Station to Station No. 1: Madulce

Mission: Madulce, Part 1

One cannot begin a conversation of southern Los Padres guard stations and not begin with Madulce.

Madulce Cabin wasn’t the most strategically placed. It wasn’t the most frequented. And it wasn’t a prime example of USFS design. But — with all due respect to South Fork Cabin and its fan base — it was first in the hearts of most backcountrymen.

Late last year, ZK and I led some of the pack to the old cabin site for what eventually proved an ill-advised exploratory.


Our late-afternoon approach via Santa Barbara Canyon was fantastic, with some minor sleet and ideal cloud cover keeping things comfortable. Only Heartbreak Hill — a cauldron of boot-sucking mud at this time of year — was cause for the occasional expletive. (I use the term “occasional” to mean every 15 seconds or so.) It was just as we reached the cabin site and set up the tents that it all went to hell; we spent the next 14 hours getting very little sleep as an ice storm rolled in and pinned us down.

Good times!



Madulce, Obscured

We returned again earlier this year under better weather, but were left with little insight as to what once was.

Madulce Morning

This much we knew: originally the site of a hunting cabin from the 1880s, the best-known incarnation of the cabin was built in 1929. Its placement beside Pine Creek — near the junctions of four major backcountry routes — gave it an ideal position, and the station was used by the Forest Service as a guard station. But with the construction of the Buckhorn and Camuesa Roads by the CCC in the 1930s, the Mono-Alamar trail was no longer a main route for traversing the forest, and Madulce Station (along with Mono-Pendola Station) eventually fell into disuse in the 1940s.

In the 1970s efforts by the Forest Service and local volunteers led to the revival of the station, and in 1978 it was awarded a place on the US National Register of Historic Places. Subsequent upkeep by volunteers made it a popular place for backpackers, and the single-story wood structure — complete with an old woodstove, some furniture and a small kitchen — was also often used by USFS personnel and work crews. Some of its contents (most notably the stove) can still be found around the lower camp.

That’s all well and good on paper (or screen), but we wanted more.

Madulce Dawn

A bit disappointed in what were able to learn of Madulce, we moved on, dutifully exploring other corners of the Los Padres all year.

But then something happened the Ring did not intend …

Late last summer, the Los Padres Expatriate shared with us an almost heartbreaking retrospective of Madulce Cabin featuring photos from a trip he took in the early 1980s.

Madulce Cabin: glass windows, green storm shutters, shingled roof, wood burning stove, kitchen, sleeping area. It had it all. The kitchen area was through the door on the left, the sleeping quarters through the door on the right. Welcome home, adventurer.

Until these photos were made available, many of us who’d never had the opportunity to visit Madulce in its prime had little clue as to what the area looked like before its unfortunate loss to fire in 1999. The grainy grayscale image gracing the cover of Blakley’s 1984 historical overview was about as close as we’d gotten.

This was the Madulce Cabin in its final glory; those last handful of years after its remodel and as it basked in the light of being made a Historical Landmark. But those photos led me to wonder … what had it looked like before the refurbish? Further, they led me to wonder who’d headed up the refurb efforts, what became of the backcountry soul who’d accidentally lit it afire, and were there in fact any other substantial historical records I could unearth?

Expat, this is all your fault.

So I got in touch with the Forest Service and was subjected to a surprisingly pleasant and red tape-free process, by which a few days later I found myself rifling through thousands upon thousands of fairly unorganized by well-kept and well-protected slides and photos of the Forest from years past. There were a few notable images of the cabin — some taken by Dick Smith, others by USFS personnnel including W Maule — but not as many as I’d hoped.

So I then engaged Robert A. Burtness — he of the old Mission Council camp guides fame — and lo and behold it was the Mother Lode. Enjoy the following images from Mr Burtness taken during the restoration he and other hearty souls undertook; these are all courtesy of his personal collection.

The story continues in Part 2 of Mission: Madulce, where the Expat delivers his missive on Madulce both past and present, and chronicles his long-awaited return.


9 responses to “Station to Station No. 1: Madulce”

  1. dan hall Avatar

    Great stuff on top of great research. And good timing to go with it. The history of Los Padres trails and places is always interesting, especially with such rich pictures.

    There is, however, an unfortunate and sad aspect inherent in both yours and (especially) Expat’s revelations: they highlight the deterioration of the trails since the early 1980s. Even if unintended, the comparison is apparent in the text and pictures, not only about a site like Madulce, but also of the various trails to and from it.

