Posted by: James Wapotich | May 31, 2022

 Hiking & Backpacking on the Channel Islands

Hiking & Backpacking on the Channel Islands

Free Online Presentation with Q&A

Thursday, June 9th, 5:30pm

During the last ice age, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were all part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. This talk will highlight the hiking and backpacking opportunities on these four islands today, as well as describe an imagined traverse of the now submerged super island of Santarosae.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from hiking, backpacking, and camping on the four islands off our coast. James has hiked many of the trails on the islands and has visited all five islands within Channel Islands National Park. He is an experienced backpacker, trail guide, and author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

This talk is being live-streamed via Zoom. To register go to

This free online presentation is part of the Santa Barbara Public Library’s 2022 Book to Action series, which includes events and programs inspired by Island Visions, edited by Jacob Seigel Brielle and illustrated by Isaac Seigel-Boettner.

Their book features essays and infographics written by scientists, environmentalists, rangers, fisherman, and local outdoor enthusiasts and explores what is special about the Channel Islands and why it’s important to conserve the environment and cultural significance of this unique place.

The Book to Action series aims to help residents appreciate and understand the ecology, geography, and history of the Channel Islands and our local oceans waters and inspire collective action and engagement on environmental issues.

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 27, 2022

Wilderness Hiking and Plants

Wilderness Hiking and Plants

The Santa Barbara Region is home to a rich variety of both trails and habitats. Through this series of immersive classes you will learn the basic skills and awareness to explore our backcountry trails; learn about the native plants found on our trails; and deepen your connection to the natural world.

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

Reading the Landscape – April 30, 9AM-1PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the local landscape, read the topography, and create your own mental maps of the backcountry without the use of a GPS or compass. See how habitats and plant communities are organized on the landscape, and learn how to remove the word lost from your vocabulary.

Nature Connection – May 7, 9AM-1PM

Venturing out onto the land is even more rewarding when we take the time to develop a meaningful connection with nature. Learn how to feel more at home out on the trails and in the wilderness by being able to recognize plants every hiker should know. We will explore riparian and chaparral habitats, the plants that live there, and some of their edible and medicinal properties.

Listening to Nature – May 14, 9AM-1PM

As we start to feel at home in nature, the land itself can become a source of guidance and inspiration. By working with plants, habitats, and the landscape, and tuning into our senses we can begin to see nature as ally and lay the foundation for being able to know the backcountry like the back of our hand.

James Wapotich is a trail guide, UC Certified California Naturalist, Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with Los Padres National Forest, and author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest. He leads workshops on backpacking, wilderness awareness skills, and mindfulness in nature. 

Participants must be able to comfortably hike 2-3 miles. A list of what to bring and where to meet will be provided before each class.

This class is being offered through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

The class is $115 per person, or $85 for Garden members.

To register go to, or call (805) 682-4726 ext. 102.

If you’re not already a member of the Garden, you may want to consider becoming one. In addition to the discount for this class, the membership includes free admission to the Garden, as well as discounts on other classes, field trips, lectures, and special events through the Garden. Plus, of course, you’re supporting the propagation, conservation, study, and love of California native plants.

Feel free to contact me as well, or (805) 729-4250.

Posted by: James Wapotich | February 18, 2022

Backpacking Made Easy

Backpacking class instruction workshop Santa Barbara hiking trails Los Padres National Forest wilderness native plants ecotherapy nature connection

Backpacking class instruction workshop Santa Barbara hiking trails Los Padres National Forest wilderness native plants ecotherapy nature connection

Through this class, you will learn the basic skills and awareness to set out on our local trails and craft your own backpacking trips. Many of these skills can also be used for day hiking as well.

This class is unique in that all classes take place out on our local trails and not in a classroom, as the best place to learn wilderness skills is outside in nature.

In general, the class covers three main areas: wilderness navigation, nature connection, and gear/trip planning.

Our approach to wilderness navigation is also somewhat unique. You will learn orienteering skills that are not dependent on having a GPS or compass. While these are good tools to have, learning how to navigate without them can help you develop a richer skill set.

Nature connection is also a big part of our time out on the land. For many of us, the aliveness of the natural world is what makes it worthwhile to invest the time and energy to head out into the backcountry, not the exercise from carrying gear. Feeling a deeper sense of connection and immersion in the elements is often the real payoff for being outdoors.

We will cover the gear basics and provide insights into how to evolve your own gear set. You don’t necessarily need to buy the latest gear in order to head out into the backcountry; what’s more important is to have the basics covered so you can get out there and get started.

Backpacking Made Easy
Saturdays, March 19 – April 2

Santa Barbara and Ojai are home to a variety of incredible backpacking destinations, and yet, often the biggest obstacle is simply having the knowledge and skills to get started.

Through this immersive workshop, you will learn the basic skills needed to comfortably explore and enjoy our local trails.

Hot springs, waterfalls, epic views, and unspoiled wilderness are just some of the rewards for those who are willing to make the journey.

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

Lay of the Land
March 19th 9AM-3PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the landscape and topography, and begin learning the skills and awareness that will help you remove the word lost from your vocabulary. Become familiar with maps and creating your own mental maps of the backcountry.

Working with habitats and being able to recognize them is another key skill to further orienting to the landscape.

Nature Connection
March 26th 9AM-3PM

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

Learning about the different plants, and plant communities along our trails, as well as some of their edible and medicinal properties helps deepen our connection with the natural environment. This in turn makes us more aware of the landscape around us. 

We will also cover the different gear options and how to choose equipment that suits you, as well as menu planning ideas.

Listening to Nature
April 2nd 9AM-3PM

By learning how to read the landscape and develop a sense of place, we can begin to feel more at home in the woods and start to see nature as ally. By tuning into our senses and being in relationship with nature, we lay the foundation for being able to know the backcountry like the back of our hand.

