Posted by: James Wapotich | August 17, 2017

Trail Quest: Forbush Flats

Made a hike a couple weeks ago along N. Cold Spring Trail from Cold Spring Saddle down to the Santa Ynez River, stopping at Forbush before hanging out at the pools above the intersection with Gibraltar Trail.

Lots of fruit coming in on the different plants along the trail, such as scrub oak, holly leaf cherry, toyon, California bay laurel, and coffee berry, as well as the trees in Forbush’s orchard.

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

Alder trees line the creek above Forbush Flats

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

Upper Gidney Canyon is seen from the trail

No water at either of the camps, but there is water just upstream from the first camp. Further down the trail, found some nice water to cool off in near what some folks call the Grotto or Emerald Pools. Saw more than a dozen turtles in the creek, plus a garter snake enjoying the pool at the base of the falls. Along much of the creek, blue lobelia is enjoying its own super bloom while swallowtails and bumblebee moths flit from flower to flower. Article appears in section A of the August 14th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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

Blue lobelia and maidenhair fern

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

Western tiger swallowtail on blue lobelia

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.

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.

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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

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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 http://www.nature.org.

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 http://www.islandpackers.com.

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

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

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

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Posted by: James Wapotich | June 25, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Creek Homesteads

Visited the homesteads and old cabin sites in the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage back in late April with my friend Jasper.

Our route took us up and over Little Pine Mountain (see previous article for trail conditions). We camped the first night at Little Pine Spring. In the morning saw a bear up on the trail above camp with a red tag in its ear. I haven’t heard of any tagging programs in our area, so perhaps it was a delinquent bear that had been relocated.

From Little Pine Spring, we continued down to Santa Cruz Camp; visited the Alexander cabin site; hiked to Santa Cruz Falls; visited the Romo homestead site in Romo Potrero; and then visited Flores Flats, where the Flores homestead was located, before continuing onto Kellogg Camp, where we camped the second night. While hiking from Flores to Kellogg we spotted a large black bear across the canyon grazing on wild grasses. We were too far away for it take any interest in us.

Article appears in section A of the June 12th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Little Pine Spring Camp hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres national forest

Little Pine Spring

California black bear Santa Cruz Trail Little Pine Spring Los Padres national forest

Bear on the Santa Cruz Trail overlooking Little Pine Spring Camp

california black bear tag tagged Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest

Los Padres’ Most Wanted?

Little Pine Spring Los Padres National Forest Santa Cruz trail hiking backpacking camp

Beginning of the trail down to Little Pine Spring

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.

Santa Cruz Falls trail hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Santa Cruz Falls

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Black Mountain frames a view of Romo Potrero near the homestead site

Romo homestead roma potrero los padres national forest periwinkle vinca

Non-native periwinkle and other remnants of the Romo Homestead

Romo Potrero homestead santa cruz trail los padres national forest

Cattle trough Romo Potrero

Flores Flat Santa Cruz Trail creek camp hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Flores Flat

On the third day we hiked to Pelch Camp, and explored the upper reaches of Grapevine Camp. I’d hoped to find Upper Grapevine Camp for a third article, but came up empty. We camped the last night again at Little Pine Spring. Great weather and saw no one on the trails the entire time.

Lower Grapevine Camp canyon trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest ice can stove

Lower Grapevine Camp

Posted by: James Wapotich | June 8, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Trail

Hiked Santa Cruz Trail over Little Pine Mountain as part of a 4-day backpack trip with my friend Jasper to explore the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage. Much of the trail, from Upper Oso over Alexander Saddle and down to the turnoff to Little Pine Spring, was damaged in last year’s Rey Fire and subsequent winter rains.

