Posted by: James Wapotich | November 27, 2017

Trail Quest: Nordhoff Peak

Hiked to Nordhoff Peak and the old lookout tower from Ojai via Pratt Trail. The trail was built in the early 1900s by Ranger George Bald and offers some great views across the Ojai Valley and out towards the Channel Islands. Currently there is no water at Valley View Camp.

Article appears in section A of today’s edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Older articles can be seen by scrolling down or using the search feature in the upper right corner. Articles from the News-Press appear here a couple months after they appear in the paper.

Stewart Canyon Valley View Camp Pratt Trail hike ojai Los Padres National Forest Nordhoff Ridge

Upper Stewart Canyon is seen from Pratt Trail

Nordhoff Lookout Tower Camp ridge ojai hike jeep Los Padres National Forest

Nordhoff Tower


Posted by: James Wapotich | October 31, 2017

Trail Quest: Ellis Apiary

Hiked to Ellis Apiary a couple weeks ago with Sierra. We were fortunate to have a friend who owns property there and didn’t have to endure the lengthy walk along the road just to get to the beginning of the trail.

Piru Creek is flowing nicely and the intermittent use trail improves once you get near the old hydraulic gold-mining site. Not much to see at Ellis Apiary other than the “winged” stove, but the hike through remote canyon provides a rich sense of immersion and lots of great scenery.

Article appears in section A of the October 23rd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Older articles can be seen by scrolling down or using the search feature in the upper right corner. Articles from the News-Press appear here a couple months after they appear in the paper.

Piru Creek Narrow Conglomerate stone Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike

First set of narrows along Piru Creek several crossings above the confluence with Agua Blanca Creek

Piru Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike Cobblestone Mountain Trail

Piru Creek

Ellis Apiary Camp Cobblestone Mountain Trail Turtle Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike

“winged” stove at Ellis Apiary

Piru Canyon Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Piru Canyon

Dogbane Piru Creek hike Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Sierra cooling her feet near a patch of dogbane


Posted by: James Wapotich | October 30, 2017

Trail Quest: Elings Park

Located along Los Positas Road and Cliff Drive, Elings Park is the second largest park in Santa Barbara County after Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. The 230-acre park is less than 15 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara.

Elings is also the largest privately-funded park in the United States. The land is leased from the city and managed and maintained through private donations and user fees.

While a lot of people may be more familiar with Elings Park because of its tennis courts, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and picnic areas, the park also has a fair amount of hiking trails.

Most of the trails are in the undeveloped southern portion of the park also known as Elings Park South. The network of trails lends itself well to hiking and mountain biking, and can be used to create a variety of loop routes that let you explore the park and the views it has to offer. Most of the trails are generally well-used and maintained.

Elings Park South hike trails Santa Barbara Mesa

The Santa Ynez Mountains frame a view in Elings Park South

A large loop through Elings Park South is about three miles. The hike can be extended into the more developed northern part of the park along Veterans Memorial Walk and through the various nearby picnic areas and overlooks, which add roughly another half-mile round-trip.

Starting from the parking area for Elings Park South, one can make a counter-clockwise loop around the park. The parking area is reached from Cliff Drive near Los Positas Road. The park is open from 7 a.m. to sunset, and a map showing some of the trails can found at A Google satellite view of the park will also show the various routes.

From the parking area, head eastward as the trail makes a loop behind the fields of Monroe School. The route leads through a mix of native and non-native plants. Among the native plants are coyote bush, coastal sagebrush, lemonade berry, and coffee berry. Among the non-native plants are fennel and castor bean.

The trail then leads up the large hill that dominates the southern portion of the park, climbing a series of switchbacks. Gaining elevation, the views extend out across Cliff Drive towards Douglas Family Preserve and the Channel Islands.

The trail then crests the hill. As more trails begin to appear, stay to the right. The route leads towards Calle Andalucia, which is an alternate way to access the park, along with Calle Montilla and West Valerio Street.

Just past Calle Andalucia, there is stand of flannel bush, purple sage, and matilija poppies, which may have been planted, since most of the native habitat is either coastal sagebrush or oak woodland.

The trail then arrives at Calle Montilla and the top of the ridge. Here, the views open up across the city towards the Santa Ynez Mountains. At Calle Montilla is an unpaved access roads that follows the ridge, offering options for a shorter loop hike.

From the Calle Montilla entrance, the route descends down towards the more developed northern part of the park and arrives at the parking area at the end of Jerry Harwin Parkway. The parking area can also be accessed from Las Positas Road, as well as on foot or bike from the end of West Valerio Street.

From the parking area, it’s a short way down the road to the beginning of Sierra Club Trail for the return portion of the loop. Just before Sierra Club Trail and the playing fields is George Bliss Drive, which leads up to Veterans Memorial Walk and the picnic areas.

Terrace of Remembrance Veterans Walk Elings Park hike trail Santa Barbara

Terrace of Remembrance

Veterans Memorial Walk was completed in 1997, and honors the 98 servicemen from Santa Barbara County who died in the Vietnam War. The walk ends at the Terrace of Remembrance, which honors servicemen who died in all other conflicts and wars since the Civil War.

Past the Terrace of Remembrance, the path continues uphill to Godric Grove, which is one of the more scenic picnic areas. The nearby Wells Fargo Amphitheater also offers views out across the city.

From Godric Grove continue back along George Bliss Drive, taking in the various overlooks and picnic areas, and returning to Jerry Harwin Parkway.