We will also cover the essentials of self-care on the trails, preventive first aid skills, and successful trip planning, as well as some local plants that can be used for everyday ailments.

Optional Free
Overnight Backpacking Trip
April 9-10

For those who are interested, we will help organize a free, optional backpacking trip. Here’s a chance to put all these great skills to use, and build on the material covered so far.

Length of the hike and destination for the overnight trip to be determined according to current conditions and the capabilities and interests of the participants.


James Wapotich is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with Los Padres National Forest, a UC Certified California Naturalist, and author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest. He is a trail guide and has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry, and has been backpacking here for over 35 years.  

Sierra Boatwright, LMFT, is the founder of Santa Barbara Ecotherapy, where she weaves together naturalist skills and psychotherapy to help people gain more support through their time in the outdoors. Sierra has been hiking and backpacking for over 25 years and is an alumna of the Pacific Crest Outward Bound School.

Emily Sanders* is the Director & Founder of the Artemisia Academy, and has been studying holistic health for over 15 years. She is a Certified Clinical Herbalist and Clinical Nutritionist from the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. She teaches classes on herbal medicine, nutrition, and plant identification.

*Because of Emily’s full schedule, she’ll be joining us on just the first day. A backpacking enthusiast, Emily is also available for the optional overnight backpacking trip.

Workshop is $245 per person, or bring a friend and both 15% off.
Limit 12 students. Must be able to comfortably hike 3-4 miles.

To sign up or for more information please contact:

James (805) 729-4250
Sierra (805) 335-1915

Posted by: James Wapotich | February 12, 2022

Waterfalls of the Santa Barbara and Ojai Mountains 

Waterfalls Hiking backpacking trails Santa Barbara Ojai Los Padres National Forest Matilija Dick Smith San Rafael Wilderness Tangerine Falls Rose Valley Falls Santa Ynez Mountains

Waterfalls of the Santa Barbara and Ojai Mountains

Free Online Presentation with Q&A

Thursday, March 17th, 5:30pm

Our local mountains are surprisingly rich in the number of waterfalls and cascades they hold. When enlivened by the rain, these scenic destinations become all the more compelling. 

This talk will highlight close to two dozen different waterfalls and cascades in the mountains behind Santa Barbara and Ojai; and will feature a mix of relatively easy to reach places, as well as more remote locations in the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness areas.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his hikes to these picturesque places in our mountains. James has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry. He is an experienced backpacker, trail guide, and author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

This talk is being live-streamed via Zoom. To register go to

This free online presentation is part of the Trail Talks series hosted by the Santa Barbara Public Library.

The next talk in the series is Thursday, April 21st, 5:30pm, Wildflowers of Figueroa Mountain and the Central Coast with Helen Tarbet, Los Padres National Forest.

Posted by: James Wapotich | October 14, 2021

Intro to Wildlife Camera Tracking

wildlife camera tracking trapping class santa barbara los padres national forest trail camera bear bears mountain lion mountain lions deer fox foxes coyote coyotes bobcat bobcats

Intro to Wildlife Camera Tracking

Sunday, Nov. 7, 10:00 am -1:00 pm
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93105

Wildlife cameras give us a window into the hidden lives of our local animals. They allow us to see what animals do in their natural state, and can provide rich insights into their behavior.

Used by conservationists, land managers, and hunters, wildlife cameras have grown in popularity as technological advances have made cameras more affordable and easier to use. These advances have made wildlife cameras more accessible to nature enthusiasts, photographers, and people just curious about what’s going on in their own backyard. 

This class will cover the different types of wildlife cameras available on the market, the history of camera trapping or tracking, and how to set up a camera. The class will be part slideshow, part in the field, and will cover basic tracking awareness skills in order to more effectively select sites. 

James Wapotich is a UC Certified California naturalist, trail guide, Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with Los Padres National Forest, and the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest. In addition to hiking the many trails in our local backcountry, James is an avid wildlife camera tracking enthusiast, with on average a half dozen cameras out in the field.

The class is $45 per person, $30 for Garden Members.

To register or for more information go to or call (805) 682-4726 ext. 102

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 23, 2021

Take Five Hikes

Guided hikes santa barbara geology edible medicinal plants mindfulness nature connection wilderness awareness skills

Take Five Hikes

Take a break from your daily routine, step away from the ordinary, and get out in nature. Get moving, get hiking, and clear out your head; and step into the richness of our mountains through this series of five hikes.

Each hike takes place on one of our local trails and is a mix of hiking, natural history, and wilderness awareness skills, with sprinklings of mindfulness, nature connection, and community.

Islands in a Sea of Chaparral – Oct. 23, 9AM-1PM

In our semi-arid climate, the power of water becomes more apparent as we move through the seasons. Explore the riparian habitats found in our creeks and what they have to show us about moving with nature.

Rising Mountains and the Great River – Oct. 30, 9AM-1PM

Ever-changing, the landscape around us is in constant motion. From our geologically active mountains that are still rising, to the plants and animals that live here, everything has a story about how it got to be here.

Nature’s Bounty – Nov. 6, 9AM-1PM

Discover the abundance of nature through the diversity of native plants. This hike will explore the different edible and medicinal plants growing in our local backcountry and their usage by native people for thousands of years.

Listening to Nature – Nov. 13, 9AM-1PM

Everything in nature is woven together, the plants, the animals, the landscape, and the deeper forces that move life forward. These interwoven relationships can draw us into a richer dialogue with nature and help guide us.

Finding your way home – Nov. 20, 9AM-1PM

It’s easy to get lost in our modern lives, including out on the trails. Reconnecting with nature can help us learn how to reorient ourselves and more easily read the landscape around us, and find our way home.

James Wapotich is a trail guide, UC Certified California Naturalist, Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with Los Padres National Forest, and author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest. He leads workshops on backpacking, wilderness awareness skills, and mindfulness in nature.

Participants must be able to comfortably hike 2-4 miles. A list of what to bring and where to meet will be provided before each hike.

