Posted by: James Wapotich | June 10, 2012

Trail Quest: Sisquoc River, Part 1

The Sisquoc River is one of only 16 rivers in California that is designated with the protective status of National Wild and Scenic River. The other local river with this designation is the Sespe River.

There are several ways to visit the Sisquoc River within the Los Padres National Forest, probably the most common is to make a large loop starting and ending at Nira campground. This is a multi-day backpacking trip which involves starting at Nira along Manzana Creek, hiking westward or downstream along the Manzana Trail to Manzana Schoolhouse, which is located at the confluence of Manzana Creek and the Sisquoc River, and then from Manzana Schoolhouse hiking eastward or upstream along the Sisquoc River Trail to South Fork Station.

And then from South Fork Station hiking westward up White Ledge Canyon, away from the Sisquoc River, and over to the Manzana drainage and then continuing downstream along the Manzana Trail returning to Nira. This route is often referred to as the Sisquoc or Lower Sisquoc Loop and is about 45 miles long.

One can also reverse this loop, as well as mix in portions of the Hurricane Deck Trail. Hurricane Deck is the prominent mountain ridge separating the Manzana and Sisquoc watersheds.

The Sisquoc River from Manzana Schoolhouse upstream to Sycamore Camp also has the distinction of having not been burned in either the 2007 Zaca Fire or the 2009 La Brea Fire and offers an opportunity to see what the backcountry looked like prior to these fires.

The Sisquoc River Valley is also rich with pioneer history. With the end of the Mexican-American War and the beginning of the Gold Rush, California saw in influx of settlers. And while the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war stipulated that ownership of the existing Mexican Land grants be honored, much of the remaining land became federal property.

In 1862 with passage of the Homestead Act offering the promise of free government land it was inevitable that folks would push upstream into the more remote sections of our backcountry.

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened up government owned land for settlement and provided an opportunity for settlers to acquire 160 acres. This involved a 3 step process, after initially filing a claim, the settler would then need to demonstrate improvement to the land, typically the building of a cabin, and then either homestead there for 5 years and then file for title to the land to receive a deed or homestead there for 6 months and purchase the land for $1.50 per acre.

By 1890 there were as many as 200 families living along the Sisquoc River and adjoining creeks upstream from the Sisquoc Ranch. Among these pioneers was a colorful group of settlers from Kansas led by Hiram Preserved Wheat. The group practiced faith-healing and Mr. Wheat believed in the laying on of hands and followed a strict diet. The Wheat daughters married into the Wells and Twitchell families. In all there were 11 families in the group related through intermarriage.

In 1894 Manzana Schoolhouse was built for the children of these settlers. On the school board was Adolf Willman, William Tunnel, and Ed Forrester.

Looking out across the Sisquoc River from the campground located at Manzana Schoolhouse one can make out an old dirt road on the opposite side. This road leads up to Wheat Mesa and a half mile downstream from the schoolhouse along the Sisquoc River one can find the ruins of the homestead of Hiram Wells, Mr. Wheat’s son-in-law.

Nothing remains of the Wheat homestead which was located further to the west on the mesa. The road continues past the Well’s ruins and actually crosses the river and continues downstream but can be difficult to locate on the opposite side.

A mile and a half downstream from the Wells’ homestead, at the mouth of Horse Gulch Canyon, is the ruins of Edward Forrester’s homestead, Mr. Forrester was married to Emily Melinda Wells of the Wells family. Downstream from Horse Gulch Canyon the Sisquoc River passes near the Tunnel homestead and through private property.

Starting from Manzana Schoolhouse the trail crosses Manzana Creek and heads east above the Sisquoc River along a flat mesa or bench. At about the quarter mile mark the Sisquoc River Trail arrives at the Hurricane Deck trail. This juncture represents the western terminus of the 23 mile long trail that traces the ridge line between the Sisquoc River and Manzana Creek.

From here, stay to the left, on the Sisquoc River Trail as it continues above the river passing through an almost endless oak savanna of wild grasses mixed with oaks decorated with Spanish moss and mistletoe. The trail eventually crosses the river and continues through more oak savanna on the opposite side.

At roughly the 3.5 mile mark from Manzana Schoolhouse the trail arrives at the ruins of what is likely the homestead of Lucien Forrester, Edward Forrester’s brother. And about a half mile later the trail arrives at Water Canyon Campground, which is shaded, has a fire ring with a klamath stove, but no table.

About two thirds of the way between Water Canyon and Mormon Camp one arrives at a camp not shown on any maps. It was likely built by horse packers as the camp has a picnic table, and a stone and cement fire pit with the inscription: In Memory Lorna 1952-1993.

At the 6 mile mark the Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Mormon Camp. The camp overlooks the river and has a fire ring with a klamath stove, but no table.

It’s also here that one starts to see the first of a half dozen beaver dams founds along the Sisquoc River. Beavers native elsewhere in California were heavily decimated by fur trappers and were re-introduced in various places throughout the state by the California Department of Fish and Game in the 1940s.

Just past Mormon Camp one arrives at Wellman Canyon, after which under some oak trees in a small valley one can find the ruins of the Willman homestead, Wellman being a corruption of the name Willman. Adolph and Louise Willman, originally born in Germany, were one of the more successful homesteader in the area and even had an apricot orchard and vineyard.

About halfway between the Willman ruins and Miller Canyon Base Camp are the ruins of another homestead, likely those of Herman Willman one of Adolph Willman’s relatives. The ruins are not along the trail but on the opposite side of the river.

At the 9 mile mark the Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Miller Canyon Base Camp, where the Miller family homesteaded. At the camp one will find a fire ring with a klamath stove and what’s left of a table serving as a bench.

At Miller Camp one will also find a corral that was built in the 1930s by the Sisquoc Ranch with the hope of rounding up cattle that were roaming along Hurricane Deck. The cattle however proved to be too wild to be caught and were eventually shot.

From Miller Canyon Base camp the Sisquoc River Trail continues upstream towards South Fork Station.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 10th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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