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A hidden gem at the base of Volcan Mountain

There is a hodgepodge of buildings on the property

Not one, but two fireplaces, because it’s cold in them thar hills.
Not one, but two fireplaces, because it’s cold in them thar hills.

Two hundred years ago, California, along with the bulk of what would become the American Southwest, was claimed by Mexico. The newly-minted country, having just gained independence from Spain, found itself with a problem: much of its land mass was a sprawling wilderness, populated and controlled not by descendants of European blood, but by natives not much interested in the Old World ideals of conquest and empire.

In order to establish control over its territory, Mexico began granting ranchos, or parcels about 14 miles square, to its citizens and other Europeans willing to be naturalized. Unlike the lifetime land grants the Spanish had gifted to soldiers to encourage them to remain behind after their fighting in the wars for territory, these ranchos remained the property of the grantees’ families in perpetuity, even after the death of the original recipient. Between 1833 and 1846, Mexico created about 270 ranchos in California alone. The boundaries of these original land grants were largely honored when the U.S. claimed the territory, and in some instances they helped shape development in ways that can still be recognized today. The suburbs of Rancho San Diego and Rancho Bernardo largely hew to the boundaries established over a century ago.

A treehouse worthy of all-caps intensity.

Rancho San Felipe was another such parcel in San Diego, one of the last to be assigned by then-governor Pio Pico in 1846. Originally composed of just under 10,000 acres in the Laguna Mountains somewhat north and east of where the mining town of Julian would eventually spring up, it was an important stop in the 1850s for emigrants arriving from the east, a place where they could rest and recover from the arduous trek across the desert before continuing on to San Diego or Los Angeles. Later, it was a major station along the Butterfield Overland Mail stage route, where coach drivers delivering mail and packages cross-country in the days before railroads could make repairs or swap horses in order to continue their journeys. It also held a major storehouse for grain and hay to supply the remote desert outposts along the route.

Today, nearly 1150 acres of the rancho remains intact, making it one of the largest privately-held pieces of land in the county. And since this is a column about expensive real estate, you would not be wrong in assuming we’re going to end our history lesson here and go look at some houses.

There are actually two listings for the property, variously described as 25550 San Felipe Road or 26068 San Felipe. Listing agents Angela Acosta (who took us along on a deep dive into backcountry real estate a few years ago) and Tyler Stamets clarified that the rancho is available with or without a “retreat center” — a “converted barn with large event space and 7 guest rooms and two kitchens.” The price difference is $1.5 million, but let’s assume we’re going for the whole enchilada here.

“A hidden backcountry gem like no other,” the Zillow ad copy opens, “Rancho San Felipe consists of over 1000 acres at the San Felipe Creek headwaters, at the base of Volcan Mountain in Warner Springs.”

There is a hodgepodge of buildings on the property, including a three-bedroom main residence with somewhere between 3500 and 4000 square feet of living area. Adding the guest residences and other facilities, we’re going to get a total of 12 bedrooms and 17 baths spread across 8200 square feet of total space. (I’m quoting from the listing for 25550 here, because even though it’s the less expensive of the two, it has more and better photos. Also, Zillow doesn’t seem to have the 26068 listing, but you can find it on Redfin.)

We start with an exterior shot of what I assume is the main residence and its full stone exterior — a refreshing change from the drab beige stucco that blankets houses across the suburbs of California. Around back, there are some lounge chairs on a stone patio that overlooks a small pond — is this fed by our creek? Tyler says yes. Can we swim in it? I feel like it would be very cold and muddy, but I still want to try. From there, we wander around the property and take in a handful of smaller cabins, also built out of stone. The two closest to the main residence have two and one bedrooms respectively, I’m told.

Finally, we’re inside the main house. There’s a massive living room with not one but two stone fireplaces (we also see these outside the house, and it looks like there are cubbyholes that might serve as ovens and separate fireboxes, all served by a common chimney), vaulted open-beam ceilings, and what looks like a chandelier madeof deer antlers. Immediately, we feel the old-time-mountain-cabin vibe appropriate for a construction date estimated as being between 1930 and 1935, but everything seems well-maintained, and Tyler assures me the property has been “heavily updated and lovingly restored over the years.” I’ll buy that.

The kitchen is spacious if not ostentatious, with a large center island that houses the range, and more wood paneling, this time painted white to offer some contrast from the polished wood of the ceiling and cabinetry. A closer look at the living room fireplaces shows that they’ve got iron stove inserts, though the fireplaces in the bedrooms seem to be wood-burning.