The history of Elings Park dates back to 1965, when the city landfill at the site became full and was subsequently closed. Shortly afterwards, Jerry Harwin, chairman of the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Commission and other city officials began looking at how to convert the 97-acre site into a park for recreational use.

In 1977, the City Council approved the development of the site as a park, including the various proposed sports facilities. Several years later, the non-profit Las Positas Park Foundation was created and began fundraising to make the park a reality.

The park was officially opened in 1985, and named Los Positas Park. In 1991, it was renamed Las Positas Friendship Park.

In 1994, the park foundation agreed to purchase the adjoining 133 acres to the south from Society of Jesus, the Jesuit organization which owned the property. The land comprised what is now Elings Park South.

In 1999, Dr. Virgil Elings donated $1.5 million to complete the purchase and support park improvements. Elings was the co-founder of Goleta-based Digital Instruments. He had just recently taken up paragliding and was inspired to help the park purchase the land. His former wife, Betty Wells, later donated another $800,000. In recognition of the family’s support of the park, it was renamed Elings Park. The B.P. Moser Trust also donated $460,000 towards the purchase.

Today, the privately-funded park serves close to a quarter of a million visitors a year. Its recreational facilities include three baseball diamonds, two soccer fields, a BMX bike track, and six tennis courts. Godric Grove and several other areas can be rented for weddings. The park also has a program for off-leash dog use.

Through these various usage fees, along with grants and donations, the park foundation funds ongoing maintenance and improvement projects. In 2014, the park began charging an entrance fee on weekends to further support the park’s operating costs. Annual parking passes are also available.

Elings park south hike trail Santa Barbara

Coast live oak along the trail in Elings Park South

Continuing with the larger loop hike, Sierra Club Trail starts from Jerry Harwin Parkway and makes its way back to the top of Elings Park South. The trail quickly branches with the two routes connecting near the top.

Stay to the right at the first juncture. Here, Sierra Club Trail leads through a small stand of coast live oak. At the next juncture, also stay to the right, which leads to the far end of the unpaved access road along the ridge and arrives at Jim Vanyo overlook.

From here, follow the access road east, turning right again when it branches. The side road continues towards Moser Meadow and passes the beginning of the trails that trace the western edge of the park.

The overlook and circular stone bench at Moser Meadow provides views towards Arroyo Burro County Beach Park and the ocean, as well as any paragliders that may be taking off.

Near the overlook is the access road used by paragliders that connects back down to the parking area for Elings Park South. Paralleling the road are the high and low routes that loop around the southwestern corner of the park.

The low route descends down towards Las Positas Road and leads through the most diverse amount of native plants in the park. At the intersection of Las Positas Road and Cliff Drive, the route also offers opportunities to continue over to Arroyo Burro County Beach Peak and Douglas Family Preserve for additional hiking and loop opportunities.

The high route offers views out towards Arroyo Burro Open Space and the surrounding area, and is further from the sounds of Las Positas Road. The two routes eventually meet and continue back over to the parking area to complete the loop.

For more information about Elings Park and the recreational opportunities it has to offer, or to reserve a picnic area, make a donation, or become a volunteer go to

This article originally appeared in section A of the October 9th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | October 30, 2017

Trail Quest: Sisquoc Trail Survey

The sky is still overcast as we leave camp, delaying at least the heat of the day. It is the last volunteer trail project of the season before temperatures in the backcountry become unbearable. The project is based out of Manzana Schoolhouse Campground, which is located at the confluence of Manzana Creek and Sisquoc River.

It’s the morning of the second day and the volunteers are being divided into groups to tackle various projects organized by Los Padres Forest Association.

One group makes their way back up Manzana Trail to clear brush, picking up where they left off the day before. Another group is tasked with clearing the bypass trail that leads around one of the private inholdings, and a third group is heading out along Sisquoc Trail to cut out several large trees that have fallen across the trail.

I’ve been invited to join Joan Brandoff and Jim Blakley. Their task is to survey sections of Sisquoc Trail between Manzana Schoolhouse and Water Canyon Camp to ensure that no significant archeological resources will be adversely affected by trail maintenance.

Roberts Flat Sisquoc Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike Jim Blakley homestead Joan Brandoff archeologist

Roberts Flat

Earlier in the year, Mr. Blakley had surveyed the trail, backpacking in along Jackson Trail to Sycamore Camp and hiking Sisquoc Trail down to Manzana Schoolhouse. He had run out of time to thoroughly visit several places between Water Canyon Camp and Manzana Schoolhouse and was returning to survey the sites he’d missed.

Joining him is Ms. Brandoff, who worked as an archeologist for the Forest Service from 1973-2009, starting with Monterey Ranger District and later becoming Heritage Program Director for Los Padres National Forest. It was through the Forest Service that she met Mr. Blakley’s father, E. R. “Jim” Blakley. Mr. Blakley Sr. had done extensive research on the homesteads along Sisquoc River, interviewing settlers and their descendants; gathering old photos of homesteads; and visiting the different sites.

In some ways, Mr. Blakley’s interest in backcountry history grew out of his father’s work. “He had not paid as much attention to the rock art sites he had visited,” Mr. Blakley told the News-Press, “and later recruited me to go hunt them down and gather more precise information when he got too old to go himself and verify what he remembered seeing.”

“It then made sense to share what I found with the Forest Service.” he added, which is how he got know Ms. Brandoff, the Forest Service archeologist at the time.

