A fabled, freewheelin’ highway hideaway, Cuyama Buckhorn has been the route 166 pitstop of choice for those in the know for decades. The made-over motel is a pillar of the community – celebrating its valley home next to the Los Padres National Forest with workshop weekends, local-produce championing and the best diner in the desert, for a start. Everything is upcycled, reclaimed and vintage, the barbecue is bigger than most backyards, and the Bloody Marys feature a miniature vegetable patch. There’s a bocce-ball court, pool and projector on the lawn, or hit the long, open road for desert-highway dreaming.
Get this when you book through us:
A local gift to take home, or welcome drinks and nibbles
11am, but flexible, subject to availability and a fee of $50 for an extra four hours. Earliest check-in, 3pm, also flexible for $50. The hotel will need to be notified in advance of any arrivals after 9pm.
Double rooms from £162.81 ($169), including tax at 12 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional resort fee of $25.00 per room per night on check-in.
Rates don’t usually include breakfast (from $16).
Look out for the hotel’s regular experience packages, which have included a ‘wild flower/flour weekend’, celebrating both spellings of the word, with sourdough classes, a baking lesson by a Bakersfield baker (nominative determinism in action), picnic-enhanced trips into the valley to see the wildflowers in bloom, dinners graced by free-growing flora and a tutorial in how grains become flour. Another honoured the hotel’s spiritual animal in lunar form, the Full Buck Moon, with meditations, tea ceremonies and sound baths.
At the hotel
Free WiFi throughout, mercantile, sandwich-laden fridge and pie cupboard, pool table, projector, fire-pits, board games, carpark. In rooms: free filtered water, s’mores kit, Bluetooth radio, tea and coffee kit, air-conditioning, television, minibar and mini fridge, and Further bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Each room has vintage furniture, books and a series of cowboy hats on the wall, and semi-private patios with second-hand furniture sets for sitting out on and getting to know your neighbours. If you’re feeling greedy, book the Enchanted Suite, which has two whole semi-private patios to enjoy. The rooms overlooking the garden (as opposed to the courtyard, lawn and picnic table) are more private.
The heated outdoor pool is lined by white parasols, with a sauna and Jacuzzi, too – available for dips and over-heating between 8am and 10pm.
There’s no spa, just the Jacuzzi and mountain-facing barrel sauna in the pool area.
Your best biker vest and hiker attire for tackling the forest trails. Free up some luggage allowance by leaving the books behind and borrowing some of the vintage reads, instead – titles to pique your studious interest include The Other California and Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey.
The property has ramp access to the outdoor common areas and restaurants, and concrete walkways that are navigable for wheelchair users – but no specially adapted rooms.
Dogs weighing in at under 50lbs can join the community fun for $30 a booking – check availability for a pet-friendly room when you book. They’ll have their own relief area in the grounds. See more pet-friendly hotels in California.
The diner has highchairs and a kids’ menu (and chicken tenders so good, the adults will want to order them too).
Local farmers were consulted to help determine the landscaping, all of which is desert-friendly, with an astroturf lawn and all plants picked for their low water usage. The remote setting means goods have to travel a long distance, so as much as possible is sourced from the valley – handily, there are lots of organic farms, ranches and smallholdings nearby.
The booths along the huge windows in the diner have the best sunrise-shaded views of the Caliente range at breakfast, when the mountains look like they’re a painting. For a perfectly styled group setting, book the fairy-light-draped greenhouse.
Leathers and lassos; chaps, optional.
The diner does a fine line in ‘elevated comfort food’, with red-oak-cured Santa Maria tri-tip cooked on the prized-possession grill, signature Buckhorn burgers and more smoked-on-site meats on the menu by the poached-from-Aman chef. For a clean conscience and digestive system, try the heritage grain bowl, made using the fruits of a local grain project that aims to revive traditional, drought-tolerant crops (available in porridge form, too). Diner breakfasts (buttermilk pancakes, orange-flavoured French toast) are served at weekends; during the week, it’s a breakfast box of pastries, overnight oats and orange juice. The boxes are delivered to guests the night before (restraint required) and dinners can be ordered by text or in person at the lobby, to be served at 6.30pm and eaten wherever takes your fancy (shotgun one of the fire-pits or a place at the world’s longest picnic table).
