Where to Meet Alpacas in SoCal | KCET
Where to Meet Alpacas in SoCal
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Let’s be real for a moment: It can be difficult to get up close to an alpaca.
As alluringly friendly as they seem — and as genuinely inquisitive as they are — their survival instincts dictate that they be a bit standoffish. (At least, to humans who are clamoring for their attention.) Their ancestors roamed the mountainsides of Peru together, far from civilization. So, they don’t make great yoga partners.
Between the two main breeds — Suri (whose locks create very silky fiber) and Huacaya (whose fiber is almost crimped and springy, providing good stretch for fabric) – no two individual alpacas are exactly alike. So, don’t make any assumptions before coming in hot with a snack or a scratch. Like many humans, alpacas just value their personal space — and they’ll do you a favor by keeping you out of their spitting distance. And if you let them come to you, it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Although alpacas aren’t native to southern California, a fair amount of them were imported here in the 1980s and 90s — which means that our history with these camelids (yes, they’re related to camels) is pretty recent.
But there’s plenty of opportunity to take a crash course in alpaca etiquette —and learn how to win them over — by visiting any one of the following greatest alpaca adventures in southern California.
Or, better yet, knock out all five of them. You won’t have the same experience twice.
1. The Alpaca Hacienda, Temecula
If you’ve ever dreamed of having land — say, a sprawling ranch up on a hill — and a herd of fluffy animals, a visit to The Alpaca Hacienda may prove to you that dreams really do come true. And its founders and owners, former elementary school teacher Beth Osborne and her husband Mike Arndt, have managed to make that dream a small business — raising both types of alpacas for their fiber, which is far softer than sheep’s wool and gives cashmere a run for its money. In her introductory presentation on a “Meet and Greet” tour (available most Wednesdays and Saturdays, by advance reservation), Osborne explains how the alpacas get sheared once a year just before the heat of summer hits and how she’s learned to spin the fiber into yarn which can be used to knit sweaters, beanies, gloves, etc. or even felted into blankets and handbags.
After a few minutes of answering such burning questions like “What’s the difference between an alpaca and a llama?” and “Will the alpacas spit on me?” (to find out for sure, you’ll have to take the tour), Osborne lets the tour group loose with a bag of nutritional pellets, first at the female enclosure at the upper ranch and then the boys at the lower ranch. The genders are separated for most of the year — that is, except in the spring, when they’re allowed to try to breed with each other (if they so desire). As alpacas are herd animals, you can learn a lot about their social dynamics when you’ve got a palm full of snacks outstretched for one and all the rest rush over. Fortunately, these alpacas are socialized enough to eat right out of your hand, with little risk of getting nibbled by their four bottom teeth, which get filed down yearly. And some might even let you pet them on the neck and scratch into the lower part of their head locks.
As you’re separated from the animals by a low fence at their enclosures, the 90-minute tour is appropriate for even very young children, under the supervision of an adult. Leave some time at the end to brows the boutique, which is the best alpaca gift shop in SoCal, no contest (and carries items that will appeal to alpaca fans of all ages). Although The Alpaca Hacienda is open year-round for public tours and private events, it’s in the spring that you can witness the herd pre-sheared and at maximum fluffiness. That’s also when you might get to see some babies (a.k.a. “cria,” who can gestate for up to a year and are generally born one at a time). But let’s be honest — this ranch tour is so good and so fun that you’ll be begging to return again and again.
2. Canzelle Alpacas, Carpinteria
Though it’s literally three quarters of a mile away from the 101, Canzelle Alpacas at Lonson Family Farm couldn’t feel farther from civilization. Located in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest in Carpinteria, over 50 alpacas reside on the 20 acres here — split up into two different herds of females, a few “studs” for breeding, and a couple of alpaca friends who keep Archie the water buffalo company. On this hour-long tour, you’ll get to meet all of them, up close and personal — as long as you follow the rules. (For instance, you really don’t want to stand behind an alpaca and give it a reason to kick.)
Since there’s nothing separating you from being mobbed by hungry alpacas all at once while you clutch a fistful of baby carrots, this one could be a little too intense for first-timers or very young visitors who might find it overwhelming. But give yourself so time to get to know the herds — because just like any other time you’re trying to make friends, you’ve got to sort out the aggressive ones from the shy ones and the friendly ones. Fortunately, your guide will point out all the different personalities to help you navigate your way through. And if you’re lucky enough to encounter one of the kissy ones, you just might find yourself falling in alpaca-love.
You can literally nuzzle right up into the furry face of some of the alpacas at Canzelle, so there are plenty of photo opps — don’t leave your camera or cell phone in the car! You might find yourself posing with one of the ranch’s most prized show alpacas, like a Herdshire of the Year or a blue ribbon cria of prize-winning lineage. Yes, alpacas are shown just like horses and dogs — and there are some real beauty queens and princes among the Canzelle herds!
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3. Sweet Water Alpaca Ranch, Agua Dulce
Though some alpaca breeding facilities are closed for general public visits and open by appointment only if you’re in the market for a stud or some offspring, Sweet Water Alpaca Ranch welcomes visitors of all types — as long as you’re genuinely interested in “alpaca culture” (and you call ahead). At this small ranch, you’ll encounter some particularly frisky females who are more than likely to approach you and, in fact, chase you around their enclosure.