Roberts homestead Sisquoc Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Jim Blakley archeolgocial survey

Stove parts from the Roberts homestead

In preparation for the survey, they had gathered the available information from the Forest Service for the different sites along the route to verify and update that information with what we find.

Our route leads across Manzana Creek and up onto what’s known as Roberts Flat, one of the many terraces, or benches, overlooking the floodplain of the river.

Roberts Flat is cut by several dry creek channels that drain Hurricane Deck. As we approach the first side canyon I remember reading Mr. Blakley Sr. had noted that stove parts from the Roberts homestead could be found leaning against an oak tree. Having been through the area several times without ever finding them, I mention it off-handedly to Mr. Blakley.

He hasn’t heard that detail, but from previous visits has a sense of where the site should be. As we near the area, he makes a bee-line to the exact oak where the stove parts are located, as if the answer was already written in his DNA.

We pause here, while Mr. Blakley notes the location and takes measurements and photos of the stove parts for the site record that will be created when we return. We then search the area for other evidence of the homestead but come up empty.

Henry Irving Roberts was the son-in-law of Hiram Preserved Wheat, who was the de facto leader of the homesteading community along Sisquoc River and Manzana Creek. In the late 1800s a group of settlers, largely interrelated through marriage, headed out from Santa Maria and lived here until the early 1900s.

Sisquoc Trail follows sections of the old road built and maintained by the homesteaders.

Sisquoc Guard Station San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Jim Blakley Joan Brandoff archeology survey

Joan Brandoff and Jim Blakley take notes and measurements at the Sisquoc Guard Station site

Our next stop is what’s left of Sisquoc Guard Station. The administrative cabin was built in 1910, and is said to have been made with wood salvaged from the homesteads. The site was used by backcountry rangers and is off the main trail near a side canyon with a spring. The structure collapsed in 1983, and was never rebuilt.

The site record for the cabin isn’t very detailed and so we take extra time to do a thorough survey, noting the plants and topography, taking measurements and recording various features, as well as creating a diagram of the area.

The information gathered from these site records is put into a database so researchers and resource managers can access it without necessarily visiting the site.

“We talk so much about resources.” Ms. Brandoff reflected. “There are renewable resources like the water, plants, and animals. And then there’s non-renewable resources, things that you can’t grow back again, like cultural resources.”

Cultural resources provide us a richer understanding of our local heritage and the people who came before us. However, time and the elements can degrade site features. And unfortunately artifacts both historic and prehistoric have been removed by people, starting with the first explorers and homesteaders, and including modern-day visitors.

Older site records often describe items at sites that are no longer there.

Not only is it illegal to remove artifacts from federal land, it reduces the contextual experience of a site.

“If you can go out and find parts of the plow, or old cooking equipment that was there, or other parts of the settlers’ lives,” Ms Brandoff added, “it enhances the experience, more than just coming up to the remains of a chimney.”

Chumash tools arrowheads drills chert Sisquoc River San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest archeology cultural resources survey

Spent chert core used for making stone tools

While hiking along the trail, I would often observe Mr. Blakley scanning the trail corridor, looking for what he called lithics. The terms means stones, however, in this context specifically refers to stone material that has been intentionally worked.

No Chumash sites were found along the route we surveyed, however, Mr. Blakley did find what they both described as a spent core along the trail. The small piece of chert was left over from a larger nodule of material that was used to produce stone tools such as arrowheads, scrappers, and drill points. Pieces of material would’ve been cleaved from the original rock, and the chips and flakes worked further to produce different tools.

Chipped stone scatters are one of the more common remnants of Chumash activity in the backcountry, however they do not always indicate that a site was a village or camp. They can also be found where a native person was sharpening or creating new tools, for example, while waiting and watching for game.

Men were not the only ones who made stone tools as Ms Brandoff pointed out. “Women also needed sharp tools to cut basketry materials and it is not uncommon to find chipped stone scatters near bedrock mortars.”

In this case it’s likely the person carrying the spent core had gotten all the useful material they could from it and either discarded it or lost it.

Placing the item back where he found it, Mr. Blakley notes its description and location, but does not create a site record. There would need to be additional pieces or other artifacts nearby to record it as an archeological site.

Root Cellar Lucien Forrester homestead Sisquoc River San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Joan Brandoff archeology survey

Joan Brandoff surveys the remains of Lucien Forrester’s root cellar

Eventually our route leads across Sisquoc River, and we arrive at an open flat on the north side of the river. Here, the trail branches. To the left the trail follows the old road cut as it continues above the river. To the right, an off-trail route follows the river rejoining the trail further upstream.

Near the intersection are the remains of William Henry Spitler’s homestead. In his research, Mr. Blakley Sr. noted that Spitler had an apple orchard near his cabin. Today, all that can be found are the hearth stones. The fruit trees were likely swept away by the river during heavy rains.

From here, we opt to follow the use-trail route along the river and include it in our survey, since it will also take us past the homestead of Lucien Forrester, which lacks a site record.

At the site we find remnants of Forrester’s root cellar, a rectangular stone wall with oak saplings now growing in the center. Root cellars were used in the days before refrigeration to keep vegetables, fruits, and preserves cool. Along with chimneys, or hearth stones, root cellars are some of the more common remnants from the homesteading period still found in the backcountry.

