Posted by: James Wapotich | November 26, 2010

Indian Canyon

Visited Indian Canyon with a friend over Memorial Day weekend [May 29-31]. This was my fifth trip to the area. The first time I was there was with the Boy Scouts (BSA Troop 15) in the late 70s during our traditional 50-miler backpack trip that happened each year over spring break. That year we hiked up Santa Barbara Canyon to Madulce cabin (back when there was a cabin), then to the Alamar Tin Shack (back when there was…etc.), over Loma Peloma and down the Indian in search of the legendary Moraga Mine. And then from there up Buckhorn Canyon to the Big Pine-Buckhorn Rd. and out to Upper Oso. My second visit several years later was with a small group from my high school. That trip, and each subsequent trip, started at the trailhead about a mile past the locked gate on the Romero-Camuesa Rd. just past Mono Camp and the nearby Little Caliente Hot Springs.

Nineteen years later, in 2003 I returned with my friend Craig and was surprised at how overgrown the trail had become. After just the first few miles the trail became decidedly brushy, Peg Leg camp was completely gone—washed away one rainy year, and the further one went the more challenging the trail was to follow. Ironically one of the things that helped me find the trail on that trip was that a month earlier it had rained and a bear had more or less walked the entire length of the trail leaving his foot prints for all to see. There was something impressive about seeing bear tracks down the middle of the trail and in one section there was literally a continuous bear track for a mile. In fact the freshest trails were those left by the bears and in trying to follow the most used path I’d often find myself no longer on the trail but somewhere only a bear would want to go and would have to backtrack to pick up the less used people trail.

4 years later in 2007, I hiked the trail with my friend Eddie. This was one of the driest years on record and so much of the creek was dry, with only intermittent pools even at camp. The trail however was in great shape, a portion of it having been recently brushed by Jasonn Beckstrand and his crew from the LPFA. I was also aided by having had to find the trail the last time I was there. And so all in all it was an easier hike in.

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

This year was sort of a Goldilocks year with just the right amount of rain, not too hot for the hike. The trail itself was in good shape pretty much up to Meadow Camp after which point it immediately become brushy. The rest of the trail from there was par for the course, damage and regrowth from the Zaca Fire in some places, overgrown in other places as it was before and still a challenge to follow.

Our first day started at 7:00am as we left the house and stopped at Cantwell’s for the semi-traditional Breakfast Burrito. Our drive took us past I Madonnari at the Mission and then from there one takes Gibraltar Rd., to East Camino Cielo Rd., and makes a right, continuing on East Camino Cielo as the it dips down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains and becomes the Romero-Camuesa Rd. At this point it is a dirt road the rest of the way. Continuing past the turn off to the Agua Caliente Hot Springs, past Middle Santa Ynez, P-Bar Flat and even Mono Camp, all the way to the end of the road (staying left at the turnoff to Little Caliente), 1 hour 45 minutes from Santa Barbara to the locked gate where you can drive no further. It is here that the hike begins.

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

Mono Creek

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

Indian Creek

The first mile is along the road, which almost immediately crosses Mono Creek and then Indian Creek. It’s somehow impressive to consider these two great creeks having come down their respective canyons now just a short distance apart. After about a mile one arrives at the trailhead (the Romero-Camuesa Rd. continuing on to ultimately Upper Oso)

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

The trail from here and as far as Meadow Camp is easy to follow and only overgrown here and there. Along the way I spotted a total of 6 horny toads, a reassuring number as there were several years there where I hadn’t seen any anywhere in the backcountry. Eventually we arrived at Lower Buckhorn, which is in need of new table and then over a small rise to Meadow Camp.

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

After Meadow Camp the trail becomes decidedly brushy, and although it improves it still involves a lot of creek crossing, overgrown trail and if you’re not familiar with the area a lot of searching for the trail itself. Interestingly the burn damage from the Zaca fire is not as pronounced along the creek, although it is much more evident higher up in the hills.

Arriving at Indian Camp we were surprised to find it completely empty, not only because it was Memorial Day weekend, but because I thought for sure I’d seen two sets of hikers tracks along the trail that seemed like they were from today. Having some time before dinner, we went for a swim and later upon returning to camp we were equally surprised to see a lone hiker walk into camp without a backpack carrying only Bryan Conant’s map of the Dick Smith Wilderness with him and asking, “Is this Indian Camp?”. Further conversation ensued and it turned out that he and his friends were from Oregon and had just decided to hike here for the first time. He was scouting ahead for the rest of the group. I pointed out to him the second campsite—Indian Camp having two campsites, one more obvious that now boasts a table and another a little further up. He went back and fetched the rest of his crew, parked at the last creek crossing, who upon arrival quickly then set about dialing their site in. That night Debbie and I had a great spaghetti dinner and then promptly went to bed as one often does in the backcountry at 9pm.

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

Birds Nesting Along Indian Creek

The next morning, after breakfast we hiked upstream to Maiden Falls (roughly 1.3 miles). At one time there used to be a sort of a trail to the falls and if you look closely you can still find remnants of it, but it’s mostly lost and some of the places where it is visible now belong to deity associated with Poison Oak. About 1/4 mile before the falls I came across a flat sandy area that looked like it had been used as a camp, maybe even the night before.

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

At Maiden Falls, we caught up with the two backpackers whose camp I’d found. They were struggling with lifting their packs up the falls. I went over to help and discovered that they had European accents and so started thinking of them as the “French Guys”. In some ways I was envious of their expedition up the Indian. It had been more than 20 years since I’d carried a pack all the way to the upper Indian. And their day looked to be filled with the sort of adventure that other less zealous people might mistake for suffering.

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

However having decided that we had built enough character on our last trip we took it upon ourselves to enjoy this little corner of the world. When we returned to camp we noticed that the group from Oregon had already left and so we had the camp to ourselves for our last night.

The next morning, we packed up our gear and began our return. On the hike out I worked on my trail report, having offered to survey the trail for Mike Smith of the LPFA. Of particular interest:

1. What’s the overall condition of the trail?
2. How bad is the grass that has grown up in the trail?
3. Can you find the trail or has it all gone wild?
4. How many fallen trees across the trail and their sizes?

Because the trail is most challenging between Meadow and Indian Camps, I focused on that area. The trail is much as it always is overgrown and spotty, with numerous new trails that have been made when people lost the original trail. The trail itself has not suffered as much grass growing in the tread as with that along the Sisquoc. And as mentioned before the burn damage is more pronounced higher up in the hills than along the creek. In all I counted 16 creek crossings and noted 8 fallen tress across the trail of various sizes. It is the last section (or first depending on your perspective) of the trail between Meadow and Indian camps that is probably the worst and most overgrown.

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Hike

From Meadow camp we took we a more leisurely pace, stopping along the way at a number of swim holes, the last being the one at Indian Debris Dam where we spent much of the afternoon lazing around. Sensing the need to return home we hiked out the last mile, fetched our sodas from the Mono that I’d stashed there on the way in and made the drive back to Santa Barbara.

If you have a trail report, I’d love to hear it.


  1. Great write-up, thanks James. I tramped the length of Indian Canyon (Bluff Station to Romero Road) as part of a longer trip this past February, and it was rough going above the falls. The PO was horrible. Hoping to visit again soon (well, in the fall anyway). See you on the trail!

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