Posted by: James Wapotich | January 12, 2013

Trail Quest: Puerto Suelo Trail

In the spring of 1824, following a series of events that underscored the unfair treatment of Chumash Indians under the Mission system, the Chumash revolted. The uprisings at Mission Santa Ynez and Mission La Purisima were put down by soldiers from the Santa Barbara Presidio. However the next day, the Chumash at Mission Santa Barbara revolted and then fled into the foothills, and ultimately across the Santa Barbara backcountry to the San Joaquin Valley.

The route the Chumash took led over the Santa Ynez Mountains to Los Prietos, along the Santa Ynez River, where they were joined by Indians from Missions Santa Ynez and La Purisima. And together they continued up the Santa Ynez River to Mono Creek.

The Chumash followed Mono Creek upstream, past the village of Siguaya, over Alamar Hill, and along Alamar Creek to the village of Casitec. From Casitec they hiked over the pass at Puerto Suelo and out through Santa Barbara Canyon to the Cuyama Valley. From there they continued to the San Joaquin Valley, near present day Buena Vista Lake in Kern County, where they stayed with the Yokut Indians living there.

4 months later more than 100 armed soldiers, along with two Padres from the Mission were dispatched to bring the Indians back. When the soldiers arrived, representatives from both parties met and negotiated. A pardon had been granted by the governor of California, which the Chumash accepted and agreed to return to the Mission. Returning to Santa Barbara the two groups traveling together retraced the same route the Chumash took when they originally left the Mission.

Much of this route can still be hiked to today. The Mono-Alamar Trail starts just past Mono Campground along the Romero-Camuesa Road. From the trail head it’s roughly 4.5 miles to where the village of Siguaya was once located and then from there another 4.5 miles to where the trail leaves Mono Creek, bypassing the Mono Narrows.

Leaving Mono Creek, Mono-Alamar Trail continues up a side drainage on its way to Alamar Hill where it joins Alamar Hill Trail and continues over to Alamar Creek. The original Chumash route, now overgrown, left Mono-Alamar Trail about a half mile before the trail juncture and continued over to Alamar Creek by a slightly different route. That route led through what is referred to as the Caracole, or staircase, by the Spanish, so named because the route through the rock formation was reminiscent of a stairway.

Mono-Alamar Trail although followable, is overgrown with regrowth from the 2007 Zaca Fire. At about the 1.75-mile mark from Mono Creek (or 10.75 from the Mono-Alamar trail head) the trail arrives at an open grassy meadow. Here Mono-Alamar Trail meets Alamar Hill Trail and officially ends. The junction is well signed. To the left Alamar Hill Trail continues up the canyon and over Loma Pelona to Indian Creek. To the right Alamar Hill Trail, climbs towards the top of Alamar Hill. Here the trail improves in that it traverses mostly grassy hillside and so the amount of brush that one needs to push through is dramatically reduced.

At the top of Alamar Hill one is treated to views out across Alamar Canyon and up toward Madulce Peak. To the right of Madulce Peak one can see the pass at Puerto Suelo where the trail eventually leads. Puerto Suelo is Spanish for gateway.

From Alamar Hill, the trail descends down towards Alamar Creek and about the 2.75-mile mark arrives at Lower Alamar Camp. Lower Alamar was once the site of Alamar Tin Shack. The building was built in the 1930s and was used by the California State Fish and Game Commission for wildlife studies. The 12’ by 12’ cabin was made of tin sheets on a wooden frame. The structure was burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire, and so sadly all that remains today is a pile of twisted metal, a broken stove and other metal refuse. The campsite itself has one table and a grated stove.

From Lower Alamar, Alamar Trail continues upstream, and at the 4.25-mile mark arrives at Loma Pelona-Don Victor Fire Road. Here the trail follows the road east about a half mile before arriving at Rollins Camp. Rollins has two picnic tables and a fire ring and is also located along Alamar Creek.

Continuing past Rollins the trail leaves the road and continues upstream toward Dutch Oven Camp. The trail along Alamar Creek is overgrown, and does require some route finding, particularly at creek crossings where plant growth can often obscure the trail.

At the 6.75-mile mark the trail arrives at Dutch Oven. The camp takes its name from a dutch oven that was left there by the Cord brothers who used the site as a hunting camp. The camp currently has a fire ring, no table and 5 ice cans stoves – likely a record for the Santa Barbara backcountry,

Dutch Oven Camp is also at, or near where the Chumash village of Casitec was located. In his journal, Captain Pablo de la Portilla, who led the expedition to bring back the Chumash from the San Joaquin Valley, states the expedition camped there on their return trip. It’s likely the Chumash also stopped there while originally fleeing from the coast.

At Dutch Oven the trail branches. Alamar Trail continues to the left up Alamar Creek towards Alamar Saddle. While to the right Puerto Suelo Trail begins, and continues up a side drainage sometimes referred to as Robel Creek, towards the pass at Puerto Suelo.

Although Puerto Suelo Trail is easier to find over all as it doesn’t involve as many creek crossings, the trail is narrower and much more overgrown. Here the regrowth from the Zaca Fire combined with dead trees fallen across the trail make for slower going. As one nears the pass at Puerto Suelo the trail is so overgrown that one is required to push their way through chest high brush comprised of mostly Buckthorn Ceanothus.

Between the regrowth from the Zaca Fire and the overall lack of funds available to the Forest Service for trail maintenance, many of these trails are at risk of becoming impassable. These same conditions also require that one assess their backcountry itineraries differently than they would elsewhere. For example, in the Sierras one might expect with a pack to hike 2-3 miles an hour, but in our local backcountry, because of the chaparral, the need for route finding and the generally rugged terrain, one can easily see their pace reduced to a mile per hour.

At the 8.75-mile mark the trail crests the pass at Puerto Suelo, from here one has commanding views out across Alamar Canyon to the south and Don Victor Canyon to the north. Puerto Suelo Trail continues down the backside of the pass and again requires pushing through chest high ceanothus, before turning into a narrow, easier to follow lane through the chaparral.

At the 9.75-mile mark the trail arrives at a small valley, where there’s a signed trail juncture. The trail to the right heads east over towards Don Victor Valley and the trail to left continues another half mile to Madulce Camp, near to top of Santa Barbara Canyon.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 12th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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