In the beginning, the Chumash Indians of Montecito’s Salaguas village used the Romero Trail as a means of procuring food from the Santa Ynez Valley and for trade with the villages of the interior. Later, the trail was used by the Mexican residents as a means of reaching the Los Prietos and Najalayegua Rancho headquarters and the upper Santa Ynez Valley. The trail climbs to the crest of the mountain and then descends into Blue Canyon, named for the blue serpentine rock that forms the canyon wall, and then reaches the Santa Ynez River.

During the American period, years of disuse caused nature to reclaim the trail until the late 1850s when it was re-cut as a dispatch route to carry mail to Fort Tejon. In 1861, explorer and writer, William H. Brewer, hired a guide to lead his party over the Romero Canyon Trail. Brewer wrote, “Such a trail as we found that day! The worst I had traveled before was a turnpike compared with that. Now following along a narrow ledge, now in the brook over boulders, now dismounting and jumping our mules over logs, or urging them to mount rocks I would have believed inaccessible – yet this was ‘pretty good yet,’ our guide told us.”

In 1903, Los Prietos y Najalayegua became part of the forest reserve system as authorized by the Forest Reserve Acts of 1891 and 1897. The citizens of Santa Barbara had petitioned the government for this designation because they wanted to preserve the watershed lands so they could tap into the Santa Ynez River as a water supply for the city. In 1907, the designation changed to national forest; in 1908, the four local reserves merged to form Santa Barbara National Forest; and in 1938, as reserves from farther afield merged into the system, the name changed to Los Padres National Forest.

Early Dwellers

In 1906, the Cottam family moved from New Jersey to Tabor Lane in Montecito. The boys attended the Ortega School (1889-1922), located at the base of Romero Canyon Road, and made many forays via the Romero Trail into the back country.

In 1912, 14-year-old Albert Cottam was invited to spend a few weeks with 90-year-old Arthur Chard, Sr. who lived in Louie Pendola’s adobe on the Santa Ynez River. There, Chard regaled the young Albert with tales of early Montecito and the early inhabitants of Romero Canyon. Chard claimed to have known Joaquin Murrietta and Pancho Villa and showed Albert many documents and drawings, some signed by the Mexican governor of California and the president of Mexico.

In the late 1800s, Chard told Albert, about a mile up Romero Road was an Indian cave. “In this cave,” Albert related, ”lived an old hermit and a young boy around fifteen years old whom he had kidnapped. He used this boy to run errands like stealing food and other items. The last trip the boy made, he was caught and shot to death and was buried in an olive grove on Jackson’s old place (the San Carlos Ranch).”

Beyond the cave, old horses were shot and put to rest in a side canyon that became known as Horse Canyon. Sulfur springs dotted the creek, and Ralph Whitehead’s water tunnel tapped into the fresh water retained in the mountain sandstone. Mariano Romero lived in the canyon in a four-room house with his wife, Kate, who was Albert’s aunt. High grape vines surrounded their house which had about one half-acre of fruit trees, mostly orange and apple.

The road ended at Romo Flats. “Mr. Romo lived alone in a one-room shack because his wife was afraid of rattlesnakes and refused to live with him,” Albert said. Romo’s shack burned down in 1906 when a fire ravaged the canyon.

Wilderness Camps

In 1915, Albert Cottam and his older brother, Russell, built a cabin and established a camp in the meadow near the end of Blue Canyon. Pack mules trudged up Romero Canyon loaded with four-foot boards to cover a frame of alder poles. They brought wealthy clients into the meadow, cooking for them and caring for them. They also harvested hay for their pack animals. In addition, Albert packed in Forest Service workers who set up spike camps far in the back country. He returned to them twice a week carrying fresh meat, mail and newspapers.

The Cottams’ closest neighbor over the mountain lived two miles west at the head of Forbush Canyon where an old settler had built a cabin and planted a small apple orchard. In 1926, they acquired another neighbor. Herbert “Dad” Show and his son, Roderick Show, established “Camp Ynez” a quarter-mile west of the Cottams.

Herbert was the nephew of Walter Show of the famous grocery firm, Show and Hunt. He had opened the first local poultry ranch off San Leandro Lane. Herbert and his son built a small-scale guest ranch composed mainly of tents. “Dad” Show was chaperone, cook, wrangler and what-not for many groups of young people who stayed at the camp. David Myrick, author of “Santa Barbara and Montecito,” stayed at Camp Ynez and remembers “Dad” Show getting up at 3 in the morning to divert water from the stream for the day’s cooking and cleaning. Herbert later worked for the forest service and was superintendent at Los Prietos Ranger station.

Another group of Romero Canyon dwellers was the family of Tom Dinsmore. Tom, the grandson of Colonel Bradbury True Dinsmore of the San Ysidro Ranch, owned a ranch in Romero Canyon for a time. He, and later his son Gus, worked for the forest service. Together with their friends and relations, the Stoddards and Hosmers, the Dinsmores often rode over Romero Canyon and into the back country together to camp, fish and hunt.

Like Albert Cottam, Tom also had an experience at the old Pendola adobe when the old man staying there invited him for dinner. When Tom rode into the ranch, the old man was waiting for him with a particular treat. He had cooked a deer’s head and had it sitting in the middle of the table with the eyes still in it. As Tom sat down to table, the old man reached over with a stick and gouged out an eye and put it in his mouth. Tom Dinsmore levitated out of his chair, hit the screen door running and never went back.

A Road Comes and Goes

Romero Trail changed drastically after 1933. After Juncal Dam was completed in 1930, it became desirable to have a service road to the dam, so the Civilian Conservation Corps bulldozed a road that stretched over of the mountain. Used for many years, the road fell into disuse in the late 1960s and has not been maintained.

Jim Andros has been active in the Santa Barbara back country for years. As a young man he drove the CCC-built Romero Canyon Road many times to get to his properties in the wilderness. Eventually, Jim and two partners purchased the 490 acres of Romero Canyon for $90,000. Later, concerned that so many of Montecito’s canyons were sprouting houses and development, the trio offered to sell Romero Canyon to the Forest Service for the price they had paid plus a $30,000 tax credit. They stipulated that the land was never to be built upon. Thanks to their generosity, Romero Canyon remains in its relatively native state. Today, the forces of nature, rather than urban development, carve its changing character, and the Montecito Riding and Hiking Association, established in 1959, has helped to preserve the ancient trail.

(Sources are too numerous to mention but special thanks to Maria Herold of the Montecito Association History Committee and Jim Blakley, local back country historian, are due.)