The first section from Upper Oso to Nineteen Oaks is in fair shape and is enjoying its own mini version of a super bloom. The shale slide sections, further up, are now larger and require more care, but are still somewhat passable. The upper meadow does not appear to have been burned, but is now clogged with wild grasses and mustard. The worst section of trail however is from Alexander Saddle down to the turnoff to Little Pine Spring. Winter rains have washed loose dirt down across large sections of the trail. The route can be challenging and is not really recommended until it can be cleared and repaired. 

mariposa lily super bloom nineteen oaks rey fire santa barbara los pardes national forest santa cruz trail hike

Mariposa lilies cover a hillside near Nineteen Oaks

Little Pine Spring is fine, being located outside the burn area, and the spring itself has a steady trickle. The rest of Santa Cruz Trail is past the burn area, however wild grasses and mustard are experiencing their own super bloom–gaiters are highly recommended.

Article appears in section A of the May 22nd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. The next article will focus on the homesteads and old cabin sites in the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage, specifically the Alexander Cabin, and Romo and Flores homesteads.

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.

Upper Lower Oso vetch connector trail hike los padres national forest

Purple vetch in bloom along the connector trail between Lower Oso and Upper Oso

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 15, 2017

Trail Quest: San Ysidro Falls

Hiked up San Ysidro Canyon a couple weeks ago visiting the different cascades and pools including a hidden waterfall tucked away in the canyon. Article appears in section A of today’s edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

The video is a collection of some of those cascades and pools in San Ysidro Canyon, including San Ysidro Falls.

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.

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 9, 2017

Trail Quest: Caliente Mountain

While Carrizo Plain is perhaps better known this year for its wildflowers covering parts of the valley floor and nearby mountains, the area has other features of interest as well, including the Caliente Range and Painted Rock.

The Caliente Range overlooks Cuyama Valley to the south and Carrizo Plain to north, and a hike along the top of the range offers exceptional views of the surrounding area.

I had spent the previous day viewing wildflowers around Soda Lake and in the foothills of the Temblor Mountains and had set aside my second day to hike to Caliente Mountain.

Caliente Mountain Range wildflowers super bloom Carrizo Plain trail hike

Wildflowers frame a view of Caliente Mountain

The hike to the top of the mountain is about 16.5 miles round trip and requires the better part of a day. Plan on 6-8 hours. However, because of the moderate terrain and engaging scenery, the hike doesn’t feel as long as it sounds. Another option is to backpack there and camp overnight, breaking up the miles over two days.

The best time to go is during the spring or fall when the weather is cooler, with spring having the added bonus of getting to see wildflowers along the hike. There is no water or shade along the route.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north towards San Luis Obispo and continue to State Route 58. Take State Route 58 east through the little town of Santa Margarita, which is the last stop for gas or amenities of any kind. From State Road 58, turn right onto Soda Lake Road.

Soda Lake Road leads into Carrizo Plain National Monument. The paved road continues past Soda Lake, before arriving at Painted Rock Road, where the visitor center is located. Painted Rock Road is unpaved but passable for most vehicles.

Soda Lake Road can also reached from State Routes 166 and 33, although much of the route is unpaved and impassable during wet weather. The drive from Santa Barbara along either route is around 3.5 hours.

The Goodwin Education Center is open Thursday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and features interpretative displays describing the natural history of Carrizo Plain, as well as rangers on duty who can answer questions about the area, current conditions, and what to see.

Carrizo Plain was designated as a national monument in 2001 by President Bill Clinton and encompasses close to a quarter-million acres of protected land. Carrizo Plain is the single largest remaining native grassland in California and is home to a number of endangered, rare, or threatened animal species such as San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and giant kangaroo rat. The area is managed by Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. Visitor information and natural history resources can be found on their website.

wildflowers Caliente Mountain Range trail hike super bloom carrizo plain

Wildflowers cover the hillsides along the trail to Caliente Mountain

Continuing past the turnoff for the visitor center, Soda Lake Road arrives at Selby Campground Road. The unpaved road leads to Selby Campground and the beginning of Caliente Mountain Road.

Selby Campground has 13 campsites on a first come, first served basis. Dispersed camping is allowed in the surrounding foothills, but not along the valley floor.

Just before Selby Campground, the road branches, with Caliente Mountain Road continuing to the right. The unpaved road is narrow, and at times steep, and is not recommended for low-clearance vehicles.

