March 22, 2013

Photo Essay: Over the Ridges and Through the Creeks of Tejon Ranch

I'd driven past Tejon Ranch on at least two sides of it, up the 5 freeway north through the Angeles National Forest and Los Padres, past the resort community of Castaic Lake and the off-highway vehicular recreation areas, as well as through the high desert on the other side. But although I'd seen the sign for it, I never really knew what it was, or what happened there.

Truth is, it's the largest contiguous parcel of privately owned property in the state, strategically positioned between mountains, valley, and desert, giving it incredible bio- and geodiversity, much of which has been conserved and remains relatively undeveloped.

It is, however, not a nature preserve. It is not open to the public. It is a private center of industry, primarily agricultural. So there are necessary modifications, like paved roads that run past where an old adobe once stood.

Then again, where the 5 runs now (also known as the Ridge Route) is through the old Grapevine settlement, named after the abundant grapevines that grew (and still grow, though bearing few to no grapes) over the hills and through the canyon. As many as five Native American tribes once dwelled there, until European settlers came, and Tejon Ranch was established through the aggregation of several Mexican land grants.

The wide highway stretch now known as the Grapevine pass - connecting Bakersfield to LA, Kern County to Los Angeles and Ventura Counties - is far less treacherous than the first narrow road that was built, and periodically expanded and straightened out over time.

Now, there are nearby barbed wire-topped, chainlink fences protecting stretches of the California Aqueduct (which is as big as a river)...

...and a gravel pit and pumping plant, which has been lifting water nearly 2000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains, through tunnels and inverted siphons, and down to LA since 1965.

There is also oil.

But we, in our caravan, wanted to get away from industry and development, and drive into the heart of the ranch...

...whose cultural history is tied not only to gold but also to the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach, and to military history (with the neighboring Fort Tejon now across the highway, but once part of the original ranch).

When you drive into the interior - along roads which are often hard to discern amidst the overgrown, lush, green turf - you are reminded that Tejon is still very much a working ranch, with plenty of grazing cattle roaming the hills.

The "roads" - which are not really even Jeep trails, barely worn out tire tracks - can get pretty muddy and boggy, requiring 4WD and high clearance.

It was hard for me to sit in the front passenger seat, merely observing. I wanted to drive those hills.

There are some vestiges of old ranching days to be seen - old corrals, posts sticking up out of the ground -

...but some of the more intriguing relics are the bedrock mortars of the first Grapevine settlement.

Colorful lichen now grows upon the bedrock outcroppings that are now surrounded by untrampled wildflowers...

...but if you look closely, you can identify some of them as rain rocks...

...and others with holes bored into them to be used as mortars... grind up acorns and other foods...

...but also perhaps for medicinal or ritualistic purposes as well.

Besides the aqueduct, there seems to be plenty of water at Tejon Ranch, with creeks flowing a-plenty, to be driven through carefully.

Occasionally, there is a bridge to ensure your safe passage.

Because of the water (and enough rain and snow this winter), Tejon Ranch is very much alive right now - and so green.

Fields of wildflowers blanket its hills, canyon floors, and alluvial fans, their perennial appearance a welcome ushering into spring.

Agriculture thrives there: the crops found at Tejon Ranch include orchards of pistachios, almonds, and walnuts, as well as vineyards of wine grapes.

However, we saw no sign of the citrus groves and fig trees that were once planted here.

In fact, there are plenty of reminders of what - and who - is no longer at Tejon Ranch...

...with few signs of 20th century buildings that were destroyed in an earthquake in the 1950s...

...and some plants that just didn't make it.

It's amazing that the wildflowers haven't been completely trampled or eaten by the cattle already...

...since they collect in large groups for grazing, like around the old schoolhouse ruins...

...on the hillsides...

...and by the cemetery...

...which is only weakly fenced in.

It's a wonder the cattle haven't barged in on it.

In the higher elevations you can see a dusting of color, like the orange Tejon poppy (which apparently is distinct from the California poppy)...

...and the purple lupin.

What's harder to see is what's immediately underfoot, and camouflaged in with the grass: stinging nettle, which lives up to its name by pricking, burning, and tingling your bare ankles if you walk through it. Which I did.

The higher you go, high up along the ridge, despite the overgrown grass and bountiful wildflowers, you are once again reminded of civilization...

...with a number of power line towers dotting the panorama.

The trees are sparser, the rock outcroppings more unique...

...the hills really really really steep...

...and the road all but disappeared.

It feels as though you're standing on the edge of the world...

...but there is no falling off...

...just a choice of secret, backcountry roads to follow the way down, past the poppies...

...and, of course, a cow (or a bull or a steer or an ox or whatever livestock of bovine origin) to watch your every move.

Tejon Ranch Conservancy provides limited, educational public access to Tejon Ranch annually. There are no marked trails, and locked gates protect each of the various areas we visited. The entire plot of land is bafflingly large (and oddly-shaped, kind of like a turkey), so their driving tour provides a good overview and introduction to the ranch - though, even after seven hours or so, we only saw a small portion of it.

And it's one of the best days I've had since moving to LA.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: The Wildflower Blanket at Tejon Ranch

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  1. How do you become a part of or participate in the Tejon Ranch Conservancy? Years ago, a gentleman named Dan used to work for the Tejon Ranch and each spring he would open an area with a marked trail for driving through a small portion of the Tejon Ranch to see the wildflowers. One particularly good year, he opened both a south-facing area as well as a north-facing area a couple weeks later. It was heaven, but that's been a number of years since I got to go through. I would love to be able to go on a Conservancy tour such as you did!

    1. No need to become a member, just visit to subscribe to their newsletter (or follow on Facebook) and then sign up when the tours are announced. They may be all booked for this year - they fill up fast - but you'll be the first to know for next year. And the tours are free!