The largest national park that’s surrounded by urban areas now has a visitor center nestled within its boundaries for the first time ever.

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s new visitor center is on a ranch with a fascinating history all its own.

The 588-acre King Gillette Ranch includes a mansion built by the razor-blade magnate back in the 1920s, and the visitor center was created inside a former horse stable from that era. Both buildings were designed in a Mediterranean style by noted architect Wallace Neff, who designed many other beautiful California buildings, including the Ojai Valley Inn.

It was later purchased by Hollywood director Clarence Brown, who built an airstrip to fly guests to lavish parties. The Hollywood connection remains in full swing today since movies and TV shows are still shot there, including The Biggest Loser.

It’s an interagency visitor center reflecting the numerous groups who help manage the vast national park, spanning all the way from the Point Mugu area to the Hollywood Hills. Some of those include the National Park Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

After passing through several other owners including Soka University, which envisioned a campus serving thousands of students, it was purchased by the MRCA during 2005 for $35 million. It’s located near Agoura at the intersection of Los Virgenes Road and Mulholland Drive in the heart of the 153,700-acre national park.

During the recent grand opening ceremony visitors had a chance to tour the property. Beautiful old trees abound, wildlife is frequently spotted, and it’s also interesting to relive the property’s long history.

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston says the central location of the center is key to explaining its mission since the old visitor center was outside park boundaries in the city of Thousand Oaks.

“This is the very heart of the Santa Monica Mountains, equidistant to PCH and the 101 freeway,” says Edmiston. “I don’t think people are aware of the great variety of wildlife and recreational experiences here.”

A ranger explained its history from Chumash Indian days through the rancho era to its latest incarnation. There’s a mile-long loop trail to a high spot called Inspiration Point with a 360-degree view of scenic rock formations in nearby Malibu Creek State Park.

The Anthony C. Beilenson Interagency Visitor Center was named after the congressman who wrote the legislation creating the park back in 1978. It includes interactive exhibits about the area’s history and tips on how to explore it, as well as a gift shop. It’s also the first national park visitor center that generates all the electricity it uses through solar energy, so it’s described as a “net zero” building. It earned the highest honor for green construction, known as LEED Platinum.

Nine and a half million dollars of federal economic stimulus money was used to refurbish the dilapidated horse stables into a modern visitor center.

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks is on the conservancy board and hopes people visiting the center will be inspired to explore the park more thoroughly.

“It is unique that in this incredibly urban area that you have this enormous amount of preserved parkland,” says Parks. “The center gives it a home people know they can come and visit, but the true experience for me is always being able to get out and walk on the trails and get into nature.”