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Literary Corner

Zaca Lake – A magical place | Judith Dale

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  • 5 min to read

Since Zaca Lake is a remote, privately owned area within Los Padres National Forest, most people in our area have probably not had the chance to visit. So, I thought I would do a little research to see if it would be worth writing an article. What I found was a fascinating history.

Long ago, the Chumash called this lake Zaca, or “quiet place.” Zaca is one of the very few natural lakes in Southern California. The lake is replenished by underground springs (a somewhat rare occurrence), so it hasn’t suffered to the degree that the usual rain-fed lakes have during our long drought.

Geologists speculate that Zaca Lake was formed about 10,000 years ago by a landslide. Before the slide, underground springs fed Zaca Creek, which meandered through Zaca Canyon. Then, loosened by fault activity and heavy rains, one of Zaca Canyon's walls collapsed, forming a dam across the canyon. The natural dam has contained rain runoff and underground sources within the boundaries of a small lake ever since.

The Chumash living in the area had a different explanation for the formation of Zaca Lake. One day, an arrogant man was walking around the Zaca Canyon area when he looked up and saw the thunder god. The unthinking man spoke insultingly to the mighty being. His fellow villagers were appalled by such disrespect and fled the scene. The thunder god, enraged at the man who offended him, sat down on the village, squashing the insolent fellow and making a great hole in the Earth, which became Zaca Lake.

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A visiting family in 1908 takes a dip in Zaca Lake.

Zaca Lake has a colorful history. During the 1890s, Frenchman John Baptiste Libeu was the caretaker of the lake and surrounding ranchland for his boss, owner James Westley Calkins. One day, a government surveyor announced to Libeu that the lake and surrounding land did not belong to Calkins but to the federal government. Libeu promptly rode into the land office in Santa Barbara and filed a homestead claim on the land — much to Calkins' displeasure.

Libeu and his family operated a small hostelry for overnight guests. The lake was a trendy locale for silent moviemakers from Santa Barbara's Flying A Studios. Although Flying A in 1913 had the largest, most up-to-date film studio in the world, its filmmakers often went on-location. As a result, Zaca Lake and its environs were featured in many serials, melodramas and Westerns.

Libeu also worked for the government. He was the forest ranger for the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Reserve, set aside in 1898. He enforced hunting, homestead and fire regulations for the reserve, later named the Santa Barbara Forest Reserve (and still later, Los Padres National Forest). At one time, Libeu was the district ranger in charge of an immense territory stretching from the Santa Ynez River to the Cuyama River, from near Santa Maria to the Ventura County line.

During this time, Zaca Lake was often used as a site for on-location movie shoots. Many silent movies were filmed at Zaca Lake, as nearby Santa Barbara was at the time the film capital of the world. A 1915 silent film even shares a name with the site: "The Zaca Lake Mystery."

NOTE: Film fans contend the site was used for filming scenes in one of the "Friday the 13th" movies. The Internet Movie Database and numerous fan sites said the lake and surrounding terrain appeared in the 1984 "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter" during skinny-dipping and hiking scenes. Another movie reportedly filmed there was "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." More recently, the site has been used for several commercials and still photograph projects, including Abercrombie & Fitch and Nationwide Insurance.

In 1925, Dr. Sam Robinson of Santa Barbara acquired Zaca Lake and tried, with little success, to turn it into a health resort. Finally, he built cabins and made the area a resort. Still, its remote location made it difficult to operate a profitable business.

In 1929, Zaca Lake was sold to John J. Mitchell, a banker from Illinois. Mitchell served as an aviator in World War I. He and some fellow aviators formed National Air Transport, a small company with cargo-carrying airplanes that would evolve into United Airlines. Along with some friends, he created Los Rancheros Visitadores, and Zaca Lake was where the wealthy corporados camped every spring. Mitchell served as the group's first president, whose members and guests would include Edward Borein, Thomas Storke, Clark Gable and Walt Disney.

For 25 years, Mitchell led the Vistiadores, and in 1979 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Along with his wife, Olga, and his three children, Mitchell lived at Zaca Lake until the early 1960s until he sold the property to movie star Jimmy Stewart. He then donated many of his belongings to various organizations, including books and manuscripts, to UCSB Special Collections. The Mitchells lived in Montecito until his death on April 7, 1985.

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A view of Zaca Peak overlooks the 20-acre lake, which is the only natural lake in Santa Barbara County.

During the 1950s, Zaca Lake was a popular weekend getaway for Hollywood celebrities.

In 1973, Zaca Lake was sold to partners Howard Olson and Bill Williams. Olson owned one of the largest landscaping companies in Southern California. Due to an appreciation for the natural environment, he and his partner bought Zaca Lake. Williams was a nephew of the founder of Maybelline Co. He loved going to Zaca Lake as a retreat from a hectic lifestyle.

In the mid-1980s, a New York vitamin manufacturer and his family purchased the lake. They operated it through their Human Potential Foundation. The lake shifted to a New Age spiritual retreat. Even UFOs were part of the legend of the lake, as were theories about the lake being bottomless, having a direct tunnel to Santa Cruz Island, and being on the same mystical energy grid with Sedona, Arizona, Santa Fe and Stonehenge. 

In 1997, there was a falling-out among the vitamin mogul's family, and the lake was briefly closed, with the staff cut from 18 to seven. When it reopened, there was no kitchen and a new policy of admitting guests by group reservation only. The tennis courts stood abandoned, there were no sailboats, and the horse corrals and barn had been empty for 10 years.

According to former employees, “the place was a mess.”

In 2002, the privately owned Zaca Lake Foundation purchased Zaca Lake and opened the Zaca Lake Retreat. It was rented out to groups between 30 and 120 people for retreats, weddings and family reunions, but not to individuals seeking the tranquil setting. It remains available for filming movies and commercials.

In August 2016, a fire destroyed the entire lodge. The cause of the fire was never determined. The resort has been somewhat rebuilt and refurbished to its original glory. However, as far as I can tell, it is not currently open to guests.

Although Zaca Lake is privately owned, the area around it is open to the public and is part of the Los Padres National Forest. The Zaca Peak via Grass Mountain Loop Trail is a strenuous 8.8-mile hike. Still, it offers breathtaking views of the Santa Ynez Valley. Before starting this hike, go online to get maps and details. The trail can be a little challenging to follow without a good map.

Hopefully, soon the Zaca Lake Resort will be open to the public so we can all enjoy this hidden gem in our area. It truly is a magical place.

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The lodge at Zaca Lake was destroyed by a fire in August 2016. Although Zaca Lake is privately owned, the area around it is open to the public and is part of the Los Padres National Forest.

Judith Dale: William Benjamin Foxen -- A Santa Barbara County Pioneer

Judith Dale built her career in education; continues to serve the SYV community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board; board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation; and as the former mayor of Buellton.

Learn more about Santa Barbara County's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale with these 26 stories

Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work. 

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at