Moving on, we see some interior and exterior shots of some of the other houses on the property. These are a bit more pedestrian, though certainly functional. The most impressive feature is a smaller living room in a house that appears to have a vaulted, irregular octagonal ceiling with a skylight.

Via email, Tyler promised me a treehouse so AMAZING that he felt the need to shout it in all caps, and I’m three-quarters of the way through the photo gallery before I get to it. Okay, he’s right — this thing looks incredible. The base level seems like it’s carved out of a massive tree trunk, with a wraparound deck on the second level, and above that, a bunch of windowed walls jutting out at weird angles. I want to see this place from the inside.

Okay, the inside is also good: the stain used on the floor-to-ceiling wood is a bit lighter than in the main house, and it couples with the windows to create a bright but still cozy living space. A small desk looks out of those odd windows onto the forest from canopy level; this would make for a much more conducive writing space than my dining-room-slash-office that looks out into the side yard where I keep my trash cans. We can see that the wraparound deck has holes carved into it for the tree this house is built against to grow up through it. Tyler guesses there’s about 800 square feet of living area here, but given all of the angles inside, I understand how he’d have a hard time measuring it.

We finish up with some more pictures of the grounds and aerial shots of vast, green hills with a dirt road winding through them, which I’m guessing is how we’d access the compound. There’s also a well with a large storage tank and a solar array, because I’m guessing that public utilities are hard to come by when you’re the only prospective customer on an 1150-acre plot.

Public records list the current owner of Rancho San Felipe as Michael Pinto, a real estate investor based out of Laguna Beach. Judging from the tax rolls, this rancho has been owned by his family for quite a long time. The property was listed for sale for the first time in late February; it carries an asking price of either $10 million or $11.5 million, depending on whether the aforementioned events center is included in the deal. But if you’re in for a penny, why not go in for a pound and take the whole dang thing? You’ll probably be glad for the company.

  • 25550-26068 San Felipe Road | Warner Wprings, 92086
  • Current owner: Michael Pinto | Listing price: $11,500,000 | Beds: 12 | Baths: 17 | House size: 8200
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Not one, but two fireplaces, because it’s cold in them thar hills.
Not one, but two fireplaces, because it’s cold in them thar hills.

Two hundred years ago, California, along with the bulk of what would become the American Southwest, was claimed by Mexico. The newly-minted country, having just gained independence from Spain, found itself with a problem: much of its land mass was a sprawling wilderness, populated and controlled not by descendants of European blood, but by natives not much interested in the Old World ideals of conquest and empire.

In order to establish control over its territory, Mexico began granting ranchos, or parcels about 14 miles square, to its citizens and other Europeans willing to be naturalized. Unlike the lifetime land grants the Spanish had gifted to soldiers to encourage them to remain behind after their fighting in the wars for territory, these ranchos remained the property of the grantees’ families in perpetuity, even after the death of the original recipient. Between 1833 and 1846, Mexico created about 270 ranchos in California alone. The boundaries of these original land grants were largely honored when the U.S. claimed the territory, and in some instances they helped shape development in ways that can still be recognized today. The suburbs of Rancho San Diego and Rancho Bernardo largely hew to the boundaries established over a century ago.

A treehouse worthy of all-caps intensity.

Rancho San Felipe was another such parcel in San Diego, one of the last to be assigned by then-governor Pio Pico in 1846. Originally composed of just under 10,000 acres in the Laguna Mountains somewhat north and east of where the mining town of Julian would eventually spring up, it was an important stop in the 1850s for emigrants arriving from the east, a place where they could rest and recover from the arduous trek across the desert before continuing on to San Diego or Los Angeles. Later, it was a major station along the Butterfield Overland Mail stage route, where coach drivers delivering mail and packages cross-country in the days before railroads could make repairs or swap horses in order to continue their journeys. It also held a major storehouse for grain and hay to supply the remote desert outposts along the route.

Today, nearly 1150 acres of the rancho remains intact, making it one of the largest privately-held pieces of land in the county. And since this is a column about expensive real estate, you would not be wrong in assuming we’re going to end our history lesson here and go look at some houses.

