Visiting Pio Pico State Historic Park
Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Freewaytopia, but I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my surroundings when traveling on freeways. Driving them It’s so easy to go on autopilot, especially when commuting, and never notice the life that goes on around you. Recently, I was passing through Whittier on the 605, a route I’ve driven several times, and decided to do something different and exit. I saw the sign for Pio Pico State Historic Park and opted to check it out and, in doing so, I ended up discovering a special piece of California history right under my nose.
Pio Pico State Historic Park is located, literally, adjacent to the 605 freeway. When I exited I thought I would have to drive a ways but, nope, it’s right there. I was totally shocked that I’d never noticed it before. That could be because it’s one of the smaller state parks at only 5 acres but, despite its size, it does play an important part of California history as it was was once home to Pio Pico – the last governor of California under Mexican rule.
Born in 1801 at the San Gabriel Mission, Pio Pico lived through almost the entire 1800’s passing away at the age of 93 in 1894. Initially finding success as a merchant he entered politics and served two separate terms as territorial governor. Over time he accumulated large quantities of land, mostly in the San Diego area, though he lost it all by the time of his death. Eventually, he became an American citizen, built the Pico House Hotel in LA (which still stands today) and became a member of the LA City Council. Unfortunately, due to a series of misfortunes he died penniless but his mark on California, particularly the LA area, remains significant to this day.
Today the park is home to the Pico Adobe “El Ranchito.” El Ranchito was built in 1848 and was part of Pico’s 9,000 acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo. At the time, his primary residence was near San Diego and El Ranchito was considered his country home though, as his fortune dwindled, it became his primary residence.
Since the time of Pio Pico El Ranchito has had a tumultuous history. By 1906 it was abandoned and rapidly deteriorating. Threatened with demolition, the Whittier Women’s Club raised enough to funds to save and restore it. In 1927 it joined the state park system and in 1973 was declared a national historic site. Then, in 1987, the Whittier earthquake caused significant damage to the structure and forced its closure. By 2003 it was once again restored and welcoming visitors again. It has remained open to this day, but, as you can see above, it could still use some TLC.
Although the adobe is a little worn it’s to be expected of a building that’s nearing 200 years old. Despite its age you can still tour the interior which recreates Pio Pico’s time there. In addition to the adobe there are beautiful gardens on site that are just perfect for wandering through.
I did just that when I decided to pay my visit. The park is dog-friendly (though they’re not allowed inside the adobe) and I took my pup for a stroll around the grounds. It was a beautiful day and, if I ignored the roar of the neighboring freeway, I could almost picture myself back in the 1800’s enjoying a day on the rancho.
Though small, Pio Pico State Historic Park is a significant part of California history and I’m grateful to those who have worked so hard to ensure its continuous existence. So when your driving down the 605 and heading into autopilot, snap out of it, get off the freeway and enjoy a few leisure moments at the Pico Adobe. I guarantee you’ll fee so much better after you visit.