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Story and photos by Ariele Johannson


January 4, 2010 (Warner Springs)--For historic Warner Springs Ranch, time seems circular as its past echoes for a return. In keeping with a Native American trend to buy back ancestral land, the Pala Band of Mission Indians is purchasing its former homeland, Warner Springs Ranch.


Tribes have bought back “more than 840,000 acres — or roughly the equivalent of the state of Rhode Island” between the years 1998 and 2007, according to a 2009 Associated Press article by Timberly Ross written with information obtained from the Bureau of Indian Affairs through the Freedom of Information Act.


Locally, the Kumeyaay Diegueño Land Conservancy, which represents eight tribes, has recently received a donation of 32 acres in Julian-the Mosler Estate. The Native American Land Conservancy, which works with the KDLC, has acquired 2,560 acres of aboriginal land in the Eastern Mojave Desert in the last ten years. This land acquisition and preservation protects historic resources and ancestral knowledge for tribal members and all Californians.


The Pala Band of Mission Indians was created in 1903 when the Cupeño Tribe was forced off the land by armed U.S. agents on the land now known as Warner Springs Ranch. The event ended an almost decade long legal battle culminating in a Supreme Court decision in 1901 which favored the family of former California Governor John G. Downey. He had purchased the land and wanted the Indians to be evicted.


The tribe refers to the three-day trek to Pala, CA as the “Cupeño Trail of Tears.” They were forced to live on the Pala Indian reservation with the Luiseño tribe 40 miles away. Before their expulsion, the Cupeño made a living by farming, selling food, blankets, and baskets to travelers who were passing through on the Butterfield stagecoach route, and charging a small fee for visitors to soak in the hot springs. Hopefully, it will not take them as long to regain the land, though the real estate escrow has been bogged down by complications.


The historic locale of the Warner Springs Ranch with its hot mineral springs has transformed many in need of rejuvenation, and today it is undergoing another renewal. Its caretakers have ranged from the native Indians to three other major landowners. Its first owner-through a land grant in 1844-was John Warner, who established a trading post there in the mid-1800s. In 1858, the site became a major stop for the Butterfield Overland Stage.


One can be certain that the Pala Band of Mission Indians appreciate the ancient ambience of this region that has been a treasure for many over the years. The Pala Indians already have a graveyard at the location. Once escrow closes, the Pala plan to close the resort for three months for renovations and to spiritually cleanse the land.

Doug Elmets, spokesman for the Pala tribe, assured me that the tribe is committed to the lengthy process of escrow, as well as completing the needed renovations and upgrades to the resort property. Also, they do not plan to divert from the present operations of the Ranch, which is famous for providing an authentic Old West feel for the early days of California. The activities and facilities include a golf course, pro-shop, Olympic swimming pool, mineral hot spring pool, horseback riding facilities, accommodations in cabins and adobes, a small restaurant, a gas station and a mini-mart. The Cupeño Indians resided in some of the old adobes.


The same vista that attracts visitors to the Warner Ranch today stopped John Warner in his tracks almost two centuries ago. Warner was a 23-year-old pioneer who left a cold 1830 winter in Connecticut to begin an adventurous life. Traveling with the rugged Jedediah Smith who led the trading expedition, he crossed the country and landed in this region, then traveled on to Los Angeles. He married the daughter of a ship captain; her name was Anita Gale. She was raised by the widowed mother of Pio Pico, future governor of California when it was ruled by Mexico.


Warner became a naturalized citizen of Mexico, changing his name to Juan Jose Warner, and in 1844 was awarded a land grant for the 48,000 acre Valle de San Jose in San Diego’s East County mountains, where he would establish Warner Ranch.


Visitors to the Ranch learn that after building a trading post on the land, John Warner’s efforts enabled wagon trains and gold-seekers to come into the area. It was the only inhabited stop for the Butterfield Overland Stage between New Mexico and Los Angeles. Later,  soldiers used this route.


In 1851, Warner and two young Indian men he had adopted held off a contingent of 100 Indians who attacked the trading post. The devastation to the ranch left Warner unable to continue his business, and he left the ranch never to return. Despite this, Warner Ranch was on every map as a major stop on the stagecoach’s route from St. Louis to San Francisco in 1858, and John Warner went on to be elected to the California State Senate.


The next major sole owner was John G. Downey in 1880. The year 1892 was when he filed a complaint to have the Cupeño Indians evicted. He popularized the site by advertising its spa for visitors in 1894. In 1911, the land was purchased by William G. Henshaw, who built the reservoir called Lake Henshaw. For more than two decades now the Ranch has been owned by a membership of private owners with a Board of Directors.

The present owners operate a self-catering condo property with a full-service spa and outdoor pool. The resort is a 2,522 acre ranch north of Santa Ysabel on Route 79, not far from the Lake Henshaw and Mt. Palomar turnoff onto Rt. 76.


The drive through the Valle de San Jose area between Julian and Santa Ysabel and the Anza Borrego Desert is a fitting prelude to arriving at the resort. The terrain of occasional oak groves, boulders, pastureland, and big skies with views of the San Jacinto Mountains returns one to the original surroundings of this part of San Diego County.



When at the Ranch, a flicker of time is all it takes to feel at home among the abundant foliage, including red, white and yellow rose bushes, friendly people and winding paths. Some would find it rewarding to envision the Pala Indians living by the hot springs generations ago, long before the first bathhouse at Warner Ranch was built.


Now, the agua mineral caliente is piped into tubs in order to allow it to cool off for visitors to luxuriate in. Nearby modern attractions include a sky sailing airport and the Santa Ysabel Casino. Besides the rustic cabins, there are old adobes, where native Pala Indians once resided. San Diegans and others can soon return to recreate with vacations (golf, family, spa), daycations, job-related retreats or spiritual getaways on this sacred ground.


The resort remains open during the escrow period. Prices range from $120/day (plus tax and a $10 facilities use fee) for a Standard Queen or Double with fireplace on Weekends. Currently, they feature a Mid-Week Special of $70/day (plus tax and a $10 facilities use fee). Please call 760-782-4200 or check their website http://www.warnersprings.com for up-to-date information on accommodations and events.

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