The Boy Scouts' Circle X Ranch in a rugged stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains officially became a public park at the end of February, but the ghosts of outings past linger.
Over four decades, countless callow tenderfeet have been sent on futile snipe hunts deep in the ranch's canyons. Thousands of Scouts have studied the constellations rising over the ranch's 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak, the highest mountain in the Santa Monica chain. They have sung of many bottles of beer on the wall, and honed their honesty, thrift, reverence, cleanliness and the other scouting virtues weekend after weekend, in camp and on the ranch's 22 miles of hiking trails.
Scouting relics abound.
In the guard shack off Yerba Buena Road, where both hikers and campers must register, a yellowing chart posted in 1949--"The Scouting Trail, an Invitation to Adventure"--bears the names of members of a Redondo Beach troop, with notations of their proficiency in "Motto," "Compass," "First Aid," and other skills.
Outhouses dot the ranch's six campgrounds. A large white wooden cross looms over a fake graveyard--a site designed for Scouts to hunker beside a fire and listen to tales about long-dead Indians, and spirits stirring where the mountain lions prowl.
"They used to scare the hell out of me," says Roy Frazier, 45, the bearded bear of a ranger who oversees the remote tract of nearly three square miles.
Frazier, who likes to be called "Cowboy," could have moved to another Scout camp when the Los Angeles Area Council of Boy Scouts sold the Circle X for $5.85 million on Feb. 27. But he decided to stay in his old job for the land's new owners, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a joint venture of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Conejo Recreation and Park District.
To keep the land free from development, the agency will spruce up the property and operate it as a park. While the property always has been available to organized groups, individual hikers now will be allowed access on weekends.
Campers will have to reserve the ranch's 40 sites in advance. Fees will be set shortly.
Frazier got to know the Circle X as a Scout. As an adult volunteer, he chauffeured his share of Scouts to the ranch over the winding mountain road off the Pacific Coast Highway. And for the past five years, he has lived there with his wife and three children.
'I Love It'
"I love it," he says. "I'm security, I'm the caretaker, I'm the plumber, the electrician; I check people in, I do it all.
"But it's quiet," he adds. "You have to like your wife and kids. A lot."
On summer weekends, as many as 800 Scouts used the ranch's trails and swimming pool and basketball courts, and park officials expect at least that number of hikers and campers on weekends this summer.
"Just last weekend," said Frazier, "I got 175 lookie-loos, and most of them said they want to come back."
Ordinarily, though, solitude is easy to find. Deep crevices and volcanic formations hundreds of feet tall separate the ranch from its neighbors. A lush array of yucca and manzanita, scrub oak and other high-desert plants threatens to overrun some trails. Some spots on the ranch were sacred to the Chumash Indians, a few of whose descendants still drop by to use the sites for religious purposes, he said.
Frazier has made his peace with an environment that others--even ex-Scouts--might find harsh. Temperatures rise to 120 degrees in summer, and biting winds whip through the canyons in winter. Fire swept the ranch, burning off most of the vegetation, twice in the last three decades.
Hikers sometimes find rattlesnakes sunning themselves on rocks, and poison oak choking off some trails. Bobcats ate the 60 peacocks Frazier owned--as well as most of his chickens--and unknown predators nabbed the catfish he kept trying to introduce into a stream.
Troubles come from human beings as well as from nature. Frazier frequently has to rebuild gates and fences torn down by dirt-bikers and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who want a crack at the ranch's tortuous fire roads. Outhouses have been burned down, and trail signs pocked with bullet holes.
But all that comes with the territory. If there's trouble in paradise, there's also reward.
"My kids love it up here," says Frazier. "We counted 28 mountain quail scratching at some chicken feed in the front yard this morning."
In off hours, he can hike an hour or so to the top of Sandstone Peak--known to Scouts as Mt. Allen, after benefactor W. Herbert Allen--and gaze at Ventura to the north, the Channel Islands to the west, and inland as far as 80 miles.
Beating the Heat
In the summer, he beats the heat by taking a book to a grotto where a spring spews from a chink in the rocks, and boulders shaken loose by an earthquake provide shade.
Public access to the park might make those moments scarcer. A dormitory building that can sleep 40 is being cleaned up. More flush toilets will be installed, and a parking lot developed near the ranger shack. Roads will be improved and trail signs installed.
Whether success will spoil Circle X remains to be seen, but its new owners doubt it.
"Campers can't possibly do to it what condos could," said Joe Edmiston, director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
"If 800 Scouts crawling around here couldn't ruin this place, neither will the public."