Ranch retreat: Frontier days carry on at Bonnie Springs

Photo: Mikayla Whitmore
Kristen Peterson

The night sky is electric blue and generous with moonlight, revealing the peacocks and peahens sleeping in the branches above.

Living here at Bonnie Springs Ranch they roam the grounds with feathered trains dragging like robes of kings, moving oblivious to guests sunning poolside or cutting across the motel’s grassy courtyard. They pass by visitors in the narrow corridor outside the restaurant. And when night comes, they head 30 feet upward to protect their chicks from coyotes.

Animals are abundant here: horses, wild burros, a pond full of swans, ducks and turtles. Deer and sheep walk openly in the petting zoo. It’s what Bonnie Levinson desired most for her visitors, a chance to experience fauna up close on her ranch 15 minutes southwest of Las Vegas.

Bonnie Springs Motel & Ranch

The Hollywood-born pro ice skater-turned-turkey farmer purchased more than 100 acres in what’s now Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area back in 1952, when she was delivering turkeys from Twentynine Palms to Las Vegas. Two years later she married her husband, Al, and together they built the town and accommodations nestled in the wildlife of protected land off Route 159.

The one-time stop for travelers on the Old Spanish Trail consisted of only a run-down bar and a house when Levinson took over. Horse stables, a restaurant and the zoo followed in the ’60s. The ’70s brought the construction of replica mining towns, and the motel arrived in the ’80s. These days, horseback riders snake through the Joshua trees, creosote and wild burros, backdropped by breathtaking and monumental rock formations.

When Levinson died in January at age 94, condolences poured in online as generations of visitors shared memories. “She was tremendously loved and had a great rapport with customers,” says Tim Harrison, the ranch’s marketing director and events manager. He works for Levinson’s children, who now run the ranch. “She had a special spot at the bar and would talk with everyone. To this day people say they remember coming here as a child.”

Levinson remains a legend, a young woman who bought land and ran a bar for years without electricity, serving regulars and minors from nearby Blue Diamond and local characters living in the Spring Mountains. Born in 1921, the director’s daughter hosted movie stars and other Hollywood types at home, then toured and performed with Sonja Henie during her years as a skater. She would later pour her life into the ranch and the animals.

Old Town was Al Levinson’s passion. He’d search the area for old wood to create buildings in the style of bygone mining communities. The wooden structures, hand-painted signs and family-owned feel brought a DIY charm and respite from the subdivisions of residential Las Vegas.

Bonnie, an established seamstress, worked alongside Al. The wood-interior restaurant still features her curtains, Harrison says, and 48 rooms in the two-story motel also reflect her themes and decor. Among them: the Covered-Wagon Room, the Wolf Room and two Indian Rooms—one with a jacuzzi, one without.

We’re staying in an Indian Room (no jacuzzi) where a mock teepee extends over the bed, dream catchers hang near animal masks and an electric fireplace glows in a corner. The night sky, quiet and forever, bares its constellations. In the morning, hundreds of visitors brave the 100-plus-degree temperatures, pulling into the oasis to watch gun-toting cowboys performing in Old Town, among busy shops and a shooting gallery set in a saloon fashioned with animatronic drinkers.

Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures found “activity” here, and the Zombie Bus Ride takes paintballers from this place into the desert to shoot living zombies who can’t shoot back. Rodeos, corporate events and an October haunt draw big crowds, and couples marry in the wedding chapel’s pristine pinewood interior.

Images of the woman beyond it all—Hollywood head shots and ice-skating photos of a costumed blonde in mid-air—greet newcomers in the wood-paneled bar, where hundreds of dollar bills hang like thick garland from the ceiling. Levinson’s presence is everywhere in these mountains.

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