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Ranch Redux

Author, editor, and wellness warrior Kate Betts returns for a week-long intensive retreat at The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu—and discovers the fourth time’s just as transformative as the first.

On my third trip to The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu I was so overcome with a feeling of healthy energy that I swore to myself—after five days of six-hour hikes and endless reps on the TRX straps—that I would come back at least once every year. It had been my 50th birthday and I reaped the benefits of the Ranch’s “no options” program, an intense wellness week of hiking, yoga, exercise classes, and delicious vegan meals, all while simultaneously unplugging from the stress of urban life. In the weeks leading up to every visit, The Ranch “guides” enthusiastically recommended following their preparation guidelines, which included easing off caffeine, diet soda, sugar, and alcohol. And even though I ignored their suggestions, the program worked: I returned to city life 10 pounds lighter, energized, and clear-headed.

Yet here I was, on day one of my fourth trip to The Ranch, halfway up the side of the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, sweating in the late April sun and cursing myself for entertaining such a silly notion that hiking and unplugging would become an annual ritual. My knees felt weak, my breath pathetically short. I still had four more hours of hiking to go. And I was beginning to regret the fact that I’d handed over my watch, hidden my cell phone in my suitcase, and lost any sense of pride I might have previously possessed.

But by day four, after many meals of chickpea and celery root purées, oatmeal with almond milk, and sunflower seed risotto, I felt light as a feather and free of my usual sugar cravings. The detox process worked. And daily wrestling matches with the TRX machine helped strengthen my abdominal muscles, nothing short of a miracle.

Lap pool and hot tub at The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu
Hiking along the Malibu coast.

Set on 120 acres with an organic garden, a massage “village,” and a saltwater pool, The Ranch is the brainchild of Sue and Alex Glasscock, two former Malibu developers turned fitness junkies after living in the area for nearly 20 years. Once home to silent film star Hopalong Cassidy, the historic working ranch is now a coveted luxury destination and wellness resort for stressed-out urbanites who can’t seem to unplug from their iPhones and tablets but are desperate for some solitude and weight loss. Each guest stays in their own private cottage. Designed by Sue Glasscock, rooms are beautifully decorated with reclaimed wood floors, limestone bathrooms, and linen-covered beds. 

Guests are also treated to a seasonal, nutrient-driven vegan menu that is both spare and delicious. Many of the ingredients come directly from The Ranch garden, which guests can tour during their stay. A cooking course is also offered. During each of my trips to The Ranch, I found myself scribbling down recipes for everything from kale caesar to the resort’s signature house-made granola, in addition to the incredibly nutritious flaxseed tea. Last spring, the Glasscocks finally shared most of their coveted recipes in The Ranch At Live Oak Cookbook (Rizzoli).

The fitness program, which the Glasscocks developed based on their own experiences hiking and living in the Santa Monica Mountains, consists of early morning yoga or stretch class, four to six hours of hiking, several hours of TRX class, circuit training, and water aerobics, all capped by a daily, luxurious, hour-long massage (some of the best I’ve ever experienced). In the course of a week guests log more than 60 miles of hiking, countless crunches and push-ups, and sun salutations—all on less than 1,500 calories a day.

More than weight loss, however, the real goal of The Ranch is to allow guests to get as far away as possible from their overscheduled, stressed-out lives. In a small leather-bound journal next to each bed, a list of “Ranch Values” encourages guests to relinquish responsibility and let the guides do all the planning. They also suggest guests heed the “unplugged policy”. “The world will still be there when you get back,” it says. At meals and on the trail, Ranch guides continually encourage guests to remain in the present and to remove words like ‘won’t’ and ‘can’t’ from their vocabulary. This last bit is a lot harder than it sounds.

Surprisingly, my fourth trip to The Ranch was the hardest. Certain aspects of the wellness program had been improved or tweaked since my previous visit. As we hiked up through a grassy valley of undulating hills toward Sandstone Peak, one of the guides explained how they constantly update the program so that guests don’t “game it.” The hike that day, which had been close to 14 miles long on my first visit, had been tweaked to what they call an “out and back” in hiking parlance, meaning individuals hike as far as they can and then turn around instead of continuing for 14 unforgiving miles. The Ranch also added another exercise room—a.k.a. the “romper room”—and filled out the program with nutrition talks as well as acupuncture sessions and meditation.

Some things hadn’t changed. Toxic Tuesday still proved to be the most challenging day of the week. I woke early, still stiff from the previous days’ hikes. As we began the steep climb from the Pacific Coast Highway to the top of the Santa Monica ridge, I could feel my heart pounding. That afternoon, returning to The Ranch for lunch, I was too tired to even finish my chickpea salad. But by day four, after many meals of chickpea and celery root purées, oatmeal with almond milk, and sunflower seed risotto, I felt light as a feather, and free of my usual sugar cravings. The detox process worked. And daily wrestling matches with the TRX machine helped strengthen my abdominal muscles, nothing short of a miracle.

By the end of the week I was ready to go home. On the last day I woke with the roosters at 5:20 a.m. and sat down to write a letter to myself— an exercise that is also part of the program. Thinking about what I’d accomplished and how much stronger I felt after a week at The Ranch, I wondered if I would return. Our group—both men and women from New York, San Francisco, Dallas, and Australia—had gotten along so well we discussed reserving spots the same time next year. For $8,200 there are many other places I would love to go: Rome, Paris, and the Galapagos Islands. And yet, there’s no price for the sense of clarity and calm one can achieve through intense physical exertion and silenced iPhones.