The Rancho Los Cerritos Backyard (Accessible)
Self-paced stroll through the historic backyard
Rancho Los Cerritos is a National, State, and Local Historic Landmark. The site is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays, 1-5 PM, with extended hours on Saturdays. Admission, tours, and parking are free. Donations help support education and preservation programs. The site's 1844 adobe includes 10 furnished rooms, plus several ‘sneak-peek’ rooms currently under restoration. The grounds include historic trees planted in the mid-nineteenth century, native plants and orchard trees that date to the early twentieth century, and fragrant blooms that have just emerged this week. Part of the Long Beach public library system, the non-circulating reference library and archival holdings emphasize California and local history. The site's Visitor Center houses exhibits, a short orientation film, and the museum shop's array of unique products. *As the City’s ‘Safer at Home’ orders are adjusted, Rancho Los Cerritos’ gardens have reopened for active recreation. Visitors are encouraged to reserve timed tickets in advance; walk-in guests will be accommodated on a space-available basis. Visitors must comply with the site’s current Covid-19 protocols, which are based on City & State orders. Service animals are welcome to accompany their owner; sorry, pets are not allowed on site. People showing any signs of illness are not permitted to enter.
Welcome! Rancho Los Cerritos provides both an enduring sense of serenity and a variety of seasonal surprises. The gardens feature both native and exotic plants, and they sustain native and migratory birds, butterflies, and other critters. The adobe house, which is more than 175 years old, is embedded with many layers of history. There are two walking routes: the standard (not fully accessible) tour, which includes ascending a staircase from the native garden, several steps in the courtyard of the historic adobe, and a loose-dirt pathway through the orchard, and the accessible tour, which includes a brick walkway and packed-dirt pathways. There is an ADA lift and gently sloped pathways to access the historic adobe; please ask for assistance. Standard Tour: Head north from the Visitor Center. Your tour begins at the entrance to the California native garden. After emerging from that one-way looping path via the staircase, visit the historic adobe, then take the one-way orchard path to the backyard. Please circle the backyard in a clockwise direction, then end your tour in the forecourt. Passing the administrative building, you can head back to your vehicle. Or, time permitting, feel free to walk the route again. Accessible Tour: After exiting your vehicle in the forecourt, you can enter the backyard through the green gates to start your tour in the alcove of the veranda. Depending on your personal circumstances, you can either follow the full backyard tour (heading next to the wisteria arbor) or cross from the central brick pathway that splits the lawns (heading next to the country club gate). When you would like to see the historic adobe, please ask for assistance to utilize the ADA lift and pathways inside the structure.
If only these plants could talk! Several of the trees in this area were planted when John Temple built the adobe, more than 175 years ago. Some of them were planted when Jotham Bixby owned the property in the 1880s. The majority of the garden is based upon the 1930s landscape installed by Ralph Cornell, or later. In the 1840s, Temple added a formal two-acre garden behind his adobe with raised beds and cultivated plants, which are rare in arid Alta California, and he enclosed the space with a tall redwood fence to keep his livestock out. In the 1930s, Cornell Changed the shape of the garden, added a forecourt for guest parking, and installed a doorbell outside the gate, which ensured that visitors entered the landscaped garden before the home. For generations this space has served as a place for respite and recreation and continues to do so today.
Starting at the southern end of the veranda (where there is a small alcove), your first stop in the backyard features a Black Locust tree. This type of tree, which was grown from seeds that Temple imported in the 1840s, once lined the perimeter of the two-acre garden. With their fragrant springtime flowers, the trees were equally popular with the Bixbys of both the 1860s/1870s and the 1930s. The Black Locust here, adjacent to the house in the alcove, is an off-shoot of one of Temple’s trees. During the 1930s renovation, the Bixbys chose to save the tree - by shaving the corner of the 1844 adobe - to accommodate its roots. It continues to bloom every spring. DIRECTIONS: From the Black Locust, you can stroll north along the veranda (covered porch) to explore the backyard in a clockwise direction, heading next to the Wisteria arbor at the north end of the veranda. Or, if you prefer to follow the more accessible route, please take the brick pathway that starts half-way down the veranda and divides the lawns. You'll be heading toward the Country Club gate. NOTE: The 1844 adobe house is temporarily closed, due to Covid-19 restrictions, but please come back soon to see the inside.
In Temple’s time there were two peaked arbors, one on either side of the veranda, that supported grape vines. While these were only a memory by the 1930s renovation, Cornell designed a single new wisteria arbor for the estate garden. When the wisteria vines bloom in the spring, fragrant clusters of purple flowers draw many visitors - and, of course, are reminiscent of those long-ago purple grapes. DIRECTIONS: After exiting the wisteria arbor, head into the cutting garden, which is located to the northeast of the wisteria arbor and distinguished by raised planting beds.
