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Outdoor enthusiasts get to roam Tejon Ranch — for a price

Standing on a grassy hilltop in the historic Tejon Ranch, Mike Campeau pointed to the horizon to outline the borders of the state’s largest contiguous stretch of private land.

But even from this elevated vantage point, the boundaries of the 270,000-acre property near Gorman are hidden in the distance behind oak-studded ridge lines, beyond rolling grassland teeming with elk, wild pigs, deer, mountain lions, condors and snakes.

“You can literally explore this for days,” said Campeau, director of hunting and equestrian operations at the Tejon Ranch Co.

For most of the ranch’s 165-year history, the property has been the exclusive playground to a few ranch employees, hunters and invited guests, some of whom paid handsomely for the privilege. That is changing.

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Starting in September, the publicly traded company that owns Tejon Ranch will offer public access to a 25,000-acre swath of land for mountain biking, hiking, picnics, camping, horseback riding, photography and exploring. But the price is steep: A family membership for a five-month season is $2,500.

Members will be given a key for access to over 25,000 acres in the Explorer Recreation Area on Tejon Ranch starting in September.
Members will be given a key for access to over 25,000 acres in the Explorer Recreation Area on Tejon Ranch starting in September.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

“For so many years, the ranch was closed,” Campeau said. “For the last year, we’ve been trying to bring new business here.”

Although drought has hurt the ranch’s farming operation, and low fuel prices have cut revenues from mineral leases on the property, Campeau said the membership program is not an attempt to create a significant new revenue source.

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Instead, Tejon Ranch executives say the program is part of a bigger effort to increase public access and improve its image as the company looks to break ground in a few years on three massive residential developments.

In the past year, Tejon Ranch has hosted two catered dinners and a brunch for about 150 guests who paid between $85 and $115 a person for the al fresco meals.

The company also is considering hosting an endurance race on the land’s winding access roads and producing wine from ranch-grown grapes.

“A big part of this is about sharing the land,” said Joseph Rentfro, Tejon Ranch Co.’s executive vice president for real estate.

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A big part of this is about sharing the land.

Joseph Rentfro, Tejon Ranch Co.'s executive vice president for real estate

The massive 270,000-acre ranch, about 40% the size of Rhode Island, was formed from the union of four Mexican land grants from the 1840s. It was owned initially by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, an ambassador to Austria-Hungary and surveyor general for California. Beale’s adobe house still stands on the property.

A group of investors headed by Harry Chandler, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and land developer Moses Sherman bought the land in the early 1900s and incorporated the publicly traded Tejon Ranch Co. (In 1997, Times Mirror Co., which owned the Los Angeles Times then, sold its 31% stake in the company.)

Tejon Ranch now generates most of its revenue from farming, mineral and grazing leases and real estate developments in the Tehachapi Mountains and adjacent farmland, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. An outlet mall and a giant warehouse and distribution center already have opened on ranch land along the Golden State Freeway near the Grapevine.

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A Rocky Mountain Elk Cow runs through a oak studded meadow in the Explorer Recreation Area of Tejon Ranch.
A Rocky Mountain Elk Cow runs through a oak studded meadow in the Explorer Recreation Area of Tejon Ranch.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

For the full 2015 year, the company reported an operating loss of $3.2 million on $51 million in revenue partly because of a drop in revenue from mineral leases caused by slumping oil prices. But for the first three months of 2016, Tejon Ranch Co. reported income of $1.2 million on operating revenue of $12.9 million.

On the real estate side of the business, the future looks bright.

Tejon Ranch Co. won a victory in 2008 when it reached an agreement with a coalition of environmental groups to preserve 90% of the ranch for agricultural use and wilderness. In exchange, the environmental groups agreed not to oppose company plans to build three urban centers, including nearly 35,000 homes in projects along the western and southwestern edge of the ranch.

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Construction of the homes is still years away, pending government approval. In the meantime, Tejon Ranch officials are testing new uses for the land, including the explorer membership program.

“If it doesn’t work, no harm, no foul,” Rentfro said.

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For decades, the ranch has allowed hunters onto the property to stalk elk, deer, pig, turkey, bear and game birds, for a price tag that ranges from $2,500 to $25,000, depending on the type of animal hunted and the use of a guide.

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Under the 2008 pact with the coalition of environmental groups, the ranch recently began to allow bird-watching clubs, geology professors and native plant groups, among others, to lead guided tours through the ranch.

Starting Sept. 1, anyone who buys a $2,500 membership to the new explorer program gets a key to the ranch gates to access a 25,000-acre area on the western end of the ranch, north of Lebec. The fall season runs until Jan. 29. A second season will stretch from March to the end of July.

The company expects to sell 25 to 100 memberships in the first year.

Campeau said the company made sure to keep the membership price high to ensure that participants in the program respect the property and the rules of the ranch.

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“We are still in our infancy, trying to determine what works and what doesn’t,” Rentfro said.

Under the program, members can rent one of five cabins or homes on the ranch, with prices ranging from $350 to $600 per night. The biggest home, dubbed Casa Grande, is a four-bedroom house with a fireplace, satellite TV and a billiards room.

Members can haul in their own horses or rent horses at the Tejon Equestrian Center for $100 for a half-day and $200 for a full day. A campsite for RVs, trailers and tents also is available.

Campeau said he is planning to create a map outlining mountain biking trails, horse trails and multiuse trails for the program. The ranch will not rent mountain bikes, but members can bring their own.

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“If you are a die-hard mountain biker, you will find everything you want here,” Campeau said as he surveyed the rolling hills cloaked in sun-baked grass, scrub brush, chaparral and gnarled oak trees.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.

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