    1. Quite right, Dan. I don’t know if I’d attribute it to wilderness legislation, a shift in federal funding (or focus), or just more people in front of their computer screen (whoops, guilty as charged!) rather than on the trail, but so many of the old trails I enjoyed as a little LPNF wanderer are gone … and even the “highways” are thin treads choked with brush.

      Perhaps the recent uptick in LP activity and scholarship we’ve seen we lead to a resurgence of (responsible) use and — just as important — volunteerism, as exhibited by Bryan, Beeman, Alan, and so many others.

  2. I’ve heard there was a movement of locals who attempted to rebuild Madulce Cabin. They hoped that since it was designated as a historic monument that they could rebuild. They even offered to pay for everything, do all the work and redesign exactly like the original. Yet the FS denied them due to the fact that the site is now within the wilderness. I wonder if this “new enthusiasm” in the LP might rekindle attempts to rebuild the cabin. That would be fantastic.

  3. Gravy McDaniels Avatar
    Gravy McDaniels

    The trails aren’t dead. Yet what a wonder it would be to see it all through the past ages. Thanks for the thread.

  4. What great photos. Some friends and I in March of ’79 took of from Nira headed for Fillmore with food cached on Pine Mountain hit from the start heavy rains which we lived in coping with a steadily rising Sisquoc in our leaky tents. By the time we headed down to the station (not knowing at all what to expect) it was snowing. And there at the bottom of a hill in fading light was a grey clapboard house in the middle of nowhere (as though someone set it down by helicopter). We burst in through the front door and entered into a dusty living room with dry firewood heaped in the middle. We entered a small kitchen at the back with woodstove and well stocked with left behind food. In the middle of the table was a note held down with a candle in a holder or on a plate or rock, which read in part “You just came down off Madulce Peak cold and hungry and came in here and found food and dry firewood. When you depart leave some food and restock the firewood so it will be dry and ready for the next people….” The woodstove was pretty smoky but we had a dry night at last. Staying at the cabin was a wonderful respite before heading towards Don Victor Valley and ultimately a horrid mud slug up the hill to Portrero Seco Station. It was the mud that conquered us though and we aborted our trip at the food cache. The cabin was a real Godsend and haven and it’s a shame it burned down. Had no idea it had been rehabbed.

  5. John Petersen Avatar
    John Petersen

    Great history and heartbreaking story. I had been to the cabin several times in the 90’s but haven’t to the area since the fire. I don’t think I would enjoy it. It would be wonderful if a replica cabin could be built there.

  6. My husband and our 2 dogs had some wonderful memories of Madulce Station. We always packed up there in the snow. The one memory that was sad to go was the journal people wrote in about their stay there. Some story’s made you feel like you were there. Now all we have are pictures and memories.

  7. Joey McKinney Avatar
    Joey McKinney

    I first discovered the cabin in 1975 on a trip from Nira Camp to Highway 33 at Pine Mountain. My companion and I had slogged through the snow from the Sisquoc on Christmas day and came upon Madulce Station – what a godsend! I returned several times; sometimes on long solo trips. Met many nice people there, and had some great impromptu parties and card games. I was very sad to hear it had burned down.

  8. jim borland Avatar
    jim borland

    Myself and two friends wondered on the cabin back in 1974, a bright shiny late summer day,
    as it turned out my motorcycle had a slow leak in the rear tire, when we returned to where we had parked I noticed my tire was looking flat, and since my friend was my passenger and there was not enough time to go into town to buy either a pump or a tube we elected to brave the spiders and dust and spend the night, it was a godsend for us since we were only planning to stay a few days in backcountry and our food supplies were exhausted after out Top Ramon dinner, long story short Larry drove back to town after scraping together less then 8.00 bucks for gas and a tire pump Larry returned later in the day after leaving at about 0830, Sean and I were beginning to think the worst around 1430, when Larry pulled up dusty and grinning. when I asked the question what had taken him so long to return, in true Larry fashion he said you don’t want to know. and proceeded to take out a few cookies and beef jerky out of his pocket, I pumped that tire up and we took a few pictures standing in front of the cabin then bid adieu to that cabin that we were grateful to run across. I was sorry to hear it was burned to the ground after it had served so many some more desperate then the rest, but the memory lives on all these years later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *