Until the construction of the Ridge Route in 1915, travelers between Northern and Southern California followed the coastline or traversed the harsh deserts to the east. They did this to avoid the steep and rugged Transverse Ranges, some of the very few mountains in our state that run east to west.
These ranges form a formidable barrier between densely-populated Southern California and our intensely-cultivated valley. If our flat valley simply continued southwards to merge with the coastal plains of the Los Angeles Basin, our state’s history might have been vastly different.
Barely two lanes wide and primitive by today’s standards, the Ridge Route was the first in a series of transportation innovations that began the process of linking the southern and northern parts of the state more closely together. This winding, picturesque and remote road followed a relatively direct path between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. It served travelers until 1933 when the southern part of U.S. 99 was built to replace it.
Today, U.S. 99 is no longer a federal highway and it terminates at I-5 south of Bakersfield. In the 1960’s, the southern parts were completely replaced by I-5. Both the U.S. 99 of 1933 and I-5 of the 1960’s were designed to allow faster travel and required substantial earth-moving. They left the old Ridge Route virtually intact for 36 of its most scenic miles, winding along the ridges, high above the newer, straighter routes.
I lived in Southern California during my college years and enjoyed crossing the Transverse Ranges every time I made a trip home to Merced. During many north-south journeys, I explored what remained of the Ridge Route and old U.S. 99.
The Ridge Route remained open until 2005 when storm damage caused its closure. The preserved but damaged stretch is located in the Angeles National Forest. Beyond the forest boundaries, the mountains continue to the north. Most of this area remained a mystery to me until last year because much of it (270,000 acres) is owned by the Tejon Ranch Company.
Not only is Tejon Ranch the largest privately-owned contiguous property in California, it’s also one of the largest undeveloped regions near any of our nation’s major cities. This great swath of mountains, hills and valleys was originally the home of the Chumash Indians. In the 1840’s, the Mexican government of California distributed it as land grants. . General Beale acquired and combined them in the 1860’s to form Tejon Ranch. As a privately-owned cattle ranch, access was limited to employees, film crews and participants in private hunt trips.
That changed a couple of years ago when the owners of the ranch began to consider plans to develop parts of the ranch for housing. Aware of the long history environmental objections and litigation faced by other development projects throughout the nation, they sought to forge a new path. Bringing representatives of Kern and Los Angeles counties and major environmental organizations to the table, they worked out a mutually-agreeable development plan. The result is that 90 percent of the original ranch property (240,000 acres) has, or will be, placed under conservation easements managed by the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. These parts of the ranch will remain rural and continue to be a part of the state’s agricultural economy through traditional cattle grazing. The remaining 10 percent will gradually be developed for housing.
A surprise benefit for the average Californian is that the Conservancy has been providing public access to the ranch in the form of hikes, wildflower walks and vehicle-based cultural history tours. The Conservancy believes public access will lead to greater appreciation of the ranch’s special features and greater support for the ranch’s conservation plans. Last spring participated in a couple of these events. This year’s tours will be opened to the public within the next month. They are free-of-charge, but tfill up quickly. The best way to get a spot is to register for mailing list on the Conservancy’s website and sign up as soon as the events open (www.tejonconservancy.org). The website also has a lot of detailed information about the conservation plan.
While this dry year may not be good for wildflowers, there are many other things to enjoy. Tejon Ranch stands at the junction of the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert, the San Joaquin Valley, the Transverse Ranges and the Coast Ranges. This means that it has one of the most unique combinations of landscapes and habitats in the states. Among oaks, pines, Joshua trees, chaparral, grasslands, high ridges and steep canyons live deer, elk, pronghorn, bear, pigs, coyotes, bobcats and more than 200 bird species – including occasional condors. On my first visit last year we spotted the ranch’s namesake “tejon” (badger).