Typical among estate gardens of the 1930s, Avis Bixby's cutting garden provided fresh seasonal flowers. When originally designed, this was a sunny space. As the Moreton Bay Fig in the central backyard grew, however, it changed this area from sun to shade. The plants here are now shade-tolerant perennials appropriate to the period, including sweet violets - one of Avis’s favorites. Further along the pathway, camellias have replaced most of Avis's roses. Not only does the Moreton Bay Fig now shade this area, but the Bixbys also added a Ginkgo tree after Cornell had installed the landscaping. While the camellias certainly add winter color, the real show is in December when the Ginkgo itself changes color. An unusual species, Charles Darwin called it a “living fossil” because it has survived since the Carboniferous Period (about 300 million years ago)! DIRECTIONS: From the Ginkgo tree, continue along the eastern perimeter pathway (which runs parallel to the Virginia Country Club), for a stunning view of the central backyard.
Standing by the green gate to the Virginia Country Club, you'll have a sweeping view of the central backyard and 1844 adobe house. This gate served as Llewellyn Bixby Sr.’s personal entrance to the Virginia Country Club (est. 1922), where he was an avid golfer and active board member. On your right is one of three remaining Italian cypress trees from Temple’s 1840s garden. This specimen has been designated an “Exceptional Tree of Los Angeles County” for its age and beauty. The tree that practically overwhelms the garden – and the adobe house – is a Moreton Bay Fig, which was planted in the early 1880s. Note: The fig tree’s buttressing root system is not a safe area to climb, play, or take photos. Please stay off its roots. DIRECTIONS: Please continue along the eastern perimeter pathway, toward the southeastern corner of the garden to see Temple's try pot.
Under the Spanish & Mexican flags, Alta California’s economy was based primarily on the hide & tallow trade and cowhides were known as “California banknotes." The hides were shipped around the horn of South America to England and New England, where they were made into saddles, boots, luggage, and other leather goods. The cow fat, or tallow, was rendered in iron cauldrons (or try pots), and the process was called "trying." Tallow was used domestically in the manufacture of candles and soap. Incorporating the site’s history into his landscape design, Cornell placed Temple’s try pot (which was unearthed during the renovation) in Avis Bixby’s cutting garden as a unique sculptural element. This storied focal point is a tempting photo opportunity (as it was when Llewellyn Bixby’s grandchildren visited in the 1930s), but the iron try pot is in fragile condition, so please do not let anyone climb inside. The City moved Temple’s try pot to its current location several decades ago.
Especially for Families! Planned and planted by volunteers from the Junior League of Long Beach in the 1980s, the herb garden supports our award-winning school tour program. It is divided into four sections – culinary, medicinal, dye, and potpourri – to show how the herbs are useful in different ways. The four quadrants surround a central sundial, which was dedicated to Jotham Bixby in the 1920s. Can you guess which bed is which? Bonus Question: Can you tell what time it is? (Check the "Backstory" for hints!)
Water and food are central to daily life. When Temple’s workers lived in the adobe, they pumped water from the nearby river utilizing a water ram. This was effective until the 1860s, when a severe drought caused the river level to drop, so they dug a well in the garden and used a well sweep to pump water into the cistern. When Jotham Bixby and his family moved into the adobe in 1866, they dug a new well and built this raised water tower. They also added a windmill to the water tower, to help pump the water from the well up into the tank. In the 1930s, Rancho Los Cerritos was finally connected to the City's water system and electric grid, but Cornell incorporated the old water tower as another garden element. The Spanish word for oven is "horno." The horno you see here (whitewashed, beehive-shaped structure) was built of adobe bricks by volunteers in 1988, to resemble the one that was once located near the ranch’s kitchen in John Temple’s time. Temple’s horno was used for baking by the Bixby’s Chinese cook, Ying, in the 1870s, although he also had a wood-burning stove in the house. This horno is used for special occasions, and it must be re-plastered with mud and then whitewashed annually. In the 1930s, Rancho Los Cerritos was finally connected to the City's water system and electric grid. DIRECTIONS: Follow the pathway to the north (toward your right), as you approach the horno, which will take you back toward the historic adobe building.
Pomegranates were popular in Alta California's mission gardens, and that is likely the source for Temple’s trees. Three pomegranate trees remain from the 1840s, two in the backyard and one in the forecourt. As one the these aged, it reclined (see photo). Where its trunk touched the earth, new roots have formed. John Temple's garden dates to the same decade as Queen Victoria's reign; she ascended to the thrown in 1841. Interestingly, the people of that era - whom we today refer to as "Victorians" - had a language represented by flowers; the pomegranate’s flower was said to represent "mature beauty." How appropriate for this reclining beauty! DIRECTIONS: Exit the garden through the forecourt gates (on your left as you approach the adobe’s veranda once again).
Just outside the gates is a plaque that shows the dividing lines between two portions of the original Spanish land grant to Manuel Nieto (1784) known as Rancho Los Nietos grant: Rancho Los Cerritos & Rancho Los Alamitos. The tallest tree in the forecourt is an Osage orange, which dates to Temple’s 1840s garden. The Osage orange is native to Louisiana and Eastern Texas where the Osage people harvested its roots, bark, and fruit to dye textiles and provide wood for tools and weapons. Popular in the Midwest as a hedge to mark property boundaries since the 1800s, the Osage is unusual in Southern California. In midsummer to early autumn, the falling fruit creates astonishment for Rancho visitors who say it looks suspiciously like a “green brain.”
In addition to self-paced and docent-led tours, Rancho Los Cerritos offers engaging, inclusive, and historically-informed experiences throughout the year. Check the "Backstory" for more about the programs and opportunities typically offered.