Posted by: James Wapotich | June 25, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Creek Homesteads

Along the upper reaches of Santa Cruz Creek and its tributaries are several homestead and cabin sites that can be visited. The sites are reached by taking Santa Cruz Trail over Little Pine Mountain and continuing to Santa Cruz Camp.

Santa Cruz Camp, which is near the Alexander cabin site, is about 10.5 miles from the trailhead at Upper Oso. From Santa Cruz Camp, it’s less than a mile to the Romo homestead, and from there another two miles to the Flores homestead.

Joining me for this tour of upper Santa Cruz Creek was my friend Jasper, an experienced backpacker, who was also curious to visit these different sites.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass to Paradise Road. Turn right onto Paradise Road and continue to Lower Oso Day Use Area. Paradise Road was just recently reopened at First Crossing restoring access to Red Rock. The road to Upper Oso, however, is still closed to vehicles, but may reopen within the next month. 

From Upper Oso, we follow Buckhorn Road to the beginning of Santa Cruz Trial and continue towards Nineteen Oaks. The burn damage from last year’s Rey Fire is extensive, but the route itself is still generally followable. 

Past the turnoff to Nineteen Oaks, the trail begins its 3.5-mile climb towards Alexander Saddle. The shale slide areas that often give hikers trouble are now larger and require more care to cross because of damage from the fire and subsequent winter storms. 

At the saddle, the trail branches. Santa Cruz Trail continues down the backside of Little Pine Mountain towards Santa Cruz Camp. While the trail to the right continues east towards Little Pine Mountain and Happy Hollow. 

The worst section of Santa Cruz Trail is from the saddle down to the turnoff to Little Pine Spring. Here, winter rains has washed down loose dirt from the barren hillsides, covering large portions of the trail. The route now requires significant care to cross and is not really recommended until it can be repaired. 

We camp at Little Pine Spring for the first night. The camp is outside of the burn area and features a picnic table and fire ring. Nearby, is a trough with water piped in from a generally reliable spring. 

In the morning, while making breakfast, we spot a black bear up on Santa Cruz Trail, which overlooks the camp. The bear pauses, looking somewhat surprised to see us. Attached to its ear is a red tag, raising the question of whether it was relocated from somewhere else. After exchanging looks with us, the bear scampers off down the trail.

After breakfast, we pack up our gear and hike back up to the junction with Santa Cruz Trail and continue towards Santa Cruz Camp with no sign of the bear along the trail. 

We push our way through wild mustard and non-native grasses that obscure the trail. We quickly discover the mustard, which at times reaches overhead, is thickest right along the trail and inadvertently marks where the trail is.

The trail then makes its way over to the 40-mile wall, a two-mile section of trail that follows the contours of a side canyon leading down towards Santa Cruz Creek. The trail’s nickname refers to the hike back out along the trail, which seems to go on forever.

Eventually, Santa Cruz Trail rounds a corner, and begins its descent down towards Santa Cruz Creek. 

The creek is currently flowing with the fullness of mountain stream thanks to the rain we’ve received. It’s a clear day, and the sun glistening on the leaves of alder and cottonwood trees along with wild blackberries in bloom add to the sense of it still being springtime. 

Just across the creek, Santa Cruz Trail makes a ninety-degree turn and continues up the canyon towards Santa Cruz Camp. At this turn is a faint trail that leads up Black Canyon towards the Romo homestead.

Jasper and I continue first towards Santa Cruz Camp. The camp is spread out underneath coast live oaks growing near the creek and has several usable campsites, each with a picnic table and either a fire ring or grated stove.

Near the campsites is Santa Cruz Guard Station, which is at the junction of Santa Cruz Trail and Santa Cruz Jeep Road. We continue east along the road. Just as the road crests a small rise, we cut off the road and hike cross-country towards the creek and arrive at the Alexander cabin site. The site can also be reached by heading east from the hay barn near the guard station.

