Central Coast Living: Johnson Ranch

Hey there every peoples!

Sorry for the slow. I planned on writing this earlier in the week. But I was having some trouble with videos. It took a long time to render them, only to find out that youtube has a 15 minute limit (I haven’t used youtube for this purpose in a LONG time). So I had to split them up, render them again, and then they took forever to upload to Youtube. I don’t know if that’s Youtube’s fault or my computer’s but it was a pain in the ass. But in the end it was worth it. After all that, I was able to launch a new web series “Doug’s Adventures of Possible Intrigue”. It’s a chronicle of my travels, though I actually try to teach people a thing or two. The pilot episode covers Fossil Fest 2011 at the Raymond Alf Museum in Claremont, California. It’s in three sections so if got some time to kill, go check it out.

I feel a little ashamed (and not just because of my depression). I have only done two “Central Coast Living” posts. You must think this place is sucksville! Well I seek to rectify that with a nice bit of nature off Highway 101. I am talking about Johnson Ranch. It has been open to the public since 2009, but I just never got around to going there. Man was I missing out!

The property was bought by Mark Johnson, an immigrant from Denmark, and his wife Emily in 1901. They had three children and they lived at the many years after Mark died in 1916. The ranch was also home to Bellvue School, which was built in 1987. 20 to 25 students, grade 1-6, attended the one room school. It merged with another school in 1947 and moved closer to San Luis Obispo. For a short time in the 1900s a gravel quarry was opened up and operated on the ranch. All the while the Johnson family continued to live and work on the ranch. In 1981 they started renting the property to others until 2001, when the land was sold to the City of San Luis Obispo. With help from many partners, including CalTrans, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and Bert and Candice Forbes, the city bought the land to provide refuge for wildlife as well as opening up rails for hikers and cyclists to enjoy the beautiful landscape surrounding San Luis Obispo.

Johnson Ranch is a rich setting not just for hikers but for nature buffs as well. The land teems with unique plants, including rare species of wildflowers. This is due in large part to the nature of the soil. The many rock outcrops dotting the ranch are serpentine, which has an unusual chemical composition that creates for soil for growing things. Native plants managed to adapt over millions of years. Because the soil is so harsh, the ranch was never farmed, providing native plants with a safe haven.  In the spring the hills burst with the colors of fritillary, soap plant, gold star, and many others.

A riparian woodland along Dry Creek

A patch of chapparal habitat on the side of a hill

Johnson Ranch may be small but it supports a wide variety of habitats. Dry Creek provides plenty of water for riparian (streamside) type woodland. Sweeping meadows of purple needlegrass and wild rye stop right at the doorstep of oak woodlands. Finally, because of serpentine outcrops, small patches of chaparral occur here, home to toyon, buckbrush, yucca, and mountain mahogany. This diversity of habitats allows for a diversity of wildlife. At least fifty species of birds are known to live or nest on the ranch. Remember the quarry mentioned earlier? It filled with water seeping in from Dry Creek. Cattails and willow began to grow around it. Soon enough it was another small ecosystem on the ranch. Named Forbes Pond after Bert and Candice Forbes (people whose donation helped the city buy the ranch), it has become a magnet for birds, especially elusive black-crowned night herons, who nest in trees beside the pond. Forbes pond has even become the home of a small population of native, endangered southern steelhead trout. Lizards and snakes scurry through the grass and underbrush. 15 species of mammals, from field mice and bats to deer and bobcats have been documented on the property. All this diversity is well and good, but an alien menace has found its way to Johnson ranch: feral pigs. Probable pig damage. Feral pigs (escaped captive pigs and their offspring) are not native to the Central Coast. They have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check. They compete for food with native herbivores. They cause erosion and disrupt habitats by tearing up the soil looking for roots and tubers.

Probable pig damage on the banks of Dry Creek

Despite the swine problem, Johnson Ranch is a wonderful natural treasure. I find little more soothing than the babbling of Dry Creek or the grass waving in the wind. The ranch has over four miles of hiking trails. You can walk or ride a bike, and rover can even come as long as you keep him on a leash. It is definitely worth carving out a couple hours for if you ever stop by the Central Coast. It may not have the epic forests of the Pacific Northwest or the stunning geology of Death Valley or the breathtaking beauty of Denali. But you know what? I wouldn’t trade Johnson Ranch for any of them. They may be grand in scale, but Johnson Ranch has that special charm that only the Central Coast can offer.

Till next time!

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