Posted by: James Wapotich | October 9, 2011

Trail Quest: Blue Canyon

If you’re looking for a trail that’s relatively close to town, that few people visit and feels as timeless as the woods itself, then the trail through Blue Canyon may be the answer. Just 45 minutes from Santa Barbara, Blue Canyon runs east to west behind the Santa Ynez Mountains, includes several trail camps and is a great place to explore the Santa Barbara backcountry. The hike to Cottam Camp along Blue Canyon is about 9 miles round trip.

To get to the trailhead find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara and take Gibraltar Road to East Camino Cielo, turning right onto East Camino Cielo. On a clear day, this part of the drive offers expansive views of the Pacific Coast and the Channel Islands on one side and the San Rafael Mountains on the other. East Camino Cielo continues along the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains and arrives at Romero Saddle behind Carpinteria where it does several things. It ceases to be paved, becoming a dirt road, which at times can be quite bumpy, although the road has just been recently been graded and so is not too bad right now. The road changes names becoming the Romero-Camuesa Road (although there is no sign) and then winds its way down back side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Because the Forest Service will often close this road when it rains you’ll want to check with the Forest Service to see if it is open.

Blue Canyon Trail Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry Hike

Blue Canyon looking west

Just before the trailhead for Blue Canyon the Romero-Camuesa Road crosses a very short bridge and starts to climb back uphill, the trailhead is almost immediately on your left after the bridge. Here the road also widens a bit and parking is found along the road. An Adventure Pass is recommended. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far as the road continues over Blue Canyon Pass and then downhill eventually crossing the Santa Ynez River.

From the trailhead the Blue Canyon Trail heads almost due west and can appear overgrown at first, but for the most part the trail is passable and there are even sections of the trail that are in excellent condition. The first part of the trail is somewhat open until it reaches the first creek crossing, but from then on is mostly shady as the trail follows the creek much of the way.

Scrub Jay Blue Canyon Trail Santa Ynez Mountains Santa Barbara Backcountry Hike

Blue Canyon Creek is often dry this time of year, but with all the rain we’ve received this year, the creek is surprisingly clear and flowing through the upper portions of the canyon.

At the 1.25 mile mark one arrives at Upper Blue Canyon Camp, this is the first of several trail camps along the canyon, each of which can make for a overnight backpacking destination. Upper Blue Canyon Camp now also includes a picnic table, although the camp itself is poorly situated on the middle of the trail. This can be confusing if this is your first time through as you literally walk through camp and head to down to the creek to continue along the trail. Then to make matters worse, the trail crosses the creek and continues above on the opposite bank, however with embankment somewhat eroded it can appear as though trail just ends. Rest assured that the trail does cross the creek and continues above on the opposite side.

Serpentine Santa Ynez Mountains Blue Canyon Trail Santa Barbara Backcountry Hike

Exposed serpentine along Blue Canyon

The trail then eventually passes several exposed hillsides of serpentine rock, which give Blue Canyon its name. Serpentine is often green and grey in color, but here some of it even has a blueish color. Marveling at these noticeable rock outcroppings with their distinctive color it occurred to me that this is probably what this area looked like when the Spanish first arrived and even when the first native people visited this same canyon. And that the canyon itself appears much as it always has.

At about the 3 mile mark the trail arrives at the intersection of the Romero Trail which is actually a continuation of the Romero Trail that starts behind Carpinteria and climbs to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and then continues down the backside, crossing the Romero-Camuesa Road before descending steeply into Blue Canyon.

About a quarter mile later one arrives at Blue Canyon Camp which is off the trail and includes a picnic table and no less than 3 ice can stoves. Ice Can Stoves at one time were a regular fixture in many backcountry trail camps, literally large rectangular metal containers that were used to make ice blocks in the days before refrigeration, they were then later repurposed as stoves. A hole was cut in them to add a chimney, and laid out length wise their flat surface was ideal for cooking on. Over time the elements have taken their toll and very few of them remain in use.

Past Blue Canyon Camp the creek dries up and the canyon starts to widen. The trail then crests a small rise and opens up onto a large grassy meadow lined with oaks. It’s here that Blue Canyon is joined by Forbush Canyon from the west. Blue Canyon Creek then makes a 90 degree turn and continues north, flowing into the Santa Ynez River.

Cottam Camp Blue Canyon Trail Santa Ynez Mountains Santa Barbara Backcountry Hike

View of the meadow near Cottam Camp

It’s also here that one arrives at Cottam Camp. In the springtime Cottam makes for a great overnight camping destination as there is usually water in the creek and the meadow is a rich green with all the new growth. At Cottam there is a picnic table and a fire ring and plenty of room to sleep out under the stars. Cottam Camp is named after Albert Cottam who helped build a cabin there at the turn of the last century. If you spend the night at Cottam or are looking to extend your hike still further, the Blue Canyon Trail continues north towards the Santa Ynez River for additional sight seeing. Cottam Camp can also be reached from Forbush Camp, along the Cold Springs Trail.

Regardless of how far you go you will get to see some of the rich beauty of our local backcountry.

This article origianlly appeared in section A of the Sunday, October 9th, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Romero Trail also continues down the backside of the mountains into Blue Canyon. Occasionally referred to as North Romero Trail, this lesser known trail allows one to access Blue […]

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