autistic and other special-needs youth and young adults can enjoy hikes, art classes, crafts projects, and day trips to local venues.

Nicola dreamed of running such a ranch decades ago, when she recognized a dearth of creative activities available to her own autistic son.  She and her husband finally decided the time was ripe to fulfill her dream after Nicola’s other non-autistic son suffered a severe brain injury from an assault in 2013…time was precious, they realized, and they could wait no longer.  Unfortunately, nearly a month after the ranch opened, tragedy struck when this son died of causes related to the earlier attack.  Not long afterward, a cherished pet dog ran out into the highway and was run over by a car.  I was horrified to learn of these heartbreaking losses, but also so inspired by the continued and generous spirit of giving demonstrated by Nicola and her husband.

Though devastated, Nicola’s passion for her grand undertaking only intensified.  She and her husband poured their hearts and souls into Capability Ranch, enriching the lives of under-served individuals.  They rented out the guesthouse through airbnb and used a crowdfunding site to raise money for activities and other resources for the special needs community.  Although my boyfriend and I enjoyed the guesthouse and surrounding area based on their own merits, we were even more thrilled that we happened to choose a lodging where our money would go toward such a great cause and aid the efforts of such a deserving family.

After dropping in on the activity center and seeing the great use of the ranch first-hand, it was time for my boyfriend and I to get ready for the wedding.  The drive from Capability Ranch to my friend’s wedding venue – The San Diego Safari Park – was not as bad as I’d feared.  Actually, it was another rather lovely drive replete with verdant mountain-scapes.  And the Safari Park itself is an awesome place to explore – although it doesn’t really give you the feel of wild animals in their natural habitat…it’s more like wild animals on a well-manicured golf course trimmed with palm trees.  These are clearly California beasts.


The wedding was stunning.  After crying my eyes out, dancing my heart out, and catching up with old friends, Capability Ranch beckoned once more, the vibrant fiesta blankets of the guesthouse calling me to bed.  My boyfriend drove us back through the countryside in the cool, serene night.  We caught a brief glimpse of the star-sequined sky before succumbing to the seduction of sleep.

The next morning, we partook in the pleasure of coffee on the porch, soaking in the sky and the scenery.  Ares was excited to stare at the horses meandering the field right outside our screen door, just beyond the gate.  At Nicola’s suggestion, we walked Ares across the field and over a dry creekbed to a huge, gated grassy area where he could romp about unleashed.  Ares loved sniffing at what seemed to be gopher holes, frolicking through the field, playing fetch, and balancing on a pile of large logs as he hunted a wily lizard.

For lunch, my boyfriend and I headed back to Main St. for some Thai food.  Since Thai Time Ramona wouldn’t open for another 15 minutes, we browsed the butcher block in the same shopping center before stumbling upon an even better time-pass:  ChuckAlek Independent Brewers.  Nicola had also recommended this brewery to us, and we were glad to have unwittingly found it, because it was a treasure.  ChuckAlek specializes in Old World style beers, recreating heritage craft brews by using…beer historians!  Yes, such a thing exists.  There are historians who comb through ye olde texts and scrolls in search of recipes, or even ingredients, used in craft brews of the 1800s and early 1900s so that the brewery can breathe new life into them.  ChuckAlek also offers a fascinating selection of experimental beers…one even tasted like smoke salmon!  Needless to say, we enjoyed a flight of very unique beers at ChuckAlek, and brought over some take-out from the Thai place once it opened so that we could continue drinking through lunch.



Beer and heavy food made us drowsy, so lunch was followed by naptime back at the guesthouse.  When it was time to pack up and check out, we headed to Lake Poway Park with Ares.  It was a bright, sunny afternoon with the occasional cool breeze, and the three of us hiked a few miles around the cobalt lake, which was framed on one side by mountains and on the other by the verdant turf of the park.  Then we cooled off with some water at the snack shack overlooking the lake.  Since I was still feeling a bit overheated, we capped our trip with a stop at EscoGelato in Escondido, where some Tiramasu gelato did the trick – my cherry on top of a sweet escape.


Capability Ranch was not only a lovely rustic weekend escape for me and my boyfriend – it is a liberating retreat and important resource for those with special needs. I was so impressed and admiring of this place that I just had to write about it and bring more attention to it.

You can find the airbnb listing for the Capability Ranch guesthouse here:

You can read more about Nicola’s story and Capability Ranch here:

You can donate funds to Capability Ranch here:


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