Posted by: James Wapotich | August 29, 2016

Trail Quest: The Trails of Jose Moraga, Part 2

Jose Moraga was a miner and prospector who filed a number of claims in the Santa Barbara backcountry. In 1860, he was the first to locate quicksilver in Santa Barbara County and see its potential for mining. His Los Prietos Mine was located along the Santa Ynez River just north of where Gibraltar Dam is now. The mine was extensively worked from 1874 to 1877, before the price of quicksilver fell.

In 1894, Moraga filed nine claims along an outcropping of Sierra Blanca limestone found in Indian Canyon and established a mine near Indian Narrows, in what is now the Dick Smith Wilderness. The Moragas had a cabin in nearby Loma Pelona and would’ve likely reached the cabin from Santa Barbara via Mono-Alamar Trail and then continued over to Indian Creek to reach the mine.

The quicksilver mines along the Santa Ynez River were accessed by a wagon road that was reached from the stage coach road that led over San Marcos Pass. However, during the winter, when high waters made the river impassable, the mines had to be accessed by pack trail. The one likely used led up Mission Canyon to the top of Santa Ynez Mountains and then down Arroyo Burro Trail to the river.

Jose Moraga Limestone Lithograph Mine Mono-Alamar Trail Los Padres national forest

Scenery along Mono-Alamar Trail

During the 1870s, a new trail was built over the mountains from Montecito to improve access to the mines. The route followed West Fork Cold Spring Creek and led past what is now known as Tangerine Falls to the top of the mountains and then continued east over to Cold Spring Saddle, before continuing down to the river. From there a route likely existed along Mono Creek to what is now Mono Campground.

In the early 1900s, the newly formed Forest Reserve built a new trail through Cold Spring Canyon that supplanted the original trail. The route followed what is now East Fork Cold Spring Trail to Cold Spring Saddle where it joined the original trail.

The other main trail over the mountains was Romero Trail. That route, as it does today, leads over the Santa Ynez Mountains near Romero Saddle and continues down into Blue Canyon. From there one could follow the trail through Blue Canyon and reach the Santa Ynez River and continue to Mono Creek.

Moraga could’ve used either of these routes to reach Mono Creek and Mono-Alamar Trail. From there, he would’ve continued up Mono Canyon towards Loma Pelona to reach the cabin. From the cabin, he would’ve climbed out of the Mono drainage over towards Pens Camp, along Indian Creek, and then down to the mine.

The route can still be followed today as part of a backpacking trip. From the Mono-Alamar Trailhead, the hike to the mine site is about 28 miles round trip.


A view towards Mono Creek from Loma Pelona

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara. Gibraltar Road leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains where it meets East Camino Cielo Road. Turn right on to East Camino Cielo. The road continues along the top of the mountains to Romero Saddle. At Romero Saddle, the road becomes unpaved and continues down the backside of the mountains to the Santa Ynez River. From there, it continues past Middle Santa Ynez and P-Bar Flat Campgrounds and eventually arrives at Mono Campground.

From Mono Campground, the road continues another half-mile and arrives at a locked Forest Service gate and the Indian-Mono Trailhead. Parking is found in the pullout by the gate. An adventure pass is not required to park at the trailhead.

From the trailhead, Mono-Alamar Trail follows Mono Creek upstream. The trail is in generally good shape thanks to several trail projects over the past couple of years.

Mono-Alamar Trail is one of the oldest trails in the Santa Barbara backcountry and follows the route used by the Chumash, and later the Spanish and early settlers to travel from the coast to the Central Valley.

At about the 3.5-mile mark, the trail joins a Forest Service road and continues upstream towards Olgilvy Ranch. Just before the ranch, the trail leaves the road and crosses the creek, bypassing the ranch. The trail then returns to the creek and continues towards the beginning of Loma Pelona Canyon, where the trail leaves Mono Creek.

Upper Mono Camp is about 8.5 miles from the trailhead, and is located along Mono Creek just past Loma Pelona Canyon. The informal site is little more than a stone fire ring and small flat spot for a tent. The camp does not have year round water, but water can sometimes be found upstream.

From Mono Creek, Mono-Alamar Trail makes its way up Loma Pelona Canyon. About 1.75 miles from Mono Creek, the trail transitions from chaparral into an open grassy potrero dotted with valley oaks and arrives at Alamar Hill Trail. To the right, Alamar Hill Trail climbs east out of the canyon and continues over towards Alamar Creek. To the left, Alamar Hill Trail continues up Loma Pelona Canyon, passing through more chaparral, before then opening up onto a long continuous potrero.

The trail through the potrero is completely overgrown with tall grasses. Volunteers have recently installed flags on PVC poles to mark the route.

In 1890, James Ord homesteaded near the western end of Loma Pelona where he built an adobe. The land was later sold to the Canet Cattle Company of Ventura.

The Moraga cabin was also located at the western end of Loma Pelona and constructed of adobe.

Indian Narrows

Indian Narrows

At the upper end of Loma Pelona Canyon, Alamar Hill Trail climbs out of the canyon and arrives at Loma Pelona-Don Victor Fire Road. From the road, the trail enters Dick Smith Wilderness and continues another 1.25 miles through mostly chaparral down to Indian Creek, where it meets Indian Poplar Trail and arrives at Pens Camp.

Pens Camp takes is name from the barb-wire stock pens that were located there and said to have been used by both Moraga and Ord, and later Canet Cattle Company. The camp has a stone fire ring, grated stove and ice can stove. The site does not have year round water, but water can sometimes be found upstream.

From Pens, it’s another mile downstream to Indian Narrows. There is no trail and so the best route is to follow the creek.

The narrows are a distinctive feature on the landscape. Here, the creek cuts through an extensive outcropping of grayish-white Sierra Blanca limestone, which stretches from East Fork Santa Cruz Creek, across Indian Creek, and up to the top of the south side of Indian Canyon. In fact, the summit overlooking the canyon used to be called Sierra Blanca Mountain and is the type locality where Sierra Blanca limestone was first identified.

The limestone was formed over 55 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch. It is a sedimentary rock composed of calciferous algae, foraminifera and other organic material that settled on the ocean floor and later hardened into limestone.

Moraga limestone lithograph mine hiking backpacking Indian Creek Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres national forest

Wheelbarrow and other relics are seen at Moraga limestone mine

One of the principal uses of high-grade limestone is for lithography. At the time of Moraga’s claim there were only a handful of commercial sources for lithographic limestone in the United States and so a find of high-grade limestone would’ve been just as valuable as any precious metal.

The mine is located on the south side of the canyon, up from the creek. At the site is a tunnel about 4 feet wide, 6 feet tall, and 37 feet long cut into the limestone. Moraga had samples of the limestone taken to Los Angeles where it was tested and unfortunately found to contain flecks of silica, or quartz, rendering it unusable for lithography and so the mine was abandoned.

Today, at the site one can still find the wheelbarrow, which was hauled over the mountains, and other relics associated with the mine.

Not much else is recorded about the Moraga family. However, Jose Moraga’s grandson, Oliver Moraga was the original owner of Dean-O’s Pizzarama on the Mesa. The pizzeria was opened in 1960, by Dean Metcalf and “Ollie” Moraga, their names forming the restaurant’s name. Metcalf later moved to Louisiana where he opened another Dean-O’s in Lafayette. In 2004, the Moraga family sold the business to Lou Torres. Six years later it was closed.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 27th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

horny horned toad lizard mono creek alamar trail dick smith wilderness santa barbara backcountry los padres national forest


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