Thousands of motorists pass by it every day on the concrete conduit known as Interstate 5.
But relatively few Californians have experienced close-up the rugged beauty and astounding diversity of Tejon Ranch, a 170-year-old farming, cattle, recreation and real estate empire that makes up the largest single expanse of private property in the state.
"People who drive by here have no idea what's up here," said Mike Campeau, who heads Tejon's wildlife management division.
"There's so much to be said about this ranch," he added. "There's so much behind those gates."
Campeau was one of four guides last weekend who led 16 lucky lowlanders on a four-hour tour of the sprawling 270,000-acre ranch that extends southwestward from Highway 58 all the way to Interstate 5. By the time the day was done, no one on the tour was sorry they participated.
PRISTINE BEAUTY BETWEEN TWO BEHEMOTHS
Tour-goers met in the early afternoon at the Hacienda, Tejon's guest house and gathering spot near the company's corporate headquarters on the east side of I-5. Of course, they had already passed through some of the ranch's rich farmland and commercial developments on the valley floor below.
The passengers soon piled into four double-cab pickups and were off, headed into a legendary back-country few had seen before. As the caravan of trucks passed through the first of several gates, tour-goers found themselves motoring up a dirt road, heading generally eastward, and gaining altitude.
Like most everywhere else in the West, the ranch is struggling with the difficulties posed by a serious drought. And like everyone else, the ranch's employees are hoping, even praying, for a wet winter.
"How much rain do you get up here?" asked tour-goer Patty Stenderup.
"Not enough," Campeau replied.
Before long, Campeau, in the lead truck, turned north on Rising Canyon Road through fields of golden grass punctuated by massive oaks. Like the other drivers, he also works as a guide for the ranch's extensive hunting program, so he knows just about every inch of the ranch, and has witnessed the impressive variety of animals that make their home here.
One might not expect that a chunk of landscape sandwiched between the vast agricultural empire of the Central Valley and the teeming megalopolis to the south could support deer, elk, antelope, wild pig, turkey, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, gray fox, coyote, dove, quail, eagle, condor and many other species.
Of course, el tejon -- "the badger," for which the ranch is named -- is also a longtime resident.
"The Rocky Mountain elk are out of Yellowstone," Campeau explained. "Both the elk and the pigs came from adjoining ranches."
They were originally raised and bred in captivity, he said, but some ultimately escaped, which led to the formation of thriving populations in remote areas on and off the ranch.
The turkeys also are not indigenous, but were introduced in years past as game birds.
As the lead truck continued its climb up the narrow dirt road, tour-goers were offered spectacular, and at times, white-knuckle views of the canyons and steep ravines that fall precariously from the roadside. The great interstate below was now just a ribbon of white in the distance.
Campeau was steady at the wheel -- and that was fortunate as one couldn't help but feel that a badly placed tire could lead to a less than ideal outcome.
Indeed, some dirt roads on the ranch are pretty tricky, Campeau said, and therefore are off-limits in wet weather.
Once the group reached the top of Grapevine peak, tour-goers had a chance to stretch their legs and take photos. At 4,810 feet, the mountaintop provided a long view of the smog-hazy valley to the north.
Much of the land that leads up to the rounded peak is slated for residential development, a significant change for this ranch that has so long been sheltered from the bulldozer and the earthmover.
Tejon Mountain Village, an upscale gated community that will include thousands of homes as well as commercial buildings, hotels and golf courses, was approved by the Kern County Board of Supervisors in 2009. Another development -- dubbed Centennial -- is planned in the high desert of the Antelope Valley at the southern end of the ranch.
But nearly 90 percent of Tejon, or some 240,000 acres, will be permanently protected from development, according to an agreement between the Tejon Ranch Co., a publicly traded corporation, and a coalition of environmental groups.
Still, there's no getting around it. These ambitious endeavors will undoubtedly change the face of the ranch in ways it has not seen since it was established in 1843.
After backtracking down Rising Canyon, the caravan turned northeast on DWR Road, one of the few paved roads in the ranch's interior. A few miles up, Campeau turned northward again on an unplanned detour to a point where the California Aqueduct visibly crosses the ranch. After driving a few winding miles, the group stopped at the south end of Geghus Canyon.
What those in the group saw was not an aqueduct, at least not in the traditional sense.
