Inside North Shore's Sunset Ranch: Cultural tours, weddings and dreamy views
A historic ranch house preserves and perpetuates this beautiful landscape.
By Matthew Dekneef April 7, 2017
You could call it untouched today, tomorrow and forever. On the North Shore of Oahu, quietly looming at 900 feet above sea level over Pupukea, an illustrious ranch house has helped tell the stories of natural conservation, Hawaiian culture, local farming practices and modern day weddings, and will in perpetuity.
This is Sunset Ranch, a sprawling 30-acre property, which has a stake in keeping its manicured pastures completely undeveloped so all of Hawaii’s residents and visitors can enjoy this region of the North Shore, mainly through educational tours and events.
“My goal here is to share a message of sustainability and advance its efforts,” Greg Pietsch, the owner of Sunset Ranch, says, nodding at the vast yellow-gold fields through the picture window of a dining room. Off to the left, a fishpond ripples, waiting to be turned into a farmable aquaculture operation. To the right, an animal psychologist walks a stallion over a hillside as part of its required monthly checkups on site.
We’re in the property’s 1970s plantation-style ranch house, the centerpiece of its grounds, which at this moment also doubles as Pietsch’s workspace. Leaning against the walls are poster-size blueprints of Sunset Ranch and the Pupukea ahupuaa (land divison), demarcating the region’s boundaries with notes referencing complicated state zoning laws written in the margins.
For a layman like me, these annotations fly way over my head, but for Hawaii conservationists and politicians, it’s what Pietsch is most known for. Twelve years ago, his negotiations with the state of Hawaii and the Trust for Public Land in turning the land into a private conservation easement that prohibits any development here has set a precedent and become a model for other landowners interested in doing the same. For this reason, Pietsch appropriately refers to the ranch as “a passion and a labor of love.”
“The tours we offer are the most effective way to tell that story,” Pietsch says, believing it integral to team up with local organizations to share its land-based narratives. “We want to get the community engaged and excited. There’s been a lot of growth in the past three years.”
Currently, Sunset Ranch hosts 120 events a year, 70 percent of them being weddings. It’s very easy to see why. Stately stallions graze in the meadows. The sky, approaching the five o’clock hour is a copper color hue. A cliffside lookout over Haleiwa is sheltered with more than 150 varieties of Hawaiian ferns. Sunset Ranch is a fairy tale landscape.
Most distinguished, though, are its stables, a space that can be outfitted as a decorous event space. Decked out with long, wooden dining tables and a hanging glass chandelier, the location is truly love at first sight for brides and grooms looking for an unmatched wedding venue.
My first visit to the ranch occurred on the tours Pietsch speaks so enthusiastically about. Last year I found myself on two of them: The Sunset Ranch Wellness Tour, a nature walk through the grounds; and the Farm-To-Table Experience, which ends with a locally sourced three-course meal in a botanical garden.
On the former, Hawaiian culture leads the wellness narrative. Our guide, Tristan Reynolds, a founder and the farmer of Hawaiian Fresh Farms, invites us to a spread of endemic and indigenous plants used in laau lapaau, the Native Hawaiian practice of herbal medicines. Later, under the shade of a cool forest nestled mauka (toward the mountain) of Sunset Ranch, Reynolds explains how Hawaiians used the sap of the alaa, an endemic tree, to trap colorful native birds, pluck a feather or two to create feathered capes for the alii (royals), then release the animals back into nature. My fondest memory is later venturing into a hillside spilling into Waimea Valley to plant an alaa seedling. As part of the reforestation, people in our tour group kneel at the tree’s muted green oblong leaves, taking turns pouring water into its soil as Reynolds offers an oli (chant) for its growth. Unexpectedly, Sunset Ranch has become one of the most beautiful classrooms I’ve attended in my adult life.
Sunset Ranch continues to branch into assisting the nonprofit sector by creating unique initiatives that serves the local community. “Everything we do is therapeutic and leadership-based,” he says, of the various programs it’s since created with the Wounded Warrior Project, Boy and Girl Scouts and nonprofits serving keiki (children) with autism and life-threatening illnesses. In collaboration with HUGS, a familial support group for seriously ill children, Sunset Ranch assists with a program to grow native koa trees on property in memory of children who’ve passed on, becoming a place their parents continue to visit over the years.
What’s next for Sunset Ranch? Pietsch’s dream is to make its infrastructure a completely sustainable food resource for all its events programming and tours, “and to get off the grid with power and water too,” he says. “We’re hoping to do all that in the next three to four years. We want to establish this place as a model or platform.”
For tour information, call (808) 638-8333 or visit sunsetranchhawaii.com.