Past the Forrester site we visit two more homestead sites before returning to camp. The next day we make our way back to the trailhead and head home. The information we’ve gathered will be added to what the Forest Service has on file and this particular section of trail is now clear for trail maintenance projects.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 25th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 23, 2017

Navigating Wilderness

Navigating Wilderness


Navigating Wilderness skills class map reading route finding edible and medicinal plants tracks tracking hiking backpacking Mike Kresky Lanny Kaufer


Navigating Wilderness
Saturdays, Oct. 28-Nov. 18

Learn from local experts how to read the landscape and trails, and become more familiar with the native plants and animals of our area through this immersive class.

The Santa Barbara and Ojai backcountry offers more than 500,000 acres of designated wilderness and hundreds of miles of trails to explore, and yet often the biggest obstacle to venturing out on the land or going deeper into nature is simply having the skills and confidence to get started.

Through this immersive four Saturday workshop, you will learn how to read the landscape and trails; become more familiar with the edible and medical plants of our region; learn about the animals of our area and how to recognize their tracks; and build skills and awareness that allow you to feel more at home in the woods.

Each class takes place outside, on one of our local trails, and provides a mix of hands on instruction, immersive exercises, and council sharing circles that allows for learning on many levels.

Reading the Landscape
October 28th, 9AM-2PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the local landscape, read the topography, and create your own mental maps. Discover how to navigate the backcountry without the use of a compass or GPS; and learn to remove the word lost from your vocabulary.

Edible and Medicinal Plants
November 4th, 9AM-2PM

Venturing out onto the land is even more rewarding when we take time to develop a meaningful connection with nature.

Join local plant expert Lanny Kaufer as we learn about the edible and medicinal plants in our area. Many of these plants were first used by the Chumash and have a rich ethnobotanical history.

Plants are great teachers of how to adapt to a particular place and move with the seasons. Learn how to recognize a number of our native plants; where to find them; and their different uses.

Animal Tracks and Tracking
November 11th, 9AM-2PM

Our backcountry is home to a rich variety of animals that often goes unseen by us. Join local tracker and naturalist Mike Kresky as we learn about these animals and their relationship to the land. Learn how to recognize some of the common tracks of our local mammals, birds, and even reptiles.

Tuning into the wildlife around us can deepen our awareness of place and through our senses connect us to the aliveness of the natural world.

November 18th, 9AM-2PM

Many of our local trails are overgrown, particularly those off the beaten path.

Learn how to read the trails, practice route-finding, and develop your own sense of “body radar” to help you navigate in the wilderness. We will work with how to create a trail narrative and interpret the landscape, and begin to see nature as an ally and how to hone and trust your senses.


James Wapotich is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service and the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest. He leads guided hikes and has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry.

Lanny Kaufer regularly leads Herb Walks and Nature Hikes in Ojai and Santa Barbara and recently celebrated his 40th year of teaching people about edible and medicinal plants. He has studied with William LeSassier and has led herb walks with the late Chumash plant expert Juanita Centeno and Dr. Jim Adams of the USC School of Pharmacy.

Mike Kresky is an accomplished naturalist and wildlife tracker. He co-authored the field guide Animal Tracks and Scat of California and has completed the intensive Kamana Naturalist Training Program. He leads workshops on tracking and has explored much of the local backcountry.

All four Saturday classes take place on our local trails.

To sign up or for more information, please contact:
James (805) 729-4250

Workshop is $175 per person, or bring a friend and both $150 each.
Must be able to comfortably hike 2-3 miles

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 23, 2017

Trails of Santa Barbara’s Early Backcountry Rangers

Forest Reserves Rangers Santa Barbara backcountry San Rafael Dick Smith Wilderness Pine Mountain Zaca Lake Madulce Fir Canyon John Libeu Edgar Davison Tom Dinsmore Ocean View Trail


Trails of Santa Barbara’s Early Backcountry Rangers

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

Thursday, October 19th, 6:30PM
Faulkner Gallery – Santa Barbara Public Library
40 East Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, CA

In 1898, the first Forest Reserves were created in our local backcountry and the first rangers began patrolling the trails and mountains behind Santa Barbara. These reserves were later combined to form Los Padres National Forest.

Among these early rangers were John Libeu, Edgar Davison, and Thomas Dinsmore, who often lived in the backcountry part of the year, patrolling places that are now part of the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness areas. Places that can still be visited today.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his hikes along these historic trails. James has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry. He is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service, and is the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

For more information call (805) 729-4250 or email

This talk is part of the ongoing Wilderness Hiking Speaker Series hosted by the Santa Barbara Public Library. The talks are the third Thursday of the month and feature topics related to hiking, backpacking, and our local natural history.

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 23, 2017

Backpacking and Hiking in the San Rafael Wilderness

B&H San Raf


Backpacking and Hiking in the San Rafael Wilderness

Free lecture with James Wapotich

Co-sponsored by the Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society
and the Los Olivos Library

Thursday, October 12, 7:30 p.m.
Santa Ynez Valley Grange
2374 Alamo Pintado Avenue, Los Olivos

Ever changing, the Santa Barbara backcountry is a place of surprising diversity and rich beauty. Within these natural lands, you’ll find waterfalls, quiet potreros, old homesteads, and miles of trails to explore. This talk will highlight some of the best trails and camps in and around the San Rafael Wilderness that can be used to craft backpacking trips and day hikes.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his treks through our local backcountry. James has hiked many of the trails in the southern Los Padres National Forest. He is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service, and is the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

James will also be available to answer questions on safety, equipment, and backpacking basics.

