Everyone has their favorite park -- some place that offers a great playground, good picnicking or maybe a dog park.

For those who want it all, Hap Magee Ranch Park in Danville offers the full experience -- a regional trail, community garden, dog park, an Indian commemorative site and historic buildings that remind visitors of the area's rich Western history. Its namesake, rancher Hap Magee, was known not only for his longhorn cattle, but his collection of more than 3,000 branding irons -- one of the largest collections of its kind in the country.

The park, located on La Gonda Way, has a colorful past, said local historian Beverly Lane during a recent tour.

"This property next to San Ramon Creek had many sites where ... Indians lived in the 1700s into the 1800s," she said. "It was then Mission San Jose grazing land, part of a rancho."

In 1874, Captain Isaac and Ann Trasker Swain left a bequest to the San Francisco Protestant Orphanage Asylum. An orphan himself, Swain thought the children deserved a summer break away from San Francisco's foggy dampness, and Danville fit the bill. By 1911, "Camp Swain" opened on the park site, the former Hemme property.

More than 100 boys and girls traveled to the camp each summer via electric streetcar and bus, carrying their bedding. They spent their vacation in tents during the early years, until buildings were constructed. A swimming pool was later added.


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The camp operated until the mid-1940s. In 1946, the land was purchased by Harry and Juanita Magee, who restored the run-down buildings and used the property as a summer home. Their sons, Jerry and Hap, eventually moved onto the property with their families. The ranch lost its eastern portion, a barn and a former rotunda with the construction of Interstate 680, and by the mid-1970s Hap had bought his brother's share of the land. His nephew, Jed Magee, spent summers on the ranch, and recalled his uncle as a well-loved cattleman with a passion for longhorns.

"Hap was a hell of a guy," he said. "He was a storyteller, and he loved the American West and the longhorns. He also had a branding iron collection of about 3,000 -- it was a crazy collection."

Today, Hap Magee Ranch Park is designed to be a "passive" park, without sports fields. A large bridge over San Ramon Creek connects Las Trampas to Mount Diablo Regional Trail.

Visitors will find an expansive meadow, walking paths and a partially-shaded playground with a water feature (although it is now turned off due to drought).

There is also a sand volleyball court, benches and covered picnic tables. Dog lovers can enjoy the "Canine Corral," a 1.5-acre off-leash dog park at the northern end of the park, and visitors can see Bounty Garden, where community members learn organic gardening skills and raise produce for area food banks.

Weddings are held at a gazebo in the meadow, and the restored historic buildings are used for recreation programs and private events. Tucked away is the old branding iron house. The floor of this building is covered with scores of brands, although history did not record when the floor-branding took place, Lane said.

"We don't know at what point they heated up the brands and put them on the floor," she said with a smile. "One theory is that Hap invited people to come over with their brands, and they all had a good party."

Although the branding iron house is generally not open to the public, some of the brands can be seen through the building's windows. Visitors are often surprised by the park's offerings.

"It's a great loop from Danville Boulevard, across the bridge through the park and along La Gonda to the Alamo Cemetery on El Portal," said Carole Johnson, of Alamo, who walks with husband Don. "Then you walk back."

Laurie Laikam, of Danville, was visiting the park for the first time in several years.

"I've been here two or three times in the late '80s or 1990, and it's fun to see how it's morphed into something special," she said. "There are such beautiful trees and shade. I can picture bringing a picnic and maybe my bocce balls. It's changed a lot."

If You go
Hap Magee Ranch Park is at 1025 La Gonda Way in Danville. For more information on the history of the site, contact the Museum of the San Ramon Valley at 925-837-3750 or log on to www.museumsrv.org. For general information on Hap Magee Ranch Park, log on to http://www.danville.ca.gov/Things-To-Do/Parks/Community-Parks/Hap-Magee-Ranch.