Caliente Mountain Road leads to the top of the mountains. Pullouts along the road provide views out across Carrizo Plain and a number of them are also suitable for dispersed camping.

Near the top, the road arrives at the parking area for the trailhead. Past the parking area the road continues a short way before branching. The road to the left ends at a locked gate and leads along the top of the mountains towards Caliente Mountain. A trail from the parking area ties into this road. The road to the right descends down the front side of the mountains towards Cuyama Valley before ending at another locked gate.

From the trailhead, I follow the old road cut along the north side of the ridge. The trail leads through a mix of juniper and Tucker’s oak, which is a type of scrub oak. Growing in the shade beneath them is a surprising amount of miner’s lettuce and white fiesta flower.

The old road cut joins the unpaved access road along the ridge. The road is well-maintained and follows the ridgeline along the top of the mountains. At about the 2.5-mile mark, it arrives at a repeater-station tower, which serves as the first landmark along the trail. Past the tower, the road is less maintained.

white fiesta flower Caliente Range trail hike Carrizo Plain

White fiesta flower spilling out from beneath a juniper

The road then crests a small rise and descends down to a meadow. At the far end is a corral, weathered picnic table, and collapsed trailer. Essentially an old cow camp, the site was used to collect stock when the area was used to graze cattle.

Past the camp, the road narrows to a single track. Rounding a corner, I am reminded why spring is perhaps the best time for the hike. Lining the trail are hillside daisies. On the northern side of the ridge, under juniper and scrub oak is more miner’s lettuce and white fiesta flower. Here, white fiesta flower appears to almost be flowing out from underneath the juniper and oak and spilling down the hillsides.

Further along the trail, I arrive at a point overlooking one of the canyons that leads down to Cuyama Valley. Here, the sides of the canyon, and many of the nearby ridges, are covered in wildflowers.

At about the 6-mile mark, the trail descends down another short hill and arrives at what’s called a guzzler. Essentially a large, flat surface made of corrugated metal, the structure gathers rain water and directs it into a shaded cistern to create a water source for wildlife.

Continuing along the ridge, Caliente Mountain comes into view. From here, the trail descends down one last hill before making the final ascent towards the summit.

Caliente Mountain, with an elevation of 5,106 feet, is the highest point in the Caliente Range, as well as the highest point in San Luis Obispo County. At the summit is the remains of the World War II lookout cabin that was used to watch for enemy aircraft and threats to the strategic oil fields further inland.

Caliente Mountain lookout cabin ruins hike trail ridge Carrizo Plain

The remains of the lookout cabin at Caliente Mountain

The summit provides nearly panoramic views. To the northeast is the Carrizo Plain and Temblor Mountains. To the southeast is Mount Pinos. To the southwest is the Cuyama Valley and Sierra Madre Mountains.

Standing there, gazing out across these two distinct valleys, I remember the sense of journeying I had the previous day while visiting Painted Rock.

The first people to arrive at Carrizo Plain were Chumash, Salinas, and Yokut Indians. 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, they began painting in the large rock alcove at Painted Rock. The site is now managed by BLM in cooperation with the Chumash and public access is granted on a limited basis. No photos of the site may be used commercially or posted to social media websites.

Ranger-led hikes are offered on Saturdays, from March 1 to July 15. Reservations are made through http://www.recreation.gov. The hike to Painted Rock is about 1.5 miles round trip.

According to the ranger leading the hike, the site is considered sacred to the Chumash and has served as a pilgrimage site dating back at least 3,000 years. Descendants of the Chumash still visit the site today.

For me, one way to visit a sacred site is to clear my mind and approach the site from a place of reverence and notice where my awareness leads me. The ranger invited us to observe silence while inside the rock alcove, which helped to facilitate being in a mindful state.

While looking at the different pictographs, one of the images reminded me of a Chumash tomol, or wood-plank canoe, which was used to travel between the islands and along the coast. And while the image was probably about something else, the thought called to mind the journey the Chumash regularly made from the islands to the mainland, as well as the larger journey native people made over the land bridge from Asia into North America.

