Exploring the Santa Lucia Sierra of California
By J. Smeaton Chase
from the Overland Monthly, Vol. 62, No. 6, December 1913

We here at the Double Cone Register are very excited to be able to present this rare and little-known article by Joseph Smeaton Chase, author of California Coast Trails (published in its entirety in the Fall 2005 issue of the Double Cone Register) and other classics of California adventure travel. It appeared in the December 1913 issue of the Overland Monthly, the long-running magazine of Western lore and literature founded by Francis Bret Harte in 1868 in which the early works of such greats as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and Jack London were published. "Exploring the Santa Lucia Sierra of California" summarizes Chase's travels through the Santa Lucia mountains and Big Sur Coast region during his 1910-1911 horseback "paseo" from Mexico to Oregon, chronicled in California Coast Trails, published in February of 1913.

Those familiar with California Coast Trails will find that this article casts new light on many passages in that classic work, and (as always) Chase's breezy, anecdotal style and keen eye for the beauty both of nature and of humanity make it a joy to read. As a bonus, the article includes five photographs by Chase which were not published in California Coast Trails, or apparently anywhere else.

We believe that this is the first republication of this important piece since it first appeared in the Overland Monthly 92 years ago. Read on, and enjoy.

— The Editors of the Double Cone Register

  IMAGE: The coast of the Sierra Santa Lucia

The Coast of the Sierra Santa Lucia.

  IMAGE: The coast near Point Lobos

The coast near Point Lobos.

Exploring the Santa Lucia Sierra of California
By J. Smeaton Chase
(Illustrated by photographs taken by the author.)

ABOUT midway of the coast of California there lies a rough, little known region, sixty miles or so in length, by twenty in breadth. The range of the Santa Lucia here rises sharply from ocean edge to an average height of three or four thousand feet, with higher peaks reaching to nearly six thousand. No roads traverse this picturesque tract, but a long bridle-trail wanders up the coast, threading its way through deep gorges of redwood, madroño and tanbark oak, and along league on league of bold cliff and breezy mountain slope — ever in sight or sound of the gleam and boom of the Pacific. Here and there one finds a lonely settler's dwelling. The people are principally Spanish-Californians or Mexicans, in whose easy views of life telephones, automobiles and even railways are of little account, and to whom a weekly mail service by pack-mule seems quite adequate.

During the summer of 1911, in the course of a horseback Journey up the length of the State, I traversed this fine stretch of country. It was mid-August, and I was already three months out, when, leaving the old town of San Luis Obispo, I struck toward the coast and began to skirt the Santa Lucias. Passing the tiny village of Morro, lying on a lagoon-like bay whose mouth is closed by a great cone of rock, I turned northward along the coast. Eight miles brought me to Cayucos, a drowsy settlement taking its name from the Indian canoes that the early explorers noticed here; and night found me at the pretty, pine-encircled mining town of Cambria. By. noon next day I rode into San Simeon, a moribund port whose weekly coasting steamers forms the link with the outside world for the southern part of the Santa Lucia country.

I found entertainment that night at the ranch of kindly Welsh folk, near the lonely lighthouse of Piedras Blancas (which I heard innocently termed Peter's Blankets.) The hoarse shout of the syren broke into my sleep at five minute intervals throughout the night. At this point the road came to an end, and next morning I took to the trail which I was to keep, if I could, for a hundred miles or more of tortuous wanderings. Several people had told me that I should get lost in the rough and little traveled country I was entering; but my saddle bags held provisions for a week, and I knew that water would be plentiful, so I felt sure I could get through, provided only that I found forage for my good little horse, Anton.

A few miles brought me to the first of the deep canyons of the range, the San Carpoforo. I led my horse down to the bottom, and then turned up the canyon among a tangle of brush and cactus. After a mile or two I came to the neat little home of a Mexican, whose son Marcial I had met at San Simeon. The friendly people got me a meal of eggs and tortillas, with coffee; and in the afternoon I pushed on up the canyon. I wished to cross the mountains at this point, in order to visit the ruins of the Franciscan Mission of San Antonio, which stands near Jolon, on the eastern side of the range. Fording the stream I found a steep trail that led up the mountain side, and after some hours travel, camped for the night beside the creek near a little cienaga, or marsh, that gave abundant forage. Next day I had the satisfaction of finding in the depths of the canyon a group of Abies venusta, a rare and curious fir that is found nowhere but in a few remote spots in this range of mountains.