For more information about the Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society and its other upcoming lectures and programs go to

Posted by: James Wapotich | August 17, 2017

Trail Quest: Forbush Flats

While the best time to visit Forbush Flats is when temperatures are cooler and the creek is flowing, part of appreciating the beauty of our backcountry comes with experiencing it in all seasons.

The hike to Forbush Flats is about 3.5 miles roundtrip and follows North Cold Spring Trail down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The hike can be extended by continuing from Forbush Flats down to the Santa Ynez River, which adds roughly another 3.5 miles round trip.

From previous hikes, I knew in the canyon past Forbush Flats there would still be some water flowing in the creek and small pools where I could cool off. My plan was to get an early start to avoid the heat as much as possible hiking in, spend my time in the lower canyon during the heat of the day, and hike out in the late afternoon.

Alder Forbush Flats camp hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest Cold Spring Gidney Creek

Alder trees line the creek above Forbush Flats

The trailhead is reached from the Santa Barbara Mission, by taking East Los Olivos Street to Mountain Drive and following it to the beginning of Gibraltar Road. Gibraltar Road leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where it meets East Camino Cielo. Turn right onto East Camino Cielo and continue along the top of the mountains to Cold Spring Saddle, which is the first pullout on the right that includes a nearby cement water tower. Parking is found at the trailhead.

Gathering my gear, I cross the road and walk over to the trailhead, and gaze out across the expansive backcountry behind Santa Barbara. North Cold Spring Trail is a continuation of Cold Spring Trail and leads down the backside of the mountains into the upper reaches of Gidney Canyon on its way towards Mono Campground.

At 8 a.m. in the morning I can already feel the heat and wonder if I shouldn’t have gotten an even earlier start. I tell myself that this first section is on the east-facing side of the canyon and that once it transitions to the west-facing side it will be cooler.

Gidney Canyon North Cold Spring Trail hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest Forbush Flats

Upper Gidney Canyon is seen from the trail

Each time I hike this trail, different plants stand out, whether because they’re in bloom, changing colors, or in the case of summer starting to bear fruit.

Along the trail, are green acorns appearing in pairs on the scrub oak, pale green cherries starting to form on the holly leaf cherry, and small green fruits developing on the toyon.

Continuing down into the canyon, the trail crosses an unnamed, dry side creek that joins Gidney Creek. Here, the plants are more riparian, with willow, cottonwood, and even some dried up Humboldt lilies.

The western side of the canyon is still cool from the night before. Near the dry creek, are yellow-green pepper nuts growing on the California bay laurel and reddish-green fruits developing on the coffee berry.

As the trail makes its way down the mountains, it offers views out towards the ridge that frames Forbush Flats, as well as out across Blue Canyon to the east.

I’m already feeling the heat as I arrive at the turnoff for Forbush Flats. The meadow, which wraps around a small rise, is named for Frederick Washington Forbush, who built a cabin here in 1910. Forbush also planted apple, pear, and olive trees near where the two camps are now.

Each of the different trees currently have some fruit on them and it’s somehow satisfying to see fruit trees that are more than a hundred years old not only surviving in the backcountry on their own, but also bearing fruit.

The camp has two sites. The first is under several large oaks with cedars growing nearby. The second site is just past the first and is also under several large oaks with pine trees growing nearby. Both sites feature a picnic table and grated stove. Currently, there is no water at either campsite. However, flowing water can be found by continuing a short ways upstream from the first camp.

From the second camp, I continue through the meadow that wraps around the flat towards North Cold Spring Trail. The meadow is bordered to the north by a low ridge that frames the flat.

Because of its geologic history and unique topography the meadow straddles two drainages. The camps are located along Gidney Creek, which flows northwest towards Gibraltar Reservoir. The meadow near the ridge is actually the beginning of Forbush Canyon, which flows east, down into Blue Canyon.

Running through the flat is the Santa Ynez Fault. The nearly 80-mile long fault runs along the backside of the Santa Ynez and Topatopa Mountains and is the largest fault in Santa Barbara County. Five million years ago the Santa Ynez Mountains were uplifted along this fault.

The off-trail route through the meadow meets North Cold Spring Trail just as it intersects Forbush Trail, which leads down towards Cottam Camp and Blue Canyon.

From here, North Cold Spring Trail climbs over the low ridge and begins its descent down to the Santa Ynez River.

Blue lobelia maidenhair fern the grotto emerald pools North Cold Spring Trail hike Los Padres National Forest

Blue lobelia and maidenhair fern

After about a mile along the trail, I arrive at the unnamed creek the trail follows the rest of the way down to the the river. The first two crossings are dry, but as I continue, I start to see some water in the creek and soon pass a series of small pools carved out of the travertine and sandstone. Three western pond turtles waste no time diving from the bank into the water before I can even get down to creek.

The pools are fed by a steady trickle, which continues intermittently downstream. Lining much of the creek is blue lobelia. The perennial plant does well along the banks of streams and around pools, and is thriving along the intermittent creek. The plant blooms June through October.

At each place I stop the flowers are in full bloom with usually several western tiger swallowtail butterflies making the rounds and feeding on the nectar produced by the flowers. The butterfly is one of the largest in California and can be found throughout much of western North America. The butterfly with its colorful yellow wings and black stripes can often be seen near riparian areas where the plants it uses during its larval stage as a caterpillar are readily available, such as cottonwood, willow, alder, sycamore, and maple.