Brandon the bar manager moonlights as an artist, creating shelves out of crates and repurposing murals made from rancher inscriptions back in the day. Under the knowing gaze of a buck and surrounded by vintage Americana, enjoy the most densely packed Bloody Mary of all time (starring celery and friends) or a Yellow Jacket, made with gin, lemon, local honey and house-made limoncello (his skill set extends to making syrups, bitters and liqueurs).
The diner’s opening hours are 11am to 3pm, Monday to Friday; 8am to 3pm on Saturday and Sunday; and 6pm to 9pm on Friday and Saturday. From 3pm to 6pm, a lighter pool service of snacks, sliders and lettuce wraps is available.
When there's no full restaurant service, breakfast boxes and dinners are delivered to guests at 6.30pm. There's no room service at weekends.
There’s no bad way to arrive at Cuyama Buckhorn, since all roads lead to road-trip heaven, whichever direction around the Los Padres National Forest you take.
The hotel is just over two hours north of Los Angeles by car. Bakersfield’s Meadows Fields Airport is an hour and 15 minutes away – direct flights go between here and Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Phoenix.
Bakersfield is the nearest town, an hour’s drive away along highway 166. The original motel parking right by the rooms may be gone, but there's still a parking lot on-site. Central Coast towns within reach include Santa Barbara, a two-hour drive south-west; Santa Maria, an hour away; and Ojai, a 90-minute drive around the forest.
Worth getting out of bed for
Nature rules around these parts and you’ll be lucky if you have a full phone signal – leave the world behind with hikes into the Los Padres forest, or journey to the silent Carrizo Plain National Monument, a vast patch of native grassland, and its Soda Lake, painted caves and walking trails. The hotel can arrange visits to two local wineries, along with two equestrian experiences: one with added archery, another where you can pretend to be a ranch hand for the day. There are lots of games to enjoy on the property, including bocce ball, dominoes and a pool table – or just settle around the fire-pit to roast your s’mores or tackle the cocktail list. For the most amazing view of the valley at sunset, simply walk up Perkins Road and stick around for some stargazing, which is famous throughout the state.
Cuyama Buckhorn is the roadside pitstop of choice for several miles in any direction for a reason, with people from all walks of life calling in here for refreshment, but if you do venture further afield, try The Place in Ventucopa, another highway-edge diner with pies of the day for pudding. There’s also New Cuyama’s small C&H Market, where you can order burgers and pizza at the counter. And for an unusual combination of pizza and Thai food, head to The Asian Experience in Taft, half an hour away.
The Buckhorn bar is the place to be, with the best cocktails in the desert by far – but there is a bar at The Place if you’re up that way.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this roadside hotel in America’s wild West and unpacked their clean honey and candied Californian almonds, a full account of their desert break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Cuyama Buckhorn in New Cuyama…
Welcome to New Cuyama, population: 550. Even road-tripped-out Americans are often yet to discover this self-proclaimed ‘hidden valley of enchantment’, but once they find this secret corner of California, they keep coming back. Cuyama Buckhorn has been a community hub here for generations, providing a place to be every Friday evening for motorcycle-club meets, local ranchers on date nights and artsy millennials, all gathered around the fire-pits and enjoying the lack of mobile signal. The town was built during the mid-century oil boom, and the hotel has helpfully furnished car and motorcycle rallies with a pitstop since 1952.
Farm-to-table may get slapped on anything these days, but at Cuyama Buckhorn, where the organic dairy farmer is 15 minutes away and the husband-and-wife team that frequently drop off produce are equally close, you can take it literally. Upcycling is a big thing around here, too: oil pipes for table legs, troughs for fountains, crates used as shelving units and headboards made from reclaimed wood.
And in the rooms, these are no ordinary minibars – mini tubs of Pringles and overpriced macadamia nuts are out, in favour of jujube (a Chinese superfood) chips made by a local female farmer, pistachios from 20 minutes down the road and brittle crafted by a family on the Central Coast, as well as local wines and spirits. This hotel California… such a lovely place.