Each hike is $25, or $20 each if you sign up for all five.

To register or for more information contact James at (805) 729-4250 or

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 8, 2021

Hot & Cold Backcountry Springs of the Santa Barbara & Ojai Mountains 

Hot Springs Backcountry water hiking fall backpacking trails Santa Barbara Ojai Los Padres National Forest Sespe Wilderness Dick Smith San Rafael Mount Pinos Raspberry Spring Sheep Camp Big Little Agua Caliente Willet

Hot & Cold Backcountry Springs of the Santa Barbara & Ojai Mountains 

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A
Thursday, September 16th, 5:30PM

With fall approaching and temperatures becoming more pleasant, now is a great time to start thinking about heading out into the backcountry for soaking and nature connection. However, the big challenge in our semi-arid climate is where is there available water in the fall?

This talk will highlight the backpacking opportunities to our four backcountry hot springs: Little Caliente, Agua Caliente, Willet, and Sespe Hot Springs. It will also cover more than a half-dozen destinations in our local mountains that generally have reliable, year round water.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his hikes to these unique places. James has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry. He is an experienced backpacker, trail guide, and author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

This talk was live-streamed via Zoom, and now appears on the Library’s YouTube page,

This free online presentation is part of the Trail Talks series hosted by the Santa Barbara Public Library.

The next talk in the series is Thursday, October 14th, 5:30pm, Bicycling with Butterflies, with author Sara Dykman, who followed the Monarchs on their 10,201-mile migration.

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 11, 2020

Waterfalls of the Santa Barbara & Ojai Mountains

Waterfalls Cascades Santa Barbara Ojai Santa Ynez Mountains San Rafael Wilderness Dick Smith Sespe hike trail los padres national forest


Important Update: This event will be live-streamed on facebook,

Although the Santa Barbara Public Library is physically closed to the public until at least April 6th, it will continue to provide online content such as talks and other online gatherings. Live-streamed talks are also archived on the Library’s facebook page and can be viewed later by clicking the videos link on their facebook page.

Waterfalls of the Santa Barbara & Ojai Mountains

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

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

Rising from the sea roughly 5 million years ago, our local mountains are surprisingly rich in the number of scenic waterfalls and cascades they hold. Enlivened by the rain, these places call forth the imagination and beckon us to visit.

This talk will highlight close to two dozen different waterfalls and cascades in the mountains behind Santa Barbara and Ojai; and will feature a mix of relatively easy to reach places, as well as more remote locations in the San Rafael, Dick Smith, and Sespe Wilderness areas.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his hikes to these picturesque places in our mountains. James has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry. He is an experienced backpacker, trail guide, and 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.

The next talk in the series is Thursday, April 16th, Wildflowers of the Cachuma Lake area with naturalists Liz Gaspar and Chick Hebert, who are the co-authors of Wildflowers & Other Plants of the Cachuma Lake Area.

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 11, 2020

Smugglers Canyon Falls

Smugglers Canyon waterfall Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Canyon Falls

Two years ago, in 2017, I visited Santa Cruz Island over Christmas break with my girlfriend Sierra, my sister Lorene, and her boyfriend Todd. We were there for three days, and on the second day I hiked over to Yellow Banks. The plan was Lorene and Sierra would hike with me over to Smugglers Cove, and I would continue from there on my own to Yellow Banks. I later turned the hike into an article.

Unfortunately, on the day of the hike, we get a late start, leaving camp around 11am. We follow the trail through Scorpion Canyon as it climbs towards Montañon Trail, and then cut over to join the road from Scorpion Anchorage that leads to Smugglers Cove. The weather is relatively warm for December.

Roughly halfway to Smugglers Cove, the road crests its high point along the hike. From this vantage one can see the majority of the hike down towards Smugglers Cove. Upon seeing the trail laid out before her and the uphill hike back out, my Sister decides to turn back, followed shortly thereafter by Sierra, and so I continue on my own towards Smugglers Cove and Yellow Banks.

Having not slept well the night before and already feeling the tedium of the long road walk, I decide to cut off trail and head down into Smugglers Canyon to mix it up. I clamber down the slightly steep hillside, through mostly wild grasses, feeling enlivened to be traveling cross-country. The creek is dry, but engaging, and I am inspired to follow it downstream all the way to Smugglers Cove. I continue rock-hopping and exploring, pleased with my decision, but within 10 minutes the creek “cliffs” out and I arrive at the top of a 50-foot drop off. I double back up the creek and find a way to climb out of it, and then contour my way along the eastern side of the canyon, staying high enough to avoid the edge of the deepening canyon, until I’m past the 50-foot drop off.

From this vantage, looking back up the canyon, the drop-off has all the features of a potentially impressive waterfall. Imagining such cascades on the islands are short-Iived, I say to myself I should come back sometime after it rains. The idea of course slips off my radar completely since there is no easy way to just run out to the islands and check on a waterfall. It’s not like hopping in your car and busting it out to Nojoqui or Tangerine Falls to see if anything interesting is happening.

Fast forward to two years later, 2019. I return to Santa Cruz Island, now with a bigger crew. Inspired by the great time we had in 2017, the four of us decide to up the ante and bring kids with us and introduce them to the island. This time there are eight of us. Sierra and her three daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, and Anna Grace, my sister and her now fiancé Todd, and his daughter Raven.

Santa Cruz Island fox Channel Island National Park Scorpion Campground


Prepared for adventure, we have brought two kayaks and four wetsuits, as well as masks and snorkels. We take turns hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling. We discover the best snorkeling is found by kayaking out from Scorpion Anchorage and heading south to some of the rocks and cliffs where the water is clearest. There we dive in and explore the kelp forests and sea life below. On one of the forays, I find myself marveling at wavy turban snails grazing on the kelp. I have occasionally found their shells on the beach, but never really thought about what they did in the water.

