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Philmont Scout Ranch: A “University of the Outdoors”

By John T. “Jack” Becker

For more than seventy summers, Boy Scouts, Explorers, and their leaders from all over the world converge on New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch. Their goal is to experience the high adventure activities offered by the largest outdoor youth facility in the world. Located in Colfax County on the eastern front range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Philmont Scout Ranch draws some twenty thousand scouts each year and welcomed its one millionth camper in August 2013.

The Philmont Scout Ranch boasts more than 137,000 acres and a variety of programs ranging from outdoor pursuits, leadership training, and environmental protection. It is located in some of the most spectacular scenery found anywhere, with terrain encompassing a mixture of rolling scrub pine‑covered hills, steep mesas, towering mountains, and trout-filled streams and lakes. Cimarron is the closest town of any size.

A donation of land to the Boy Scouts of America in 1938 by the highly successful oil man, Waite Phillips, became the first ranch, known as Philturn Rockymountain Scoutcamp. Philturn saw its first scouts in late March of the following year. In a letter to the President of the Boy Scouts of America, Walter Head,  Phillips stated he gave the land to the Boy Scouts to establish a “university of the outdoors,” a place for leadership training, and wilderness camping, within established health and safety guidelines. Fewer than two hundred scouts made the trip to Philmont the first year.[1]

 Attendance grew slowly and remained low as the war years made travel difficult, but attendance grew rapidly at war’s end and jumped to 7,411 by 1951. During the 1960s attendance climbed some years to more than eighteen thousand. By the late 1990s attendance consistently reached twenty thousand or more.

The original gift of 35,857 acres, located north of Route 64, is known as the Ponil Country, named for a creek and canyon situated in the area. After receiving title to the area from Phillips, Boy Scout officials quickly improved the area and had it ready for scouts the following year. The Scouts built roads and trails, cabins for staff members, a headquarters building, and a store in which scouts could purchase supplies. A gift of $50,000 from Phillips helped pay for the improvements. In the early years, scout troops were left to their own devices; they assembled at the headquarters area, bought supplies, met their guide, got their horses and burros if they wanted them and were off for up to twelve days of “wilderness adventure.”[2]

Boy Scout leaders followed the suggestion of Phillips and placed the headquarters of the camp at the junction of the Middle and South Ponil Creeks, (known as Five Points), allowing easy access to the remainder of the Ponil Country via trails built through Bear, Dean, and North Ponil Canyons. Aside from hiking and camping, scouts could view wildlife and study Indian petroglyphs. Scouts and their adult leaders paid about one dollar per day to camp at Philturn, but the cost of food, horseback riding, use of burros and the chuck wagon, could easily double the price of the trip.[3]

Impressed with what Scouting was doing with his first gift, Phillips quickly followed it with two more substantial gifts in 1941; an additional 91,538 acres of land south of the Ponil section, included Phillip’s home, Villa Philmonte, and the deed to Philtower, an office building in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The profits from the rent of the office building helped pay for the ranch’s operating expenses. The additional 91,538 acres brought the total to 127,395 acres the Boy Scouts of America owned in New Mexico. At this time the ranch’s name changed to Philmont Scout Ranch. Villa Philmonte, located about five miles south of Cimarron on highway 21, would serve as the Headquarters and Educational Center of Philmont. In 1963 Boy Scouts of America received another gift of land from scout executive Norton Clapp, of nearly ten thousand acres, bringing the total acreage to more than 137,000 acres or more than 214 square miles. The newly donated land included abandoned gold mines, Mount Baldy, and some of Philmont Scout Ranch’s most rugged country.[4]

The back country of Philmont contains a number of camps, helping to draw scouts into some of the most remote parts of the ranch. Camps may be found throughout the ranch in every type of terrain. Camps Abreu, Ponil, and the Fish Camp are located near fresh running water on canyon floors; Miner’s Park and Black Mountain Camp are high in the surrounding mountains, while Beaubien and Miranda are situated in high mountain meadows where scouts can pan for gold or learn to shoot black powder rifles. A total of thirty-four staffed camps and fifty-five trail camps offer back country hikers a place to camp for the night. Many of the backcountry camps are not permanent and are moved periodically depending on environmental concerns. Some camps are simply wide spots on the trial while others consist of cabins staffed by three to ten semi-permanent staff members. At back country camps, scouts can restock supplies offered at commissaries, learn new camping and hiking skills, mail letters, or participate in a wide variety of activities.[5]

Over the years, the activities at the ranch have changed to keep up with the ever shifting interest of scouts, and the increasing numbers of young men and women (the first female campers came in 1972) who come to Philmont. Even with the addition of more land it soon became evident to Scout officials that deviations had to be made to improve the scout’s experiences and make more effective use of the entire ranch. Consequently a plan was developed to get scouts to more remote areas of Philmont Scout Ranch and to develop ways in which scouts could pick the activities they in which they wanted to participate.[6]

