Crossing Slippery Rock in the mountains above the Goleta Valley, along the original San Marcos Pass route over the Santa Ynez Mountains. The Pacific Ocean defines the horizon in the background. © Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
“Santa Barbara lies on the seashore, and until lately it was isolated from the rest of the world by high mountains. No wagon road or stage route ran into it from without, only mere trails or paths for horses over the mountains. For a few years they had had a mail once in two weeks by steamer from San Francisco—two mails per month was the only news of the world outside.”
—William Brewer (1861)
“A ride on a frontier stage-coach was something to be remembered as a back-breaking, bone-twisting experience. ‘I felt like a mess of eggs being scrambled,’ one traveler described the trip. ‘I was bounced and tossed all over and despite our discomfort the driver never paid us any heed.’”
—James D. Horan & Paul Sann, Pictorial History of the Wild West (1954)
From 1861 to 1901 Santa Barbara was linked to the rest of California and the world by stagecoach. Evidence of the historic route leading upstate over the Santa Ynez Mountains can still be seen in a few locations. Along a thin, sandstone capped ridgeline in the mountains above Goleta, a section of the old road crosses an expanse of exposed bedrock. Tracks left behind by stagecoaches and horse drawn wagons and carriages remain worn into the sandstone some ten- to twelve-inches deep or more. The parallel grooves are remnants of the original San Marcos Pass route that was built by Chinese work crews using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.
The ruts had originally been carved to a depth of about three inches in order to help guide horse drawn conveyances up the technical section of primitive roadway. Over the years the iron-capped wheels of stagecoaches ground the ruts ever deeper into the soft deposit of stone. Running between the ruts, horizontal grooves were chiseled to help horses maintain traction on the slippery surface as they hauled the heavy stages up the mountain. The exposed bedrock was notoriously slick beneath metal horseshoes and stagecoach wheels and was dubbed “Slippery Rock” or “Slippery Sal.”
The Slippery Rock route was closed sometime around 1892 after the owner of the property the road ran through, Tom Lillard, got tired of drivers leaving his gate open and cows straying. A new route was graded up a ridge to the east of Slippery Rock or what is today known as Old San Marcos Pass.
Looking up Slippery Rock showing the two wheel tracks and the traction ruts carved horizontally across the wheel grooves.
Looking down Slippery Rock. Two different sets of wheel ruts are visible here, along with the horizontal traction grooves for horses. Once the first set of wheel ruts became worn too deeply a new set was carved.
A closeup view of the ruts and grooves.
The narrow section of Slippery Rock, which is shown below in a photo from 2012 with live oak trees having grown in the middle of the old road. © Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
Looking up the old road above Slippery Rock.A narrow section of the road barely wide enough for a stagecoach to slip by pinched between a cliff on the left and and wall of stone on the right.
Both of these historic stagecoaches can be seen at the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum. The yellow carriage was actually one of the last mudwagon stages in use over San Marcos Pass.
-Charles Outland, Stagecoaching on El Camino Real: Los Angeles to San Francisco 1861-1901 (1973)
-Walker A. Tompkins, Stagecoach Days in Santa Barbara (1982)