Western tiger swallowtail blue lobelia North Cold Spring Trail hike Los Padres National Forest

Western tiger swallowtail on blue lobelia

Further down the trail, I arrive at what is sometimes referred to as the Grotto or the Emerald Pools. Here, built up layers of travertine have created a series of pools, the last one resting on top of a waterfall, which is also built out with travertine. Growing on the face of the trickling falls is more blue lobelia along with maidenhair fern. In years of heavy rain the falls become a scenic cascade.

Continuing down through the canyon, I flush out several more turtles basking in the sun. In all, over the course of the day exploring the creek, I saw more than a dozen, including a young one no more than three inches long.

Western pond turtles are the only native fresh-water turtle in California and can grow to be about eight inches in length. Their coloring is typically olive green to brown and they can live as long as 50 years.

Western Pond Turtel Santa Ynez River Forbush Flats North Cold Spring Trail los padres national forest

Western pond turtle sunning itself

The water in the creek plays out just before the trail arrives at the intersection with Gibraltar Trail, which leads over towards Sunbird Mercury Mine and Gibraltar Reservoir. From the intersection, it’s roughly a quarter-mile down to the river, which can make for a natural return point.

Currently the river is dry where the trail crosses, with just some intermittent pools upstream. From the river, North Cold Spring trail becomes more overgrown, harder to follow, and less appealing during the summer heat as it continues towards Mono Campground.

On the hike back out, I stop at one of the pools framed by cattails I’d surveyed earlier and finally get a chance to cool off, staying the water until I feel thoroughly chilled for the hike back out.

Pausing again at Forbush Flats it occurs to me that from a certain perspective there are a variety of pathways through backcountry. There is the literal path of the trail. There is the evolutionary route that each of the plants and animals took to get to be where they are now. There is the more figurative pathway through the seasons, in this case timing the hike to avoid the heat and staying cool in the water. Which I imagine the plants and animals do in their own way, shifting their schedules and in the case of animals even their routes according to the seasons and available resources.

All the more reason to visit the backcountry at different times throughout the year.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 14th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | July 19, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Paula Canyon

With summer upon us and heat waves raising temperatures across southern California, finding places in the backcountry with water deep enough to get into becomes even more of a premium. Winter rains have helped bring back a number of swim holes and one of the places with a great collection of pools is Santa Paula Canyon.

Santa Paula Canyon is a popular destination. The canyon features a waterfall and swim hole, as well as a narrow gorge with more pools that are sometimes referred to as the Punch Bowls. The hike to Santa Paula Canyon Falls is about seven miles roundtrip and the hike to the Punch Bowls is about 8.5 miles roundtrip. The best time to go is during the week.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south to Ventura. From Ventura, take State Route 126 east towards Santa Paula, and exit at Santa Paula. Follow State Route 150 through the town of Santa Paula and continue past Steckel Park towards Thomas Aquinas College. The drive is about an hour. The trailhead can also be reached by taking the back way through Ojai, which is about ten minutes longer. Parking is found along the side of the road or in the two dirt lots near the entrance to the college.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls graffiti creek punch bowls big cone spruce camp hiking backpacking trail waterfall

Santa Paula Canyon Falls seen from the hill overlooking the creek near Big Cone Camp

The hike to Santa Paula Canyon leads through the campus and two private ranches. The route is well-marked. Please respect private property.

From the road, walk up to the entrance to Thomas Aquinas College and follow the access road as it veers to the right and traces the eastern edge of the campus.

Established in 1971, Thomas Aquinas College is a Roman Catholic liberal arts school tucked up in the mountains, just above the confluence of Santa Paula and Sisar Creeks. One of the striking features on the campus is the chapel with its scenic bell tower and dome framed by the mountains.

East Fork Santa Paula Creek trail hiking backpacking punch bowls

Scenery along East Fork Santa Paula Creek

The route then continues to the right along a ranch road through Ferndale Ranch. It then descends down a hill, passing several oil derrick pump jacks, before arriving at the beginning of the second ranch, Rancho Recuerdo. The route then continues through an avocado orchard before arriving at a second set of pump jacks.

Past the pump jacks, the trail arrives at Santa Paula Creek. Here, the trail crosses the alder-lined creek, tracing its northern edge. The trail has been washed out a number of times over the years due to flooding. The trail follows the creek, briefly crossing the end of a ranch road, before then veering away from the creek.

Here, the trail passes through a somewhat boggy corner of the floodplain. It’s surprising to see alder trees growing so far from the creek, but apparently there is enough water to support them, as well as the ferns and blackberry growing there.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls Pool swim hole punch bowls creek hiking backpacking trail last chance

Great pool just above Santa Paula Canyon Falls

Santa Paula Canyon Trail then enters a more exposed section before returning to the creek. Here, the trail branches. Because this is such a popular destination there are a number of use trails all trying to reach the same place. The trail to the left is an off-trail route that leads up the creek to the falls. The main trail crosses the creek and connects with the old road cut that used to run through the canyon.

The trail follows the south side of the creek for a stretch, before veering away from the water and heading up into the chaparral. There are number of side trails to contend with and the best option is to keep staying to the right, until the old road cut becomes apparent. The unpaved road is overgrown, appearing as more of a single track trail. Amongst the plants are white sage, toyon, buckwheat, and sumac all in bloom.

As trail rounds a corner in the canyon it offers some greats views back down the canyon. Up ahead is a lone hill in the middle of the canyon. The trail then passes over a low point between the hill and the backside of Santa Paula Ridge and descends down towards Big Cone Camp.