Fox Dance

When we visited the island two years ago, I had just started getting into wildlife cameras. I had two in my backyard, and brought them with me to try out on the island, and was able to capture some fun interplay between a fox and mouse. For this trip, because I was already loaded down with gear and food, I opted to leave my wildlife cameras at home. However, unbeknownst to me, my sister brought the one I’d given her for her birthday.

I had given her one because she had a similar interest in tracking wildlife, for example there’s a particular spot along a creek near her home in Colorado where she regularly sees coyotes. Nevertheless, life being life, she hadn’t gotten around to setting it up and brought the camera with her to the island for a crash course on how to use it.

Our first task is to find a place to set it up. Two years ago, I was lucky enough to spot a fox that had climbed up into a toyon bush and was eating the berries, and suggest we start over there. However, at the site we come up empty since there’s no easy way to attach the camera to something that will provide the view we want, and so we decide instead to follow the nearby fox trail and see where it takes us.

The fox trail leads away from the creek and towards an old fence leftover from the island’s ranching era. Lorene suggests we follow the fence line until there’s a break in it, noting animals will often follow fences looking for just such a break so they can easily pass through and continue across the landscape unobstructed. Sure enough we arrive at an opening in the fence. Here, two different fox trails converge, making it a promising location to set up the camera.

We strap the camera to one of the fence posts, and I walk her through the different aspects of setting up the camera, such as angling it to capture the most amount of activity and placing it at the appropriate height above the ground for foxes. Followed by the equally important test shots to confirm and adjust the placement of the camera. Crucial to this, in my mind, is to trot down the trail like a fox to confirm the action will be in frame and trigger the camera. And while our camera didn’t capture any compelling wildlife photos on this trip, the exercise did yield a couple shots of me imitating a fox. In fact, it’s unfortunate there were no test shots of my sister as her fox “dance” was much better than mine.

santa cruz island fox wildlife camera tracking

Fox dancing

santa cruz island fox channel islands national park

An unimpressed Santa Cruz Island fox pauses in Scorpion Canyon

The Storm

Our time on the island seemed to go by quickly, at least for me. The scenery of course was epic. The weather a tad colder than our previous visit. But the big difference was the prediction for rain on the second night.

Sierra and her crew had opted to stay three days, while Lorene and her crew would stay for four days. Since I was giving Lorene and her crew a ride home, I opted to stay four days as well. I was also drawn to the idea of having the better part of a day for solo hiking. One idea I had was to hike up to Montañon Peak, making a loop back via Smugglers Cove, which seemed a bit ambitious given the amount of daylight one is afforded in December. My alternate plan was to hike over to Little Scorpion Anchorage and follow the eastern coast of Santa Cruz Island south to San Pedro Point, turn west and continue along the coast to Smugglers Cove, and return back along the road. This would allow me to see some new parts of the island.

As predicted, the night before Sierra and girls are scheduled to leave the rain arrives. It starts just after everyone settles in for the night, and fortunately plays out before breakfast, sparing us the misery of cooking and cleaning up in the rain, as well as packing and waiting for the boat in the rain. However, coming in behind the rain are gale force winds, and while it’s just gusty where we are on the island, I start to wonder if the boat will be able to make it to pick them up.

snow topatopa mountains santa cruz island

Snow on the Topatopa Mountains is seen from Santa Cruz Island

On the mainland one can just call Island Packers in the morning and hear a recorded update as to whether or not the boats are running. Recalling Sierra’s two teenage daughters had discovered there was cell service at the beach by the pier, I decide to head down there. They had been making regular trips to the beach in order to stay in touch with civilization, and so I thought I might be able to get through.

On my way to the pier, I run into the park ranger and ask him if he’s heard anything. He says Island Packers is hoping to be able to make a 3 o’clock pickup; they’re monitoring the weather closely and will make a go/no go decision in the next hour or so. I return to camp and relay the news to everyone. We decide to focus on breakfast, and afterwards I go and look for the ranger to get an update. Successful, I return to camp with goods news: the boat is coming!

Sierra and her crew pack up their gear, and we all head down to the pier with them to see them off. From there my plan is to hike over towards Little Scorpion Anchorage and make my trek along the coast to Smugglers Cove. I invite Lorene, Todd, and Raven to join me for the first part of the hike, since it includes some great views and a couple pocket coves to explore.

Since we still have several hours before their boat actually arrives, Sierra and Maria decide to join us for part of the hike. While we are climbing out of Scorpion Canyon along the road that leads off towards Smugglers Cove, Maria and Raven start excitedly exploring the side washes along the road, which are now flush with runoff and producing little elfin cascades.

Something about waterfalls begins stirring in my mind, but I can’t quite recall what it is. Yes, it’s great there are all these cool little waterfalls for the girls to delight in, I mean that’s what happens when it rains, all the little watercourses come to life. As I make this observation, something deeper begins to surface, a forgotten memory of something I wanted to do. It honestly took me this long to put the pieces together, but it slowly came to me that the dry waterfall I’d seen in Smugglers Canyon two years ago would also likely be flowing and now would be the best time to check.

I break out my map and begin studying it. Could I continue on this hike over to Little Scorpion Anchorage, and from there cross-country up to the road that leads to Smugglers Cove, without losing too much time? The mileage seems about the same, I couldn’t be completely sure about the terrain, but the route itself would be mostly grassland.

As we continue towards Little Scorpion Anchorage, Sierra and Maria turn back so as not to miss their boat. I continue with Lorene and her crew to the first pocket cove, but start to feel anxious about my hike and beg off to go at my own pace. 

Little Scorpion Anchorage Santa Cruz Island Channel Island National Park

The view looking back from the bluff above Little Scorpion Anchorage

I quickly arrive at the bluff overlooking Little Scorpion Anchorage. From here, I can see my original plan of traversing the eastern coast of the island would’ve included some challenges. Little Scorpion Canyon is something of a chasm and would’ve required making a circuitous detour around in order to follow the coastline as closely as possible.

