Looking for fun things to do for the whole family in Paso Robles? You’ll never forget the unique experience of a stagecoach ride and ranch tour and at Harris Stage Lines.
By J.C. Thomas
The stagecoach has a prominent place in the western imagination, familiar from countless movies and TV shows, the Wells Fargo logo and such colloquialisms as “riding shotgun” and “stand and deliver.” More than a century has passed since stagecoaches were the standard mode of transport. In California, many of their dirt-track routes lie directly under today’s roads. Perhaps this is why so much of the state’s scenery, when viewed through a car window on a long road trip, inspires musings about what it would be like to make the same journey under genuine horsepower. A 5-hour drive doesn’t seem so long when you’re idly estimating the days or weeks, along with discomfort and dangers, of crossing the same terrain in a horse-driven stagecoach.
For Tom and Debby Harris, the couple behind Harris Stage Lines in Paso Robles, California, the stagecoach is no relic, nor is the horse-driven journey an imaginary experience. For these equestrian, ranching and entertainment veterans, preserving the past includes opening their 26-acre authentic western ranch to the public for stagecoach rides, driving lessons, private events and more.
The Harris’s Happy Trails Ranch is along the Salinas River, just 4 miles north of Paso Robles in the beautiful Central Coast region of California. If you’re visiting Paso Robles and looking for equestrian activities, or are simply seeking fun things to do in Paso Robles other than wine tasting, then consider a stagecoach ride and tour at Harris Stage Lines. It’s among the most unique, memorable and family-friendly things to do in Paso Robles, combining history, horsemanship and a delightful few hours out in the countryside.
Experience a Stagecoach Ride in Paso Robles
A galumphing ride around the ranch in an immaculately preserved, mid-19th century Concord Stagecoach pulled by four magnificent horses is the definite highlight of the Harris Stage Lines visitor experience. However, Tom and Debby Harris don’t simply load you up, ride around and send you on your way. The stagecoach might have been the speediest mode of transport back in the day, but the horsemanship and other skills behind the setup call for unhurried prowess. Many steps must be completed before “giddy-up.” They’re fascinating to watch, and even more so thanks to Tom Harris’s compelling recounts of California’s stagecoach history.
If it wasn’t for the iPhone sticking out from his plaid shirt pocket, Tom Harris could have walked off the set of a classic Western movie. Dressed in cowboy boots and hat, well-worn jeans, a weighty belt buckle and kerchief, he looks the part and certainly knows his stuff. While Tom and his team lead the “gentle giant” Belgian draft horses and hardy Percherons from the livery stable, into position in front of the stagecoach, he chats about the stagecoach and its history.
You’ll hear how California was the stagecoach capital of the United States from around 1847 to 1910. Over 200 stagecoaches traveled up and down the state each day. In the Central Coast region, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo were home stations, with Santa Margarita a waystation in between; Highway 101 forges the same path. Teams of four or six horses would be changed every 20 to 40 miles, and slow and steady was the standard pace for a stagecoach ride. Unlike in dramatic western movie scenes, stagecoach drivers would never try to outrun any robbers; they’d resign to the loss and prioritize safety, according to Tom. The seat next to the driver, though, would be manned by an armed guard – the origin of the phrase “riding shotgun.”
The carriage itself, a Concord stagecoach from the late 1860s, is one of a storied collection of vehicles that settled the west. Its innovative design suspended the coach on leather straps, allowing it to rock and bounce for the horses’ comfort while traversing the rough roads of the American west. Leather banquette seats, leather-lined windows with blinds, and chintz-upholstered walls and ceilings represent the fanciest decor of the era. The exterior door features a hand-painted landscape scene and proclaims the stagecoach’s name, the Deborah Janette (after Debby). Just like ships, all stagecoaches are named after women.
With a whirlwind overview of stagecoach history, form and function now in mind, it’s time to take a ride around the ranch. You will immediately sense the soft bounce from that leather-brace suspension, and settle into the cozy, plush seating for a ride. The scenery includes wide open stretches backed by mountains, close-up meadows where off-duty horses graze, and the ranch’s recreated Wild West town.
The ride is surprisingly smooth, with a constant sway soothingly aligned with the horses’ steady gait. You can’t help but think about similar journeys back in the 19th century, and let your imagination wander as you ride. How many passengers would be squeezed into the stagecoach? What kind of business or personal trips were they taking? And just how often was that shotgun up front put to use?
Take a Walking Tour of the Paso Robles Ranch
Along with the stagecoach ride, visitors get to take a walking tour of Happy Trails Ranch. It’s a working ranch with chicken coops, goat pens, a garden plot and fields of grain that the Harrises plow with vintage, horse-pulled equipment. Further, Tom and Debby collaborate with SRY Coaches to host a collection of 30 different types of historic horse-drawn vehicles. On display are various carriages, buggies, carts and wagons, including a Ben Hur-style racing chariot, a genuine chuck wagon and a Standard Oil wagon.
The ranch also features a western town facade, large arena and century-old barn with a stage, music hall and saloon, all decorated inside and out in an enchanting rustic style. Think wonky old upright pianos, flower-filled cowboy boot centerpieces, whimsical wooden signs and an overall sense of time-worn, weathered comfort. Paso Robles’ scenic farm lands and vineyards are a fitting backdrop. It’s no wonder the property is popular for filming and photo shoots, along with birthday parties, ranch weddings and other events. The Harrises also travel nationwide with their horses and carriages for parades, rodeos and stunt work, along with offering driving lessons on site.
Marvel at the Music Hall and Wurlitzer
When Tom and Debby Harris chat about their ranch, horses and calling to preserve the history of the stagecoach, they do so with a mixture of pride and deep expertise. When they talk about their son, Cactus Harris, they beam with delight. Cactus is a musical virtuoso and a master of the Wurlitzer electric pipe organ. On the ranch, an entire barn is dedicated to a 1922 Wurlitzer pipe organ, an engineering and musical marvel capable of recreating the sounds of a full orchestra of instruments. Tom says it took 6 months to reassemble the instrument after Cactus gleefully acquired the rare treasure.
At first the Wurlitzer appears to be a typical old organ, around the size of a grand piano. But when Tom flips some switches, its massive and complex system comes to life. To the booming sounds of oom-pah-pah music, a whole wall of wooden slats start dancing, while behind the wall an entire room reveals itself to be a mad laboratory of Rube Goldberg-like pipes, tambourines, drums and a motor-driven wind blower. It’s a sight – and symphony of sounds – to behold, and an unexpected bonus to go with a stagecoach ride in Paso Robles.
5995 N River Road
Paso Robles, CA