Punch bowl Santa Paula Canyon Last Chance Trail Cross Camp waterslide

Large pool in the narrow gorge of Santa Paula Canyon past Cross Camp, featuring a waterslide.

The camp has four sites. The main site is under a grove of big cone Douglas-fir, which give the camp its name and also dot the back side of Santa Paula Ridge. The second site is just across the trail from the first. Further up the trail, on either side, are two more sites. Each site features a metal fire ring or grated stove.

Just past the last two camp sites, the trail drops back down to the creek. However, a brief detour worth making is from the last camp on the left. Follow the short use trail that leads up the hill overlooking the creek, which offers views directly down towards the waterfall.

Past Big Cone Camp, the trail drops down to East Fork Santa Paula Creek, crossing to the other side where the trail branches. Santa Paula Canyon Trail continues to the right. The trail is overgrown and leads towards Cienega and Bluff Camps, as well as Santa Paula Peak. The more traveled route, Last Chance Trail, continues to the left and leads above the falls. A short off-trail route leads down the creek to the falls.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls is the first in a series of swim holes in the canyon. The waterfall and pool are a popular destination and it’s not uncommon to see more than a dozen people swimming there. There is also a disappointing amount of trash and graffiti.

Giant Stream Orchid Santa Paula Canyon last chance trail punch bowls

Giant Stream Orchid along side creek, Santa Paula Canyon

waterfall Santa Paul Canyon creek last chance trail hiking backpacking

Unnamed waterfall in Santa Paula Canyon

Above the falls, the creek has carved its way through Matilija sandstone forming one of the deeper pools in the canyon. The ten-foot deep pool, with its clear, flowing water is one of the highlights of the hike. The pool is hard to reach and best accessed by continuing along the trail above the falls and returning down into the creek.

Continuing along the trail above the falls, the trail climbs away from the creek; rounds a corner; and then drops back down to the creek, arriving at Cross Camp. The camp features three sites. Two on this side of the creek surrounded by California bay laurel and black walnut. The third site is harder to find and is on the opposite side of the creek.

At Cross Camp, the trail actually branches. Last Chance Trail crosses the creek, passing the third campsite, and continuing towards Jackson Hole. The main use route however, continues upstream towards the narrow gorge referred to as the Punch Bowls.

Continuing along the more heavily traveled off-trail route, the canyon itself quickly branches. To the right is a small side canyon that features another waterfall. Growing along the creek are giant stream orchids. More plentiful further north, they are found in wet or moist places, and bloom in the late spring and early summer.

The canyon to the left is the narrow gorge where more swim holes are found. There is no trail and the route requires rock scrambling, and in some places just wading through the water. There are several smaller pools, but the main attraction is the large pool less than a quarter of a mile up the canyon that features rope swings and a natural water slide.

Santa Paula Canyon Last Chance Trail sespe wilderness

Scenery along Last Chance Trail, past Cross Camp heading towards Jackson Camp

From Cross Camp, the hike can be extended by continuing along Last Chance Trail to Jackson Camp, another three miles roundtrip. The trail enters Sespe Wilderness as it climbs away from the creek. The trail follows a series switchbacks up an exposed hillside overlooking the canyon, before rounding a corner and offering some dramatic views back down towards the narrow gorge. The trail is more overgrown and sees far fewer visitors than the route leading to the swim holes.

As Last Chance Trail continues up the canyon it eventually drops back down towards the creek and arrives at the turnoff to Jackson Camp, which is marked by a blue survey flag with a rock on top of it. The side trail down to the camp is overgrown and at times hard to follow. The camp currently has flowing water and features a stone fire ring.

Further up the canyon, along the trail, are Jackson Falls and Jackson Hole, which is a pool carved in sandstone by the creek. Currently there is no water flowing at either destination. From Jackson Hole, Last Chance Trail continues to the top of the Topatopa Mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 17th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | July 3, 2017

Trail Quest: Fraser Point

Santa Cruz Island is the largest island off the coast of California. The island covers roughly 96 square miles and is one of eight islands that make up the Channel Islands found here in Southern California. These islands are home to a rich variety of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Fraser Point is the westernmost point on Santa Cruz Island and visit to the point provides a unique opportunity to explore this remote part of the island.

The eastern portion of Santa Cruz Island is part of Channel Islands National Park and is open to the public. The western 76% of the island, however, is managed by The Nature Conservancy. Through the conservancy, private, non-commercial boaters may obtain a landing permit to visit parts of the island during the day. Permits are $30 per month, or $70 per calendar year. Proceeds support the work of the conservancy. For more information go to

Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Natural Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

Secluded cove at Fraser Point

Recently, Island Packers, through a special arrangement with The Nature Conservancy, offered a trip to Fraser Point, providing a rare opportunity to visit this part of the island on one of their boats. Island Packers is the authorized concessionaire for Channel Islands National Park and regularly offers transportation to destinations within the national park.

Since 1991, Island Packers has also been regularly providing trips to Pelican Bay, which is on land managed by The Nature Conservancy. As part of the arrangement an Island Packer’s naturalist must accompany visitors while on the conservancy’s land.

During the government shutdown in 2013, which closed our national parks and forests to visitors, Island Packers working in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy was able to offer additional trips to western Santa Cruz Island, including Cueva Valdez on the north shore.

Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Natural Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

Santa Rosa Island frames a view of Fraser Point from the ridge overlooking the western end of Santa Cruz Island

The trips were so well-received that after the shutdown, Island Packers continued to explore ways to provide visitors with unique places on the island to visit. Working with The Nature Conservancy, Island Packers offers a limited number of day trips to Cueva Valdez, as well as Willows Anchorage on the south shore of the island.

Fraser Point is the third such destination on western Santa Cruz Island, and this recent trip was actually the maiden voyage for visitors. The trip will likely be offered again.

From Ventura Harbor, we made our way out towards Santa Cruz Island. The boat ride out and back actually circumnavigates the island providing a visual tour of both the south and north shores. The ride across the channel often includes sightings of marine wildlife. This time around, thanks to the keen eyes of the crew, we saw common dolphins, humpback and blue whales, and even a basking shark.

Nearing the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island, golden fields of non-native grasses framed by the reddish-brown rocks of Montañon Ridge come into view.

Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

Wildflowers frame a view from Fraser Point

The first recorded inhabitants of the island were the Chumash people who were there more than 10,000 years ago. There were at least 10 Chumash villages on the island, which the Chumash called Limuw, or place of the sea.

In 1542, Cabrillo sailed past the island, but did not land there. In 1769, the Portola land-sea expedition landed on the island, giving it the name La Isla de Santa Cruz. Following the war of Mexican Independence, the Mexican government granted the land to Andrés Castillero in 1839. During this time Dr. James B. Shaw, served as the ranch manager. Shaw is thought to be the first to introduce sheep to the island. He later also introduced cattle and horses as well.

In 1857, Castillero sold the land to William Barron. 12 years later, Barron sold it to a group of 10 investors, which included Justinian Caire. By the late 1880s, Caire had bought out all the other investors becoming the sole owner of the island.

Part of Caire’s vision for the island’s operation was to make it self-sufficient as possible. The ranch is said to have cleared rocks on the broad plain east of Montañon Ridge to grow wheat in order to produce flour. On the south shore, overlooking Smugglers Cove, is the olive grove planted by the ranch. Other measures to reduce the need to import from mainland and diversify production included growing fruit and nuts, and raising fowl.

Harbor Seal Forney Cove Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

A harbor seal watches us land at Forney Cove

Continuing past Smugglers Cove, along the south shore of the island the land ashore transitions from National Park to Nature Conservancy as we pass Willows Anchorage and Bowen Point, which is the southernmost point on the island.

In 1937, following extended litigation amongst Caire’s family the western 90% of the island was sold to Edward Stanton, while the balance of the island stayed with Ambrose Gherini, who was married to one of Caire’s daughters.

Stanton passed away in 1984. Three years later his son, Carey Stanton, also passed away, and under a previous agreement the land passed to The Nature Conservancy. In 1996, the federal government completed its purchase of land from the Gherini Family to include in the National Park. In 2000, The Nature Conservancy transferred 8,500 acres of land to the National Park, creating the boundaries that exist today.

Eventually, the boat arrives at Fraser Point. There is no pier and so we anchor at Forney Cove, which is a small cove on the south side of the point. Using motorized rubber rafts, or skiffs, the crew shuttles us to the island, six at a time, while curious harbors seals bob in the water watching the commotion.

Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy

Pocket Beach at Fraser Point

We disembark on the sandy shore and those who are interested follow the Island Packer’s Naturalist up onto the island. Our route leads past remnants of Campo Punta West, where buildings from a satellite ranch dating back to the days of Justinian Caire were located. Wood from the buildings was later reused to construct Rancho Nuevo several miles down the shore.

There are no designated trails out to the point, which is shaped somewhat like an isthmus sculpted with a couple small coves and pocket beaches. There is also no dense brush or even a lot of wild grasses out on the point. In fact, the real surprise is the amount of wildflowers in bloom thanks to this year’s generous rain.

We make our way cross-country stopping to take in the wildflowers. Among the yellow flowers are goldfields, tar weed, and beach sun cup. Among the pink and purple flowers are sand verbena, phacelia, and checkerbloom. Also present is non-native crystalline and small-flowered ice plant.

Our counter-clockwise loop provides us vistas of a couple small coves and pocket beaches before arriving at the point. To the west, out across Santa Cruz Channel, we can see Santa Rosa Island, and immediately to our left is Cormorant Rocks, which is loaded with cormorants and California brown pelicans. Completing the loop, we pass two more small coves before arriving back at the landing beach.

wildflowers super bloom channel islands western santa cruz fraser point hike

Wildflowers cover Fraser Point with Santa Rosa Island in the distance

A smaller group of us follow the naturalist on a second hike along an old ranch road, while others enjoy themselves at the beach. The route leads through wild grasses and up to the ridge overlooking the point. The ridge provides some great views back down towards Fraser Point and Forney Cove, as well as views across the narrow West End Flats along the north side of the island.

The boat ride back continues around the island, tracing the northern shore, where bald eagles can sometimes be seen. The ride back also includes a visit to Painted Cave. The sea cave is one of the largest and deepest in the world and Island Packers will often take their boat into the quarter-mile long cave, weather permitting, for sightseeing. Currently, the sides of the cave are lined with sea lion pups left there by their parents, who are out hunting for food.

There are no trips scheduled to Fraser Point or Willows Anchorage at this time, but they will likely be offered again within the next year. Island Packers, however, has three trips available to Cueva Valdez on July 8, August 13, and October 21, in addition to all of its other regular trips to Channel Island National Park. For more information go to

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 3rd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands


Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands


Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands


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