The Double Cone Quarterly
Window to the Wilderness
Summer Solstice 2001 || Volume IV, Number 2

"The Rocks" of Reliz Canyon,
as Described in 1888.

Introduced and Edited by David Rogers, © 2001

The following article, which appeared in the January 5, 1888 edition of the Salinas Weekly Index, describes a landmark that, in modern times, is in one of the least explored areas of the Ventana Wilderness: "The Rocks" of Reliz Canyon. The Rocks are a massive sandstone outcrop located between the upper watersheds of Reliz and Vaqueros Creeks (and about 6.6 miles west-northwest of Junipero Serra Peak). The outcrop has a relatively gradual eastern slope, which rises more than 1,300 feet above Reliz Canyon, but it plummets into the canyon of Vaqueros Creek.

"The Rocks" proper, which are about 1.5 miles long and about a mile wide, represent one of the higher prominences of a continuous exposure of The Rocks sandstone unit of the Reliz Canyon formation. As mapped by Link and Nilsen (1979), this exposure begins at The Rocks and extends about 7 miles to the northwest, and at one point broadens to about 2.3 miles wide. Within this exposure, and about a mile to the northwest of The Rocks proper (and southwest of the Leigh Ranch in Vaquero Canyon) there is an equally elevated but much larger prominence. Smaller exposures of The Rocks sandstone occur to the south and southeast of The Rocks, and also to the west and northwest, in such areas as "The Lakes" at Arroyo Seco, Hanging Valley, Escondido Camp, and along the Miller Canyon and Church Creek faults. The Rocks sandstone unit was deposited as a fan at the mouth of a submarine canyon during the middle Eocene (about 45 million years before the present) when the landmass was located several hundred miles to the southeast of where it is now (Link and Nilsen, 1979). The similar looking and equally massive sandstone outcrops in the vicinity of The Indians are about 20 million years older than "The Rocks."

For about 50 years or so, the Reliz Canyon area has been off limits to the general public, for the only access to this region is through private properties located within the Monterey District of Los Padres National Forest. According to a recent e-mail I received from Boon Hughey:

I had a conversation with a long-time Forest Service employee last week and we talked at length about the Reliz Canyon area. Apparently there are a handful of landowners back there who do their best to make sure that the public will never get legal access across their lands to nearby Forest Service lands. In doing so they pretty much have the run of that part of the Forest as if it were their own, since there are no public trails or roads accessing it. My informant also tells me that the area is chuck full of wild game, in the form of pigs, deer and turkeys. That's one of the reasons that the locals want to keep the public out -- they enjoy their own private hunting reserve largely on public lands.

The Reliz Canyon area was not always off limits to the public, and according to Clark (1991), in former times the canyon served as the main route between the Salinas and San Antonio valleys. Although Clark did not specifically state his source, one of his references, Jackson 1988, stated that the canyon served as part of the route of the Butterfield Stage, which ran between San Francisco and Jackson, MO., in the 1800s. According to Jackson, the stage line "climbed Reliz Canyon. Cresting the ridge, it then dropped down to the site of the San Antonio Mission and the little town of Jolon. This road through Reliz Canyon is not continuous now, but it is described in a 'viewers report' filed with Monterey County in 1864."

During the 1930s and 1940s the public also had access to the Reliz Canyon area, and could pitch their tents at the Reliz Canyon Campground. This campground is depicted on the 1939 and 1940 USFS maps of the Monterey Division of Los Padres National Forest, the Thomas Brothers' map of Monterey and San Benito Counties of 1946, and the 1949 USGS 7.5 minute Reliz Canyon Quadrangle (and again on the photo-revised edition of 1984). According to the Land Status Atlas of the Monterey Division, the campground land was withdrawn for use as a "public service site" on December 31, 1934. The site occupies the northwest and northeast quarters of the northwest quarter of section 23, T20S R6E.

A portion of the Thomas Brothers' map of 1946.

Even though The Rocks are presently not accessible to the public, the following description will likely induce a since of wander-lust among some of the readers. The Rocks proper sound like an excellent destination for a day hike, and when considering the extent to which the formation extends to the northwest, much more time could be spent in exploration. One of the lures is the strong possibility of discovering traces of prehistory, for The Rocks represent the same geological formation in which many sites, such as "The Caves" in the Church Creek area and MNT-85 in the Arroyo Seco area, occur. According to mission records, the Reliz Canyon area was part of the Esselen geo-political district of Aspasniahan.

A photograph of "The Rocks" from "Soil Survey of Monterey County" by Terry Cook.
USDA Soil Conservation Service, 1978.

Salinas Weekly Index, January 5, 1888.

A Monterey Beauty Spot.

Among the many little-sheltered valleys and nooks that open into the Salinas, few present more attractions to the seeker after nature in her quite moods than Reliz Canyon. The Reliz, as it is called, is rather a valley than a canyon. The road into it leads lies up the bottom of the valley, crossing its little creek several times, and shaded much of the way by oaks. The valley opens into the Arroyo Seco at John Brown's place, about ten miles from Soledad. Ten miles from Mr. Brown's, on Mr. Berry's place, the Reliz proper is reached.