While the ranch's owner, Cecilia Secka, sends the alpaca fiber out to be spun into yarn and knits it into soft scarves, the main business at Sweet Water is breeding. Secka knows the lineage of every single one — who begat whom, who came from whom — and can explain the genetics of how, say, two black alpacas can produce a blonde one, and a blonde and a black one produce a black one. Since new babies can't be separated from their mothers for at least six months, you’ve got some time (perhaps up to a year) to visit those adorable little fluffernutter-like critters while they’re still running around alongside their moms. And don’t worry about how defenseless these sweet things are against the coyotes and mountain lions that wander through the Santa Clarita Valley hills. That’s why a big ol' guard dog assumes his night watch position and takes his job very seriously, especially for the vulnerable newborns.
All in all, based on Secka’s experience at Sweet Water, living with alpacas seems like a nice life. They're so fluffy and adorable that it’s hard not to think of them as pets (though, in truth, they are a business). And even when one of them got a featured guest role on an episode of "Modern Family" a few years back, she came right back to the ranch to frolic about and eat her daily hay, just like she did before. It’s a wonder that more of the alpaca-curious visitors who come to check Sweet Water out on Saturdays don’t walk away with an alpaca of their own. (Though, because they’re herd animals, you should have at least two at any given time.)
4. Alpacas at Windy Hill, Somis
Want to live in the country and escape the “rat race”? Alpacas at Windy Hill makes the notion of becoming an alpaca rancher (or, at least, discovering your inner rancher) sound simply irresistible! And while this ranch does breed and sell alpacas, it also offers a support system for anyone interested in learning the ropes of alpaca ownership, including providing boarding. That’s right — even if you’ve got no property of your own, you can still start your own herd! It’s a tempting offer, especially when you see some of the gorgeous animals they’ve got onsite.
With over 200 alpacas in a spectrum of colors on its 25 acres, Alpacas at Windy Hill is California’s largest working alpaca ranch. Whether you prefer white, beige, silver gray, rose gray, or true black, the suris and huacayas at Windy Hill are top-of-the-line breeding stock and fiber providers, each with their own, personalized names. But as these alpacas aren’t as socialized as at some other alpaca ranches, it’s best to admire them from afar and observe them in an approximation of their native habitat. They’re happy to keep their distance, too — you won’t see much show of aggression here. And thanks to the mild climate year-round, the temperature neither skyrockets nor dips too low, making the weather pretty stress-free for them.
Although Alpacas at Windy Hill is a working ranch and most definitely not a petting zoo, it used to host a number of open ranch days and classes to the public — but because of a change in Ventura County regulations, those outreach efforts have been curtailed. However, the ranch was open in 2017 for its Fall Alpaca Festival, which coincided with Ventura County Farm Day, and appears to be on the docket for the annual open house this coming November 2018. Check the website in September for final updates.
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5. The Barnyard at William S. Hart Museum, Newhall
A museum devoted to the legacy of a silent movie-era cowboy might not be one of the first places you’d look for alpacas. But actually, the presence of alpacas — and pigs, tortoises, ducks, geese, horses and even bison — is part of the purpose of the Hart Museum, as William S. Hart left his Santa Clarita Valley retirement ranch to the County of Los Angeles with a stipulation that there always be animals on the property. (His only other caveat was that the museum always be free for the public to visit, which it still is today.) So, make the Trading Post your first stop at the former Horseshoe Ranch, so you can buy a bag of snacks from Friends of Hart Park and learn which animals are safe to feed. (The alpacas are usually on a special diet, but the gift shop staff can give you the most up-to-date guidelines on that.)
In the barnyard, you’ll meet the five resident South American domesticated alpacas, all females: Cruella with the white bangs, Chanel the blonde, Coco the redhead, Carma the brownette, and Clarice the brunette. They’ve got plenty of shade to cool off in and plenty of hay to munch on, so they’re pretty mellow. A fence will separate you from them while they’re in their enclosure, but resist the urge to stick your fingers in. You really don’t want to tempt the animals into clamping down on you — even if they don’t have any top teeth. If the standard public experience feels too impersonal and you’d like to get a little more intimate with the alpacas, the Friends of Hart Park happen to need volunteers to take these four-legged fur machines on walks to get a little exercise. After all, these creatures evolved to climb the heights of the Andes Mountains — not laze about all day! Check the volunteer page on the group’s website for information on how to pitch in.
While you’re at Hart Park, why not take a free, docent-led tour of the mansion where the movie cowboy spent his final days? On your way up to the top of the hill, find the overlook that provides a view of a small herd of American Bison, all descendants of animals donated by Walt Disney to the ranch in 1962. Along the nature trail, you can also pay your respects at the dog cemetery (Hart loved his Great Danes and bulldog so much, he gave up his master bedroom for them and built them custom dog beds). Or, wander through the interpretive displays in the old ranch house back down the hill, where you can examine artifacts from Hart’s life and career.
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