The Lost Cave of San Juan Bautista, Ca

by Phil Valdez, Jr.

The first time this ancient cave was seen by a European was when Fray Pedro Font, chronicler of the Juan Bautista de Anza Colonizing Expedition of 1775/76, saw it on his way to reconnoiter what is now San Francisco and the East Bay. This cave could be seen from what is now San Juan Canyon Road, or the Anza route of 1775/76, until the year 2000, when it succumbed to the elements of time, gravity, and a rainstorm.

The cave near San Juan Bautista is a natural cave says, the chronology of the Milliken Archives, as per Frances Tompkins, “it has Indian drawing on its walls and behind it there is a smaller one as well. The drawings are made with red and black paint and it’s on the same hill as the cross. One can drive south of the cement plant for 300 yards make a left and it can be seen from the road. From the fence it is only 100 yards to the cave. Old olive and pear trees could once be seen. A pool of water used to be in the cave.”

This story begins, with having studied the journals of the Juan Bautista de Anza 1775/76 Colonizing Expedition to Alta California, which enabled me to track down the cave that Fray Pedro Font mentions in his diary. Once the site was located, pictures were taken, and that was it or so I thought. It was not until the year 2000 that I found out that the cave had taken a tumble, during a fierce rainstorm, and ceased to be. That is when I went to my files in search of those precious pictures and to my surprise, it seemed that I too had lost those images to time. I took little time in spreading the word about the cave to anyone that would listen and if any images could be found to contact me. It took me about ten years to find those images but find I did. Now the reader will be able to see images of that historical cave circa the 1930’s. They were made available through the courtesy of Ms. Sharon Long, and an all points bulletin, by the San Juan Bautista Historical Society.

On March 23, 1776, Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza, set out from el Real Presidio de San Carlos de Monterrey in the company of Lieutenant Josef Joaquín Moraga, Fray Pedro Font, eleven soldiers, eight from the Presidio of Tubac, (now in Arizona) three soldiers from Monterrey and six muleteers/servants for a total of 20. Their purpose was to reconnoiter the San Francisco Bay for the founding of el Real Presidio de San Francisco, its two supporting missions and to prove that the rio de San Francisco did not exist. After much preparation they took the route (for a much better road) to the northeast to cross el rio de Monte-Rey (now the Salinas) and traveled 10.40 miles. They then continued towards the northeast and north-northeast to camp at a paraje they called la Natividad. This site is where the battle of la Natividad was later fought in 1846 and is located at the juncture of Crazy Horse and San Juan Grade Roads. Here Father Font says that they heard the sound of the ocean at night but of course could not see it. The following morning, after having heard Mass, they traveled two leagues (5.20 miles) to the northeast and east climbing the Gavilan range following an old Indian trail, now known as Stage Coach Road, and descending a lareda they continued through a cañadita, on what is now San Juan Canyon Road, where the meticulous Padre Font mentions seeing a cave large enough for hermit life.

Cave that Padre Font mentions in his diary.

Images courtesy of S. Long

Here is what Fray Pedro Font wrote on March 24, 1776, “Con el rumbo, dos [leguas] al nordeste, y algo al este al encumbrar la sierra para bajar al arroyo de San Benito, cerca de qual hay entre unos peñascos una cueva algo capaz con una division e dividida en dos estancias, muy propia  para la vida hermitica.


Page178 of Fray Pedro Font’s Expanded Diary

The original can be found at the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, RI.

We went two leagues northeast and somewhat east until we reached the top of the sierra in order to descend to the arroyo of San Benito, near which among some rocks there is a fairly large cave with a partition, or divided into two compartments suitable for hermit life.

From the cave site they continued to the north for two miles to where the canyon opens into Valle de San Pascual (San Benito Valley) so named by Fray Juan Crespi in 1772, and crossing through the site of San Juan Bautista, they went two leagues to the northeast with some deviations to the north until they crossed the Pajaro River.

So for now the cave at San Juan Bautista has made a comeback at least in image form.

Figure 1.  Below is the trajectory of the route taken by Colonel Anza and Padre Font from la Natividad campsite, to cross the Gavilan range, to la Cañadita and the cave, through San Juan to cross the Pajaro River.GoogleEarth_Image_1_-717x418

Figure 2..The trajectory of the route from the Presidio de Monterey, crossing the Salinas River to la Natividad campsite (juncture of San Juan Grade and Crazy Horse Roads) to San Juan to the Pajaro.


Fray Pedro Font’s expanded diary, as the cave is not mentioned in his field notes or short diary.
The chronology of the Milliken Archives by Frances Tompkins.
Ms. Sharon Long images of her family.