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I never wanted to move to Scripps Ranch — not with its swarming real-estate agents and white-bread, attend-the-church-of-your-choice ethos, its compliant shrubs, its matrons in SUVs, that whole lifeless suburban drone. And where the hell was the “ranch”?

Shit, the only “ranch hands” I could find were short, nearly invisible men pushing lawnmowers around patches of Bermuda grass. Perhaps they’d been ranchers back in Chihuahua or Sonora, but here, in this developer’s dream, this lair of software engineers and other half-bright techno types, there was nary a cow to be seen.

Back in Del Mar, I’d run every other day from our rented shack on Ninth Street, across Camino Del Mar, and down to Torrey Pines, where I would continue south — at least on days with a sufficiently ebbing sea — to Black’s Beach, one time going as far as the Scripps Pier. On other days, I’d run up the Flat Rock trail to the top of the Reserve. In my late-30s, a bulky 190 pounds from years of weightlifting, I set no records.

What’s Behind That Gate?

As soon as I set foot in “the Ranch” in 1996 I knew that, although I was living only eight miles from the Pacific, I’d now have to work a lot harder to capture that bliss.

Of course, I could drive to the beach, but I’d always preferred the purity of running directly from home, and the prospect of battling traffic was a deterrent.

While hardly Death Valley, Scripps is hot in August, with any errant ocean breezes conditioned by their journey over industrial parks and tract homes on the intervening mesas. And no matter the season, Scripps is prosaic in its tightly controlled, residential regularity, its kingdom of homeowners’ associations and glad-handing realtresses. There wouldn’t be much mystery or romance in running these suburban streets. Yes, there was Lake Miramar — and in the ensuing years, I’d run it often — but a man-made lake encased in suburbia was not on my short list of endorphin-producing milieus. So when I first saw the sometimes-locked gate off Pomerado Road, I was more than intrigued.

During the first quarter of the 20th Century, San Diego was defined as much by its “camps” as anything else. Originally parts of ranches — or perhaps ranchos — these sprawling swaths of scrub were named for military demi-luminaries like Elliott, Holcomb, and Mathews, figures unknown to most locals save for military history buffs.

The largest of these, Camp Elliott, occupied 27,700 acres — approximately 43 square miles of dry mesas and minor canyons — where Marines were afforded the privacy in which to haze their initiates and test all manner of ordnance. Even this expanse proved inadequate for the reveries of training, and 1944 saw the move to Camp Pendleton. In the seamless, almost incestuous way that service-to-service land transfers take place, the bulk of Camp Elliott was turned into the Miramar Naval Air Station and later returned to the Marines as the extant MCAS. However, about four square miles of Elliott remained — which nowadays is best described as the land east of I-15 ringed by Tierrasanta, Santee, the Sycamore Canyon/Goodan Ranch Open-Space Preserve, Poway, and Scripps Ranch. This was to become the zone of inquiry, the locus of my obsession.

Initial forays into the zone were tentative, even timid, limited by both range and risk tolerance. I’d never run farther than 11 or 12 miles — and that was accomplished in the ideal conditions of cool ocean breezes and the firm, flat sand of Torrey Pines at low tide. Longer runs — on flat terrain — typically topped out at around 6H to 7 miles, which meant that the hilly 3.4-mile round trip between home and the Pomerado portal would sap my energy, preventing me from venturing too far beyond the gate. At least that’s what I told myself.

What a gate it was: redolent of Cold War paranoia and authoritarian bombast, it appeared to me — festooned with an eclectic array of signs — as both a warning and an invitation; indeed, there was an unsettling ambiguity about it. The gate sat — as its modern replacement does now — about 50 yards down the turnout from Pomerado Road, just southwest of Spring Canyon Road. Some of the ambiguity stemmed from its random open/closed status; did this mean “keep out now and then”? The welter of signs also confused me: some proclaimed the sanctity of military soil, while others announced the holdings of the Feds’ kissin’ cousins — General Dynamics, Hughes/Raytheon, Lockheed Martin; still another told of a U.S. Forest Service office, listing an “Old Pomerado Rd.” address. Most of the signs were metal, a few wooden; while most looked old and weathered enough to be defied, some appeared newer. Who the hell knew who owned the land or who maintained the road? What had gone on there — and what went on there still?