There are actually two listings for the property, variously described as 25550 San Felipe Road or 26068 San Felipe. Listing agents Angela Acosta (who took us along on a deep dive into backcountry real estate a few years ago) and Tyler Stamets clarified that the rancho is available with or without a “retreat center” — a “converted barn with large event space and 7 guest rooms and two kitchens.” The price difference is $1.5 million, but let’s assume we’re going for the whole enchilada here.

“A hidden backcountry gem like no other,” the Zillow ad copy opens, “Rancho San Felipe consists of over 1000 acres at the San Felipe Creek headwaters, at the base of Volcan Mountain in Warner Springs.”

There is a hodgepodge of buildings on the property, including a three-bedroom main residence with somewhere between 3500 and 4000 square feet of living area. Adding the guest residences and other facilities, we’re going to get a total of 12 bedrooms and 17 baths spread across 8200 square feet of total space. (I’m quoting from the listing for 25550 here, because even though it’s the less expensive of the two, it has more and better photos. Also, Zillow doesn’t seem to have the 26068 listing, but you can find it on Redfin.)

We start with an exterior shot of what I assume is the main residence and its full stone exterior — a refreshing change from the drab beige stucco that blankets houses across the suburbs of California. Around back, there are some lounge chairs on a stone patio that overlooks a small pond — is this fed by our creek? Tyler says yes. Can we swim in it? I feel like it would be very cold and muddy, but I still want to try. From there, we wander around the property and take in a handful of smaller cabins, also built out of stone. The two closest to the main residence have two and one bedrooms respectively, I’m told.

Finally, we’re inside the main house. There’s a massive living room with not one but two stone fireplaces (we also see these outside the house, and it looks like there are cubbyholes that might serve as ovens and separate fireboxes, all served by a common chimney), vaulted open-beam ceilings, and what looks like a chandelier madeof deer antlers. Immediately, we feel the old-time-mountain-cabin vibe appropriate for a construction date estimated as being between 1930 and 1935, but everything seems well-maintained, and Tyler assures me the property has been “heavily updated and lovingly restored over the years.” I’ll buy that.

The kitchen is spacious if not ostentatious, with a large center island that houses the range, and more wood paneling, this time painted white to offer some contrast from the polished wood of the ceiling and cabinetry. A closer look at the living room fireplaces shows that they’ve got iron stove inserts, though the fireplaces in the bedrooms seem to be wood-burning.

Moving on, we see some interior and exterior shots of some of the other houses on the property. These are a bit more pedestrian, though certainly functional. The most impressive feature is a smaller living room in a house that appears to have a vaulted, irregular octagonal ceiling with a skylight.

Via email, Tyler promised me a treehouse so AMAZING that he felt the need to shout it in all caps, and I’m three-quarters of the way through the photo gallery before I get to it. Okay, he’s right — this thing looks incredible. The base level seems like it’s carved out of a massive tree trunk, with a wraparound deck on the second level, and above that, a bunch of windowed walls jutting out at weird angles. I want to see this place from the inside.

Okay, the inside is also good: the stain used on the floor-to-ceiling wood is a bit lighter than in the main house, and it couples with the windows to create a bright but still cozy living space. A small desk looks out of those odd windows onto the forest from canopy level; this would make for a much more conducive writing space than my dining-room-slash-office that looks out into the side yard where I keep my trash cans. We can see that the wraparound deck has holes carved into it for the tree this house is built against to grow up through it. Tyler guesses there’s about 800 square feet of living area here, but given all of the angles inside, I understand how he’d have a hard time measuring it.

We finish up with some more pictures of the grounds and aerial shots of vast, green hills with a dirt road winding through them, which I’m guessing is how we’d access the compound. There’s also a well with a large storage tank and a solar array, because I’m guessing that public utilities are hard to come by when you’re the only prospective customer on an 1150-acre plot.

Public records list the current owner of Rancho San Felipe as Michael Pinto, a real estate investor based out of Laguna Beach. Judging from the tax rolls, this rancho has been owned by his family for quite a long time. The property was listed for sale for the first time in late February; it carries an asking price of either $10 million or $11.5 million, depending on whether the aforementioned events center is included in the deal. But if you’re in for a penny, why not go in for a pound and take the whole dang thing? You’ll probably be glad for the company.

  • 25550-26068 San Felipe Road | Warner Wprings, 92086
  • Current owner: Michael Pinto | Listing price: $11,500,000 | Beds: 12 | Baths: 17 | House size: 8200
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