June 20, 2018

Historical Society Potluck Picnic at Big Rock Ranch / Cali Camp, October 14



Historical Society Potluck Picnic at Big Rock Ranch / Cali Camp, October 14

A photo from the 1930s shows a woman sitting in the shade along Old Topanga Canyon Road, the view is looking south with Big Rock in background. At that time, Old Canyon was the main road through Topanga. Big Rock Ranch—home of the popular children’s day camp, Cali Camp—is the location of the Topanga Historical Society’s annual picnic on Sunday, Oct. 14 beginning at noon.

Majestic Big Rock looms large in upper Old Topanga Canyon. This landmark cradled in the folds between Zuniga and Red Rock Canyons is the location for the Topanga Historical Society’s annual community potluck picnic on Sunday, Oct. 14.

While the 21-acre recreation area has been home to a popular day camp and private school for more than 36 years, as well as a recreation center for corporate picnics and events since the early 1980s, the location has remained unknown and somewhat off-limits to many who call Topanga home.

That is until now. In 2011 the legendary Big Rock Ranch was sold at auction and is now owned by Topangans Paul Ferra and Melissa Oliver, realtors with Coldwell Banker. The new owners’ motivation to purchase the land was three-fold—to keep the property out of the hands of developers, to repurpose the Ranch as a community resource and facility, and to keep Cali Camp for children to enjoy for years to come.

The Topanga Historical Society is delighted that the owners have opened the property to the organization for its annual picnic. It is an ideal opportunity to experience this beautiful property in the heart of Old Canyon, and learn more about its history and the importance it has had on thousands of children and counselors thoughout the years. You’ll also hear firsthand some of the exciting plans for future use.

Picnickers are invited to tour the property that includes an Olympic-size pool, bamboo forest, new skate park, adventure rope course, tennis courts, two large horse arenas, softball field, gymnastics area, a fully paved picnic area, and a school complex with five classrooms, library, four offices, restrooms and storage. The property also includes a two-story, single-family residence converted into classrooms, but with the potential for a multitude of other uses.


The picnic begins under the shade of the oak trees at noon on Sunday, October 14. The program kicks off at 1 p.m. with speakers Paul Ferra and camp director, Pam Hawley, plus stories from current and former campers.

Guests are encouraged to bring a main dish, side dish, salad or dessert. Guests are also asked to bring their own plates and cutlery. Drinks will be provided. There is no charge and all are welcome to attend this free community event.

Big Rock Ranch/Cali-Camp is located at 1717 Old Topanga Canyon Road. Although there is onsite parking, guests are encouraged to carpool.


In geologic time, Big Rock was formed three to four million years ago as compression started squeezing the earth to form the Santa Monica Mountains. Over a million years, the natural geologic processes of the earth formed the beautiful canyon we call Topanga. Big Rock emerged during this period.

In the early 1900s, Old Topanga Canyon began to be developed when early pioneers started homesteading the area, which includes Red Rock Canyon and Bonnell Ranch (later Topanga Park).

Howard Cottingham owned and operated Big Rock Ranch Day Camp on the property for a period of time (exact dates unknown).

Cali Camp was established in 1955 by Dr. Art Ulene in West Los Angeles. Saul Rowen acquired the camp and moved it to Camp Wildwood in Topanga in 1964 and then to Big Rock Ranch in 1976 when Rowen and Cottingham combined their day camp businesses. Pam Hawley, the camp’s director for the past 20 years, started working there as a counselor in 1976.

In 1978 Rowen became sole owner of the property and continued the popular day camp for children aged 4-13, who came from West Los Angeles, beach cities and the San Fernando Valley to participate in nature lore, crafts, swimming, horseback riding, sports, drama, music, fishing and other activities for 11 weeks each summer.

In 1977 Rowen opened Calmont School as a companion to his popular day camp. Ollie Winheim served as the original director of the school. Linda Creager, a Calmont teacher, moved up to director of the school a few years later. Hawley ran the physical education program for 8 years in addition to working at Cali Camp during winter, summer and spring sessions. What began as a one-room schoolhouse, teaching 12 students in second through fourth grades, expanded over the years with new classrooms to accommodate primary, lower and middle school children.

In 1983, the parents of Calmont School took over day-to-day management of the school. In June 2001, Creager stepped down from her 24-year tenure as director and in August 2001, Judi Chamberlain became head of Calmont School. The school closed in 2005 and another private school—MUSE Academy—opened on the site before moving to a new location in Malibu in 2011.

In 2005, Cali Camp celebrated its 50th anniversary with Rowen at the helm. But in 2011, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the property reverted to the bank. The land sold at auction in July 2011 to the current owners who continue to operate Cali Camp on the premises.

Ferra and Oliver are very excited to integrate the Topanga community into the property. The popular FOCUSFish Aerial Academy has recently opened on the site where many Topanga kids attend classes on state-of-the-art equipment in a lush meadow underneath the large rock outcropping. Topanga seniors and others have used the swimming pool during several of the hottest days this past summer.

Cali-Camp continues to delight children from inside and outside the Canyon for several weeks each summer . Big Rock Ranch has started Afternoon Camp Enrichment (A.C.E.), an after school Camp for local families and is running an 11-day Winter Vacation Camp.

Should be a fun event. Hope to see you there!