The first time I ventured beyond the gate, it was padlocked, so I scrambled up and over a low dirt embankment to the left and kept running. Obviously, I told myself, the gate — a rusted and bent relic of the Cold War — was meant solely to keep out vehicles; pedestrians were tacitly permitted, even expected. Nonetheless, my quickening stride was not due to carefree bravado but to the overwhelming feeling that this place was, at minimum, spooky. I’d wanted a place to run in solitude, and this appeared to fit the bill: the winding, soft asphalt; the smell of sage; the soaring, red-shouldered hawks; and the sound of the wind. But what about that sign at the entrance — the buffoonish rhetoric about “consenting” to search, the reference to some hoary but draconian “Internal Security Act of 1950”? Did this mean that, at any moment, perhaps as I crested the next blind hill, a goon squad, maybe a pack of officious jarheads or Wackenhut “security” cretins — would emerge and attempt to apprehend me? If so, could I simply turn around and flee back to the free world, or would I be interrogated, worked over, “processed,” as it were, for violating the sanctity of this military-industrial paradise? Sure, I didn’t look like a kaffiyeh-topped Islamo-terrorist, and God knows I wasn’t carrying an Uzi or a pair of box cutters, not even a putty knife or a subversive political tract. But still, as Frederick Exley once said, “The world is run by goons,” and during my time, having attracted the attention of more than a few, I was at once afraid of them and determined to defy them. On that first run, as I estimated my distance by step count, I decided to make a U-turn at a mile, feeling a palpable sense of relief when I re-emerged without having seen anyone at all. I’d committed a small act of defiance and vowed to go farther next time.

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Ponzi April 2, 2008 @ 1:21 p.m.

As a teenager in the late 70's I used to drive to Santee Lakes and cross over the water treatment ponds or bypass some fences to get on a dirt road that took me close to the eastern test site. There was a hole in the fence and a well traveled path from people visiting the abandoned facility.

There were several crate sized boxes mounted on the side of the canyon which we assume were for cameras to film the tests. My friends and I would go and crawl into the bunkers underneath the "missile pad." There was just a lot of wire racks, electrical apparatus and large stainless steel plumbing fixtures.

Ironically, in 1990 I was working for General Dynamics on the Altas-Centaur program at Plant 5 in Kearny Mesa. There was a massive clean room that housed the Atlas rockets where they were stretched, inflated with gas (to keep them from crumpling) and where the engines were mounted and inspected. The Tomahawk was also assembled at Plant 5. Many parts of the Atlas II were also assembled at Air Force Plant 19 on Harbor Drive. Now part of the SpaWar facilities.


Sandy_Yago April 2, 2008 @ 9:06 p.m.

I see where the writer is coming from. I myself, in a parallel fashion, never wanted to move to National City — not with its swarming drug dealers and brown-power, Aztlan-is-ours ethos, its dust covered streets, its homies in SUVs, that whole dangerous ghetto scene. And where the hell was the “nation”?

The only difference is that I would not boast about my prejudices in a publication.

Well ... probably not the only difference...


Burwell April 2, 2008 @ 9:32 p.m.

I used to own Sycamore Canyon and Mission Trails park when I was in High School in 1973-75. I rode a 250cc Kawasaki motorcycle and almost every day after school I would take a two hour trail ride through the area, which was largely intact and almost totally undeveloped. It was completely deserted. During that time period there were very few houses in Tierrasanta and the areas around Pomerado road were totally vacant. The area was leased by the Army during WWI and used as a massive artillery range. At one time during WWI over 20,000 mules and horses were quartered at what is now University City. A large veterans hospital was also located in Univerisity City during WWI. After WWI, when the Army returned the land to the original owners, the owners sued the Army for damages because the land was filled with tens of thousands of unexploded artillery shells and was essentially worthless. The history of this area is described in detail in Mack Copper Co., vs. US 97 Ct. Cl. 451 and West vs. US. 73 Ct. Cl. 201. I have never been able to locate any other source that describes the history of this area.


MarkScha April 4, 2008 @ 10:17 a.m.

In the mid-1970s I bicycled quite a bit around Poway. Starting on the east side of town, I went west, followed two-lane Pomerado Road (unchanged from its days as US 395) south, and went up Beeler Canyon Road. I saw something I believed to be a set of rocket engine static launch support equipment: tanks of hydrogen and helium, pipe, and iron framework. I don't remember seeing an oxygen tank. What amazed me is how new it all looked. I pressed on past the gate you mentioned, which was open. Up the road to the mesa, with a building at a t-intersection, surrounded by barbed wire but obviously abandoned. I saw someone but was left alone.


Jay April 4, 2008 @ 11:14 a.m.

