Posted by: James Wapotich | July 23, 2016

Trail Quest: Madulce Guard Station

Although the historic Guard Station at Madulce is no longer standing, it was burned down in 1999, the site is still steeped in history. Located along one of the oldest trails in the Santa Barbara backcountry, the foundation and other relics from the cabin can still be found at the site.

The hike to the cabin site is about 14.5 miles round trip and during the spring can make for a good overnight backpacking destination or the starting point for a longer trek through the backcountry.

To get to trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai and continue north on State Route 33 towards Ventucopa. About five miles past Ventucopa look for Foothill Road on your left. Foothill Road continues across Cuyama River, which is typically dry here, and arrives at the beginning of Santa Barbara Canyon Road. The road is paved to the Forest Service gate near Santa Barbara Canyon Ranch. The gate is seasonally closed from November to May.

Madulce Guard Station Camp trail hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Canyon Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Ranger

Madulce Guard Station site

Past the gate, the road continues, unpaved becoming Buckhorn Road and eventually arrives at Willow Flat and the beginning of Santa Barbara Canyon Trail. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 2.5 hours. An adventure pass is not required to park at the trailhead.

From the trailhead, Santa Barbara Canyon Trail follows the remnants of an old jeep road up the canyon. The trail leads through a mix of chaparral and riparian plants with the wide canyon becoming more narrow as it continues upstream. Santa Barbara Creek is currently flowing intermittently with the best water found where Chokecherry Creek joins the canyon.

At about the 6-mile mark, the trail begins its climb out of the canyon up what is affectionally known as Heartbreak Hill. Here, the trail is somewhat rutted and steep, but does provide some nice views back down the canyon.

Map Madulce Guard Station Santa Barbara Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Map Courtesy

At the top, the trail continues along the low ridge separating Santa Barbara and Pine Canyons and offers views to the south towards Madulce Peak. The trail then drops down to the creek and arrives at the cabin site.

The site is at the upper end of a small open area bordered by conifers. Near the base of two large cedars is a grassy area where the cabin once stood.

The site sits along one of the oldest trails in the Santa Barbara backcountry. The trail runs north-south and still connects the coast and the interior. The route was used by the Chumash and later the Spanish and early settlers. In fact, Santa Barbara Canyon is so named because when traveling south from the Central Valley it was the canyon where the trail to Santa Barbara was located. The historic route follows what are now Santa Barbara Canyon, Puerto Suelo, and Mono-Alamar Trails.

Santa Barbara Canyon Trail hiking backpacking Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Madulce

Santa Barbara Canyon

The first cabin at the site was built in the late 1880s by a squatter known as Old Marlo. It was a one-room cabin with a covered outdoor kitchen. Marlo apparently moved on sometime during the later 1890s, during the formation of the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Forest Reserves, as early records indicate that one of the first tasks of the Forest Service was to rebuild the cabin. The cabin served as administrative outpost and home base for rangers who patrolled the area and were on guard for forest fires.

One of the early rangers stationed at Madulce was Thomas Dinsmore. Dinsmore spent three summers at the site with his wife and kids, who made the two-day ride with him, over the mountains, from their home in Montecito. Dinsmore later requested transfer to Mono Adobe, near where Mono Campground is now, just one day away by horseback from Montecito, so his family could be closer to town.

The Forest Service continued to use the original log cabin at Madulce until 1928 when it was again in need of major repairs. This time, however, the forest service decided to replace it with a new building. Materials were packed in by mule and assembled at the site. In 1929, the new station was completed and painted white. Total cost of the building was $1,356.

The 18 foot by 27 foot two-room cabin featured a main room and kitchen. The main room served as both office and sleeping quarters for the ranger on duty. The kitchen included a pantry and storeroom and a six-plate wood-burning stove. Water was piped in from the nearby spring.

The cabin was connected to other administrative sites by telephone, and even today, hiking along Madulce Trail towards Buckhorn Road, one can spot remnants of the telephone line on the trees.

The exterior of the building had an unusual appearance in that the doors to both the main room and kitchen were on the front of the building and opened onto the covered porch.

A tool shed, east of the cabin, was built a couple years later, next to the horse corral. A fence also stretched around the perimeter of the cabin site.

historic archive photo madulce cabin guard station Los Padres national forest dick smith wilderness Santa Barbara Canyon Trail

Madulce Guard Station as it appeared in the 1960s, prior to being restored – image courtesy Los Padres National Forest archive

The cabin remained in use by the Forest Service until about 1940, when administrative duties shifted to Alamar Guard Station. During the 1930s and 1940s the Forest Service undertook an extensive program of road building throughout the forest, including the construction of Buckhorn Road from Upper Oso to Santa Barbara Canyon.

Along Buckhorn Road, new guard stations were built at Happy Hollow, Bluff Camp, and Alamar Saddle as the automobile gained prominence as a means for accessing and administering the backcountry.

Buckhorn Road effectively replaced the historic trail past Madulce as the main route across the backcountry from the Santa Ynez River to the Cuyama Valley. With the construction of Alamar Guard Station in 1937, Madulce Guard Station was used less and less. Mono Adobe, also along the same trail, suffered a similar fate when administrative duties shifted to Pendola Guard Station along the newly constructed Romero-Camuesa Road.

Madulce Peak Trail hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Canyon los padres national forest dick smith wilderness

A view towards Madulce Peak from Santa Barbara Canyon Trail

With these changes, Madulce Guard Station became a peripheral site. The building fell into disrepair and disuse until several maintenance projects in the 1970s help to restore it. As visitors began to frequent the site its historical significance was rediscovered. In 1979, the site was nominated and added to the National Register of Historic Places. Additional maintenance projects happened during the 1980s and the site became a unique destination in the backcountry because of the cabin.

In 1999, the cabin was tragically burned down by a transient who had frequented the area for more than 20 years.

What remains now at the site is the stone foundation from the cabin and various relics from the structure including the stove. The nearby shed was burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire.

Past the cabin site, Madulce Trail continues up the canyon. The trail crosses the creek and enters a dense stand of Western bracken fern. Just past the crossing look for a faint side trail on your left, through the ferns. The short trail leads to the base of the mountain where one can find a spring box. The spring does not have water year round.

Just past the ferns, the trail returns to a mixed forest of pines and oak and arrives at Madulce Camp. The camp has a fire ring and three ice can stoves and is located next to Pine Creek. The creek also does not have year round water, but is currently flowing further upstream along the trail.

From the camp, Madulce Trail continues along the creek, before then climbing up onto the ridge that separates Pine Canyon from Santa Barbara Canyon. About 2.25 miles from Madulce Camp, the trail arrives at the turnoff to Madulce Peak. Past the turnoff, it’s another mile to Buckhorn Road. From there one can extend their hike towards Alamar Saddle and Sisquoc River Trail for longer treks through the backcountry.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 13th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Los Padres Forest Association working vacation Madulce

A volunteer trail crew camp at the Madulce Guard Station site

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