In 1968 perspective campers received Philmont’s Adventure Packed Itinerary before they arrived, allowing them to pick the itinerary of activities they wanted to do and which, of the twenty-seven treks they wanted to hike, during their stay. Over the years the advanced packet of itineraries changed names and grew in size. The treks were divided into challenging, rugged, strenuous, and super strenuous, with the strenuous and super strenuous being longer, at higher elevations, and with fewer days off between days of trekking.[7]

Because of the increasing number of scouts attending Philmont and wanting to trek in the more remote areas of the ranch, in 1989 Philmont began using the Valle Vidal Unit of Carson National Forest, located just north of the Ponil Country. After reaching an agreement with the Forest Service, Boy Scouts of America uses the Valle Vidal for serious long-distant trekkers, who trek over one-hundred miles over some of the most remote areas in the American West. To accommodate the three thousand scouts using the Valle Vidal Unit each summer, Philmont manages three staffed camps and two trail camps in the unit. To camp and hike in the Valle Vidal scouts must perform three hours of service work on conservation projects within the unit.[8]

The experiences of Troop 714 from Daytona Beach, Florida seem typical of most scout’s trip to Philmont. Their trip to Philmont was part of a twenty-one-day trip “out west,” which included stops at Grand Canyon and San Antonio, Texas. The high point of their trip was of course, their eleven day trek over some of Philmont’s highest mountains. The troop worked for two years to earn the money for their trip; planning began five years earlier. The members of Troop 714 voted on the trek they would hike and the activities in which they wanted to participate; they chose rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing, and burro racing. After a one day shake-down where scouts checked their equipment for the last time, met their guide, and were told what to expect in the high altitudes, they turned in early. The next day they started their eleven-day adventure. Despite a rigorous schedule of hikes in Florida, some scouts admitted to “feeling the altitude” and low humidity in New Mexico. All the scouts from Troop 714 were fourteen years of age or older, of the rank of First Class or higher, and in good physical condition.[9]

Part of the appeal of Philmont is the historic characters that once crossed the ranch, especially the section south of Highway 64. The Santa Fe Trail crossed the ranch on its very eastern edge, near Rayado a small town in which the famous mountain man and guide, Kit Carson once lived. Before European-Americans occupied the land, which became Philmont, Native Americans, including Ute, Apache, and Pueblo peoples used the land for hunting and the gathering of plants. In 1949 and 1950 some scouts elected to help rebuild Kit Carson’s old home in Rayado, during their stay in Philmont. Carson’s home was dedicated in 1950 and is now a historical landmark and a drop-off place for trekkers exploring the southern regions of Philmont. During the camping season, between six and eight historical interpreters dressed in period costumes (circa 1830s) and give tours of Carson’s home and demonstrate such skills as blacksmithing and black powder shooting.

Another museum located at Philmont is the Seton Memorial Library and Museum, which opened in 1982. The library, named for Ernest Thompson Seton, was the first Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts of America. Seton was also a writer, artist, and naturalist. The library and museum house much of his artwork and his rather extensive collection of books on New Mexico, natural history, Native American history and culture, and the American West. The library also contains one of the largest collections of books on Scouting in the world. The same building houses a bookstore and the exhibit “Pathways to Scouting,” which is a timeline of scouting, Philmont, and U.S. history. Along the timeline are artifacts from pop-culture, scouting, Philmont, and U.S. History.[10]

            Villa Philmonte, Waite Phillips old home, is also a museum and open for guided tours all year long. Built in the Spanish Mediterranean style, the house is filled with 1920s period furnishings, art, firearms, and some of the personal belongings of Phillips and his wife, Genevieve.[11]           

Hiking a trek is the most typical experience scouts participate in at Philmont. Each group signing up for a trek is called a crew, and consists of eight to twelve people, two of which must be adult leaders. Every day from the middle of June to the middle of August,  Philmont processes 360 new trekkers every day.[12]

            Philmont developed innovative ways, as early as 1957, for scouts to “work off” all or part of their stay at Philmont by working on conservation projects or working as a cowhand on Philmont’s active cattle ranch. For a week scouts work feeding cattle, shoeing horses, building or repairing trails or campsites, or working on other conservation projects. In return scouts trek or ride horses for up to a week.[13]

Philmont Scout Ranch is also the national training center for the Boy Scouts of America and as such, trains scout leaders from all over the United States. Up to six thousand Scout Masters, district volunteers, professional scouts, and interested parents receive training at the Philmont Training Center. Since 1950 leaders have received up to a week’s training at the center. Programs are offered for spouses and children not involved in the training. The week’s training activities include leadership development, building strong troops, “Best Practices,” program development, and are interspersed with family actives. Scout leaders and their families can opt to live in Tent City and eat in one of the two mess halls found on Philmont.[14]

