Zaca Creek Ranch (“ZCR”) is located forty minutes by car northeast of Santa Barbara, California in the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley. While the Valley is well known for its world class wines, Zaca Creek Ranch remains firmly tied to is history — a history steeped in the traditions of “Old California.”
A Brief History
A little over two hundred years ago, the Santa Ynez Valley was occupied only by the Chumash Indians. In 1769, a Spanish expedition under the command of Don Gaspar de Portola introduced “Alta California” to horses, cattle and the “mission system.” A series of Franciscan Missions were built and linked with military presidios up and down the length of this Northern Province. A key component of Spain’s strategy was to award loyal subjects with vat ranchos to help commercialize and colonize the province. Between 1795 and 1846 the Spanish and Mexican governments awarded approximately forth of these ranchos to various influential subjects.
Thus was born ranchero life in “Old California” — a brief period in our history when man, commerce, and the environment somehow achieved a near perfect symbiosis. The cattle which freely grazed vast ranchos produced both a means of sustenance and profit. By the 1840s, cattle herds were so vast travelers were free to slaughter a steer for a meal on the road. Meat was so plentiful the value in cattle was solely in its tallow and hide. Cowhides were traded as currency (“California bank notes”) for sugar, coffee, and other necessities not produced on the rancho. Seasonal fruits and vegetables supplemented the rancheros diet in beef, lamb and pork.
Ranchero life in Old California had another byproduct: days of doce far niente or “sweet idleness.’ Growing herds roamed unfenced hills. The temperate climate necessitated no shelter for the horses or cattle. The ranchero grazed only such cattle as the terrain’s natural feed could support, more than enough for his purposes. In the spring, neighbors gathered to help one another with the round up. The tradition of neighbors helping out kept overhead low and the opportunity to socialize high. California’s tradition of “fiesta” and rodeo was born.
The vaquero tradition of old Spain weakened over time. Subtle changes in tack, dress and equestrian technique emerged. More importantly, loyalties to the land, this land “California,” supplanted older ties to Mexico and Spain. In short, the rancheros became “Californios” and began to agitate for separation from Mexico. The Mexican American War was resolved in American’s favor in 1847.
The last of the Mexican land grants awarded before control shifted to the United States was a pristine, oak studded expanse of 26,634 acres covering a large portion of the Valley. It included a meandering creek the Chumash called “Zaca.” During the great drought of 1862, this Ranchero San Carlos de Jonata, like every rancho in Santa Barbara, suffered terrible losses. Thousands of cattle died and commerce collapsed. Rancho Jonata’s grantee owner, Joaquin Carrillo, sold to the Buell family in 1867. The Buells later sold a 1600 acre section at the heart of the ranch. That section became Zaca Creek Ranch.
Zaca Creek Ranch Today
Life on the ranch today remains much as it has been for the last two hundred years. The business of ZCR is still beef cattle, still roaming free over the entire 1600 acres but in numbers no greater than the land, and the season, will support naturally. If you are lucky enough to visit the ranch at the time of our annual round up, you’ll see that the neighbors still help. We gather the herd, rope and brand the way has been done for two hundred years — on horseback and on the ground, with a “hot” iron. And we never miss the opportunity to socialize at the conclusion of the work with music, barbecue and some friendly competition.
What this really means is nothing has changed. Certainly nothing about the land has changed. The stunning vistas on the ranch are a window on the Old California. Topographically, the ranch comprises some 1600 acres of varied geography. From low lying creek beds in the north, the ranch rises to about 1,000 feet toward its southern end. From the high ground one can see the entire Valley and the mountain ranges that frame it. The ranch boasts open pasture, natural springs, and a variety of arroyos and mesas. An oak canopied trail transverses a deep gorge through the center of the ranch. Hiking and climbing opportunities are endless.
As we have added no irrigation, the plant life on the ranch is native. The property is graced by over 20,000 oak trees of various varieties — Coastal Live Oak and the more majestic Valley Oak being the most common. Native sages abound all year while the hills sport a carpet of seasonal flowers each spring. Yellow poppies and purple lupine are most abundant. As we generally do not permit hunting, animal life is abundant –deer, bobcat, coyote and wild pig all call Zaca home. Red tail hawk and the occasional bald eagle patrol overhead.
We are committed to the least intrusive, most natural use of this land possible. We are committed to preserving a tradition and a lifestyle. That is why when you visit Zaca Creek Ranch, you get a glimpse of Old California. It looks the same, and feels the same, because nothing has changed.