Looking at the map again, I see I will need to trace the northern edge of the canyon until I can reach a point where I can easily cross and then continue up the opposite side. I make good time following the edge of Little Scorpion Canyon uphill as the canyon slowly turns and starts to become more shallow.

Dipping down into the canyon, I cross the creek bed, and continue up one of the smaller side drainages, angling my way towards where I imagine the road to be. I eventually crest out of the drainage and intersect the road surprisingly close to where I was aiming. By now the wind has stopped.

Anacapa Island Smugglers Cove Santa Cruz island Channel Islands National Park

Anacapa Island, seen from the road to Smugglers Cove

I make quick time along the road and reach the point where I’d hiked cross-country down to the canyon before. The route starts out steep, but then levels out some, sort of like a bowl. Instead of going all the way down to the creek this time, I descend just far enough to be able to contour my way down the canyon.

I spot a convenient fox trail and follow it through the non-native grass, as it weaves its way around the occasional lemonade berry, island buckwheat, horehound, morning glory, and cactus. Further below, near the creek, I can see island oak and toyon adding to the variety of plants in the canyon.

Smugglers Canyon Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Canyon

My goal is to get past the waterfall so I can get a shot of it looking back up the canyon. Ideally, I would’ve preferred to have gone all the way to Smugglers Cove and hiked up the creek to the base of the falls, but I didn’t have enough time for that and so this would have to do.

Continuing along the fox trail, I arrive at a small flat with a good size Catalina Island cherry, where if I was a fox, I might sit and meditate on the meaning of life, while gazing out across the canyon.

Just past the cherry tree, sensing I may have cleared the falls, I make my way to an outcrop of rocks at the edge of the canyon and can see the falls upstream. They are flowing, activated by the rain from the night before; the surrounding rocks and plants are saturated with water, giving the scene a vaguely tropical feel.

Waterfall Smugglers Canyon Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Canyon Falls

From here, I continue further down the canyon, recalling another vista point nearby. I soon arrive at a much larger outcrop of rocks that extends out to a sort of point. I make my way onto this overlook where I’m treated to dramatic views of several converging canyons. Across the canyon from me, towards the falls, is a small side canyon that tumbles steeply into the main canyon forming its own small waterfall. Looking downstream, the main canyon extends towards the ocean, while to my right are two more deep side canyons that meet the main canyon in a three-way confluence. The view makes me want to come back someday and explore the canyon starting from Smugglers Cove. 

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 25, 2020

Pothole Trail to Cove Camp

After weeks of pondering our destination, making plans, gathering our gear, and then adjusting our schedule to roll with mother nature’s program, we are at last on the trail. Hiking uphill. Yes, that’s how it starts, uphill through golden hills of wild grasses.

I had originally envisioned a trek through evergreen pines along the length of Piedra Blanca Trail. Sierra and I had hiked there Thanksgiving weekend five years ago and the scenery was just epic. But even as I was conceiving of a shuttle hike from Reyes Creek Campground to the Piedra Blanca Trailhead, I was remembering every time I’ve hiked the trail I’ve seen people.

Thinking we might prefer some place less traveled, I began considering where else we could go without adding extra miles or days; the Piedra Blanca Trip would be 18.5 miles over three days. Then it dawned on me, one of our first backpacking trips together was along Pothole Trail to Cove Camp, about 17 miles over three days.

Nevertheless, I remained on the fence, that is until the weather changed. With Sierra’s kids out of town for Thanksgiving, it made sense to start Thursday for a 3-day backpacking trip. We would have Thanksgiving with her kids on Wednesday, hike three days, and have Sunday at home for relaxing.

But nature has her own plans. With a pending storm arriving Thanksgiving Day and predictions of snow at the higher elevations, plus a second storm arriving on Saturday, there was a possibility Highway 33 could be closed and significant portions of Piedra Blanca Trail might be covered in snow, the latter not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than wait until the very last minute, we settled on the Agua Blanca, shifting our timeline to leave on Friday, after the first storm, and return on Sunday.

On Wednesday, I met with my friend who has property back by Lake Piru to borrow his keys and save ourselves about four miles of road walking both ways.

Currently, access to the Pothole Trailhead and points beyond is restricted by a series of gates and a parking fee. The area around Lake Piru is owned and managed by United Water Conservation District. This time of year one can drive in as far as the lower lot and park and then continue on foot to the trailhead.

The good news is all of that is changing, hopefully this year. The existing gates will be removed or kept open, with a new locked gate installed just past the trailhead. There will be a new parking area with no fees. The new gate past the trailhead will still require keys as before, but access to the Pothole Trail will be open, and the distance to Agua Blanca Trail, Ellis Apiary, and Piru Gorge will effectively become shorter. This is also great news for the Condor Trail, the 420-mile long through hike route which either begins or ends at Pothole Trail depending on how you hike it, will now be unburdened of 3-5 miles of tedious road walking.

Pothole Trail Lake Piru Los Padres National Forest


Anyway, yes, Friday morning, we are now on the trail. The sun is out and it’s good to be feeling its warmth after two days of rain. The hillsides are covered with wild grasses and dotted with yerba santa and purple sage. Lining the trail like diaphanous angels is something reminiscent of dove weed. Our last hike along this trail was in 2013, when I was section hiking the Condor Trail for a series of articles.

As we continue up the trail we start seeing bear scat loaded with hollyleaf cherry and begin to wonder if we’ll encounter a stand of cherry bushes somewhere along the trail. There’s something reassuring to me about bears using the trails, and the frequency of scat here reminds me of Santa Cruz Trail in the San Rafael Mountains. There’s a section of the 40-mile wall that’s a veritable cherry grove and during a particular hike I did one September there was an amazing amount of bear scat along the trail with nothing but hollyleaf cherry pits in it.