Thousands of feet across the canyon, two huge white conduits, each large enough to drive a car through, could be seen emerging from the side of a mountain. Massive amounts of water from the State Water Project surge through these giant pipelines headed southward to thirsty cities and fertile farms. The pipes disappeared again below the surface at the point where the group of onlookers stood in awe.
Both of the planned residential developments, Campeau said, will tap into the aqueduct as a primary source of water.
Headed eastward again through Beartrap Canyon, the passengers took notice of the thickening oak woodland and the dappled shade it cast across the landscape.
"It is beautiful," marveled Kent Stenderup, a family farmer in Arvin.
"It's amazing all this could be up here," echoed his wife, Patty.
The caravan soon passed the Dry Field or Beartrap Corals, an old-style cattle station, complete with abandoned cookshack and antique wood fencing.
"It's not in use anymore," Campeau said of the old corals.
In fact, the ranch no longer has its own active cattle operation, Campeau said, although it leases grazing land to neighboring cattlemen.
The canyon got its name from the bears that have long been plentiful on the ranch.
"There are lots of bears," Campeau said.
Hunting California black bear with dogs had for years been part of the ranch's commercial hunting program. But last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation banning the use of dogs when hunting bears or bobcats. Fourteen other states had previously prohibited the use of dogs by bear hunters.
The coming real estate developments will also bring dramatic changes to Tejon's hunting program, Campeau said. But Beartrap Canyon will remain as it is: not untouched, strictly speaking, but not radically changed since the early part of the 1800s when legendary frontiersman Kit Carson rode through the region in search of beaver pelts.
"This canyon will not be developed," Campeau said.
And one could almost hear everyone in the truck breathe a sigh of relief.
After passing through another gate, the caravan gained altitude fast, climbing toward Martinez Ridge and, ultimately, Ray's Perch, another mountain top. Suddenly, and to the delight of tour-goers, the oaks were replaced by higher-elevation conifer trees. A stop at Ray's Perch afforded views of Bear Mountain to the northeast and Castac (not Castaic) Lake to the southwest.
Now behind schedule on the 60- to 70-mile excursion, the group passed through Martinez Gate at the top of Blue Ridge. The change was dramatic.
Tour-goers had already experienced the valley and mountain terrains on the ranch. Martinez was the gateway to Tejon's third major terrain feature: the high desert landscapes of Canyon del Gato Montes and the sprawling Antelope Valley.
"The variety of terrain on the ranch is impressive," said tour-goer Kenn Shanley of Bakersfield. "It has everything from valley to mountain to desert -- and it's been kept in pristine shape."
Those themes -- the stunning variety of scenery and the pristine condition of the land -- were on the minds of others, as well, who came on the tour.
The last major stop was the Beale Adobe Clubhouse, just south of Highway 138 near Tentrock Canyon. Built in the 1850s, the adobe house was the summer residence of Edward Beale, a war hero, diplomat and longtime owner of Tejon Ranch. Bordered by a water feature, the rustic home is now the clubhouse for the High Desert Hunt Club, an 8,000-acre area where game bird hunters come to bag pheasant, chucker and quail.
As the trucks pulled up near the house, more than a half-dozen deer, including at least one spotted fawn, bounded out of the yard and headed up an adjacent trail as tour-goers smiled. Once inside, the house proved to be inviting but hardly luxurious.
Like so many areas of the ranch, one didn't have to work hard to imagine vaqueros working cattle in the distance, the smell of dinner cooking, or maybe Beale himself, on horseback, surveying the astounding landscape of a ranch that to this day hasn't changed all that much since its Cross and Crescent cattle brand was recorded in 1868.
As the tour headed back to the Hacienda via Gorman Post Road and I-5, conversation slowed as tour-goers savored the afternoon experience.
While the drive across Tejon had taken more than four hours, it was by no means an exhaustive view of the historic rancho that encompasses 422 square miles, more than one-third the size of Rhode Island.
One would need two full days or more, Campeau said, to get a really good look at the ranch.
A pack horse and a bedroll might not be a bad idea, either.
Following the tour, Bakersfield resident Michelle Burton said she was taken by "the natural beauty that is in our own back yard."
"I had no idea how huge Tejon Ranch is," she said. "It's a beautiful place to visit."