Posted by: James Wapotich | July 8, 2011

Trail Quest: Mono Camp

The hike along the Cold Springs Trail from East Camino Cielo down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains is in many ways the trail less traveled. Only 30 minutes from Santa Barbara the trail includes some of the nicest scenery of our local mountains. The first part of this trail passes through Forbush Flats and leads down to the Santa Ynez River and then from there continues onto Mono Camp.

It is the second half of this route that could be best described in skiing vernacular as a blue diamond trail, expert only, as a mile before Mono Camp the trail disappears completely. Proof that trails like any relationship require maintenance to sustain themselves. At one time the trail went all the way through, but now the hike requires some trailblazing and as such is best done as part of a backpacking trip.

Los Padres National Forest Cold Springs Trail Forbush Flats Santa Ynez Mountains Santa Barbara Hike Backcountry

Cold Springs Trail from Camino Cielo

The appeal of Mono Camp is that with the road to the Agua Caliente Hot Springs still closed from winter rain damage, Mono Camp becomes a trail camp, whereas when the road is open you can drive right up to it. The hike to Mono Camp and back is about 11 miles and can be challenging.

Rest assured however that the trail down to the Santa Ynez River is in good shape and does make for a great day hike at about 7 miles roundtrip. To get the trailhead take Gibraltar Road to East Camino Cielo and turn left. Continue east on East Camino Cielo until you see a turnout on the right with a cement water tower on the hill. This is where the Colds Springs Trail from Montecito arrives at Camino Cielo.

From Camino Cielo, the trail continues down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains and leads through a healthy mix of chaparral plants. The trail is down hill all the way to the river so pace yourself for the hike out. You may also want to get an early start to beat the heat.

Los Padres National Forest Cold Springs Trail Santa Barbara Hike Backcountry Santa Ynez Mountains

Checkerspot Butterfly on Humboldt Lily

At the 1.75 mile mark the trail arrives at Forbush Flats, which makes for a nice resting place. There are two shaded trail camps each with a picnic table and fire ring. Forbush Flats is the former homestead of Frederick Washington Forbush and one can still see the olive and pear trees that were part of his orchard.

At Forbush the trail branches with the trail to the right heading down into Blue Canyon, towards Cottam Camp, another former homestead. And the trail to Mono Camp continuing up over a small rise and then descending down to the river.

It is through this section that you may begin to notice shell fossils embedded in the rocks around you. Blue Canyon was formed by an uplift fault and in the process a number of fossil bearing rocks have been brought to the surface.

Shell Fossil Los Padres National Forest Santa Ynez Mountains River Cold Springs Trail Santa Barbara Hike Backcountry

Shell Fossils

About halfway down to the river the trail joins a small creek that generally has water in it, even into the fall. Along the way there are several small pools that can be found to offset the heat and in the spring there is even a picturesque little water fall.

At the 3 mile mark the trail branches with the trail to the left heading off to the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine and Gibraltar Reservoir. From here it’s another quarter mile down to the river.

For me this section of the Santa Ynez River is one of the highlights of the hike, as its remoteness can evoke the timelessness of the river itself and in the fall when this part of the river is dry it is often covered with animal tracks, a reminder of the central role that the river plays in the backcountry.

Santa Ynez River Mountains Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry Hike Cold Springs Trail

Santa Ynez River

From here the trail becomes more challenging. The trail is overgrown, but findable and continues just a short way downstream before crossing the river. The crossing is marked, however the trail itself has becomes indistinct having been washed out over the years. You will however want to cross here and find the trail on the opposite side as the trail continues downstream a short way before climbing away from the river.

The Santa Ynez River itself continues downstream where it is joined by Mono Creek on its way to Gibraltar Reservoir, the whole area forming a large basin. The trail through this section rides above the eastern edge of this basin continuing more or less north and then returns down into the basin still skirting the eastern edge. At this point the trail returns to the water and is now following a small side channel of Mono Creek and continues upstream.

At about the 4 mile mark, the trail disappears completely. From here the path of least resistance is to continue upstream along the broad channels of Mono Creek, knowing that both the camp and the road in eventually meet the creek on the eastern side of the basin. This will involve some trail-less hiking. Fortunately Mono Camp is located near where the basin narrows and is also just below the Mono Debris dam which makes it hard to hike past the camp.

Los Padres National Forest Mono Debris Dam Creek Camp Little Caliente Hot Springs Santa Barbara Hike Backcountry Gibraltar

Mono Debris Dam

At Mono there are 3 campsites with picnic tables and fire rings. And if you’re spending the night, a hike over to Little Caliente Hot Springs can make for a nice treat. The Hot Springs are another three-quarters of mile from camp further north along the dirt road. When the roads are open one can drive to less than quarter mile from the Hot Springs and save the hiking for another time.

Regardless how far you hike you’ll get to experience one of the quieter areas of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 8th, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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