From the trailhead, Pothole Trail offers a hearty uphill gain of roughly 2,100 feet, more than enough it would seem to help burn off Thanksgiving dinner and associated holiday slothfulness.

As we crest the first rise, we arrive at a small stand of California black walnuts recovering from the 2007 Ranch Fire. The tree is more common in Ventura County and further south. In fact, the only place I’ve seen it so far in Santa Barbara County is along the access road to Gibraltar Dam.

Sugarbush Rhus ovata Pothole Trail Piru Creek Los Padres National Forest

Sugar Bush

The next plant to command our attention is Sugar Bush or is it Lemonade Berry? We both recall taco-shaped leaves being indicative of Sugar Bush, but after looking at the flower buds, we start to second guess ourselves. Both plants are in the genus Rhus, which is part of the Cashew or Sumac family, Anacardiaceae. The family includes Cashews and Pistachios, as well as Laurel Sumac and Poison Oak, which we’ll meet later on the trail.

Lemonade Berry, however has rounder, flatter, and more leathery leaves, while Sugar Bush, like the example here, has more curved-shaped leaves that end in a point. Lemonade Berry also prefers the coast, while Sugar Bush prefers being inland. Sugar Bush flowers between March and May.

Blue Point Piru Creek Pothole Trail Los Padres National Forest

Blue Point, in the foreground right

As we continue along the wide ridge, to the north Blue Point comes into view. The point is said to be named for its bands of bluish-grey rock. Near its base, to the east, is the now closed Blue Point Campground. The campground was closed in 2000 to help protect the Arroyo Toad and other endangered species. The mountain’s name calls to mind another Blue Point, this one at the top of Fir Canyon, in the San Rafael Mountains. In his journal, Ranger Edgar Davison referred to the prominent outcrop of Serpentine as Blue Point. He referred to the canyon as Blue Canyon, and later renamed it Fir Canyon, which is helpful since there is also a Blue Canyon on the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Blue Point Fir Canyon Davy Brown Trail Figueroa Mountain Serpentine Los Padres National Forest

“Blue Point” near the top of Fir Canyon in the San Rafael Mountains

After still more uphill, we arrive at the first lupine and the base of yet another climb. Here, to the left we can see the marked trail veering away from the ridgeline we’d been following. Thus far, we’d been avoiding the official trail, reluctant to follow its self-imposed trajectory through the weeds. The route, marked with flexible, brown carsonite signs, sort of parallels the use trail everyone seems to favor.

So I thought we should at least give the official route a try since it looks like it might break up some of the climb. Bad idea. The trail is brushier than the open ridge, the tread is torn up from horse traffic, and the real clincher for me is the bears don’t use it.

The trail then fortunately rejoins the more open ridge as we climb yet another hill. This one ablaze with buckwheat, its rust-colored dry flower heads radiant on the landscape. And then suddenly I notice a patch of snow on the ground, and then another, something I was not expecting at this low of an elevation.

Yerba Santa Buckwheat Pothole Trail Los Padres National Forest

Yerba Santa and Buckwheat

The trail then chugs up yet another hill. Here, yerba santa is growing amongst the buckwheat. Both plants cleansed of their dust by the recent rain are now beaming vibrant colors on the landscape, with the reds of the buckwheat offset by the pale greens of the yerba santa. Hiking through this grove of color I feel the elements beginning to work on me, peeling away layers of daily city life, while the scenery, with it patches of snow, becomes more magical and lucid, like something out of an Alphonse Mucha print

In the distance, Cobblestone Mountain comes into view, its snow-covered summit obscured in the clouds like some local version of Mount Everest. The mountain reaches 6,733 feet, and stands watch over Agua Blanca Creek. Along its top I can see pines covered in snow, like white-flocked Christmas trees.

Cobblestone Mountain snow Agua Blanca Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Cobblestone Mountain is seen in the distance

Bobcat tracks in snow Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Bobcat Tracks

We then reach the wilderness sign, which also marks the end of our uphill climb. The entire backside of the ridge is covered in snow. Along the trail, as if welcoming us into the Sespe Wilderness, is a set of fresh bobcat tracks coming up the trail.

The trail cuts across the backside of the ridge we’d been following and then heads down the ridgeline separating the Pothole drainage from the next creek over that also flows into the Agua Blanca. The trail has some brushy sections as it descends, but generally improves as it starts to level out; here we catch our first glimpse of the almost iconic Pothole.

Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

The Pothole

The trail then wraps around the ridge, doubling-back for its final descent into the canyon, offering views of Devil’s Gateway, Pothole Spring, Devil’s Potrero, and the Pothole. With the sun now breaking through the clouds, illuminating the basin in a glorious display of light, I start running down the trail to catch photos of the Pothole before the sun disappears.

Pothole Spring Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Pothole Spring is seen from the trail

cottonwoods pothole trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Cottonwoods in the Pothole seen from the trail

At some point in the not too distant past, there was by some accounts an earthquake and/or a large landslide that piled debris across the canyon helping to form the three separate basins was see today: The Pothole, Devil’s Potrero, and Pothole Spring. A similar phenomenon is said to have created Zaca Lake in the San Rafael Mountains, which was formed by a landslide that deposited debris across that canyon. Yes, another reference to the San Rafael Mountains.

Zaca Lake is seen from Zaca Ridge, the San Rafael Mountains

Zaca Lake is seen from Zaca Ridge in the San Rafael Mountains

Back when I first wrote about Pothole Trail a reader sent me a picture of the Pothole filled with water from the early 1990s; he said the water was around 15 feet deep and during one of his visits he found the remains of a rowboat. I’ve often wondered if the boat was still there.

