Cider event offers intimate look at ranch

MALIBU, Calif. — The winding roads become difficult to distinguish in the fog that is unusually thick for this time of year. At some points, the road is completely hidden from view as it continues upwards, hugging the side of the mountain.

On a clear day, this trip along scenic Mulholland Highway provides breathtaking views into the Santa Monica Mountains’ deep ravines and across their majestic oaks. On a day like this one, though, rangers warn of carsickness. During the blind ascent, it becomes clear why.

”It takes a little bit of work to get up there,” Interpretive Ranger Ken Low said.

He is right.

Circle X Ranch, one of 22 sites in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (NRA), annually hosts “Cider at Circle X.” The event, which is hosted by the ranger who lives on site, encourages visitors to trek up to the secluded ranch.

For the 10th consecutive year, Cider at Circle X, which takes place on the Saturday before Halloween, motivates both park visitors and residents of the area to come out for hot apple cider and Halloween treats.

What makes this event unique, though, is its small scale and intimate atmosphere. Most of the guests have known each other and the rangers who live locally for years.

Overlooking Circle X Ranch’s facilities, the Santa Monica Mountains stand partially obscured by fog (Photos by Kelly Fitzpatrick).

Two visitors, Jan Mecagni and Judi Kass, have attended the event each year since its inception. A slideshow of photos from previous years is running on a computer screen in the ranch house. The two women point out their friends in the old photos. 

The ranger who lives here, Karen Rogal, stands near the screen door, watching the slideshow and laughing with the women. She is describing how two of her neighbors, the now-infamous “Tom and Alana,” arrive fashionably late every year, just before she begins to clean up.

The impression of familiarity is unmistakable in the room and out on the porch, where guests are enjoying the cooler-than-usual weather. Halloween decorations sway in the light breeze as attendees chat with National Park Service volunteers.

But this event, which is small by Santa Monica Mountains NRA standards, is only one of the hundreds of opportunities each year for visitors to experience the park’s diverse grounds. Composed of lands owned by the federal, local and state governments as well as private entities, dozens of agencies and organizations host events on the area’s sites.

Halloween decorations on the Circle X Ranch house porch put visitors in the holiday mood.

One major event in the NRA was the 2009 premier of the Ken Burns documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The series was projected onto a 30-foot screen at nearby Paramount Ranch, which has been home to movie and television filming since 1927.

Another major annual event held at the NRA is the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest, which is hosted by an outside organization of the same name. The bluegrass and folk music festival draws crowds of musicians and music aficionados. At events like these, the NPS rangers play a role in promotion as well as presence at the events.

”We’re a stepping-stone park to introduce people to the National Park experience,” Low said. “We’re mostly local. ItÕs a totally different demographic.”

”A lot of people don’t realize we’re here,” Rogal said.

It is events both big and small that open locals’ eyes to the hidden gems of the mountains. For example, after making the trip up to Circle X Ranch for the first time, visitors realize there are roughly 18 miles of trails here that are inaccessible from anywhere else in the NRA.

A spread of goodies sits before the ranch house’s bulletin board of site information.

The ranch also provides group campground facilities with a meeting room, kitchen, showers and lounge area in the ranch house. In a situation as unique as Santa Monica Mountains NRA’s, attracting locals to the park’s offerings is essential.

If You Go:

When: Cider at Circle X is held on the Saturday before Halloween every year. If Halloween falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the event takes place the weekend prior to it.

What: To see all events going on in the Santa Monica Mountains NRA visit or pick up “Outdoors,” the NRA’s seasonal event listing, at the park visitor center.

Where: If you’ve never been to Circle X Ranch, you may want to stop at the visitor center in Thousand Oaks for detailed directions from a park ranger. The visitor center is located at 401 Hillcrest Dr. Circle X Ranch is located at 12896 Yerba Buena Road, Malibu, Calif., and directions are available at

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