These sites and test areas are hardly national secrets. San Diego is full of retired engineers who spent plenty of time at and among them. If there was something worth hiding or protecting...it would be hidden and protected. Moss, are you looking for "The Man" where he isn't.

I don't live there, but why bash Scripps Ranch? By all accounts it is clean, orderly, comfortable and safe. I believe those characteristics are what most of the global population strives for. Spend a little time in any one of the very many crap holes that make up much of the world and Scripps Ranch will soon seem like heaven.


william April 4, 2008 @ 6:41 p.m.

I just wanted to confirm Ponzi's first and second paragraphs. In 1990 i was 16 and pretty much did the same thing, rode bikes and hiked to these sites and managed to climb down into one. I saw the racks, saw the electrical componets and plumbing fixtures. The only thing I would like to add is when we got about 30 feet into the structure, I could sware I heard fast running water. Almost like a quick moving stream or something. To this day I'm still not sure exactly what that source of water was but I'd sure love to know. Well, thanks to the paper copy of the Reader with the proper placemarks of these sites I'm off to Google Earth to post them all. I noticed only one has been posted :)


JF April 4, 2008 @ 10:02 p.m.

Moss, Just one little comment. I suppose you missed the fact that the actual Scripps Ranch site still exists. It can even been seen from the freeway just northeast of I-15 and Pomerado Road, up on the hill. There was a bad fire there in the mid 1990's that killed a couple of members of the Scripps family.



rb1980 April 6, 2008 @ 1:28 p.m.

When I worked at Maxwell Labs in the '90's as an IT support guy, I had to on occasion travel out to Green Farm to work on their computers. I remember the eerie feeling driving out there on the single-lane road to the site, which took about a half-hour to reach. It was a less than impressive operation run out of a few portable trailer offices and a couple of corregated metal outbuildings. There were stories of them blasting holes thru all kinds of fun stuff like one of the companies' old decomissioned mainframe computers. I did have the privilege of being out there one day when they were doing a "test shot" of the rail-gun and seeing how it's plastic "bullet" penetrated a 3-inch sheet of steel. Talk about eerie.


ChuckD April 7, 2008 @ 6:40 a.m.

I worked on the Atlas program from its beginning in the mid-50's. I witnessed many test firings at the Sycamore Canyon sites.

The most memorable was on a Mother's Day Sunday when a fully fueled Atlas blew up a few seconds after the engines ignited. The fireball was huge. A UT account the next day included an interview with a private pilot who happened to be flying over the facility when the accident happened. His description was very interesting.

No one was hurt, but an adjacent Centaur upper stage test tower was damaged. Needless to say, everything above ground at the Atlas site was demolished. A small brush fire was contained.

I know that Santee residents of the time will remember hearing the roar of the Atlas engines, and some must have heard that Mother's Day boom.

Those were exciting days


Ponzi April 7, 2008 @ 7:57 p.m.

Here's an Sycamore Canyon Atlas tribute http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFnhlB...

And a web site with pictures of various Atlas assembly and test sites in San Diego.. http://www.siloworld.com/MISSILE%20BUILDERS/GDA/sycamore__canyon.htm


dannyboy7293 April 10, 2008 @ 12:09 a.m.

Are there really people with this world-view still around in the 21st century? Yes, I guess so, and they write for the Reader.

Got a news flash for ya Mossie baby: almost all of those scary, toxic hazardous substances you list in the article as having been used at Sycamore canyon exist in some form or another in your home (whether it's in tres-chic Del Mar or your new and oh-so-boring Scripps Ranch locale), your place of work, or, heaven forbid, your surfboard, the maker of which used the frightening high-explosive "MEKP" (methyl ethyl ketone peroxide) to harden the fiberglass resin.

I can't wait for the Reader cover story expose on the yuppie lawyer who endangered his Scripps Ranch neighborhood with the chromium, lead, cadmium and countless petrochemical compounds he recklessly leaves in his driveway every night when he parks his car.

It's enough to give you Bush Derangement Syndrome.....


DHol89 April 14, 2008 @ 8:39 p.m.

Hey, this is pretty coincidental that this story just came out. Myself and a couple of friends have been going back in that area exploring for over a year now... of course everything is pretty much destroyed but it is still interesting!!


pinkshoes April 17, 2008 @ 1:30 p.m.

MY GOD MAN! Do more research! Ask someone who actually WORKED for General Dynamics/Convair, instead of taking the word of some character that you met in a bar! THOUSANDS of people were employed in the Aero-space industry here in San Diego. I'm certain that, had you tried, you could have found someone more qualified to answer your questions. There are still plenty of them around. One more thing; Fences are also used to keep idiots safe.


