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A photograph of the Reagan home Rancho del Cielo, April 2, 1983.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Commonly known as “Ranch in the Sky,” Rancho del Cielo was President Ronald Reagan’s rural property in the Santa Ynez Mountains just outside Santa Barbara, California.1 The Pacific Ocean, just a few miles to the south, can be seen from the peaks that nestle the small ranch house.2 It was among these mountains that President Reagan found the perfect reprieve from White House business. In a birthday tribute to First Lady Nancy Reagan, he remarked that if the ranch wasn’t heaven itself, it “probably has the same ZIP code.”3

Next to the house is a small pond called “Lake Lucky,” which reflects the surrounding peaks where Secret Service monitored activity on the ranch.4 The home consisted of five rooms, as well as a small, one-bedroom guest house which was usually occupied by the Reagan children. The interior of the house complemented the exterior’s rustic appearance.5 Paintings of western sunsets and lone cowboys on the trail hung on the wall next to “jackalope” mounts—a longstanding western joke that gives antelope antlers to jackrabbits.6

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan eating lunch at Rancho del Cielo, April 8, 1985.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

For Ronald Reagan, the house served as a sanctuary during his presidency. While the Reagans were away they employed a caretaker who, with the aid of several Secret Service agents, ensured the house was always prepared for the Reagans. President Reagan’s boots and his old ‘United States Mounted Secret Service’ hat always greeted him upon arrival.7 The bulk of the adobe house is composed of two large rooms: a living room and a multipurpose front room where the Reagans would often dine and read.8 Bookshelves in the room housed the president's favorites works, many of which contained notes and markings from Reagan himself.9

Wildlife—such as coyotes, bears, rattlesnakes, and deer—ambled about the property. President Reagan also kept animals of his own. Four dogs and a steer named Duke freely roamed the estate.10 His seven horses grazed in the large pasture that bordered the house and Lake Lucky.11 President Reagan enjoyed riding horses and would begin and end many days traversing the trails surrounding the ranch. He would ride one of his favorite horses, “Little Man,” down the main thoroughfare which connected the home to the helipad (humorously termed “Pennsylvania Avenue”) before journeying along the smaller trails that led to beautiful views and sentimental spots.12

A photograph of Ronald Reagan with his horse "Little Man," taken in February 1977.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Whenever possible Reagan personally tended to the property, often commenting that the place was, after all, for ranch work. He sometimes cut his own wood—enough to build a fence that welcomed guests upon their arrival—and set aside a sizeable amount to fuel the home’s two fireplaces.13 The sound of Reagan’s chainsaw echoed throughout the valley as did the loud hum of his red 1962 Willys CJ-6 Jeep. They were housed in the Tack Barn, beneath a sign that read, “Work Safely Around the Gipper’s Chipper.”14

President Reagan in his Jeep accompanied by his dog "Liberty" and Dennis LeBlanc, who served as Associate Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. This photograph was taken on August 28, 1981.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The press rarely saw the president during his time on the ranch. Briefings on his daily activities were notably shorter than those in Washington, D.C.15 “The president attended to routine paperwork this morning and is now getting ready to go horseback riding with Mrs. Reagan. After lunch with Mrs. Reagan the president will chop wood and clear brush on the ranch property,” stated one spokesperson for President Reagan.16 There was a running joke among the press corps that Reagan was attending to a “chop-and-clear” woodland agenda, and by the end of his presidency the ranch would be cleared of every unnecessary tree and dry brush.17

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan posing with Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The royal couple visited Rancho del Cielo on March 1, 1983.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President Reagan often conceptualized speeches while cutting wood or riding his horses. Some guests to the ranch were surprised by its simplicity yet recognized the beauty of the place which so inspired Reagan. The Reagans maintained a unique style of entertainment, both during his administration and afterwards. During his presidency, the president accommodated Vice President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush multiple times at the ranch. They also hosted Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip in 1983. The royal guests braved a California rainstorm to have lunch with the first couple.18 While the weather reminded accompanying British journalists of “Scotland on a foul day,” the lunch was more aligned with the region’s cuisine, featuring enchiladas, chiles rellenos, refried beans, tacos, rice, and guacamole.

After leaving office, the Reagans spent much more time at the ranch, inviting friends and members of the press to join them at Rancho del Cielo. On two such occasions, he gave jeep tours of the property to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and journalist Barbara Walters.19 Reagan said farewell to his beloved ranch home of 21 years in August, 1995, taking the ride down the rough mountain roads one final time. He spent his remaining years in Bel Air, Los Angeles, where he was surrounded by family, friends, and a host of friendly aids and assistants.20

This photograph, taken in 1992, shows former President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the ranch.

Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration

This article was originally published August 14, 2017

Footnotes & Resources

  1. http://reaganranch.yaf.org/rancho-del-cielo/history/, accessed July 24, 2017.
  2. Lawrence L. Knutson, Away from the White House: Presidential Escapes, Retreats, and Vacations (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 2014), 358.
  3. Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2009).
  4. http://reaganranch.yaf.org/virtual-tour/#/lake-lucky, accessed July 24, 2017.
  5. Knutson, Away from the White House, 360.
  6. Peggy Grande, The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Final Years (New York: Hatchette Books, 2017).
  7. Todd S. Purdum, “Keeping Reagan’s Legacy Alive at His Old Ranch,” New York Times, May 24, 1998.
  8. http://reaganranch.yaf.org/virtual-tour/#/the-ranch-home, accessed July 24, 2017.
  9. Knutson, Away from the White House, 360.
  10. https://reaganlibrary.gov/sreference/facts-about-rancho-del-cielo, accessed July 24, 2017.
  11. ABC News 20/20 interview by Barbara Walters with Ronald Reagan at Rancho del Cielo, 1981.
  12. Knutson, Away from the White House, 363.
  13. Ibid, 362.
  14. Purdum, “Keeping Reagan’s Legacy Alive at His Old Ranch,” New York Times, May 24, 1998; George Skelton, “Reminiscing About a Piece of History,” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1996.
  15. Knutson, Away from the White House, 365- 366.
  16. Ibid, 361.
  17. Ibid.
  18.  Ibid, 366.
  19. Skelton, “Reminiscing About a Piece of History,” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1996.
  20. Knutson, Away from the White House, 373.

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