“Viewed from the top of some high point, the valley is found to be made up of a vast extent of rolling hills, that merge in the dim distance into the cloud-tipped summits of the Sierra de San Rafael. The immediate valley consists of the winding canon of the Santa Ynez, to which lateral canons and valleys of varying size contribute, creating in places considerable stretches of rich bottom-land. Farther up the river these tributary valleys become shorter and narrower, with less, and finally, no bottom-lands on the main stream, the canon closing until, toward the head of the valley, its walls, the foot-hills, come close together, withholding all but the meager channel which the stream has torn from them.
In a dry summer its arid bed is used as a narrow roadway, but in the winter a mountain torrent booms down between its rocky walls, difficult and dangerous to cross.
There is an abundance of tree growth, which adds to the vivid picturesqueness of the valley. There are the sturdy live-oak and white oak and the sycamore; the tall, slender cottonwood with its shining leaves; the graceful willow; the beautiful and fragrant balm of Gilead, and the historic bay....
Upon the San Marcos Rancho and about the headwaters of the Santa Ynez there are excellent hunting grounds for deer, bear, quail, and pigeon, while swarms of nimble trout temptingly expose their beautiful, speckled sides to the eager gaze of the [visitor].”
Thompson and West, 1883
History of Santa Barbara & Ventura Counties
When the river rises and the gate across the Santa Ynez riverbed near Los Prietos Boy’s Camp is closed, the canyon becomes quiet. A few mountain bikers haul their bikes across the river and pedal towards Upper Oso or Red Rock, thankful they’ll have the area to themselves for a day or two until the river comes down. A family or two ford the river as well, still intent on having a picnic, whether they can drive across or not. Even the inner tubers are out, getting ready for a float down to Sage Hill Campground.
Otherwise, there is only the quiet sound of nature—the sway of willow and cattail, the chattering of blackbirds, and whoosh-whoosh of a light breeze. On my bike, I ride up the canyon beyond Lower Oso, cutting up and across the left side of the canyon, then coasting down to Falls picnic area and a second river crossing. From here the next three miles are almost level.
The road undulates through the upper canyon, walls narrowing to form steep, shaly slopes and vertical layers of sandstone. Beyond the second crossing I find Santa Ynez campground deserted. A half-mile later I see the rough trail leading down to the left and across the river to Camuesa Connector and just beyond that, on the right, a locked gate that marks the beginning of a spur that climbs up onto the north slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains, intersecting with Matias Potrero Trail a mile later.
A quarter mile beyond the locked gate the road crosses, then recrosses, the river in the span of several hundred yards, catching a beautiful picnic area—Live Oak— in between at and elbow in the river. Large oaks shelter the tables and cooking areas. A long, deep pool is just below the elbow, resting against the edge of a long sandstone cliff that makes this spot particularly inviting.
The next mile is my favorite, a distance in which the river cuts across the road 3 times. The canyon is sharp and twisty, with cottonwoods and sycamore defining the river’s edge. The pools abundant, and perfect in the summer months. If it weren’t for the paved road and the access it affords, this would be wild country. Still, it has a rustic and rugged quality about it. Just beyond this I come to a last pool with a beach area almost 50 yards long. This pool, like Live Oak, rests against a sandstone ledge. The stone is tilted at an angle of about 60 degrees and footsteps cut in the rock lead up to a series of ledges which create jumping-off points 10 to 15 feet above the water. In the summer this is the most popular place to hang out anywhere along the river.
Almost abruptly the road ends in a large, open dirt parking area that is covered by huge oaks. This marks the end of the drive and the beginning of a level half-mile walk to Red Rock, perhaps the most beautiful pool to be found anywhere along the Santa Ynez River.
If you are a botanist or a geologist, this is a country that must speak to you eloquently. Though not in words, the land speaks. Knowing a little you can discover a lot. Prior to the mid-1800s it was a land that was defined on nature’s terms—hot, parched summers; a fall season filled with acorns bursting forth from huge oaks; a deep, roaring river, often overflowing its banks and replenishing meadows with top soil in the winter; and the greens and pastels of wildflowers and tall grasses in the springtime—a land that evolved to the beat of a different and far, far slower drummer.
Los Prietos y Najalayegua
Until the late 1860s, when quicksilver was discovered by Jose Moraga, the land in the upper Santa Ynez River valley was considered worthless by man. Too rugged for cattle or sheep grazing, the land was abandoned to the creatures which infested the area—grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, and predatory birds.
Jose Lugo was the first owner of the upper Santa Ynez River canyon. But apparently he didn’t think much of his holdings for he sold it to Jose Dominguez for “consideration of two kegs of brandy and $20 in silver currency” in 1843. On September 14, 1845 the grant was officially confirmed to him by Pio Pico, the Mexican Governor of California.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 the legal rights of Mexican landowners was to be respected. In 1851, a Board of Commissioners was set up to review all California rancho titles. With the exception of Dominguez, each of the other Santa Barbara County rancho owners patiently went through the review process. In documents filed later with Congress, this was due to his lack of understanding of the English language and inability to pay the high fees associated with the process.