The Pothole Lake filled will water sespe wilderness los padres national forest

The Pothole c. 1994 – image courtesy Hank Weishaar

The pothole lake sespe wilderness los padres national forest

The Pothole c. 1994 – image courtesy Hank Weishaar

Into the Pothole

Where the trail meets the canyon floor, at the edge of Devil’s Potrero, we pause for lunch under a large oak. Originally, I had thought of pushing all the way to Cove Camp on the first day, about 8.5 miles, but Sierra preferred we aim for Log Cabin Camp, about 6 miles, to break up the hike. This also meant we would have time to explore the Pothole. In my haste of changing up plans last minute I didn’t take the time to research if there was even a trail into the Pothole or check Google Earth to scout something out. On the hike in I didn’t see any obvious routes.

Instead I have to rely on my intuition, imagining if there wasn’t an informal route there would at least be a game trail as animals would likely want to access or traverse the basin. Feeling drawn to the oak woodland west of the main trail, I begin following an animal trail through the grove of oaks, which Sierra observes would also make an ideal place for a gathering of Druids.

Following the most prominent game trail along the edge of the chaparral and trying different spur trails that look like they would cut north towards the Pothole, I eventually find a trail that climbs up a low rise and looks promising. The trail crests out of Devil’s Potrero, weaving through the chaparral, and then begins to descend, taking on more definition as it continues. We’re now clearly on some kind of use trail. The trail carries us to the edge of the Pothole, arriving at a dense stand of cottonwoods, golden with the colors of autumn. We continue on the use trail as it skirts east around the cottonwoods and out into the open part of the basin.

Cottonwoods Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Cottonwoods in the Pothole

Pothole Trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

In the Pothole

Sierra pauses here to take in the sights and sounds of the nearby cottonwoods, while I cut out across the open basin, soaking in the experience, and ostensibly scanning the edges for that boat.

Completing my circuit around the Pothole and not finding any boats, I return to where I left Sierra, only I can’t see her. It isn’t until I arrive where she was sitting I discover she is now lying down, lulled into a nap by the sound of the gentle breeze playing through the cottonwoods.

cottonwood pothole trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Cottonwoods growing in the Pothole

We return to our packs and resume our trek towards the Agua Blanca. The trail skirts the edge of Devil’s Potrero, and then continues down a small side canyon, passing a barbed wire fence and a sign that once said no trespassing. The trail then arrives at the edge of Pothole Spring, where there’s an open, marshy stand of water, framed by tules and willow. Overlooking the spring, on the top of a rise, is the old Whitaker homestead. William Whitaker homesteaded here in the late 1800s, receiving a patent on the land in 1891. On the west side of the cabin is a collection of farm implements that were packed in by mule.

Pothole Spring Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Pothole Spring

Whitaker Homestead Pothole Spring Sespe Wilderness Los Padres national forest

Whitaker Homestead

old farm equipment whitaker homestead pothole springs sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Farm equipment is seen outside the Whitaker Homestead

Continuing around to the back side of the cabin, I trace the western edge of Pothole Spring and spot a bear trail cutting through the reeds, heading off to wherever it is a bear might want to go. I think of following it, but opt instead to press onto Log Cabin Camp.

Continuing past the homestead, Pothole Trail descends through oak woodland before transitioning down into a creek. The flowing creek, lush with alder trees and ferns, now saturated from the recent rains feels almost like a Pacific Northwest rain forest. Lion’s mane is seen growing on one of the downed oaks and I keep looking to see if there are any banana slugs along the trail.

Pothole Trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Sierra enjoying the lushness along the trail below Pothole Spring

The trail then arrives at Agua Blanca Creek, just upstream from the Devil’s Gateway. The Agua Blanca is flowing with just a hint of tannin from the recent rain. Across the creek is a trail sign which points the way to Log Cabin Camp. We then pass a second trail sign, which marks where Agua Blanca Trail bypasses Devil’s Gateway.

We arrive at Log Cabin Camp, just as we had done six years ago. The camp seems like it’s seen more use since our last visit. We set up camp, gather water, and settle into a hearty meal of backcountry tacos, with tri-tip, rice, and beans, garnished with cheese, cilantro, and onions.

After dinner, with impressively clear skies, we take in some stargazing, accompanied by the call of a Great Horned Owl, before settling in for the night.

Onward to Cove

In the morning, we opt for a simple breakfast so we can get on the trail early. Our plan is to get to Cove and set up camp before the predicted afternoon rain starts so we’ll have a dry place to work with. However, as I head down to the creek to filter some water, something tells me it would be better to stay put; we already have a tent here that’s dry. If we instead day hike to Cove we will be far less anxious about beating the rain and also have less miles to cover on the hike out, which would support a more leisurely trip overall. The downside in my mind is Cove Camp is a much nicer site than Log Cabin Camp, and we also run the risk of not getting to visit the Big Narrows. After a reasonable amount of hand wringing and internal debate, I decide to go with the day hike plan.

As we hit the trial, we are greeted by a hawk, sounding somewhat distressed, only to then see and hear a second hawk. The two continue up the canyon, leading the way. The trail is overgrown in places, and it looks like the bears are the ones using the trail the most.

We quickly arrive at Hollister. The site is shown on some maps as a camp, but in reality it’s a benchmark. However, instead of just a metal something, it’s a large almost cube-shaped stone with the letters “B” and “M” carved into it. On top is the benchmark.

Hollister bench mark Agua Blanca Trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest


From here, the trail becomes more overgrown, requiring more route-finding and deciphering the mish-mash of flagging, which is a little like listening to several different people debate where they think the trail ought to go, or worse still the route they so proudly took.

Eventually the trail returns down to the creek and more or less disappears. It’s here that the rain starts and any regrets I had about camping at Log Cabin Camp a second night begin to leave me.

