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Weekend getaway: Escape to a luxury ranch resort 3 hours from Austin

Mauri Elbel
Special to the American-Statesman
JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa is a luxury working ranch.

It’s not every day you lead a horse to water. The phrase rolls across my mind, making me smile, as I ride a dappled Appaloosa named Van Gogh straight into the middle of a pond. Saddled atop Van Gogh, cowgirl-boot deep in the cool water, my smile breaks into laughter watching this gentle giant gleefully stomp and splash beneath the blazing Texas sun.

I’ll admit I have absolutely no idea what I am doing, but I feel confident under the adept guidance of equine expert Jon Joseph, who leads the one-of-a-kind equestrian experiences that unfold at The JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa. Joseph assures me, shouting from the shoreline, that Van Gogh is relishing his refreshing dip — an impromptu diversion on our hot and dusty, cactus-riddled trail ride. And truth be told, I am, too.

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Our recent escape to JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa, tucked away in sleepy Sonora just three hours west of Austin, feels a world away. Wanting a drivable destination offering a change of pace away from crowds, we booked a few nights at this remote luxury ranch resort situated on 13,000 bucolic acres — a serene swirl of rolling Hill Country landscape and rugged West Texas terrain. Social distancing out here comes easy. There are just 32 accommodations sprinkled on the sprawling property — a mix of 16 luxury cabins and 16 spacious guest rooms. Families or friends wanting to stay together can rent out the exclusive Archer’s Nest Villa, a private six-bedroom home surrounded by century-old live oaks that comfortably sleeps 12 and comes with the additional perks of a private pool, pool house and even a butler.

JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa, which touts itself as one of the country’s premier working ranch experiences and Texas’ only luxury ranch resort, is the vision and dream of owners James and Lois Archer. Known as a trophy hunting destination and home to a state-of-the-art sporting complex that offers shooting experiences for all skill levels, our family of non-hunters with three kids in tow appreciated the chance to get away and unplug on peaceful, wide-open spaces, try new adventures together and end each evening soaking in stunning Texas sunsets with hand-crafted cocktails and lemonades in hand.

During their stay, guests have their pick from a diverse roster of experiences including ATV adventures, hiking and biking, shooting lessons, Saturday yoga, paint and sip classes, wine tastings, horseback riding, cooking classes and more. One afternoon, our whole family braved a high-speed, hair-whipping off-road UTV adventure, cruising along bumpy dirt paths and stealing glimpses of wildlife through our dust clouds. Another morning, we booked a family-friendly horse psychology experience where we learned about the science behind horse whispering from Joseph who, along with equine activities manager Sydney Beique, specializes in training reining horses and provides guests with a unique history lesson on horse training. From JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa’s equestrian center, guests are saddled up on one-of-a-kind reining horses with impressive bloodlines and past show careers rather than typical trail horses when they head out on hour-long rides. While I hit the trails with our older boys, our 5-year-old stayed back to take her very first trot around the pen on a chocolate-colored reining horse named Diamond.

Guests also have the option of renting their own golf cart during their stay — our kids’ hands-down favorite way to travel from our private cabin to the infinity pool or the on-site restaurant serving up authentic Texas cuisine three meals a day as well as theme-night dinners like Butcher Block Thursdays, Fajita Fridays and BBQ Saturdays. On site, there’s also a Nicklaus-designed putting green that spills out below the pool, a full-service spa and fitness center, a general store and even a FBO private airport with a runway for guests who prefer to jet in and out.

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Dine al fresco at The Restaurant at JL Bar.