Explore Fort Tejon: Civil War History Right near Los Angeles

Explore the adobe barracks at Fort Tejon. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Explore the adobe barracks at Fort Tejon. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
11/1/21 - By Martha Michael

Most kids learn about California history by visiting the gorgeous California Missions that dot the Southland. However, you don't have to hop a flight to Gettysburg for some Civil War-era history. An easy day trip from LA is Fort Tejon State Park, where visitors get a look at a day in the life of a 19th-century soldier from the time of the Civil War. It's a unique and fascinating glimpse of lesser-known local history. So pack a picnic and head over the Grapevine to explore this hidden historic gem.


Exploring Fort Tejon

Fort Tejon was an actual US Army garrison in the 1850s and ‘60s. What’s left of its 10-year history includes restored adobes from the original fort as well as a museum with exhibits depicting army life.

One of the best features of Fort Tejon State Historic Park is its manageable size. After parking in front and walking across a short bridge, an expansive view of the grounds appears before you. The Visitor’s Center is immediately to your left, or you can pop into the reconstructed jail and guardhouse on the right.

Explore Fort Tijon: The Quartermaster Building
Pre-dating the Civil War, this is the Fort Tejon Quartermaster building. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

If you’ve been in the car a while it may be a better idea to first cut the kids loose on the wide, open park grounds where visibility is very good. 

Park rangers are available to answer questions (though tours are not currently offered) and there’s a sign at the entrance with a QR code for a self-guided audio tour.

Explore Fort Tijon: Actual uniforms are on display
Uniforms are on display in the Day Room. Photo courtesy of  Wikipedia

The guardhouse (identified as the “guardroom”) was where soldiers who kept watch at the fort served 24-hour shifts in uniform and slept (on a simple wood shelf which you can see). Kids get a good idea how small the quarters were for those soldiers as well as the limited space in the two jail cells next door to it (and their serious lack of ventilation!). Both were reconstructed at their original locations, as was the Barracks Building.

Climb up a large set of stairs (in other words, not stroller-friendly) to enter the Barracks Building for a comprehensive history education. There are several rooms of exhibits behind plexiglass, including mannequins in uniform, saddles, weapons, card games, soaps, dishes, and clothing worn by frontier women. One room is set up with tables and benches where soldiers would take meals, and an expansive area outside the barracks is identified as the kitchen.

Explore Fort Tijon: Cooking outside 
What remains of the kitchen area, outside the barracks. Photo courtesy of the author

There are other buildings with markers—even a gravestone identifying an early settler who was allegedly killed by a grizzly bear—and beyond these structures there are miles of foothills where families can hike and explore.

Timing Your Trip to Fort Tejon

Explore Fort Tijon: the Dragoons Living History Program 
If you can, visit on a day when you can see the Dragoons Living History Program. Photo courtesy of ​Fort Tejon State Historic Park

The fort is open 7 days a week, but you really want to time your visit to take part in the monthly living history event. During the Frontier Army Days/Dragoons Living History Program, Civil War reenactors from the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the California Volunteers camp out on the grounds and offer interactive role-playing as they depict everyday life in 1856 for tradesmen. Demonstrations include brickmaking, artillery drills, open-hearth cooking, blacksmithing, needlecraft, carpentry, and more.

The Frontier Army Days program is held on the first Saturday of every month, except January. (Call to confirm before visiting!)

See cancons and woodworking materials in the Quartermaster building at Fort Tejon. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

If you’d like an extended stay in Grapevine Canyon, there’s a campground that abuts Fort Tejon where you can pitch tents or park your RV, but you need to make a reservation through the California Park Service. One of the unusual features about camping here is that the campground accepts large group reservations, so you have the whole place to yourself for $125. One ranger told me he’s seen a group as large as 75 people use the campground! If no group reservations have been made, you can rent a space for $15 per night.

Explore Fort Tijon: Learn about the camel corps 
Learn the truth about the "Camel Corps." Photo courtesy of the author 

Know Before You Go

Fort Tejon State Park is about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles along the "Grapevine" section of the I-5 freeway. The entrance to the park is right at exit 210 and is well marked. Parking is easy, right out front, and the cost is $6 per vehicle.

There is no food service at Fort Tejon, but you can bring lunches and make use of the picnic tables – even move the tables anywhere you’d like (they typically end up under the shade of the many Valley Oak trees). If brown-bagging it doesn’t interest you, just 10 miles north you have your choice of chains from In-N-Out Burger to Pieology Pizzeria at the Tejon Ranch Outlet Mall.

All ages are welcome, pets included, and you can bring a stroller, but I recommend a front carrier or backpack for baby as the grounds are primarily dirt and grass.

The buildings are open from sunrise to sunset, and the Visitor’s Center and interpretive exhibits are open 8am-4pm.  Bathrooms are fairly primitive (stainless steel, no changing table, etc.), but are kept very clean.

Fun tip: You'll pass Magic Mountain on your way home. Just in case you want to reward the kids for spending half the day at educational exhibits by spending the other half on roller coaster rides!

Explore Fort Tijon: See historic photography 
Photo courtesy of ​Fort Tejon State Historic Park via Facebook

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