Autumn—harvest time—is the showiest season in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Iconic gnarled oak trees glow amber, their crunchy leaves blanketing rural roads. Scarecrows beckon from farm posts. At the area’s 120-plus wineries, grapes are plucked from vines and pressed into juice. Spend a fall weekend in the Santa Ynez Valley exploring its six friendly towns—Solvang, Buellton, Los Olivos, Ballard, Santa Ynez, and Los Alamos. In just a few country-paced days you can savor crisp-chilly nights and spectacular eats where farm-to-table cuisine is a way of life.
Day 1: Picking pumpkins, patio dining, and more
Get lost: Immerse yourself in harvest tradition at the popular Solvang Farmer Pumpkin Patch. Grab some gourds, snap a selfie on a hay bale, and find your way through the magnificent 10-acre corn maze (or maize, as it really should be called). There’s also a smaller, less confounding labyrinth for kids. Open through November 1.
Chow down: Take a break from strolling the flower-lined, windmill-bedecked streets of Danish Solvang to indulge in seasonal comfort foods at Peasants Feast, from house pickles to family-style mac-and-cheese to a spicy fried chicken sandwich.
Chill out: Pop into one of Solvang’s more than 20 tasting rooms. For unexpected retro style, try the High Roller Tiki Lounge, a beer-and-wine bar with kitschy-fun, vintage-tropical decor. Feeling adventurous? Order a wine-based cocktail like the Pirates Plank, Blue Hawaiian, or Pumpkin Spice Sacrifice.
Listen up: If you hear live music wafting from Lost Chord Guitars, head inside! You may catch actor Jeff Bridges or other local celebs jamming at this intimate Solvang venue. The cool space is also a boutique for Bridges’ line of sustainable-wood guitars and showcases his personal artwork on the walls.
Dig in: Bite into a filet mignon, rib eye, or bone-in tomahawk at Solvang’s brand-new Sear Steakhouse. The restaurant owners infuse the menu with the more than 100 fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown on their family farm.
Wind down: Chillax around a fire pit under the stars at the new Hotel Ynez, a rustic-chic inn by the lodging rock stars who brought you the Skyview motel in Los Alamos. Enjoy spacious rooms, Bolivian hammocks, and the use of electric bikes.
Day 2: Riding horses, shopping, and sipping cider
Stock up: Start your day off sweet with a visit to God’s Country Provisions, a Buellton doughnut shop with a saintly name and sinful offerings from hefty apple and blueberry fritters to cereal-topped and candy-stuffed seasonal treats. Nosh while sitting on the church pew out front or take it to go.
Giddyap: Take a horseback tour through hundreds of acres of golden backcountry behind the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard. No riding experience is needed for the 2-mile trot past cattle, herding dogs, rolling hills, and oaks blanketed in delicate lace lichen. Rides are $135 for 90 minutes.
Take a dip: Sample olive oils from mild to robust with a scheduled tasting at Global Gardens. Olive oil sommelier Theo Stephan points out the “artichoke midtones” and “floral pink peppercorn finish,” based on each tree and terroir, “a pretentious word for dirt,” she says. $40 per person includes a bottle.
Pick your poison: Sip on a flight of crisp and colorful hard ciders in charming Los Olivos at Tin City Cider, where tart heirloom apples blend with cherry, orange peel, black currant—and even rosé. Or swing by the Stolpman Vineyards’ new Fresh Garage, where an old-school winery is bottling new-school wines with higher acidity and no added sulfur, like a Crunchy Roastie Rainbow syrah and a Love You Bunches Orange, a blend of pinot gris, muscat, and mourvèdre. “If the French found out, they would behead us,” says tasting-room manager Ash Shahparnia, “but, hey—it’s California!”
Gather ’round: Slide into a table on the homey porch of the warm and cozy Ballard Inn for dinner at the Gathering Table, with its inventive and satisfying dishes like Hamachi sashimi, roasted kabocha soup, and sunchoke and apple salad with bacon brown butter.
Day 3: Gourmet meals and antiquing
Eat well: The one-horse Western town of Los Alamos is a no-joke foodie paradise. Grab breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread and lunch at Bell’s, where French meets ranch for fancy “Franch” cuisine, or on the pretty patio at Pico, inside the old General Store.
Shop local: Hunt for treasures and collectibles at the Los Alamos Depot Mall and at Sisters, a historic 1880 home filled with new and vintage housewares, garden decor, elegant clothing, art, and jewelry.
Play ball: While away the afternoon in the boho wine-and-beer garden at Bodega Los Alamos playing boccie beside a sweet greenhouse, chatting on lawn chairs in a corner, or listening to live music from the band on stage.
Farm out: If you’re heading south down Highway 101 on your way home, stop off at Folded Hills Farmstead to say adios to the farm animals. Nigerian dwarf goats, Sicilian mini donkeys, and kunekune pigs come right up to the fence to nuzzle visitors.
Starshine Roshell is a journalist, author, and editor in Santa Barbara. Her award-winning columns are collected in her latest book, Lather, Rage, Repeat. She also wrote How we broke our lockdown monotony in a rented Airstream trailer.
AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.