Ponzi April 17, 2008 @ 1:48 p.m.

It's a story, not a documentary. Too many anal engineer nerds getting bent out of shape.


tape April 17, 2008 @ 8:32 p.m.

In the early seventies, a bunch of friends told me about this place called "Moon Base" out past Santee Lakes. One friday night armed with a shopping cart of beer, we slid past the lakes and a few miles of dirt road and came to a fence with a big hole in it. We parked the cars and walked for a while, I don't remember how far but maybe 1/2 mile or so. We came to a concrete retaining wall on our right that we passed and turning a corner I beheld one of the most amazing sites I've ever seem. A huge metal tower, sort of like an old fashioned oil derrick but much wider and bulkier. It was at least 6 or 7 stories tall and built next to the side of a small hill. This is what held the rocket engine for testing. Off to the side of it, actually coming out of the hill below, was an exhaust port that looked like half of a giant accordion. It was hollow and came straight out of the hill and then curved upwards. As a rocket was tested, it's blast would go down and then be redirected down, sideways then up and away. It was maybe 2 or 3 stories at it's highest. I was amazed and felt like I'd come upon a Buck Rogers movie set. Standing at the base of the metal tower, opposite the exhaust port, was a concrete slab, maybe 10 feet wide that led a couple hundred yards over to a concrete bunker. We entered the bunker and discovered it went about three stories underground. After we descended a couple stories, we found a passage that went back under the concrete slab up top and one could walk all the way back to the metal tower. About half way, the hall way opened up and became a metal cat walk that you could cross or climb down another story. I think there was also a metal ladder that went to a hatch up top. It was secured shut. At the end of the passage there was a metal door that we also couldn't open. This was an amazing place that became a fun destination that we frequented more than a few times. Years later, i put two and two together and remember that as a lad I could occasionally hear this enormous sound that shook the earth and it was obvious that it resonated from miles away (I grew up near Fletcher Hills). I would ask my mom "What is that noise?" and she would say that they are testing rockets!


mycatwilatackyou Sept. 22, 2008 @ 7:30 p.m.

I posted the tribute on youtube. I along with some friends used to frequent the "Annex" from green farms and burner 3 to the other complexes. We used to take our 4x4s out from the pomerado side and park on the hills to use our cb radios and drink some beers. One night we made a right at the huge eucalyptus trees and drove down into the valley. We then went right passed a couple of structures one was "burner 3" and then through an old open gate to green farms. We actually played with the still working electric gate 3 small houses as I remember. One had sea containers that were open and contained all shape and sizes of plastic There were also giant pieces of aluminum. A large metal building which was new at the time was also there.. Another time My girlfriend and I were just out for an evening drive and we happened to find ourselves on the missile base road again entered from the top with her driving. there is a spot on the upper road where there used to be a gate that was always open but this one night. a guard stood at the gate and I was like tell him we are lost. My girlfriend told him we were trying to get to poway and for whatever reason he opened the gate and told us we could get to poway by going through and taking the road he was guarding. so we went through and we came upon the parking lot cars were actually parked on the road and all the people were at the end of the parking lot gathered around some device that pointed towards the stars So a day later during the day I went back to see what was up there and they had a huge like hot air ballon sized blue dome cover over the whole parking lot. They were hiding something lol. Another time my friend and I watched security open the gates that led down to on of the old sites in the valley. After the car went behind the hill we quickly drove over and shut the gate behind him then retreated to out hilltop. He came back up the hill and found the gate shut and hit his blinky flashy lights. We were rofl. He never saw us but I'm sure was a bit spooked. I knew a gal who worked on the ACM and showed me a pamplet showing the underground workings at the area last to be abandoned. I did relieve whoever of a couple of signs words DANGER missile test and research area general dynamics. Another sign I had was Maxwell Labs Green Farms electromagnetic gun facility,Both My friend still has a window off burner 3 about 2" thick and 14" diameter. I was able to see 35mm prints of osciloscope traces as well as some cool looking 4" dia brass and copper tubes in burner three building. One night we saw the most awesome shooting star like object enter the earths atmosphere. I saw it come over iron mountain it was white with a huge trail of silver sparks and streamed from eastern horizon to western horizon at took about 10 seconds to do that was very cool unsymetricaldimethylhydrazine is my favorite word.. take care


PowayPat April 13, 2011 @ 2:55 p.m.

Unfortunately almost all of "Site J" or the Stinger production facility is demolished because of the nearby housing. There is a short updated writeup on my website about it.



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