In the 1850s and early 1860s, though still unconfirmed, the rancho passed through several hands, eventually being purchased by Charles Huse from Felipe Arrellanes for $100 in gold coin. Though a judge, Huse turned out to be an unscrupulous scoundrel who tried to gain title to large portions of Santa Barbara by manipulating the southern boundary of the land grant so that it would include portions of Santa Barbara and Montecito.
Huse realized that the property boundaries were vague and with a bit of “massaging” might be manipulated to his advantage. With a little luck he would be fabulously wealthy. When quicksilver was discovered in an area most likely within the Los Prietos y Najalayegua boundaries, Huse was sure he would be rich. But there was one big problem. The rancho had yet to be confirmed. Eventually even this hurdle was passed. On June 12, 1866 (most likely through Huse’s efforts) the grant was affirmed by an act of Congress.
But rather than being a blessing, the confirmation stirred up a hornet’s nest. No one had the vaguest idea of what the rancho’s boundaries would be. According to the crude map accompanying the rancho claim, the grant “embrace[d] a valley between two ranges of mountains, with Carpenteria Creek shown as the eastern boundary of the grant, and the Parajo de los Prietos as the western boundary.” Santa Barbarans worried that title to their properties might be in danger.
When Howard Thompson, Deputy Surveyor-General, showed up to survey the grant, he became immediately frustrated. “The data furnished me,” he wrote, “did not seem sufficient to make a correct location of the grant, as it did not name the quantity of land to be embraced in the survey, nor did it give any defined boundaries within which the grant should be located....
“I found a continuous range of steep, brushy, and broken mountains, the Parajo de los Prietos being in the Santa Ynez Valley on the north side of the mountains, and the Carpenteria Creek rising and taking its whole course on the south side of the mountains, through the plain of Carpenteria, until it reaches the sea.”
What to do? Huse knew. Quietly he worked behind the scenes in an attempt to convince both the son of the original grantee, Dominguez, and the person from whom he had bought the property, Felipe Arrellanes, to swear falsely that the southern boundary of the rancho extended down into Santa Barbara.
When people discovered the ruse they were outraged. Public indignation apparently ran so high in 1870 that Huse had to be guarded day and night against angry lynch mobs which demanded that he be strung up in De La Guerra Plaza.
As a result of these manipulations and public furor, nothing ever came of the Los Prietos y Najalayegua land grant. Above it, however, miners continued to work claims that they hopes would make them rich.
Santa Ynez Canyon Hikes
Just over the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, a short drop down from San Marcos Pass, you’ll find Paradise Road—a name that describes the area perfectly. “Welcome to Paradise,” the locals are fond of saying.
The two lane road leads east for 5 miles to its first crossing of the Santa Ynez River, along the way passing several campgrounds that are usually open, the Santa Barbara Ranger District headquarters and Aliso Canyon Nature Trail where you’ll find a short but pretty loop hike.
Beyond the first crossing the road splits. The left fork leads a mile to Upper Oso Campground and a series of hikes leading up onto the flanks of Little Pine Mountain. The main canyon road leads straight ahead, on past Lower Oso. From there it narrows and becomes more primitive in nature. Though much narrower it is still paved, and has a country feeling to it. Over the next five miles it meanders up the Santa Ynez River, crossing and re-crossing it several times until it reaches its end at the trailhead leading to Red Rock.
Along the way you’ll find picnic areas, a campground, plenty of places to dip in a quiet pool or sunbathe, and of course, a number of hiking trails.
Santa Barbara Ranger District
You’ll find the district office located at the Los Prietos Ranger Station on Paradise Road, 4 miles east of Highway 154. The office is open from 8am-5pm Monday through Friday and most Saturdays throughout the summer. For information you can write (Los Prietos Ranger Station, Star Route, Santa Barbara, CA 93105 or call (805/967-3481).
The district is comprised of approximately 232,000 acres which includes the Santa Ynez Mountains, most of the upper Santa Ynez River drainage, and a portion of the San Rafael Wilderness. Entry into some areas may be prohibited during periods of high fire danger.
Four day use areas are located along the river: White Rock; Lower Oso; Falls; and Live Oak. White Rock is located along Paradise Road about 3 miles from the Highway 154 turnoff. Lower Oso is immediately after the first river crossing. Falls picnic area is just before the second river crossing and Live Oak is just after the third crossing. All have tables, B-B-Q pits and restroom facilities.
Four family campgrounds are located in the Canyon—Fremont, Paradise, Los Prietos and Upper Oso — and one group campground — Sage Hill — which is located just behind the Ranger Station.
Fremont, Paradise, and Los Prietos can be found along Paradise Road between Highway 154 and the Ranger Station. Upper Oso is located a mile up a spur road leading north just opposite Lower Oso picnic area. Santa Ynez Camp is in the upper canyon, just beyond Falls picnic area and after the second river crossing.
All have paved roads, piped water, B-B-Q pits, tables, trash bins, and restrooms. Some of them have extra long parking areas suitable for trailers, though none have hookups.
For more detailed information about camping and day use within the forest check the Camps & Picnics section of the site.