A personal friend of Henry Ford, Edward W. Alexander established the first Ford dealership in Santa Barbara. Alexander also owned a ranch along the Santa Ynez River that later became known as Rancho Oso where he hosted celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  

In 1918, he had a cabin built along Santa Cruz Creek, that served as a hunting retreat and base for the ranch’s cattle operations. Cattle were herded along what become known as Alexander Trail. The trail followed Oso Canyon, past what is now Upper Oso, and made its way over what is now known as Alexander Peak, and continued down to Santa Cruz Creek. Remnants of the trail can still be found.

After Alexander’s passing, his wife sold the property, including the cabin. The new owners continued to run cattle until 1946, when the property again changed hands, shortly after which the cabin was conveyed to the Forest Service. 

At the site are the remains of the fireplace from the cabin, which has been converted into a barbecue. Nearby is a picnic table and grated stove from when the site was later used as a camp.

Doubling-back along the road, we return to the side trail leading into Black Canyon.

Hiking up the canyon, we can see intermittent sections of an old road cut. After about a quarter-mile the road climbs away from the creek. We then follow two parallel ruts from the road up a grassy hillside towards Romo Potrero. 

The old jeep road is an unmaintained continuation of Santa Cruz Jeep Road which starts from Buckhorn Road and leads past Santa Cruz Camp. The road led through Romo Potrero, where it joined the ridge overlooking West Fork Santa Cruz Creek and continued past Santa Cruz Peak to McKinley Saddle. 

This first section leaving the creek is steep and with our packs the slower pace gives us ample opportunity to view Black Mountain, which looms over the canyon. The road then arrives at the edge of Romo Potrero, which is a large grassy meadow stretching up the hillside.

The potrero has several flat terraces dotted with oaks and is named for Francisco Romo who homesteaded here in 1882, with his wife, twelve sons, and a daughter. At some point the property passed to the Forest Service. According to local historian E. R. “Jim” Blakley, Harry Lamb later rented the site from the Forest Service from 1920-1927. Lamb rebuilt the cabin, naming the site Camp Manzanitas. 

Little remains of the site today. Underneath an oak are some stones from the cabin and non-native vinca, or periwinkle; nearby is an olive tree. 

Past the homestead site we continue uphill, cross-country, through more wild grasses, to intersect Santa Cruz Trail, which skirts the edge of the potrero on its way to the ridge overlooking West Fork Santa Cruz Creek.

From the saddle, we descend along Santa Cruz Trail towards the creek. As the trail rounds a corner, the views open up towards the San Rafael Mountains. In the distance, we can see more grassy hillsides, ideal for grazing, lining parts of the canyon.

The trail eventually reaches the creek, which is still flowing, and leads to Flores Flat. The long scenic, meadow is the site of the Flores homestead.

Carlos Flores homesteaded here in 1896, growing crops and grazing cattle. His nephew, Leo Flores, served as the ranch foreman at the Alexander Ranch from 1914-1946, running cattle between the ranch and the cabin along Santa Cruz Creek.

Nothing remains of the Flores homestead. Flores Flat Camp, which is at the upper end of the meadow, overlooking the creek, is likely near where Flores’ cabin was located. The camp is situated near a large oak tree and features a fire ring. 

From Flores Flat, we continue along Santa Cruz Trail to explore more of the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage, before returning back along our route to the trailhead.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 12th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Little Pine Spring Camp hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres national forest

Little Pine Spring

California black bear Santa Cruz Trail Little Pine Spring Los Padres national forest

Bear on the Santa Cruz Trail overlooking Little Pine Spring Camp

california black bear tag tagged Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest

Los Padres’ Most Wanted?

Little Pine Spring Los Padres National Forest Santa Cruz trail hiking backpacking camp

Beginning of the trail down to Little Pine Spring

Santa Cruz Falls trail hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Santa Cruz Falls

black mountain romo potrero homestead los padres national forest

Black Mountain frames a view of Romo Potrero near the homestead site

Romo homestead roma potrero los padres national forest periwinkle vinca

Non-native periwinkle and other remnants of the Romo Homestead

Romo Potrero homestead santa cruz trail los padres national forest

Cattle trough Romo Potrero

Flores Flat Santa Cruz Trail creek camp hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Flores Flat

Lower Grapevine Camp canyon trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest ice can stove

Lower Grapevine Camp

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