From here it was a hard climb and bad trail up to the crest of the range, which I judge to be here about three thousand feet high. On the other side I found a brushy country with a sprinkling of digger-pines. Water was unexpectedly scarce, my canteen empty, and the trail, at best very little traveled, hard to follow among the maze of cattle paths that laced the country. It was hot, too, now that we were shut off from the sea breeze. To spare my horse I did not get into the saddle even when the trail was fairly good, which was seldom; and we both were tired out and wretchedly thirsty when, shortly before sundown, we came out on a high bluff overlooking the Nacimiento River. It was still an hour's march down to the canyon, but once there, we drank our fill, and later I took a delicious swim in a deep, moon-lit pool. After a long evening by the camp-fire, coyotes sang me to sleep, and the first sensation of the morning was their good-bye salvo as they slunk away to cover.

The next day was Sunday, and I did not break camp. It was a delightful place for a quiet day. The river ran calmly through the oak and pine-filled valley; doves, quail and squirrels made pleasant conversation; and at evening a doe and fawn came down to drink at my swimming pool. A few cattle roamed by, but human life was entirely absent. I doubt if there was a house within ten miles. We started early on Monday morning, and I was soon hopelessly at fault as to the trail, so I determined to cut loose and travel by compass, since I knew the direction of Jolon, about due north. It was another long, hard, hot day, but I had started with a full canteen, and Anton was in good form after his rest. An open country allowed me to keep my direction, and before evening we entered the village of Jolon.

  IMAGE: Ruins of Mission San Antonio de Padua

Ruins of the rarely-visited Mission San Antonio de Padua, founded in 1771. Located near Jolon in the Santa Lucia Range. In its time the Mission was regarded as one of the most important along the California Coast.

Of all sleepy hamlets of California, I take Jolon to be the sleepiest. It is more Mexican than American, and about as much Indian as Mexican. The why and how of its existence are alike mysteries. Three saloons compete for the patronage of a population of two or three score people, and a summer day temperature of about a hundred degrees is naturally no impediment to their business. Six miles northwest of Jolon is the ruined Mission of San Antonio. It dates from the year 1771, and was one of the most important of the Missions planted by the Franciscans along the California coast. Here I camped for a night among ancient olives and melancholic owls, pleased thus to associate with the brown-robed priests and their simple Indian converts, whose bones moulder in the old graveyard beyond the tamarisks and pomegranates of the hedge.

Again I turned toward the coast. For some miles the way led through open forest of oaks; then a trail led across the mountains. It was a much easier climb up this eastern face of the range; passing first through a thin forest of digger-pine, and later entering the yellow pine belt. From the crest, I looked down into a great canyon, heavily timbered on its southerly face; to north in hazy distance rose the peak of Santa Lucia, 5967 feet in elevation, and to west, and far below, the Pacific lay under a pearly bank of fog, just tinged with rose by a westering sun. It was a scene to hold one absorbed by the hour, but too soon the necessities of fodder and water for the night urged us on.

  IMAGE: Pico Blanco, a principal peak of the Sierra Santa Lucia.

Pico Blanco, a principal peak of the Sierra Santa Lucia.

A few miles down the western slope I found a side trail leading to the little mining settlement of Los Burros. Here I put up for the night, the next day continued through the same fine forest country toward the coast. During the morning I entered the region of the redwood. Sequoia sempervirens, the moisture-loving brother of the Giant Tree of the Sierra Nevada. From this point this superb conifer continues as far north as to the Oregon line, where it abruptly ceases. Associated with it is the tanbark oak, Quercus densiflora, that interesting link between oak and chestnut; and these two, with the handsome madroño, were my companions almost constantly during my next two months' wanderings. The trail descended steeply, and by noon we came to the shore at Cape San Martin, finding a broken, rocky coast from which the mountains rose abruptly in high smooth swells of summer-yellowed grass, scored by timbered canyons in long succession to north and south. Fording a small stream we climbed a trail that led up the cliff, and a mile farther on came to a bench of level land where stood two or three houses of old settlers.

I stayed for the night with one of these friendly families. A lucky landslide, following the heavy rains of the last spring, had suddenly put them in possession of a valuable gold mine, and thus after forty-two years of struggle as farmers on this lonely coast the family seemed to be on a short road to easy wealth. I learned that for fifteen years the father had carried the weekly mails by pack horse to and from Jolon over the trail I had traveled.

  IMAGE: Gamboa's, a typical mountain home in the Sierra Santa Lucia.

Gamboa's, a typical mountain home in the Sierra Santa Lucia.

League beyond league to the north the coast ran in bold, scenic cliffs or slopes, and far as the eye would carry my trail lay like a thin gray thread high up on the steep incline. It is a solitary but romantic region. A constant alternation of open cliff and hillside with densely wooded canyon, dim with great timber and echoing with voices of cascading stream, kept my interest fresh and keen. I camped the next night on a good stream abounding in trout, which served my wants excellently but held no consolation for my horse. I could not blame him when I found that during the night he had broken from his picketing and gone on a tour of exploration, which I am afraid can have yielded but scanty results.