This "Reliz," which gives the canyon its name, is a narrow cleft clear through a rocky ridge1, caused, no doubt, by some convulsion of nature, and is quite unique in its way. A climb of several hundred feet brings one to the summit of the Reliz, but trees growing in its rocky sides hide the bottom from view. Near by, the rocky ridge comes to an abrupt termination in an almost overhanging precipice of several hundred feet in height. In the shadow of this cliff the creek runs clear and cool, and the trees growing on its bank form many a shaded nook, such as one expects to find only in dense forests.

Following the stream above Mr. Berry's2 we find its bed in the sandstone, wherever it is visible, and after making an abrupt turn to the west, we find it coming through a narrow cleft in the rocks from an enclosed basin, called "The Pocket." A trail over the ridge is a much easier way of entering the Pocket than by the streambed, which, for much of the way here, is a series of rocky steps. Within the Pocket the stream is covered by drifted gravel, but anon the hills approach each other, the stream appears again, dancing down its rocky steps, and a brilliant display of flowering plants completely embowers its course.

Suddenly we find our way barred by steep and rugged rocks, and either by difficult climbing or circuitous ways we pass the minor waterfalls that here obstruct our passage. Whichever course we pursue, we come suddenly upon a fairy-like scene as beautiful as unexpected.

A basin, whose cavernous sides almost arch above, and whose floor, except where lies the pool from above, is covered with masses of scarlet, white and yellow flowers3, forms the foreground to one of the most beautiful little waterfalls imaginable. The height of the fall is between 35 and 40 feet, and, after falling half the distance, the water shoots down the face of an almost perpendicular moss covered rock in a perfect sheet of foam. The rock to the right of the fall, and extending to its full height, was a mass of boykinias4, whose shining green leaves and clusters of white blossoms made a magnificent display, though hardly surpassing in beauty the display of ferns extending up the rocks on the other side of the fall. The roofs of the caverns on either side are adorned with numerous stalactites in the process of formation. It is needless to add that these caverns are pleasantly cool in the warmest day.

Just south of this vicinity lie the new gold fields, and as the country between it and the coast settles up, most likely many other such of Monterey's beauty spots may be found, but none more beautiful.


1. "Reliz" is a Spanish name (of Mexican origin) for a landslide. Perhaps the bottom of this cleft is littered with rocks and boulders.

2. According to the Land Status Atlas of the Monterey Division of Los Padres National Forest, William Berry's properties were among the 35 patents that were issued in township T20S R6E. By the first few years of the 1900s, all of the Vaqueros Canyon properties, along with those in the southern half of Reliz Canyon, had been acquired by John W. Leigh. Leigh was the owner and editor of the Monterey Democrat from 1867 to 1885. According to his obituary in the November 18, 1904 edition of the Salinas Daily Journal (formerly the Monterey Democrat), on his Los Vaqueros ranch he "carried on the business of stock raising, on an extensive scale," under the firm name of J. W. Leigh & Sons. The "extensive scale" to which Leigh exploited his property was noted by Plummer and Gowsell (1905), who stated that the lands of T20S R6E were severely overgrazed.

3. Educated guesses as to which species the author was describing can be made based on plants of similar habitats in other parts of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Those with red or scarlet flowers probably included Annual Paint Brush (Castilleja minor spiralis), Scarlet Monkey Flower (Mimulus cardinalis), Monkey Flower Mint (Satureja mimuloides), California Figwort (Scrophularia californica) and perhaps Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) and Leopard Lily (Lilium pardalinum). Those with yellow flowers probably included Common Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatus plus any of a number of less conspicuous Monkey Flowers), Sneezeweeds (Helenium puberulum and/or bigelovii), Stream Lotus (Lotus oblongifolius), and perhaps Evening Primrose (Oenothera elata) and Yellow Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium californica). Those with white flowers probably included Brook Foam (Boykinia occidentalis, which was specifically mentioned), Alum Root (Heuchera micrantha), Short Spiked Hedge Nettle (Stachys pycantha), Fringe Cups (Tellima grandiflora), and perhaps Yadon's Horkelia (Horkelia yadonii) and California Grass of Parnassus (Panassia californica). Although flowers of other colors were not mentioned, and least some must have been present, and probably included California Lobelia (Lobelia dunni serrata), clovers (Trifolium species), Leather Root (Hoita macrostachya and/or orbicularis), Western Hedge Nettle (Stachys bullata), Willow Herbs (Epilobium species), American Brooklime (Veronica americana), and Giant Stream Orchid (Epipactis gigantea).

4. Boykinia occidentalis (Brook Foam). It is also possible that some of these plants represent the very similar looking Heuchera micrantha (Alum Root), which also belongs to the Saxifrage Family (Saxifragaceae).

1991. Monterey County Place Names. Kestrel Press, Carmel Valley.

1965. Tertiary Stratigraphy of the Church Creek Area, Monterey County, CA. California Division of Mines and Geology Special Report #86, p. 25-44.

1988. El Camino Real in Monterey County. Monterey Peninsula Herald Weekend Magazine, January 17, 1988.

1979. Sedimentology of The Rocks Sandstone and Eocene Paleogeography of the Northern Santa Lucia Basin, CA., in Tertiary and Quaternary Geology of the Salinas Valley and Santa Lucia Range, Monterey Co., CA., S. A. Graham, ed. Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Pacific Section. Los Angeles.

1905. Forest Conditions in the Monterey Forest Reserve.

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