The Zaca Story

The story of Zaca Lake begins with a small creek. 

Meandering from the northeastern foothills of the Santa Ynez Valley and finding its end in the valley’s fertile basin, the stream that is now known as Zaca Creek once flowed interrupted from its start to its finish. Somewhere in its long history, well before the native Chumash began to dwell on the central coast of modern-day California, thousands of tons of rocky shale were dislodged from a hillside, forming a natural dam that would come to be the southwest border of the lake we know today as Zaca.

A smattering of birds and small mammals were the first inhabitants of the lake and continue to be the most constant presence above and around its waters. The California quail, acorn woodpecker, stellar’s jay, western tanager, and red-tailed hawk have cohabited the surrounding oaks, pines, and maples since before the lake was formed, with blacktail deer, bobcats, grey fox, raccoons, and a variety of squirrels running beneath their nests as their ground-dwelling counterparts.

A late prehistoric people group, the Inezeño subgroup of the larger Chumash tribe, was the first to discover the waters of Zaca. Calling the lake Ko’o, meaning “place of water,” the Chumash had a flourishing civilization in the area by the 10th century and utilized the surrounding geography to hunt for and gather their sustenance. The arrival of the Spanish via the Portolá Expedition in the late 1700s and the 1804 establishment of the Santa Ines Mission a mere 20 miles from the shores of Zaca, signaled the beginning of the end of an era for the Inezeño Chumash.

The following 100 years of non-native peoples is more or less a mystery, except for a small assortment of facts: In 1830, William N. Ballard, a stage coach agent of Pacific Coast State Lines, was allegedly the first non-native person to see the lake. In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted, who is popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture, attempted to induct Zaca Lake into the National Park System alongside his successful efforts to do so with Yosemite [the proposal was rejected on account of the small acreage of the lake and surrounding valley]. A squatter named Jeweler Jones raised poultry and planted an olive orchard on the lake’s shores in the 1870s.

In 1895, the history of Zaca Lake comes into more verifiable detail. A man by the name of John Baptist Libeu established a legal homestead for 320 acres, including Zaca Lake, in 1910 after living on the land for 15 years. Though President Theodore Roosevelt approved a petition to establish the precursor national forest of today’s Los Padres National Forest in the area, the lake remained private property. The Libeu family was generous in sharing the lake with public, however, and opened the Zaca Lake Boarding Hotel in John Libeu was a great host, avid storyteller, and occasional bootlegger, and perpetuated the myth of Zaca as a bottomless lake. His wife, Catherine, used her French culinary skills to prepare frog’s legs (using bullfrogs from the lower lake) and squirrel pie for family and guests. The Libeu’s lived on the property until the 1920s, during which time a multitude of silent movies were filmed on location at Zaca Lake, as nearby Santa Barbara was at the time the film capital of the world.

The lake changed ownership a number of times in the following century, most notably being owned for a time by Edward Salisbury Fields, an American author and playwright, and John Jack Mitchell, a co-founder of United Airlines (originally National Air Transport), who built the outdoor barbecue area still in use to this day, over 80 years later.

Zaca Lake Retreat encompasses the same 320 acre parcel which was homesteaded over a century ago. The property is entirely surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest, lands which have changed very little since the Chumash were the sole dwellers of the land one thousand years ago.