The trail then picks up again, and as it continues it becomes what could be described as a true wilderness adventure — overgrown, brushy, downed trees, bear sign and scat, and plenty of poison oak crowding in. In addition to keeping one’s trail skills fresh, it also puts to test one’s ability to differentiate between poison oak and basketry bush aka skunk brush, both of which grow in abundance along the trail and can have a similar appearance

About halfway between Hollister and Cove we pause for a snack to bring up our energy and stave off the cold from the increasingly steady rain. Getting up from our snack we spot a hollyleaf cherry bush laden with ripe fruit, which we sample. Then looking around we realize we are surrounded by cherry bushes and the myriad of side trails I’d been seeing earlier are actually from the bears gorging themselves on this veritable grove of cherries. Perhaps this was the larder of cherries the bears had been eating and later depositing along the trail. A little further up we even find fresh bear tracks in the creek bed.

Hollyleaf Cherry Agua Blanca Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Hollyleaf Cherry

Bear tracks agua blanca creek sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Bear tracks Agua Blanca Creek

Agua Blanca Creek Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Agua Blanca Creek

The canyon then starts to narrow, becoming even more scenic. And in spite of the rain, it seems like we’re having a generally good time taking in the scenery and feeling the immersiveness of a trail that not many people seem to visit.

As the canyon opens back up, trail conditions begin to improve. But at one point, as I watch Sierra ninja her way around yet another patch of poison oak, she just loses it. After hiking in the rain, pushing through brush, route finding, and dealing with poison oak she’s had enough. “I’m so tired of freaking poison oak” or words to that effect, she shouts as she has a mini meltdown.

Being way more sensitive than me to the effects of poison oak I’m sympathetic to her plight, and at the same time I have a strong suspicion we’re almost at Cove Camp. I’ve noticed sometimes in the backcountry just as we near our destination our mind begins to play tricks on us, our fatigue tells us it’s pointless to go on, when in reality we’re almost there.

I share with her a story about a trip I did once looking for some cave paintings with a friend along another overgrown creek in the Sespe Wilderness. It had been a workout making our way up the creek, scrambling over fallen trees and pushing through brambly regrowth from the Day Fire, when my friend decided we had either gone too far or had faulty information, and either way was turning back. And while I felt his fatigue, I had a funny suspicion, based on the intel we had, the site was still up ahead and so I pressed on alone. Ten minutes later I arrived at the site, found the cave paintings, and then raced back down the creek to catch him so he wouldn’t miss out.

With Sierra now less upset and busy pondering the merit of my story, we continue up the trail, which now uncharacteristically pulls away from the creek, riding above it, which suggests to me we are in fact nearing Cove Camp. The trail then rounds a corner and stretched out beneath us, under the oaks and sycamore, is Cove Camp. A northern flicker calls out to us as we descend down to the site.

Cove Camp Agua Blanca Trail creek sespe wilderness ice can stove los padres national forest

Cove Camp

The camp features a double wide ice can stove and a fire ring Sierra helped restore the last time we were here; nearby is a sign for the camp wedged between two trees. The camp is situated in a large flat and up canyon, near the camp, is a regular ice can stove, and then past that another double wide one. I’d forgotten the Agua Blanca was a storehouse of relic ice can stoves, so far this day I’ve seen seven. (Log Cabin Camp has four ice can stoves, two near the stone fire ring and pedestal stove at the main camp, a third one just east of the camp under the canopy of oaks, and the fourth in the relatively open area overlooking the creek.)

Taking shelter under an overhanging ledge we have lunch gazing out across the camp, which was more inviting six years ago when it wasn’t raining. We opt to let go of hiking the Big Narrows, which would add another two miles roundtrip in the rain, and content ourselves with having reached Cove and reminiscing about past hikes.

Cove Camp Agua Blanca Trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Cove Camp

Under still leaden skies, as the rain increases, we retrace our route back to our camp, trying some alternate sections, re-route-refinding in places, and criss-crossing the creek back downstream to Log Cabin Camp. At one point, while crossing the creek yet another time, looking for our route in reverse, I reach my limit and wonder just how much more of this we still have left. Feeling as if we’re going in circles, in these now grey woods, I start to think I might just find a tobacco pouch on the ground left by dwarves from the Blue Mountains. And then just like that, past this last crossing, the trail climbs away from the creek and we arrive at the outskirts of camp.

Agua Blanca Creek sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Agua Blanca Creek

Still raining, Sierra dries out the interior of our tent from some leaks, while I make dinner in the rain. In anticipation of the inclement weather I’ve selected something that would be easy to make and clean up in the rain, Mac and Cheese.

Instead of bringing my lightweight Big Agnes tent, which comes in around three pounds, I deliberately brought my roomier Big 5 World Famous Sports tent, which weighs 4.5 pounds. Although heavier, the tent is large enough that we can stow all our gear inside, instead of having to leave most of it outside, under the vestibule, with the narrower Big Agnes tent.

After dinner we settle in early for a cozy night of reading while the rain continues, content in the knowledge that all of our gear is dry with us inside the tent.

In the morning we are awakened in the predawn hours by a Great Horned Owl, followed a little later by a dawn chorus of mostly woodpeckers and stellar jays that goes on for some time, a strong indication to me the rain is indeed over.

We spend part of the morning drying out from the day before, while enjoying a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with rice and beans.

As we hit the trail, the sun is still struggling to break through the clouds. We drop our packs at the juncture with Pothole Trail and make our way down to Devil’s Gateway for a quick visit just as the sun breaks out of the clouds, illuminating the entrance to the gateway and the nearby golden leaves of the Cottonwoods and California Black Walnut.

Devil's Gateway Agua Blanca Creek Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Devil’s Gateway

On the hike back out we again savor the great scenery. The snow that was on the trail on our hike in is now completely gone, and the pines on Cobblestone Mountain are now once again dark green, while the mountain remains shrouded in a blanket of white. Nearing the end of our climb out, we pause at a large manzanita bush that is laden with ripe fruit and enjoy a quick snack before making the long descent back down to the trailhead. We arrive at our car just as the sun is setting, feeling like we’ve maximized our time outdoors to the fullest.

Manzanita Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest


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