Posted by: James Wapotich | October 31, 2016

Trail Quest: The Search for Mono Adobe

Old maps can sometimes be a treasure trove of forgotten places. They carry with them the mystique of times gone by and can often leave a lot of unanswered questions.

Several years ago, local author and historian Bob Burtness showed me a 1926 map of Santa Barbara National Forest, the forerunner to Los Padres National Forest. One of the features on the map that immediately caught my eye was Mono Ranger Station, which I’d never heard of. Mr. Burtness explained that the station, also known as Mono Adobe, had been removed by the Forest Service.

The adobe was shown on the map near Mono Campground. However, in asking around, no one could say exactly where it was or when it had been torn down. A search on the internet didn’t provide any additional information on its location either, and so it seemed like just another forgotten piece of backcountry history.

Mono Adobe North Cold Spring Trail Los Padres National Forest

Ornamental tree and willows are seen at the adobe site

By chance, while viewing back copies of the Santa Barbara News-Press at the Santa Barbara Public Library, I stumbled upon a 1966 news item regarding the adobe that rekindled my interest in finding the site and learning what had happened to it.

The article related a somewhat familiar story about a group of boy scouts on a backpacking trip being stuck in the backcountry due to high waters from unexpectedly heavy rain. The scouts took refuge in the adobe and waited out the storm until Sheriff’s Deputies were able to rescue them with 4-wheel drive vehicles.

Inspired by the article, I reached out to Heritage Resources, the archive and archeological office for Los Padres National Forest. I had heard that they had a collection of historic photos of the backcountry was and curious if they had any of Mono Adobe.

Steve Galbraith, the Forest Service archeologist, proved to be an invaluable resource. He knew that the adobe had been ruined in a flood, which explained why the Forest Service removed it. He showed me two site surveys conducted after the flood, one of which was written by local historian E. R. “Jim” Blakley.

The original three-room adobe was built in 1908, and replaced a smaller cabin that had stood on the same site. The adobe was built under the direction of Ranger Thomas Dinsmore. Dinsmore was previously stationed at Madulce with his family and transferred to the site to be closer to town. In 1933, the Forest Service moved station operations to nearby Pendola Station and the adobe fell into disuse.

In 1966, Native Sons of the Golden West restored the adobe and tried to have it designated as a historic structure. The restoration work was led by Gus Dinsmore, Thomas Dinsmore’s son.

In 1978, heavy rains caused Mono Creek to flood its banks. So strong were the storms that the creek cut a new channel directly through the adobe and scattered its debris downstream.

Mr. Blakley’s report included photos of the ruined structure and indicated that the site was about a half-mile south of Mono Campground, east of Mono Creek, near an access road. This would’ve also placed it somewhere near North Cold Spring Trail.

I was familiar with the overgrown access road from previous hikes along the trail, but didn’t recall seeing anything that suggested there had been a structure there.

Mr. Blakley’s report, however had one additional piece of information that stood out. He noted there was an Arizona cypress tree planted at the site by one of the rangers. This actually seemed like the best clue, as a non-native plant that size ought to stick out like a sore thumb.

Armed with this new information I made my way to Mono Campground.

The campground is reached from Santa Barbara by taking Gibraltar Road to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where it meets East Camino Cielo Road. From there, continue east along the top of the mountains to Romero Saddle. Here, the road changes names, becoming Romero-Camuesa Road, and continues unpaved down the backside of the mountains, eventually arriving at Mono Campground.

Mono Campground is a walk-in site with a parking area just off from the main road. Near the entrance of the parking area is the beginning of North Cold Spring Trail. The trail heads south towards the Santa Ynez Mountains, staying between Mono Creek and the eastern edge of the Mono Basin.

The trail although laced with poison oak was fairly easy to follow. When I arrived at the intersection with the old access road, I got out my scans of the photos and tried to match them up with what I was seeing, but there wasn’t anywhere level or open enough to even park a car, much less build a ranger station. And there certainly weren’t any cypress trees. In fact, the site looked the same as all the other times I’d been there.

Feeling a little discouraged about not finding anything new, I continued downstream along the trail to clear my head and arrived at a horse corral. The site was fairly level and open, and even though there was no mention of a corral in the report, I had a look around.

But even as I was poking through the brush looking for remnants of the structure, something was telling me this wasn’t the spot, and so I decided to head back to the old road cut.

On the way back, I veered off-trail to see if that would turn up something new. Threading through the willows, I found an old carsonite trail sign sticking up about two feet out of the ground. Normally these signs are closer to four feet tall.

Amazed, I stood there trying to picture the amount of silt and mud that must’ve flowed through the basin in order to completely bury this section of trail. Seeing how effectively nature had erased the route, I was starting to think there might not be any evidence of the adobe left to find.

Feeling the need for some perspective, I followed the overgrown road cut a quarter-mile up to the top where it meets Romero-Camuesa Road to get a better view of the area. Nothing. No obvious flat spots where the adobe might’ve been.

Gazing out across the Mono Basin, with its sea of cottonwood trees, I remembered a story I’d read as a kid about a real-life treasure hunter. His research had led him to the site of an old fort in the Caribbean, but he had no idea where in the fort the captain had hidden his personal treasure chest that was rumored to still be there. His solution was to imagine himself as the captain and began walking around the compound. He walked straight to where he would’ve hidden it if he was the captain and sure enough found the chest.

Trying my hand at this technique, I imagined myself as a ranger driving to the station, and continued back down the road, going to what would’ve been a familiar sight. At the intersection with North Cold Spring Trail, I noticed the old road actually crossed the trail. It was overgrown, but continued a short way before ending at the edge of the creek bed.

However, while on this last bit of road cut I noticed a dead tree I hadn’t seen before amongst the willows and realized it was the Arizona cypress. How could the adobe be in a stand of willows? I made my way through a thicket of wild roses to the dead tree and spotted a second dead ornamental tree nearby. The two were far enough apart and the right size to match the ones shown in the old photos. The mystery had been solved.

After the adobe was destroyed, the abandoned site was buried under even more silt from subsequent flooding. And what was once a level, open field had become a grove of willows, nature once again reclaiming the land for its own purposes.

Article about the adobe and it’s history appears in Section A of the October 17th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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