That journey was not only part of mankind’s dispersal out across the earth, but also our journey through the ages; and each of us, in our own lives, are part of that unfolding journey or story. And perhaps, each time we’re out wandering in nature, we are in way embodying that larger journey across the landscape and through time.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 8th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Carrizo Plain Wildflowers

The impact of our winter rains can be seen in a variety of ways on the landscape. Bountiful snowfall has covered the tops of Sierras and Mount Pinos. Waterfalls have become reactivated and, in parts of southern California, the rains have set in motion what’s being referred to as a super bloom of wildflowers.

Seeds that have lied dormant for years are now in bloom as far south as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Closer to home, just the right amount of rain and heat, after years of drought, have covered parts of Carrizo Plain, and the nearby mountains, with wildflowers.

The best time to see the wildflowers is March and April with largely the amount of heat we continue to get determining how far into May the display will last.

Anticipating large crowds visiting Carrizo Plain, I set out the night before to find a place to camp for the weekend.

Coreopsis super bloom Carrizo Plain national monument

Coreopsis are seen in bloom at Carrizo Plain

Carrizo Plain is reached from Santa Barbara by heading north on Highway 101, past San Luis Obispo, to State Route 58. There is no gas or amenities of any kind past the little town of Santa Margarita, so it’s best to stock up in San Luis Obispo. From Highway 101, continue east on State Route 58 to Soda Lake Road. Turn right and follow Soda Lake Road into the national monument. The road is paved all the way past Soda Lake before becoming unpaved.

Carrizo Plain can also be reached from the south from State Routes 166 and 33. Soda Lake Road runs the length of Carrizo Plain, however, from the south, only the first part of the road is paved. The unpaved portion is currently passable by most vehicles, but can become impassable during wet weather. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 3.5 hours.

Carrizo Plain is the largest single remaining native grassland in California. In 1984, Nature Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management began looking at ways to preserve this unique resource, and within four years started acquiring land there. Today, the preserve encompasses close to a quarter-million acres. In 2001, a proclamation was signed by President Clinton designating the area as a national monument.

The Bureau of Land Management’s website has a wealth of information about Carrizo Plain, including its natural history and visitor information.

wildflowers carrizo plain temblor mountains soda lake

Wildflowers and the Temblor Mountains frame a view of Soda Lake

The closest campground to Soda Lake, as well as many of the main wildflower viewing areas, is Selby Campground. The campground is reached by an unpaved road passable to most vehicles. The campground has 13 sites, which are available on a first come, first-served basis. Dispersed camping is also available in the foothills and mountainous areas, but not down along the valley floor. Camping is also available at KCL Campground, which has 12 sites. Both campgrounds have picnic tables and outhouses.

With Selby Campground already full, I park at the far end of the campground and continue on foot into the hills and find a spot overlooking the campground, settling in just before sunset. There are also good places for dispersed camping along the road leading up to Caliente Ridge.

In the morning, I head over to Goodwin Education Center, which serves as the visitor center. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m, Thursdays through Sundays. The rangers have wisely placed a board outside with answers to commonly asked questions related to the monument, in particular current road conditions and where the best sites are for viewing wildflowers.

wildflower carrizo plain soda lake hillside daisies

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Carrizo Plain wildflowers temblor mountains soda lake goldfields

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With the exception of the paved portions of Soda Lake Road, the rest of the roads within the monument are unpaved. Panorama Road is closed. Simmler Road is passable with a high-clear vehicle, and often impassable after wet weather. Seven Mile Road can be driven in most vehicles and is the best one for crossing the plain. Elkhorn Road is passable for most vehicles from Seven Mile Road down to Wallace Creek.

Wildflowers are currently blooming around Soda Lake, particularly along Selby and Simmler Roads, as well as in the Temblor Mountains along Elkhorn Road. Inside the center are interpretative displays, maps, and other resources. I learn that while there are wildflowers in Temblor Mountains, much of the access is through private property, whereas the flowers around Soda Lake are all within the national monument.