One individual who experienced the Center was Bruce Cammack, now the Rare Books Librarian at Texas Tech University Library. In 1973 he worked in its kitchen and dining rooms, one of the thousand staff members who every summer supplement Philmont’s eighty year-round employees.[15] Not the most adventurous job, but as essential to Philmont’s operations as the Rangers who lead hikers on their treks or the sales staff at the base camp’s trading post. “I really grew up that summer,” Cammack recalls. “They kept you busy preparing food and serving hundreds of guests three times a day, not to mention cleaning up after them.” But some of his fondest memories took place during his free time. “Hardly anyone had a car, so we would hitch rides, mostly to Cimarron. But on one occasion two scouts and I stayed too long at a nearby cabin. We ended up spending the night by the side of the road before another staff member rescued us.”[16]

            Judging from the expressions on the scout’s faces and the enthusiasm shown by the staff of Philmont witnessed during the recent camping season, the saying about Philmont is still true, “Philmont is not a place but a feeling.”


Timeline of Events

  • 1938    Oilman Waite Phillips donates part of his large ranch, the “Ponil Country,” to the Boy Scouts of America and $50,000 to make improvements on the land.
  • 1939    In late March the first scouts arrive at Philturn Rockymountain Scoutcamp and are allowed to plan their own itineraries.
  • 1941    Phillips donates another large track of land and his home Villa Philmonte to the Boy Scouts of America. At the same time he gives Philtower, a Tulsa, Oklahoma office building to the Scouts; the rental income will go toward the operation of the newly named Philmont Scout Ranch.
  • 1951    After low attendance during WWII, 7,511 scouts attend Philmont.
  • 1957    The Ranger program begins, in which a ranger or guide accompanies all groups, or crews hiking Philmont back country.
  • 1960    In a ceremony held on the ranch, Clear Creek Mountain’s name is changed to Mount Phillips in honor Waite Phillips. Due to Phillips’ poor health he could not attend the ceremony.   
  • Norton Clapp, a scout executive donates addition ten thousand acres to the Boy Scouts. This donation includes access to Mount Baldy and several abandoned gold mines. The gift brings to over 137, 000 acres, which the Scouts own.
  • 1964    Waite Phillips, long time benefactor of Philmont, dies at age eighty-one.
  • 1965    Attendance reaches 9,500.
  • 1968    The first advanced itineraries are created for the 1969 camping season. The advanced itineraries allow crews to pick the treks (hikes) they wish to take and in which activities they wish to participate. The advanced itineraries are a huge success and help relieve congestion near headquarter buildings; 18,648 scouts attend Philmont.
  • 1971    A conservation Department is established at Philmont, where older scouts, interested in conservation (nature preservation) work on heavily used trails and other natural features in Philmont.
  • 1972    The first female scouts arrive; they are part of a coed Venture (Explorer Scout) crew who hike the back country of PSR.
  • 1982    The Seton Library and Museum is dedicated.
  • 1989    Philmont reaches an agreement with the National Forest Service to use Valle Vidal, a part of the Carson National Forest, for scout activities.
  • 1994    More than nineteen thousand scouts visit Philmont.
  • 2008    Visitors to Philmont reach 22,696 for an all-time high.


[1]Steve Zimmer and Larry Walker, Philmont: A Brief History of the New Mexico Scout Ranch (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2000), 4; Michael Wallis, Beyond the Hills: The Journey of Waite Phillips (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1995), 274; and Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), 206-208.

[2] Zimmer and Walker, Philmont, 61-62; Larry McLaughlin, Philmont Documentary Collection (San Diego: Black Mountain Films, 2011), video recording; and Murphy, Philmont, 206-208.

[3] Stephen Zimmer, Interview by David Marshall, 29 August 2001, tape recording, Texas Tech Southwest Collection Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock; and Zimmer and Walker, Philmont, 44-47.

[4] Zimmer and Walker, Philmont, 47-49; and David L. Caffey, Head for the High Country (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), 33.

[5] Wallis, Beyond the Hills, 296-301.

[6] Caffey, High Country, 16.

[7] McLaughlin, Philmont Documentary Collection, video collection; and Laura Heinz, Interview by author, 16 June 2011, transcript in possession of author.

[8]Lauren Nicholas, Interview by author, 7 June 2011, transcript in possession of author; Robin Taylor, Interview by author, 8 June 2011, transcript in the possession of author; and Philmont’s Adventure Packed Itineraries, 1969-2010, passim.

[9] Philmont’s Adventure Packed Itineraries, 1969-2010, passim

[10]. Scouts and leaders of Troop 714, Daytona Beach, Fla., 7 June 2011, interview by author, transcript in the possession of author.

[11] Scouts and leaders of Troop 714, Daytona Beach, Fla., 7 June 2011, interview by author, transcript in the possession of author.

[12] Amanda Allred, Interview by author, 8 June 2011, transcript in the possession of author.

[13] “Philmont Scout Ranch,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 29, 2011).

[14] Ibid..

[15] 2011 Boy Scouts of America, “Philmont Training Center,” (accessed June 29, 2011).

[16] Bruce Cammack, Interview by author, 10 June 2011, transcript in possession of the author.