by Lorie Lewis Ham
East of Fresno nestled in the Sierra Foothills and just minutes below Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks lies 75 acres of beauty and fun known as Wonder Valley Ranch Resort and Conference Center. Last year Wonder Valley celebrated its 100-year anniversary as a guest ranch and it just keeps growing.
Wonder Valley has a rich history. According to Wonder Valley’s current CEO Roy Oken, the ranch was founded in 1911 as California’s first guest ranch—then known as the Pierson Guest Ranch. In the mid 1940s through the 1970s it was owned by the Webb Family and was a destination for many of Hollywood’s elite including Betty Hutton, Tom Mix, and Roy Rogers. The Ranch’s location is also rich with the history of the Yokut Native American Tribe as well as the fables of the Dalton Brothers Outlaw Gang.
The property became Wonder Valley Ranch Resort in 1972 when it was purchased by Roy’s father, Stan Oken. Originally, he purchased the property to provide the facilities for River Way Ranch Camp. “He had previously been hosting the camp on leased property in Three Rivers,” shared Roy. “River Way Ranch Camp is recognized throughout the United States as a premiere children’s resident camp. Each summer our highly trained staff and the facilities provide a learning rich environment for children from all over the United States and other countries.”
Though purchased for the camp, Wonder Valley quickly became a multi use property with a conference center with on site recreation, and single participant activities. It also provides facilities for team training with its Ropes Challenge Coarse, Paintball, and Equestrian Center. “Our tagline for corporate business is ‘We Mix Work & Play Everyday’,” continued Roy.
Wonder Valley’s wedding business added a Lakeview Wedding Garden and Legacy Lodge wedding reception Hall in 2008 that can accommodate up to 350 guests, many of whom can be provided with lodging for destination weddings. They also have a family camp in August, provide programs for family and group reunions, and senior travel tours. Their sleeping room capacity is now 52 rooms and they have nine meeting rooms that can seat from 50 to 480 people theater style.
Tara Wilson had her wedding there in 2009. “It was so beautiful. The flowers were all blooming and the lake was so sparkly. The staff took care of everything. We literally had to show up and nothing else. It was such a fun experience and made for a lovely memory of our wedding!”
Their camp season starts the second week in June and runs through the third week in August. “The first week of our camp season is dedicated to our subsidization of the Alisha Ann Ruch Burn Foundation that provides a camp experience for children who are burn survivors,” stated Roy.
Roy’s first experience helping at Wonder Valley was at the age of 14 working in the kitchen during the summer camps. Eventually he became a counselor, water ski instructor, and ultimately the Camp Director. In 1975, he moved to Wonder Valley. “I was going to school at Fresno State and working full time at the ranch to put myself through school. About 1987 when my Dad ran for County Supervisor I took over as CEO of the company and eventually became President. My Dad, Stan Oken, is our Chairman of the Board of Directors.”
The Resort and Conference Center season is from the last week in August through the first week in June. During this nine-month timeframe, Roy stated that they are available for group events such as conferences, retreats, weddings, tour groups, outdoor education programs, group picnics and reunions. “We are also a great location for leisure travelers visiting our area, family vacations, or local individuals wishing to spend a day or two at a resort close to home.”
Water skiing, wakeboarding, wave runners, and skateboarding are only available during camp season. Available to any individual or group staying at Wonder Valley overnight are boating and fishing on Dalton Pond, games pavilion, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and swimming pools. Available to any group or individual (some restrictions apply) at an additional fee are horseback trail rides, horse-drawn hay rides, campfire, paintball, trampoline center, waterslides, archery, ropes challenge course and golfing at nearby Sherwood Forest Golf Club.
Still truly a family business, the next generation of Oken family members are also involved in Wonder Valley including one of Roy’s daughters and two of his nieces.
Staff members also see themselves as family. “Wonder Valley Ranch Resort is a beautiful property and it is a joy to work here, but if I personally had to pick what I love best it is our staff,” said Vonda Hutchinson who has worked at Wonder Valley since 1997, first as director of sales and marketing, and now on special projects for Roy and Stan. “They not only are wonderful to work with but they provide the highest quality of customer service. They are definitely one of the main reasons that we are the proud recipient of the 2008 California Family Business of the Year Award.”
Jenni Flaming is one of the newer Wonder Valley employees. She works as Sales Manager and she too enjoys most those she works with. “There is such a great team atmosphere here. We all find ways to build each other up and help each other in different areas of the business.”
So if the high gas prices have you looking for a great place nearby to go to get away for some fun or relaxation, or for a reunion, wedding or business retreat—you don’t have to look any further than Wonder Valley Ranch. You can learn more about all of the many things they have to offer on their website including directions on how to get there and contact information.