The first half of Simmler Road from Soda Lake Road is passable by most vehicles and so I begin there. Here, wildflowers line the road and stretch out across the plain in huge, expansive fields. The only trails are those created by other visitors that meander through the flowers. Carpeting the plain are vast fields of hillside daisies and tidy tips. Also in the mix are coreopsis and goldenfields, all with yellow flowers, as well as some purple larkspur.

As I walk between the flowers, I’m struck by how saturated the colors appears. There is a subtle hint of fragrance in the air and the richness of the scene is a reminder to me of how many different variables must come together to create the beauty we see in nature.

Simmler Road leads between the two main basins of Soda Lake and so I’m able to wander down to the lake, taking in views of wildflowers contrasted against white salt flats and blue water.

My next stop is Overlook Hill. The parking area for the trail is reached from Soda Lake Road. It is a short hike to the top of the rise which offers great views out across of the lake and salt flats. From here, the views also include Mount Pinos to the southeast, and looking out across the lake, the Temblor Mountains, which are also awash in wildflowers, appearing as if they’ve been painted with color.

wildflowers soda lake temblor mountains Carrizo plain national monument

Wildflowers and the Temblor Mountains frame a view of Soda Lake

Soda Lake is a series of basins that cover roughly 4.5 square miles. There are two large basins and more than a hundred smaller ones. The average depth of even the largest is only 1-3 feet.

At one time, a river ran through through the Carrizo Plain and flowed into the Salinas River. However, it became cut off through uplift associated with the movement of the San Andres Fault, which runs directly through the plain. Over time, the uplift blocked the river, which reversed course and eventually formed a basin. Today, the creeks within Carrizo Plain flow towards Soda Lake, which is the lowest part of the plain. With no outlet, the water evaporates forming large salt flats. The lake was larger during the last ice age when rain was more plentiful.

Although the wildflowers at Overlook Hill are not as dense or abundant, I did see a greater variety, including baby blue eyes, cream cups, larkspur, and pink crinkled onion.

Another nearby hike is across the road where a trail leads down to the boardwalk along the lake. The hike is about a mile round trip.

Returning to my car, I continue along one of the roads that lead around the lake and happen to spot an avocet wading in one of the side channels that flows into the lake. I pull over to have a look, and while admiring the bird, I sense some movement to my right and notice a fox sunning itself. After a while the fox gets up; makes a nice big stretch; and then walks a few feet over to what looks like the entrance of its den. It makes a little circle stopping to yawn and scratch and basically provide a variety of poses. Meanwhile, cars are zipping by along the road, which the fox is pretty much indifferent to. It wasn’t until people began to stop to see what I was looking at that the fox decided to move on and disappeared into its den.

San Joaquin kit fox stretching Carrizo Plain national monument

San Joaquin kit fox

San Joaquin kit fox Carrizo Plain national monument

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san joaquin kit fox carrizo plain

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san joaquin kit fox resting carrizo plain

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The San Joaquin kit fox is the smallest fox in North America, weighing in at just five pounds. Historically they were found throughout the grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley and adjacent foothills and plains such as Carrizo Plain. However, because of encroaching development and habitat fragmentation their numbers have been dramatically reduced. Listed in 1967 as an endangered species, the largest remaining population is found at Carrizo Plain.

Also found at Carrizo Plain are tule elk and pronghorn antelope, which are just part of the unique wildlife and scenery, in addition to the wildflowers, that can be found there.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 1st, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. The next article will be on the hike to Caliente Mountain.

carrizo plain wildflowers super bloom

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Posted by: James Wapotich | May 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Coldwater Camp backpacking trip

With the arrival of spring, now is a great time to head out onto the trails for backpacking. Winter rains have helped to revive the backcountry, and camps that were without water because of the drought are once again viable destinations for camping.

Within our local backcountry are a range of places to visit, some of which lend themselves well for easy overnight backpacking trips.

I was recently asked to lead a backpacking class to help introduce people to our trails and natural history, and was joined by my girlfriend, Sierra Boatwright, who is an avid backpacker and naturalist.

