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Celebrating 40 Years of Rancho San Rafael

By TMPF Team

Photo Courtesy of the Great Reno Balloon Race

A lot can change in 40 years. People, cities and gardens all grow, change and adapt as the years go by. Even things that were once massively popular come and go, but luckily for all of us who live in Reno, Sparks and Washoe County, Rancho San Rafael park has remained a great spot for families and friends of all ages to enjoy for the past 40 years. As the park enters its next decade of life, we thought it would be fun to share some of the history and our own stories of this iconic Washoe County Park.

Rancho San Rafael became a park in July of 1982 but the land it was on had been in the public eye for long before then. Like much of the area around Reno it was originally a ranch founded in 1897 by the Pincolini Family. In 1904 it changed hands to a man named Russell Jensen before once again being sold in 1927 to the man the park is named after Dr. Raphael Herman. The land was owned by the Herman family until 1976 when Mariana Herman, the widow of Raphael’s brother Norman, put the land up for sale.

Rancho San Rafael TMPF Re-photography Project

Washoe County and the Nevada Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) were able to come together and purchase the 408 acres of land through a combination of money and general obligation bonds in 1979. This beat out several land developers and in 1980 an all volunteer citizen steering committee was formed to turn the former ranch into a park.

Two years later the park would open with a celebration that included a parade, elephants and 20 hot air balloons, laying the foundation for what would become the annual tradition of the Great Reno Balloon Races. The Wilbur D. May Arboretum, botanical gardens and museum were all added in the 1980s, as well as the Great Basin Adventure park. The adventure park included ponies, a mining exhibit, and a log flume ride for kids to enjoy, but was closed in 2010 due to how much it cost to maintain. The memory of the ranch is not lost however, the original ranch house owned by the Herman family still stands and is reservable for events today.

Photo Courtesy of the Great Reno Balloon Race

So for 40 years Rancho San Rafael has been part of the Reno community providing several of our staff and AmeriCorps members with great memories to share.

Matt DeBray, Communications Manager: When I was serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member with TMPF around five years ago, one of the very last Trails Challenge hikes that I led was through Rancho. I think it might have been either our first or second guided hike that year and we ended up with around 75 people on this hike. We had underestimated the excitement people had for exploring this park. So two other AmeriCorps members and myself ended up leading this hike and what started out as nervousness for how we would be able to do a good enough job for that many people, slowly became excitement as we all realized how much people loved this park. I took in that energy and gave it right back to everyone who was there today. I think it might have been one of the best hikes I ever led. Today it’s still one of my favorite parks to go to, my daughter loves the playground, especially because it has the squishy material under all the equipment which is fun to jump on.

Jennie Johnson, Wetland Outreach Coordinator: One of my favorite memories of Rancho San Rafael Park is running high school cross-country on the trails at Rancho. My school was nearby so sometimes we would run to Rancho and sometimes we would carpool there for practice. I feel like sometimes I was there everyday! My very first high school cross-country race was at Rancho San Rafael plus, each year, we would have our regional races there. These races were always a huge event with schools from all around Washoe County and news and vendors. When I was growing up I knew about the Arboretum and main park areas but from running there in high school I learned about the tunnel under McCarran and the whole North side of the park by the Basque Monument and the northern part of the park with the canyon trails.

North Rancho San Rafael Trails

Devin Sandoval de Genovese, Student Stewards Program Director:

One of my favorite memories at Rancho San Rafael was from a Summer Camp field trip at Rancho. We were exploring after lunch and a small group of campers ran into a family that was looking at a frog. The frog was out of the water and up near the bathrooms. The kids and family helped return the frog to the pond by using a plastic cup to carry and release it to the water. We used it as an opportunity to talk about healthy habitats for the frog and other animals. The children released the frog on the edge of the water and a large white barn duck swam over and ate the frog! We used it as an opportunity to talk about the food webs and life-cycles with the kids.

Rancho San Rafael West Ponds on the 40th Anniversary

Megan Yount, Wetland Restoration Technician:

One of my favorite memories from Rancho San Rafael was a Trail Building Workshop that I got to participate in with some of the Truckee Meadows Wetland staff. We built a trail in the south part of the park near the new pollinator garden and it was cool to see it completed and open now. It was interesting to learn all of the steps involved in trail building and I was surprised to learn about the leveling and ADA accessibility concerns for trails. We also got to learn about the aggregate and trail materials used in trail construction.

Pollinator Garden in the Farms and Families Area at Rancho San Rafael

Ashley Butler, Community Programs Educator:

Rancho is probably my favorite park in the city of Reno. I love this place not only for its beauty but because I have so many memories throughout my life that took place here. I remember the early mornings my mom would wake my sister and I so we could head to Dawn Patrol, which is the best part of the annual balloon races. There is something almost magical watching the giant orbs light up the sky as you snuggle up on the grass sipping cocoa. Now I get to take my son year after year and watch his face light up. I also remember the school trips to the Great Basin Adventure Park which used to be located at Rancho. I remember panning for gold, exploring some crazy slide maze and of course the log rides. I really think they should bring back the log rides!

Photo Courtesy of the Great Reno Balloon Race

Vee S. High School TMPF volunteer: One of my favorite memories from Rancho is going on a field trip at school with all my friends. We used to go to the museum all the time and then eat lunch at the Dino park afterwards. I always loved the exhibits because there was something new every time.

Vee volunteering for a Truckee Meadows Parks Junior Naturalists Event in the Rancho San Rafael Arboretum

This past weekend, our Truckee Meadows Parks staff had the opportunity to take part in the Rancho San Rafael 40th Anniversary Celebration. The event featured a balloon launch, farm animals, organizations from around Northern Nevada, plus, two guided hikes led by our own TMPF Staff. Many of us have tons of amazing memories from this park and we were so happy to be able to participate in this event!

For more information on Rancho San Rafael Park, please see the Park Archive on our website. Thank you to our board member Jill Richardson for providing the history in this article. To learn more about our park historical projects, please see our Re-photograpy Project on our website or email to find out more about becoming a volunteer park historian. Thank you to The Great Reno Balloon Race for providing some of the pictures used in this blog.


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