Posted by: James Wapotich | June 16, 2012

Trail Quest: Sisquoc River, Part 2

This is a continuation of the hike along the Sisquoc River Trail starting at Manzana Schoolhouse and hiking upstream to South Fork Station and is part of a larger 45 mile loop hike that is best done as part of a multi-day backpacking trip.

The Sisquoc River trail follows the Sisquoc River and passes by the ruins of a number of former homestead sites along the Sisquoc, vestiges from another time. These pioneers did their best to carve a life out for themselves in the rugged Santa Barbara backcountry during the late 1800s and at one time there were as many as 200 people homesteading along the river and its tributaries.

9 miles upstream from Manzana Schoolhouse the Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Miller Canyon Base Camp, where one will find a shaded camp with a fire ring and klamath stove, and what’s left of a table serving as a bench.

The trail up to this point although overgrown with wild grasses is fairly easy to follow and is suitable for horses and pack stock. However over the next 3 miles, from Miller Camp to Cliff Camp the trail is more challenging as it crosses the river numerous times. And although this year the river was not that high, many of the crossing are overgrown and require some route finding.

One of the things I noticed after several of these crossings is that the bears actually use our trails and know where the crossings are, and that it was often easier to follow the fresh bear tracks to the correct crossing place then hunt around for the trail amongst the various possible routes. The trail has also been flagged by volunteers, which can help create a level of reassurance that one is on the right track.

Continuing upstream, just past Abel Canyon one can find the ruins of Henry Abel’s homestead, his son would later become the local game warden.

At the 11 mile mark from Manzana Schoolhouse, just past the ruins of the Abel homestead one arrives at Abel Camp, which has a fire ring with a klamath stove and a broken down picnic table that is ready to be replaced.

At the 12 mile mark the trail passes Cliff Camp. I say passes because if you’re not paying attention you could easily miss it. There is no sign for the camp, but it has fire ring and is shown on older Forest Service maps. The camp likely takes its name from the prominent cliff overlooking the camp, which is also visible from the trail. This can be helpful to know as the trail actually continues behind the camp above the river for the next half mile.

After Cliff the trail begins to improve somewhat and there are noticeably more cairns marking the trail. And at roughly the 15 mile mark one arrives at the ruins of the Montgomery homestead.

The Montgomery homestead also represents the end of what once a 35 mile long wagon road. This road was in many ways the lifeline of the settlers, connecting them to Santa Maria where they could purchase supplies and sell their produce. The road, like many backcountry roads often required work after heavy rains.

It was not an easy life for the settlers and there were a number of factors that eventually led to them selling their claims and moving elsewhere. When the settlers first arrived in the early 1890s it was during a time when there was adequate rain for farming and livestock. Each homestead typically raised cattle and had at least a garden. But in both 1898 and 1899 the region saw very little rain.

And in 1898 with establishment of the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Forest Reserve, the forerunner to the modern day Los Padres National Forest, the area became closed to new homestead claims. The reserve also brought new regulations that limited the number of cattle that could be raised in a given area, and the rangers brought an end to the practice of burning chaparral brush to open up space for grazing.

Lastly the road that many of the settlers depended on which ran through the Sisquoc Ranch became closed. Originally the ranch didn’t object to the road’s usage by the settlers, but in the early 1900s the ranch eventually locked the gate on the road through their property.

In the end many of the settlers either sold their claims or traded them for homestead claims elsewhere.

There are additional homestead sites to explore within the San Rafael Wilderness. An excellent resource on the history of the Los Padres National Forest and the early settlers is E. R. “Jim” Blakley’s book “Historical overview of Los Padres National Forest”. In his research Mr. Blakley also interviewed former settlers and their descendants.

Just past the ruins of the Montgomery homestead the Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Sycamore Camp, where one will find a fire ring and picnic table as well as two other nearby campsites each with a fire ring and klamath stove. Sycamore Camp was originally located near the homestead, but was later moved.

The camp is currently at the base of the Jackson Trail which leads from the Sisquoc River to Montgomery Potrero in the Sierra Madre Mountains which represents the northern boundary of the Sisquoc River watershed. Montgomery Potrero is named for Josiah T. Montgomery, Edward Montgomery’s father.

Past Sycamore Camp the Sisquoc River Trail begins to transition as the canyon itself becomes more narrow. The trail climbs in and out of the canyon several times offering some spectacular views of the surrounding area. It is also through this section that one reenters the area affected by the 2007 Zaca Fire, whereas everything downstream all the way to Manzana Schoolhouse was spared.

At about the 18 mile mark the trail arrives at Forrester’s Leap Canyon and shortly thereafter traverses a steep, rocky section of hillside that is more reminiscent of the Andes than Southern California. This same section of trail was washed out during the rains that followed the Zaca Fire and was impassable until a crew from Sierra National Forest cleared the rockslide, blasting away rock in some places, allowing the trail to be reopened. The trail still has a lot of loose shale in places and is a good reminder to check with the Forest Service regarding current conditions before planning a trip into the backcountry.

At about the 20 mile mark the trail arrives at the juncture with the Sweet Water Trail, which leads up to the ridge and road that runs along the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The trail as well as those around South Fork have seen a fair amount of trail work recently. The California Conservation Corp or CCCs has done several tours over the past two years maintaining trails in the area.

At the 21 mile mark from Manzana Schoolhouse one arrives at South Fork Station. From here one would take the White Ledge Trail, past the camp at Happy Hunting Ground leaving the Sisquoc watershed and entering back into the Manzana watershed and from there continue downstream along the Manzana Trail back to Nira to complete this 45-mile loop.

And while this is a long backpacking trip through the Santa Barbara backcountry it does provide one with an opportunity to see a variety of terrain and scenery that is rich with both natural history and lore.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 16th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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