Posted by: James Wapotich | June 1, 2013

Trail Quest: Lower Sisquoc River

Sisquoc River Trail follows the Sisquoc River from its headwaters near Alamar Saddle to Horse Gulch Canyon, where the river passes out of the National Forest. The lower portion of the trail from South Fork Station to Horse Gulch Canyon includes some great scenery and was homesteaded by settlers in the late 1800s.

Condor Trail as it traverses Los Padres National Forest utilizes existing roads and trails and follows Sisquoc River Trail in its entirety.

From South Fork Station, Sisquoc River Trail continues downstream following the Sisquoc River and three-quarters of a mile later arrives at the Sweetwater Trail junction. Sweetwater Trail continues up to the Sierra Madre Road and is an unshaded seven mile climb that does offer some impressive views of the surrounding area.

Los Padres National Forest Sisquoc River Trail Santa Barbara Backcountry hike San Rafael Wilderness

A view across one of the many open flats along the Sisquoc River

Continuing downstream from the Sweetwater Trail junction Sisquoc Canyon begins to narrow and arrives at Forrester’s Leap Canyon where one can observe the first of several beaver dams along the Sisquoc River. Heavily decimated by fur trappers, beavers were reintroduced throughout the state by the California Department of Fish and Game in the 1940s.

The trail continues above the river offering some dramatic views of the canyon and is in generally good shape with the exception of several slide areas that can be challenging.

Just before Sycamore Camp the canyon starts to widen and one sees the first of many flat areas along the Sisquoc River that enticed settlers into the area during the late 1800s. With much of the land along the Santa Maria and Sisquoc Rivers already part of existing land grants and the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 offering opportunities to new settlers on Federal lands it was inevitable that settlers would push upriver to stake their claims.

By 1890, there were as many as 200 people living along the Sisquoc River and its tributaries. Among these settlers was a group of 11 families from Kansas interrelated through marriage and led by Hiram Preserved Wheat. Mr. Wheat had a reputation as a healer which began while en route from Kansas when he helped several sick Indians who in turn painted a sign on his wagon ensuring the settlers safe passage.

These settlers built a road, a schoolhouse, and even a sawmill. Sisquoc River Trail passes by a number of their homestead sites.

About 5.75 miles from South Fork Station, Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Sycamore Camp. The camp has three sites on a small flat along the river, two with grated stoves and the main site with a fire ring and picnic table. Sisquoc River is currently running intermittently with some water at Sycamore Camp.

Just downstream from camp are the ruins of the Montgomery homestead. The homestead was located at the end of the 35-mile road that connected the settlers of the region with Santa Maria where they were able to sell their goods and resupply. Each spring the road had to be cleared and re-leveled by the settlers using horse-drawn scrapers.

From here Sisquoc River Trail continues downstream, the trail is well marked with cairns and is in generally good shape. About a mile and half from Sycamore Camp the trail moves away from the creek bypassing a turn in the river, however many people miss this turnoff and continue downstream instead, creating an alternate route that over the years has been marked with cairns. The two routes meet a half mile later at the Big Bend Trail juncture.

Big Bend Trail used to lead up to Hurricane Deck, but is so overgrown that it no longer exists. There is no sign marking the trail juncture, however Big Bend Canyon is fairly noticeable and can be misleading because the beginning of Big Bend Trail is still evident.

From Big Bend Canyon continue downstream crossing the river two more times, at which point look for a trail on your left that leads above the river. Here too, people have missed the trail and continued downstream creating a new route that requires more effort to follow.

The trail above the river follows the contour of the canyon downstream, curves through a side canyon, before returning to the main canyon and descending down to Cliff Camp. Along the way offering views of the dramatic promontory that gives Cliff Camp its name.

Cliff Camp is about 9 miles from South Fork Station and has a fire ring and grated stove and is situated under the oaks away from the river.

Past Cliff Camp the trail becomes less defined as it continues downstream along the river. About 10 miles from South Fork Station the trail arrives at Abel Camp. The camp is nestled under the oaks, has a fire ring and grated stove and a collapsed picnic table. Just past the camp and across Abel Creek, is the ruins of the Abels homestead.

About 2 miles further is Miller Canyon Base Camp. The camp has a fire ring and grated stove as well as horse corral. Just downstream from the camp, along the trail, one can find a pile of stones that remain from the Miller homestead.

About 14.5 miles from South Fork Station the trail passes by the ruins of the Willmann homestead. One of the more prosperous families the Willmanns also had a vineyard and apricot orchard.

A quarter mile past the Willmann homestead the trail arrives at Mormon Camp. The camp has a fire ring and grated stove and was given its name by a Mormon ranger.

The next camp along the trail is Lorna Camp. Located away from the river in an open meadow the site has a table, and a cement fire pit that bears the inscription: “In Memory Lorna 1952-1993”

About 16.75 miles from South Fork Station, the trail arrives at Water Canyon Camp which has a fire ring and grated stove.

Past Water Canyon Camp, the trail arrives at the ruins of Lucien Forrester’s homestead, for whom Forrester’s Leap Canyon is named when he fell there jumping across a small waterfall there. Here, the old road bed is most noticeable as the trail climbs above creek passing through several broad meadows before descending back down towards the river.

The trail then crosses the river and makes its way towards a large flat area above the river, sometimes referred to as Roberts Flats. At the eastern end of Roberts Flats away from the trail one can find what’s left of the Sisquoc Guard Station. The station was built from lumber salvaged from the abandoned homestead. The structure collapsed in 1983 and was never rebuilt.

At about 20.75 miles from South Fork Station, Sisquoc River Trail arrives at the intersection with Hurricane Deck Trial, which more or less traces the ridge that separates the Sisquoc River drainage from the Manzana Creek drainage. A quarter mile past this intersection Sisquoc River Trail crosses Manzana Creek just above its confluence with the Sisquoc River, and arrives at Manzana Schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse is located on a large mesa over looking the confluence and was built in 1894 from locally felled pines that were then cut at the nearby sawmill. The first class held there had 17 students. The schoolhouse also served as church and gathering place for community events.

The settlers lived along the river from 1882-1905 and several factors brought an end to the settlement. The Sisquoc Ranch closed the part of the road that passed through its property along the river, effectively cutting the settlers off, the Forest Reserves were being organized with tighter restrictions, and several years of little or no rain caused most settlers to sell or swap their claims.

Manzana Schoolhouse Campground has 6 sites each with a metal fire ring and picnic table. Both the river and creek can be dry at the campground heading into summer and through the fall, however water can sometimes be found downstream along the Sisquoc River. Manzana Schoolhouse can also be reached by way of Manzana Trail along Manzana Creek and is 8.5 miles from the trailhead near Nira Campground.

From Manzana Schoolhouse, Condor Trail continues downstream along Sisquoc River Trail to Horse Gulch Canyon. It then follows the trail up Horse Gulch Canyon before making its way through the La Brea Creek drainage and eventually arriving at State Route 166 and continuing through the National Forest in San Luis Obispo County.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 1st, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. I truly enjoyed reading about the Sisquoc

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