The sun was beaming with joy, as if to mirror the happiness in our souls. We’d fought jetlag and had experienced the luxe wanderlust charms of The OC. We’d continued the journey on Highway 101 before veering off waving goodbye to my beloved dreamy Spanish vibes pop culture coastal resort of Santa Barbara into one of America’s scenic byway, Route 154. The drive over the Santa Ynez Mountains, glowing resplendently under the mid-day sun was picturesque to say the least! If I could travel through time, I’d love to experience ye olde Old Stagecoach Route (1861-1901), long before the times of the South Pacific Railroads. Let’s go on a nostalgic adventure, shall we?
The first overland stagecoach had graced Santa Barbara on Monday evening, April 1, 1861, celebrated by firing of cannon. Grinding to a halt at Arlington Hotel, Santa Barbara, the passengers had paid a 25-cent fare to board this bad boy, the mud wagon, on an 8-hour one-way ticket to Los Olivos. The average working man makes about $1 a day in those days. Let’s take a glimpse of ‘luxury’ travels of times past, days of stagecoach travel heavily laden with passengers and/or cargoes.
The mud wagon, hitched with 6 horses, designed to be ridden on the rough terrains of Santa Barbara county, would travel on the rugged San Marco Pass (2225 feet above sea levels). The highest point of the mountain is about 3985 feet. This sturdy moving contraption, made only to move objects from A to B, had little thoughts of comfort for its passengers in mind.
I chuckled when I recollected tales of Fanny Trollope’s stagecoach ride in her classic 1832 book Domestic Manners of the Americans. She wrote, “The coach had three seats, each calculated to hold three persons, and as we were only six, we had, in the phrase of Milton, to ‘inhabit lax’ this exalted abode, and, accordingly, we were for some miles tossed about like a few potatoes in a wheel-barrow. Our knees, elbows, and heads required too much care for their protection to allow us leisure to look out of the windows; but at length the road became smoother, and we became more skilful in the art of balancing ourselves, so as to meet the concussion with less danger of dislocation.” It was deemed a risky journey, both physically and emotionally. The passengers had to contend with colorful characters of infamous stagecoach robber Black Bart and the famous stagecoach driver, commonly referred to as whip, Charley Parkhurst. The fav points for hold ups were apparently at the top of San Marco Pass, around the steep notorious Slippery Rock. The passengers were left generally unharmed, but the stagecoach would now travel onwards with its shocked and saddened load, fleeced of valuables.
Should the stagecoach passengers be lucky enough to survive the dangerous and rather meandering 4-hour journey thus far, they would veer left onto Stagecoach Road and onwards to rest at Cold Spring Tavern. In 1886, this Cold Spring Relay Station is the halfway point between Mattei’s Tavern to the north and Summit House to the South. Horses were changed and the passengers can enjoy a noon-day meal. Pre-owned by Doulton family (1900), and then the Ovington family (since 1941), you’ll sense this tavern and its 40 acres of grounds’ romantic charms as soon as they greet your eyes.
On that afternoon of 25 May 2015, The Cold Spring Tavern, neatly tucked in the valleys in its secluded home amongst the lush green forests of Los Padres National Park, was bubbling with excitement. The Cold Spring Tavern, had been designated as the Wells Fargo sponsored “Old Stagecoach Route” stop no. 30. From the car, I could see about 100 if not more patrons, tourists and locals both young and old, basking in the sun, clearly relaxing after occupying its outside tables, entertained by live bands as they munched happily on the juicy Tri-tip sandwiches. The Cold Spring Tavern looked every inch the super cool place to hangout in the weekends! We just couldn’t wait to join in the fun! We could feel our stomachs were growling with hunger and envy at that point!!
I was roped in to help spot a suitable place to park our car on the tavern’s dirt parking lot. The Stagecoach Road was lined with dizzying luxe vintage Porche and varying types of motorbikes from the Harley Davidsons to the Triumphs, Ducatis and Suzukis. From where we parked our car, we could see the green colored Cold Spring Arch Bridge. The Cold Spring Arch Bridge, connecting two mountain tops over the Cold Spring Canyon, had effectively replaced the need for travel on the Stagecoach Road, thus providing a safer and shorter travelling time between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. This historical landmark, was one of the first major arch structures built using all welded steel sections and was reputed to be one of the longest steel arch bridges built in the US.
As we entered the tavern, we were told that we had to wait about 30 min for our table, and so patiently we waited. Now, we had the luxury of poking our noses into its antiquated exterior surroundings. Home of Goldilocks and the 3 bears this is not! This old log cabin was more likely the home of dustbunnies 😉 I was attracted to a rather interesting old piano. The lidless housing of the piano with its exposed keys, hammers and strings, was draped protectively with a mere red chequered cloth, kept in its place by three gasoline lamps, a ceramic beer tankard and a mixing bowl. I was rather amused by the name of its antique shop, Treasures in Trash, too. Spot the antique water pump and an old ship’s wheel!
The highlight of the trip was my visit to the tavern’s BBQ pit. After successfully ‘sweet talking’ the two jolly old fellows who were busily attending the BBQ pit laden with hunks of Tri-tips, I made away with their generous offer of my first taste of a small piece of freshly made barbecued Tri-tip. How would I describe that sensation when the BBQ meat had met my tastebuds? Hmmm…. It was so delicious!!! Totally enjoyed my good few seconds of foodie paradise, its juiciness and spot on smoky flavors were literally singing to me in my hungry mind.
Soon, it was our turn and we sat down happily to order the food. This tavern was as I’d imagined a Western Saloon to be. The sweet smell of BBQ, continued to waft in through the opened windows testing our patience. The gentle lull of the warm summer breeze and the melodious music from the live bands had relaxed all our senses. We felt at home almost instantly! Not many places in the world could make me lose the sense of time, and I’d enjoyed every second of my time at Cold Spring Tavern. I’d guess it must have felt rather cozy too in the winter, enjoying your meal in the warmth and comfort of hearing the crackling log sounds of the blazing fireplace. For appetizers, we shared their famous Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Beer Battered Onion Rings and a Chili sampler. Tucking into its specialities, we ordered the “must-have” Tri-tip sandwiches, choosing to have fries instead of potato salad, soup or a green salad. Let’s eat heartily, shall we? No wonder people from all over the world came to enjoy this beautiful tavern, a respite of the stagecoach travellers of yesteryears! If you are still curious, do check out Cold Spring Tavern’s menu.
We were very satisfied with our nostalgic travel through time. Do reserve at least 2 hour’s of your travel itinerary, keep your diary free and be utterly lost in the romantic embrace of the Cold Spring Tavern. Love the charming romanticism of this Western saloon, a motorbiker’s dream and a well-kept secret not anymore 😉
Until we meet again on my next Cali adventures, do take care. Hope I’d flown you a Dream! Do try it and you’d thank me for introducing you to this jewel for sure! There is no need to visit Michelin star restaurants if you are in the know. I live to eat! If you are aware of any hidden gems of eateries which ooze charm, ambience and yummylicious hearty food, do let me know 😉 Much love from my beloved stagecoach stop, Cold Spring Tavern, and I, your storyteller. 👋👋👋