The morning came foggy with bursts of gray-gold glory to the east, against which the high, timbered ridges stood etched in blackest gloom. Again we attacked the unending succession of canyon and mountain-side. In a deep gorge named Lime Kiln Canyon, I came upon a group of disused buildings, gray with lichen and green with moss. Lime had once been quarried and burned here, to be shipped from the old cable landing at the mouth of the canyon. It was hard to realize that these solemn, sleeping redwoods and ferny grottoes could ever have echoed the clatter of machinery. Here, we found a good growth of grass, and Anton made up some of his arrears. The climb out was a hard one: in fact, day after day the trail was a mere succession of climbs down into and up out of canyons, following one another like the folds of an accordion.

Far in the distance I saw my next landmark, a little house high up on the mountain side. When after miles of steady traveling we reached it, the hospitable people, not waiting to ask if I were hungry, at once prepared me a generous meal. (I think it is Stevenson who remarks somewhere upon "the natural hospitality of mountain people.") I could not refuse it, though I had eaten some lunch at the last canyon; and I did my best to repay them with items of news a little more recent than those of their two-weeks-old newspaper.

The trail now struck directly up the mountain. It was hot work under the clear afternoon sun, and when, after a couple of hours, I came upon a little weather-stained cabin where an elderly Mexican sat on the porch, I was glad to stop for rest and a chat. He was Santos Barrando ("at your honor's service, señor"), and he and his smiling young wife and quartette of jolly children made as pleasant a family group as I have seen for many a day.

Then, after getting directions for my next point, we crossed the deep canyon of Vincente Creek and began another hard climb. As we rose the view became superb, especially to seaward. From the high mountain side I looked down upon a vast expanse of ocean, crinkled in infinite detail with the creeping waves. It was much such a sight as one would get from an aeroplane. Far out, the pickets of the fog were already advancing for the evening attack. The fog movement on this coast in summer is almost as regular as that of the tides. From the crest I reveled in a sunset of memorable beauty. The level sun shone through a veil of mist with a strange bronze glory. The great trees, and the golden slopes of grass, took on a glow of red which, under other circumstances, might have looked theatrical; but in this high solitude, and under the wistful influence of evening, there was a solemnity in the unearthly hue that held me spellbound until, slowly, the sun dropped and was quenched in the fog-bank on the horizon.

A short distance below the summit I found Gamboa's Ranch, where I was to stay the night. The house is a quaint little place, clinging precariously to the hillside, and commanding a view that millionaires might envy. The good Spanish woman made me welcome, and I slept in the orchard on a mattress slung among the boughs of an apple tree. Awaking at early dawn, it was luxury to lie and listen to the monotone of ocean that came trembling up from two thousand feet below, and seemed to fill the universe as far as to the dying stars; luxury, too, to pluck and munch my hygienic morning apple before rising.

Yet another deep gorge now opened before me, that of the Arroyo Grande. It held two attractive streams, the north and south forks, and a specially fine growth of redwoods. For hour after hour we alternated between religious gloom of canyon and blaze of open mountain-side, with ever the sea far below, one infinite blueness, almost oppressive in profound uniformity of sound and color. There was variety only in the tiny islets that fringed the shore, breaking the rhythmic surges into momentary flash of spray. There are no beaches: league after league the mountain buttresses plunge direct into clear blue of deep water. It is a condition simple, interesting and entirely unusual.

The complication of cattle-paths among which we now wandered was quite beyond my trail-craft. About mid-afternoon I found myself entirely at fault, high up on a steep and slippery slope that was cut by frequent gullies choked with sharp rocks and stubborn brush. Anton was an old Forest Service animal, trail-wise and steady, but with all his and my caution he got some bad cuts on hocks and knees, and more than one disaster seemed imminent. Daylight was falling when we struck into a better-marked path, and then pushed rapidly on, passing the ruined huts and corrals of a departed settler, and finally arriving at nightfall at a house on the cliff edge, known as Slate's, or Little's. Here some hot sulphur springs issue from the face of the cliff, and a couple of bath-tubs have been hauled up from shipboard and lowered into place midway of the cliff, and the water led into them. This makes a decided novelty in the hydropathic line, and would be worth money to the enterprising owner if the place were more accessible.

The fog was late in lifting next day, and I was enchanted with the ghostly effect of the straight shafts of the redwoods rising from the misty canyon depths below me, and passing pillar-like into thick white gloom overhead. The sound of falling water pulsated through every canyon, mingling with the boom or mutter of the surf. On the hillsides, the birds were clustered in the bushes, and their innocent voices came to me out of the fog with a playful, child-like tone that wholly charmed me. I sauntered along for hours, leading my horse, and when at length the weather began to clear, I could dimly see, far away to the north, the promontory of Point Sur, darkly cut against the bank of the receding fog. About noon I came to a little clearing, where two old fellows lived and kept a number of hives of bees. They hailed me as if I were a friend, even a privilege, and I was glad to stop and share their rustic meal of eggs and honey.

A few miles farther on, I found an abandoned homestead where there was forage for a night among the trees of the decaying orchard. I camped at the foot of a kingly redwood, pleased with the tameness of a band of quail that, perched on the sagging rails of the old corral, discussed my supper arrangements in flute-like tones, and of a squirrel that humorously dropped bark chips into my coffee from a limb twenty feet overhead. A placid evening by the camp-fire conduced to a night of serene sleep, and when I awoke, the woodpeckers' tattoo already resounded through the canyon.

The trail now lay high up above the fog, and early the sun was sufficiently hot for comfort. During the morning I met two pedestrians who were out on a holiday jaunt from San Francisco. They were point-device with knapsacks, revolvers, canteens and cameras, but seemed far from jaunty as they mopped while they questioned me as to the trail, nor were they cheered by my account of the place where I had lost it. Their program was to make for Gamboa's, and thence to take a trail across the mountains to the railway that runs in the Salinas Valley, some thirty miles to the east. At the next canyon I found a wild assortment of unnecessary items of baggage which they had jettisoned there, among them even the blank note-book in which, I suppose, the record of their trip was to have been made. This was really a boon, for my own note-book was overflowing. A few miles more brought us to Castro's Ranch, a time-honored landmark to wayfarers in the Santa Lucia, and the point at which a wagon road begins, going north. At supper, the table was spread with Spanish dishes at their best, a vast platter of venison forming the chief point of attack.

After crossing the Big Sur River by a wide, shallow ford, noon of next day found us at Pfeiffer's, where I noted the novelty of a post-office, for hither a stage comes down three times a week from Monterey. The road here again was most beautiful, for miles following the river, and even in company with noble redwoods. On my right rose a sightly peak of thirty-seven hundred feet, named Pico Blanco, from the peculiar whiteness of its color toward the summit. A mile or two to the west was Point Sur. I made a divergence thither in order to visit the light-house, for a light-house is always a fascinating object, and its keepers I have invariably found to be just such men as one would wish or expect for attendants on these beneficent Cyclops. The Point Sur light is another instance in proof. Can it be that loneliness and deprivation are conducive to this fine geniality?

Coming to the Little Sur River, I found the remains of a summer camp resort, now nominally closed, for September had come. Here I got hay for my horse, and a somewhat melancholy welcome for myself. The situation, however, was delightful — a perfect stream, woodlands of the finest, goodly mountains close at hand, and ocean within sound, and almost within sight and smell. Next day we pushed our way along the cliff against a bright half-gale which furnished a splendid Henry Moore sea, together with a noble concert of pine music. I stayed that night at a ranch with friendly Portuguese people, enjoying the old-world simplicity of manners and diet beyond the phonograph medley which was offered, I fancy, in extenuation. The following day's travel was still along the cliff, for the main range of the Santa Lucia was now behind me. While I thought with regret of those high and lonely trails, yet the coast here was fully as charming. No less word than exquisite can characterize this succession of rocky, cypress-fringed bays and headlands, upon which lazily thundered a sea of purest aqueous blue and emerald: these islets colored in rich tones of umber and ochre, forever thrusting back the wash of the greatest of oceans.

A mile beyond Point Lobos I came to the Mission of Carmel. It was evening, when the pensive rather than the romantic has its hour. The old building slept in the warm, level light; swallows swung and soared in that tireless joy that makes their presence always so enchanting, so (in a manner) godlike; half a mile away I caught the gleam of surf on the bar, where the little Carmel River takes the first kiss of the tide. Under my feet, carelessly mingled, was the dust of cultured priest and stolid aborigine. I recalled Bret Harte's lines on "The Angelus":

"Borne on the swell of your long waves receding,
    I touch the farther Past;
I see the dying glow of Spanish glory,
    The sunset gleam and last."

All spoke of the eternal duality — permanence and change, our little works and joys and the vast ordinances of Nature. But the old building stands a thing of beauty and value: and even when it shall not, yet its motive shall. I slept at the pretty, new village of Carmel-by-the-Sea; and on the morrow rode on into Monterey, still greatly the Monterey of Spanish California and of Stevenson; and here ended this enjoyable unit of my long ride.