The class met three Saturdays in a row, followed by an optional overnight backpacking trip to allow the participants to put into practice the skills they had learned. Each class took place on a different trail and covered a range of topics including orienteering, maps, gear, basic first aid and self-care, route-finding, trip planning, and nature connection.

There were eight participants in the class, and the destination the group selected was Coldwater Camp along Manzana Creek in the San Rafael Wilderness.

Coldwater Camp is about 5.5 miles roundtrip from the trailhead and typically has year round water.

The trailhead is reached from Santa Barbara by taking State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass to Armour Ranch Road. Turn right onto Armour Ranch Road, and follow it to Happy Canyon Road. Turn right onto Happy Canyon Road, and follow it all the way to the trailhead. Happy Canyon Road leads through scenic ranch land before climbing out of the Santa Ynez Valley. At Cachuma Saddle, it meets Figueroa Mountain Road and continues down towards Manzana Creek, changing names and becoming Sunset Valley Road.

The trailhead for lower Manzana Creek is about a half-mile before Nira Campground, which is at the end of the road. The trailhead is along Manzana Creek with a large, unpaved parking area.

We met at the trailhead. The overnight backpacking trip in some ways was the culmination of the class, and everyone was energized about getting out and doing some camping. After a brief safety review of the different hazards along the trail including, rattlesnakes, ticks, and poison oak, we set out for Coldwater Camp.

From the trailhead, Manzana Trail rides above the creek for the first mile and a quarter before descending back down to the water and arriving at Potrero Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and fire ring.

While at Potrero Camp, Sierra and I invite the participants to name the different plants we could see around us that they had learned in class. The group quickly identifies manzanita, hummingbird sage, ceanothus, grey pine, and sycamore, as well as some their attributes.

In a previous class, one of the participants shared the realization that learning about the plants and animals in our local area helped to make wherever we went feel more familiar. He also observed that it made being outdoors that much more engaging.

In many ways connecting with nature is the doorway to having a more immersive experience of the outdoors and a deeper appreciation of how everything is woven together.

At the first creek crossing, I find myself noticing how well the group works together. Winter rains have raised the water level of the creeks, requiring some care in crossing. Watching our diverse group in action, I’m reminded how it’s sometimes easier to find a sense of belonging out in nature and be more accepting of different ability levels and personalities.

Our group included a couple from Germany, who recently moved to Santa Barbara; already avid hikers, they were interested in getting into backpacking, as well as just becoming more familiar with our local area. A former Army medic and his fiancé, a former Navy hospital corpsman, joined to learn more about backpacking. Two other women included a local business owner wanting to get outdoors more and an avid hiker wanting to start backpacking. The men included a speech therapist and musician, who wanted to get back into backpacking, as well as an adventurer, who had been backpacking for more than 40 years, but was interested in meeting other outdoor-minded people.

On the other side of the creek, near the junction with Potrero Trail, we take time for some map review. During the three-week sessions, we learned how to read and navigate the landscape without the use of a GPS or compass.

From Potrero Camp, we continue downstream along the trail weaving around the healthy, vibrant poison oak; stopping to admire the bear sign on a couple of sycamore trees; and making our way through the different creek crossings.

By midday, we arrive at Coldwater Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and metal fire ring. The group fans out into the meadow surrounding our camp and sets up their tents. After lunch, we day hike the mile and a half down to Horseshoe Bend Camp.

While hiking down the trail and taking the lead, I hear what sounds like a rattlesnake. I jump off to the side of the trail, away from the snake. From a safe distance, we stop to admire the healthy-looking snake. No longer feeling particularly threatened, the snake stops rattling at us. And then, tired of being the center of attention, the snake slithers off into the brush, rattling along the way as if to let us know the day was going just fine before all the commotion.

At Horseshoe Bend we enjoy the relatively deep swim holes along the creek. At one point, we watch a western pond turtle patrol the largest pool. Seemingly at ease with the number of visitors to its home, the turtle would swim out into the middle of the pool and back, and then along the rocky edge of the swim hole, putting on quite a show for us.

