For such a small geographical region, the Monterey Peninsula area is home to a lot of secrets. One such is San Clemente Rancho, a privately owned 2,600-acre tract located near the end of Robinson Canyon Road, south of Carmel Valley. This is the site of 100 cabins, owned by “members,” concentrated on only 160 of the acres. The remainder is a bucolic, remote and serene vacation spot, but one with many conveniences and recreational facilities. There are swimming pools (with an awesome water slide), tennis and basketball courts, a miniature golf course, a fishing and boating lake, a vast clubhouse building and miles and miles of hiking trails. There’s even a ridgetop landing strip for those who care to drop in by air.
The core of the property was cobbled together in the early 20th century by Charles and Della McFadden under the Homestead Act of 1862. That act of Congress, intended to ensure the population of the then unsettled (by European-descended people, at least) western United States, granted 160 acres to anyone willing to settle on and develop the land for five years. The McFaddens staked their claim, and enlisted several others to do so, with the caveat that the couple would purchase their land after the five year waiting period. All but one lived up to the agreement, and in the 1920s the newly named McFadden Ranch was home to grazing cattle and a few ramshackle, rustic cabins as part of a hunting and fishing club operated as a sideline.
Mike Dormody had grown up in Carmel Valley and knew the area well. He made his living operating a small earth-moving business, opening up roads for clients from Big Sur to Cachagua. For a time, he had a membership at another hidden gem, the White Rock Club.
“Mike wasn’t very pleased with the way White Rock was organized,” his wife Donna says. The couple decided they could do better, and purchased 1,802 acres from the McFaddens on June 21, 1960. “We didn’t have any money, but we got a loan on our Ford Victoria and plunged in. We signed the papers at the McFaddens’ house on the corner of Wave Street and David Avenue,” she recalls. That house still stands, now part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s administrative offices. The Dormodys immediately renamed the property San Clemente Rancho.
“There was nothing here,” says son Bruce. “There was just a dirt road from Robinson Canyon Road and some shacks. There was no electricity, no running water. They were roughing it.” Mike got busy. He had a plan.
First, he drafted a letter to his friends. “I have just completed purchase of the old McFadden Ranch and Homestead,” the missive reads. “I am turning the place into a Community Rod, Gun and Vacation area, with facilities to swim, play tennis and hike [with] a trout lake, six miles of stream, wild boar, deer, dove, pigeon and quail hunting. There will be a Community Meeting area with a barbeque area, baseball field and swimming pool. The spot has a lot of natural beauty with an abundance of redwood, fern, etc.” That’s pretty much what exists at San Clemente Ranch to this day.
Dormody blazed roads, erected bridges, dug a 5-surface-acre trout lake and built a water system, swimming pool, bathhouse, changing rooms and two tennis courts. Mike and Donna eventually moved here full time, raising their three sons and one daughter here. “By the 1980s, my dad started thinking about retirement,” son Bruce recalls. “He asked if any of us were interested in taking over the business. At the age of 17 or 18 I said I would.” So Bruce went to college and studied land management. Upon his return, he worked side-by-side with his father, constantly adding to and improving on the property’s amenities. He purchased the property from his parents in 1998. “It’s taken the course of two lifetimes to get to this point,” says Bruce.
Both generations have been responsive to the wants and needs of members. For instance, tennis was hugely popular in the 1970s. “We had seven courts then, with lines of people waiting to play,” Bruce says. When interest in the game waned, the owners responded by converting several of the courts into a basketball court and miniature golf course. Recently, Bruce built a grand log-cabin style clubhouse adjacent to the swimming pools. Equipped with a commercial kitchen, a game room and every other possible amenity, it’s become a focal point of family fun.
Utilities came as well. PG&E needed a right of way at Rancho to build a high-tension line to service Big Sur. The company constructed an “underbuild,” a second, lower voltage service line under the high-tension wires to supply electricity to the Rancho.
“We would never have been able to afford electricity otherwise,” Bruce explains. The entire complex is serviced by two wells and a spring. The mountain spring is slow but sure—putting out five to six gallons a minute, day after day.
Members own their cabins, but lease the property for a 99-year term. Membership fees pay for construction and maintenance of the facilities. Aside from the Dormody family, there are no permanent residents here. All 100 cabins are vacation homes for the owners.
The San Clemente Rancho is the site of some forgotten Monterey Peninsula history. In the 1970s, Mike Dormody purchased a tract of land on the northeastern edge of the Rancho that included a section known as “the 14 acres” from Del Monte Properties, now the Pebble Beach Company. The parcel is adjacent to the Carmel River at the site of the now-demolished San Clemente Dam. In the 1920s, Del Monte Hotel guests were ferried to this remote meadow, where they were treated to a “full-on rodeo.” Period photos on the walls of the clubhouse depict dude-ranch-dressed guests watching the action, seated on horses or fence rails while sipping bottles of beer.
For those in the know, the Rancho is a home away from home, a haven of relaxation and communing with nature. While enjoying its miles of hiking trails through untouched primal forest, it’s easy to be transported back in time to the days when all of California was undeveloped and untamed. The Dormody family is dedicated to preserving this land and keeping it pristine for coming generations.
For more information on San Clemente Rancho, please go to www.mountain-cabins.com.