Jul 26, 2014
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Burleigh H. Murray Ranch—a Treasure Hidden in Our Hills

Walk back in time in the hills above Half Moon Bay to see a unique historic barn and orchard nestled in a wild landscape far removed from the modern world.

California State Parks is preserving a wonderful piece of history and an important natural environment in the hills above Half Moon Bay.

Burleigh H. Murray Ranch, donated to the state in 1979, dates back to the mid-1800s, when Robert Mills, an Englishman who came to California during the Gold Rush, acquired the land in a valley in the foothills east of Half Moon Bay.  There he built a house, dairy barn and outbuildings.  For more than a century he and his heirs leased the land to be ranched.  The ranch is named for Burleigh H. Murray, a grandson of Miranda Murray (1831-1913), the widow of Robert Mills (1823-1897).

Amazingly, while time has taken its toll on the ranch buildings and a fruit orchard planted near the ranch house needs tending, a visitor today can still feel what it must have been like a century ago to live in this secluded valley—close to Half Moon Bay, but still quite isolated.

The centerpiece of the ranch is the unique dairy barn, built in 1889 by Robert Mills after a design similar to barns in the English Lake Country, where Mills grew up.  The barn—what is known as a “bank barn”—is unlike any other in the state and in 1989 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  (The barn is reached by hiking about one mile along an old ranch road from the ranch entrance at a parking lot off Higgins-Purisima Road.)

The barn has two stories and is built along the side of the hill so that both floors can be open at ground level.  Dairy cows were kept on the ground floor of the barn and the upper floor—accessible from a road leading up the hill—stored hay that was dropped down chutes to the cattle below.  Originally the barn was 200 feet long and could hold 100 cows, but a 35-foot section of it was removed in the early part of the last century. 

Across the creek from the barn is a farmhouse, now used as a residence by State Park personnel, which was built in the 1920s to replace a Victorian-style house that had burned down.

Adjacent to the farmhouse is an old orchard where apples, plums, cherries, and other fruit were planted.  It is badly overgrown with weeds and brambles, but many of the fruit trees are still alive and blooming this spring.  A program is being launched to rescue the trees, according to State Parks Sector Superintendent Paul Keel.

This spring, the Park Champions Program, a new initiative of the California State Parks Foundation (CSPF), will begin a volunteer program to restore and maintain the Burleigh Murray Ranch orchard with an ongoing volunteer effort. 

The Champions Program is intended to expand on CSPF’s successful Earth Day program by providing consistent, sustainable volunteer support to State Parks year-round.  Core volunteers in the Burleigh Murray Historic Orchard Project will receive training in project management, volunteer management, and technical subjects—giving them a chance to build their skills and preparing them to develop work plans, recruit other volunteers, and organize the project. 

The core volunteers will lead other volunteers in regularly scheduled work days to clear and maintain the orchard.  In addition to weeding the orchard and pruning the trees, volunteers may research the varieties of heirloom fruit trees found there and develop a plan to preserve this unique cultural resource.  Records indicate that at least one rare fruit variety may be found on the property—the Half Moon Bay Bellflower Apple, an antique breed that is known to exist only in a handful of places.

A trail from the barn continues east for almost a mile to wooden water tanks, which provide water to the ranch.  The trail ends there, although the park property extends all the way up to Skyline Blvd.

There is much more to see at Burleigh Murray Ranch besides the historic buildings and plantings.  It is a favorite spot for birdwatchers.  The ranch access road follows the course of Mills Creek and many species of birds are attracted to the creek’s dense riparian habitat. 

Even though there are many non-native plants in areas disturbed by years of farming and grazing, many native plants can still be found.  Right now bushes of red flowering currant, twinberry, and salmonberry are in bloom.  Woodland wildflowers, such as trillium, bleeding heart, and milkmaid can also be found by careful observers.

The most prominent trees along the trail are the eucalyptus, tall, shaggy, dominating the sides of the trail, encroaching on the creek and even on the barn and other historic buildings.  State Parks is preserving the eucalyptus trees, as an important part of the history of the ranch.  But they are not native to the hills—having been imported from Australia in the 1800’s—and can overwhelm native species.  To contain the eucalyptus, young trees are removed and some mature trees have been taken out of sensitive areas, particularly around the barn and other historic buildings.

How To Get There:  The entrance to the Burleigh H. Murray Ranch is off of Higgins-Purisima Road, a little more than a mile and a half east of the fire station at the corner of Main Street and Highway 1.  The entrance is from a small parking lot on the left side of the road with a yellow, metal gate and interpretive display.  (The sign that used to mark the location is being replaced and now missing.)  Reaching the Mills Barn requires a 1-mile hike up the old ranch road winding up the valley following the course of Mills Creek.  The local Sequoia Audubon Society has a map showing how to reach the ranch as well as a list of birds you may see there.  There are toilets near the park entrance and about two-thirds of the way up to the barn.

If you would like to attend the training to become a core volunteer or crew leader for the Burleigh Murray Orchard Project, contact Joanne Kerbavaz, State Parks Senior Environmental Scientist, at (650) 726-8805, or jkerb@parks.ca.gov.

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