Arriving back at Coldwater Camp, we start to gather firewood. Under a large coast live oak, I demonstrate something I learned in the Boy Scouts. The leaves of coast live oak are shaped such that rainwater is directed away from the trunk, creating a relatively drier area under the canopy of the tree. By tugging on the dead branches that haven’t fallen yet, you can tell if they are dry enough to gather as firewood. When other wood is wet from the rain, this wood is still mostly dry and can be used to get a fire started.

After gathering enough firewood, we set about building a fire and making dinner. We settled on spaghetti and meatballs for the shared meal. In honor of the couple from Germany, for dessert we decided on s’mores, which apparently are unique to the United States as a quintessential aspect of camping.

Following dinner, we are treated to some fine ukulele music from one of the participants, before heading off to bed. We agree to wake up early in the morning and head out on the land for two hours of solo time as a nature connection experiment.

In the morning, Sierra and I offer some suggestions about how to more easily tune into one’s senses and the environment before the group disperses out onto the landscape to find their spot.

When the time is up, we call them back, and form a circle for a group discussion about the experience. One woman shared that she found being alone on the land uncomfortable, which brought to light the challenges women can face when hiking and backpacking on their own. Others shared how at first they didn’t know what they’d do in one place for two hours, but by the end of the experiment wished they could’ve stayed out longer and spent the whole day immersed in nature, citing the sense of peace and wonder they felt while being out there.

After breakfast, we packed up our gear and shared our appreciations for the group and the time we spent together. Several of the participants shared that they were already planning their next backpacking trip, excited to put their new skills to use and appreciative of the new found confidence they had about exploring our local trials on their own.

We then give thanks to the land for hosting us and begin the hike out. We make a stop at Potrero Camp for one last dip in the swim hole below camp before returning to civilization.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 10th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press..

Posted by: James Wapotich | April 8, 2017

Backpacking Made Easy

backpacking class Santa Barbara wilderness trails hiking skills trail instruction

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backpacking class Santa Barbara wilderness trails hiking skills trail instruction

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Back by popular demand we will be offering a second session of Backpacking Made Easy.

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 it takes place on our local trails. As the best place to learn something is in the context in which it applies, in this case outdoors. You’re also probably interested in backpacking because you want to get out on the trails and experience nature more. 

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 route-finding and orienteering skills that are not dependent on having a GPS or compass. While we do use these tools on occasion, knowing how to navigate without them can help build the confidence to hike anywhere.

Nature connection is also a big part of our time out on the land. For many of us, the whole point of carrying gear out into the wild is to immerse ourselves in the elements and feel a deeper sense of connection with the natural world around us.

We will cover the gear basics and provide insights into how to evolve your own gear set. You don’t 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 that you can get out there and get started.

Backpacking Made Easy
April 29 – 13

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 council sharing circles that allows for learning on many levels.

Lay of the Land
April 29th 9AM-3PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the local landscape, 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. Learn about the different gear options and how to choose equipment that suits you.

Nature Connection
May 6th 9AM-3PM

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

Learn to see the natural world around you as an ally, rather than an obstacle to overcome, and shift your hikes from feeling like endurance contests to journeys of discovery. And learn how to feel at home in the woods. Practical skills include trail navigation, menu planning, personal care and basic first aid skills.

Pathfinding
May 13th 9AM-3PM

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. Practical skills include trip planning, campsite evaluation, water assessment, and camp set up.

Optional Free
Overnight Backpacking Trip
May 20-21

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 of the participants.

Guides:

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

Maya Shaw Gale is a mindfulness and nature-based Life-Coach and creator of Inner Nature/Outer Nature and Women in the Wild vision quest retreats. Maya has backpacked in the Sierras, Nepal, and our local backcountry.

Sierra Boatwright is a UC Certified California Naturalist, council facilitator, and nature connection guide, as well as an alumna of Pacific Crest Outward Bound School.

Workshop is $225 per person, or bring a friend and both 20% 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 jwapotich@yahoo.com
Maya (805) 857-1789 mayashawgale@gmail.com
Sierra (805) 708-4058 seraphimasierra@yahoo.com

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