Home Away From Homes : Rancho Carrillo Is a Sanctuary From the Chaos


When Kitty and John Purvis moved from San Clemente to Rancho Carrillo in 1975, they roughed it. There was no telephone service or electricity. They watched TV on a small black-and-white model powered by a car battery.

Back then, $16,000 could buy a 2 1/2-acre lot atop the hills 15 miles east of San Juan Capistrano.

Today, the community counts about 60 homes, and land is no longer so cheap.

Modern conveniences may have arrived, but in many ways, time stands still.

Secluded and subdivided into 72 lots, Rancho Carrillo is surrounded by the San Mateo Wilderness, which is within the Cleveland National Forest.


Life here is a throwback to earlier times in California.

Hawks float overhead. Deer walk amid oak and manzanita. Residents can ride their horses from their front door to Temecula or Lake Elsinore.

There is no crime or traffic. A lone stop sign doesn’t tell motorists to stop but says “Whoa.”

Over the past few months, the close-knit community has been celebrating a renewal of sorts. Five homes have been rebuilt out of 13 lost to a firestorm that swept through the area in 1993.

“As you move back in, the community gives you an open house or barn raising, if you will,” said Barbara MacAdam, who, with her husband, Alan, moved into their rebuilt home the day after Thanksgiving. They have lived in Rancho Carrillo for 22 years and were the third to start anew.

And with good reason. This is a place where everybody knows each other.

Occasional strangers who get past an unmarked gate separating Ortega Highway and the private six-mile access road to Rancho Carrillo are questioned by residents, who all know each other.

Although a “quick trip” to the store for milk is actually an hour’s journey, those who call Rancho Carrillo home don’t mind the inconveniences associated with living in the backcountry.

Some of them, like John Purvis, drive great distances to their jobs and long for the weekends when they can forget life in the fast lane.

Up here, at an elevation of 2,500 feet, the only sounds after dark are those of wildlife.

“Friday night, you come through that gate and it’s solitude,” said Purvis, who drives 68 miles one way to Torrance to his job at American Honda. “On Monday, it’s really hard to go back down.”

Rancho Carrillo, which sits just inside the Riverside County line, once was the 235-acre property of the family of the late motion picture actor Leo Carrillo.

The family acquired the land between 1916 and 1920 under the Homestead Act, according to forest officials. The Carrillos raised cattle and did some farming in the valley until it was acquired by developers and subdivided in 1972.

Bob and Chris Jones, who moved to Rancho Carrillo 13 years ago after falling in love with its bucolic setting, said they will stay until they die.

“This is probably the best place in California, bar none,” said Bob Jones, who spends most of his weekends tending to chores on the family property, which includes a house that was once a barn, and stables for five horses.

The couple’s 8-year-old daughter, Nicole, has never known any other life.

Like the other 35 to 40 children in Rancho Carrillo, Nicole attends school in the Capistrano Valley area.

From Rancho Carrillo, it takes about half an hour to reach the nearest town, San Juan Capistrano, where most residents fetch their mail from post office boxes.

Most of the residents work in Orange County.

Chris Jones manages a beauty salon in Mission Viejo four days a week. Her husband is a director of processes and planning for a Costa Mesa computer software company.

The couple smile when relatives come up for holiday gatherings and rave about Rancho Carrillo and its peaceful charm.

Still, Chris Jones said that one friend always sets his car alarm out of habit.

“We don’t even lock our house,” she said. “We don’t even know where our key is to the front door.”

Fire, not auto thieves or burglars, poses the biggest danger to Rancho Carrillo and its estimated 175 residents.

In October, 1993, fire off Ortega Highway scorched 22,000 acres of brush. Scars can be found in and around Rancho Carrillo. Thirteen homes here were destroyed in that firestorm as it moved westward.

Some owners decided to rebuild immediately, and five new homes have been finished.

Weekend activities tend to revolve around outdoor chores and relaxing.

Next month, the community will have its 16th annual “Hooligan,” a fund-raiser for the volunteer fire department. It’s a chance for outsiders to see Rancho Carrillo at play.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, however, many toiled outside, chopping down overgrowth created by winter rains.

Leo Gardarian steered a lawn mower over tall grass that had sprouted near Rancho Carrillo’s fire station. A chilly fog had lifted, but the air was still cold enough to make Gardarian wear a jacket.

He didn’t seem to have a worry in the world.

“It’ll always be a small-town atmosphere because we’re surrounded by national wilderness and no other communities can come up to us,” said Gardarian, who moved to Rancho Carrillo a decade ago with his wife, Cheryl. “It’s unique for Southern California.”