The Traces of the Past hike begins in the small town of Santa Margarita, which is picturesquely nestled against the Santa Lucia mountains. It is an ideal spot to begin since it is located near the headwaters of the Salinas River, which figures prominantly in the history of the Central Coast.
The Santa Margarita Valley is rich in history encompassing a principal native american trade, Chumash and Salinan Indian settlements, a Spanish Mission Asistencia, a Californio Land grant, American Railroad expansion, the introduction of the first highway running from LA to San Francisco; and then, a decline as a result of recessions and depressions. Today, recreation, ranching, and wine grape production are the major economic drivers.
The weather unique. Storms from the Pacific blow through the Templeton Gap and are trapped by the Santa Lucia Mountains. Average rainfall is around 27.5 inches per year, which is a little more than other parts of the Central Coast. Consequently, native americans prospered from lush grasslands, and abundant oaks and native plants, wildlife, and fish.
On June 3, 1770, the Mission of San Carlos Borromeo, the second California Mission, was founded in Carmel. At that time, inhabitants of the Mission and the nearby Monterey Presidio were not yet producing agricultural products and were almost entirely dependent on supplies from Mexico that were delivered by ship. In 1772, the supply ship failed to arrive. To stave off starvation, Lt. Fages, the commander of the Monterey Presidio, mounted a hunt in the Cañada de los Ositos, near present-day San Luis Obispo. The hunt was so successful that Fages packed out 9,000 pounds of fresh and salted bear meat to Monterey. California Grizziles were massive and no one knows how many were killed, however, the hunt virtually eliminated the Grizzly population from the area.
In 1774, Junipero Serra founded the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. This was an unusual location in that most missions were founded near a harbor or a large Native American village. Some claim it continued to be a statioj for bear meat.
The Mission prospered and a town grew up around it. Today, it has been lovingly restored to its former simple, rustic beauty.
The padres of the San Luis Obispo Mission traveled the Chumash path over Cuesta Pass and discovered the rich Santa Margarita Valley. They founded a rancho to grow wheat and graze cattle to take advantage of its agricultural advantages.
In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza, passed through the area as the head of the first overland expedition from Mexico. He brought 300 colonists from Northern Mexico to Alta California. The San Luis Obipspo mission rang bells and had mass to celebrate his arrival. He attended religious services and rested for a couple of days before continuing through to the Santa Margarita Valley and up the Salinas River.
The Asistencia de Santa Margarita was founded sometime between 1778 – 1817. Asistencias typically possessed permanent buildings to serve as temporary lodging for clergy or travelers; however, they did not possess clergy in permanent residence. They were often managed by senior neophytes.
Shortly after the establishment of the Asistencia, there were several eventful decades that impacted the future of the Asistencia de Santa Margarita and the surrounding area. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain. Spain had largely neglected Alta California for several decades. The infant Republic of Mexico used is new largesse to grant large tracts of lands to cronies and persons who were invaluable during the war. In parallel, Mexico proceeded to secularize the California missions in 1833. The lands were partitioned out to land grants, the neophytes were scattered (this is addressed in the Native American Section), and the assets were stripped. Most of the mission buildings fail into disrepair.
In 1841, Joaquin Tomas Estrada was deeded the Rancho Santa Margarita land grant that totaled more than 17,000 acres. He lived in a grand style that epitomized the indolent lifestyle and expanisive hospitality of the Californio era.
In rapid succession: California was ceded by Mexico to the United States in 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierra in 1849, and California became a state in 1850. These events, combined with a 1000-flood and unprecedented drought, contributed to the collapse of the Californio era. The Santa Margarita Rancho was no exception. In 1861, Estrada sold his rancho to Martin Murphy, an American, who, in turn, handed management of the Santa Margarita Rancho, along with the Atascadero Rancho and the Asuncion Rancho, to his son, Patrick Murphy. Altogether, there were over 61,000 acres that comprised the Murphy land holdings.
In 1904, a corrugated metal barn was erected to protect the remaining stone walls of the original asistencia building from the elements. Unlike other mission buildings, this assistencia had been constructed of stone, rather then adobe. More of the orginial buidling remained, allthough, the walls had been vulnerable to a succession of earthquakes and fires. Later, the wooden barn was improved (below, left photo) to take pressure off of the stone walls. The rectangular black and white photos are from the library of congress. They sit to the left of photos taken from the same vantage point in today’s barn.
The Central Coast was booming with the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Santa Margarita Ranch provided the railroad with right-of-way through the ranch and gave a platte of land for a town. The railroad arrived in 1889, and the town of Santa Margarita was founded.
The area boomed for a few years, as a railroad terminus, while the railroad was being extended to San Luis Obispo. This was the last leg to be built that connected Los Angeles to California by rail. Eventually, San Luis became the main depot for San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita’s hustle and bustle diminished. a couple decades later, the nature of the town shifted to catering to weary travelers driving from LA to San Francisco on the new two-lane highways. Eventually, the highways were re-directed away from Santa Margarita with the building of Highway 101, and the town fell into a slumber during most of the of the 20th century.
In 1999, the 14,000-acre Santa Margarita Ranch was purchased by three local families: the Filipponis, Rossis and Wittstroms. They created a master plan that consisted of ranching, vineyards, a winery, and recreation. Today, the Santa Margarita Ranch has become a destination for of ziplining and wildlife viewing. The Ranch headquarters hosts fund raisers and a variety of events. And the history of rancho lifestyle lives on in this tiny slice of California.
There are several great places to eat in Santa Margarita:
The Range is known for its tender beef and delectable wild game. The Porch will provide a quick sandwich or cup of coffee. Rosalia’s is LA Barrio-style Mexican food, which is atypical of the area. And of course, don’t miss a sip after your zip(line) at Ancient Peaks Winery.
As mentioned above, recreation is now one of the main economic drivers for the region. Tourists pass through Santa Margarita on the way to visit Carrizo Plains National Monument. In the spring, the wildflower viewing is spectacular!
There are also publicly accessible indian pictographs at the Carrizo Plains Painted Rock that attest to the importance of this area as a traded route and sacred rituals. Unfortunately, one of the conditions of the access permit is that photos of the paintings should not be published in deference to the sacred nature of the pictographs. However, you can find photos on-lihe or you can visit the site. It is incomparable and truly does have a sacred vibe. One leaves refreshed and awed by the immensity of the land around the site.
There is oodles of camping and off-roading in the Los Padres National Forest between the Santa Margarita and Carrizo Plains. Weekend warriors can drive down the old stage coach route to the ghost town of Pozo, which was once a lively mining town and a stagecoach stop.
The coming of the railroad eliminated the need for the stagecoach. And a series of depressions and recessions in the late 1800s and early 1900s were the final blow to the to mining industry. All that remains of this once active place is the Pozo Saloon, which is now locally famous for hosting big-name talent such as Willie Nelson.
And their pub grub at the Pozo Saloon isn’t too shabby, either: