Posted by: James Wapotich | December 23, 2011

Trail Quest: Walking with the Chumash

If you’re looking for a relatively short hike that is loaded with natural history than the Aliso Canyon interpretative trail may be the answer. The trail follows the creek through the canyon for the first mile and includes 21 interpretive signs, which highlight the various plants and resources used by the Chumash Indians. The trail is well maintained and suitable for most ages.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara take State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass, and turn right on to Paradise Road, and then left at the turnoff for Sage Hill Campground. Continue to the far end of the campground and park there. This trail is also well suited for horseback riding and has parking spaces for trailers at the trailhead. An adventure pass is required to park or camp within the Los Padres National Forest.

Mule Deer Los  Padres National Forest Aliso Canyon Hike Trail

The Aliso Canyon interpretive trail is written as a narrative and follows two young Chumash, Khus and Tani’alishaw as they walk the through the canyon gathering plants and other resources to take back to their village. Each time I go on this hike I’m struck by just how many different plants the Chumash used in their daily lives and how abundant many of these plants are. If you hike other trails in our local backcountry you will likely see many of these same plants and over a wide range of area.

The hike highlights 17 plants used by the Chumash and represents only a fraction of the plants in our local area that were utilized by the indigenous people, including oak, sugar bush, holly-leaved cherry, elderberry, willow, sycamore, toyon, ceanothus, yucca and a variety of sages.

The trail starts at the far end of the parking lot and follows the creek. One of the first things you may notice along the hike is the number of different side paths criss crossing the trail. These are actually deer trails and tend to become more pronounced in the fall as water is more plentiful along the river this time of year than elsewhere.

Coast Live Oak Los Padres National Forest Aliso Canyon Hike Trail

Coast Live Oak

The third stop along the trail highlights Coast Live Oak. The last time I was at Aliso Canyon I watched as deer were eating acorns from the ground and finally realized what a central role the oak plays in our local backcountry. Oaks provide valuable habitat for a variety of animals and it’s surprising how many make use of the acorns. Bears eat them as part of their diet, grey squirrels and wood rats collect and eat them and just about every other scrub jay and magpie you see is carrying an acorn off to some secret hiding place, or in the case of the woodpecker to some tree that’s been converted into a “granary” for acorn storage.

Acorns are high in nutrients, easily stored and were also widely used by the Chumash and have often been compared to corn in its role as a staple food amongst indigenous people. And it’s easy to see why, when an oak tree produces acorns it usually produces a lot of them. And when you consider how many oak trees there are throughout our backcountry it’s hard to imagine ever running out.

The Chumash would gather acorns, let them dry and then pound them to get at the nut. These would then also be allowed to dry and in this form could be stored. When needed the nuts were then further processed by grinding them with a mortal and pestle to create acorn flour. This flour was then leached with water several times to remove the bitter tasting tannic acid. Acorn mush was then made by placing the wet flour in a waterproof basket and heating it with hot stones until it was ready.

Toyon Los Padres National Forest Aliso Canyon Hike Trail


Another plant used by the Chumash that you may readily notice along the trail this time of year is Toyon. Also known as Christmas Berry and California Holly because its serrated leaves combined with its red berries, which ripen in December, are reminiscent of Christmas holly. In fact Hollywood takes its name from this plant and one wonders what the famous sign would look like if spelled out Toyon instead. The Chumash gathered this plant and toasted it either in the sun or in a stone bowl over coals and then often mixed it with other food. Toyon is highlighted at stop #16.
Mistletoe Los Padres National Forest Aliso Canyon Hike Trail

Mistletoe on Sycamore Tree

Another Christmas related plant found along the trail is Mistletoe. And although this plant does not figure prominently among those used by the Chumash, there is of course a rich folklore around it in western culture. In the fall it can be easy to spot on deciduous trees as mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on other plants and is still green when the host has already shed its leaves. An example of Mistletoe can found growing on a sycamore tree shortly after stop #13.

In addition to plants, two of the stops focus on other natural resources utilized by the Chumash. Stop #5 highlights chert that the Chumash used to make arrowheads and other stone tools; and stop #6 highlights the pigment found in rocks that the Chumash utilized for body decoration and cave paintings.

Deer Grass Los Padres National Forest Aliso Canyon Hike Trail

Deer Grass

The last plant I want to highlight is Deer Grass, and although it’s not mentioned in the interpretive hike, it is one of several plants that the Chumash used in basket making. Deer Grass grows in clumps and several good examples can be found at the creek crossing just before stop #13. When I was first introduce to this plant, I was struck by how many plants like it that I’d walked by countless times having no idea what they were once used for. Or more to the point could be used for.

It’s easy to think of the Chumash as historical figures and overlook that there are Chumash descendants living today and that the plants and resources utilized by the native people are not only still found throughout our local backcountry, but that the Chumash learned how to use these plants as part of their environment. The same environment that you and I now live in.

Aliso Canyon Trail Los Padres National Forest

At about the one mile mark the interpretative portion of the trail ends and after one last creek crossing, the trail climbs out of the canyon and up to the saddle between Aliso and Oso Canyons. From there one can make a loop hike back to the trailhead along the ridge and enjoy some nice views of the surrounding area. The Aliso loop hike is about 3.5 miles roundtrip.

Regardless of how far you go you’ll get to see some of the richness of our local backcountry and maybe sense some of the abundance all around us.

This article originally appeared in section A of the December 23rd, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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