Posted by: James Wapotich | January 6, 2012

Trail Quest: Indian Canyon

Indian Canyon is one of those rare places in the Santa Barbara backcountry that is filled with rich scenery and wildlife and yet few people visit it. Only 9 miles from Santa Barbara as the crow flies Indian Canyon is in many ways a world apart. The trail through Indian Canyon leads from the Upper Santa Ynez River Recreation area and into the Dick Smith Wilderness and makes for not only a great day hike, but with several camps along the trail, good backpacking as well. The hike to Indian Campground is 17 miles round trip and is best visited as part of a backpacking trip.

Indian Creek Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

To get to the trailhead find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara and follow it to East Camino Cielo. Turn right onto East Camino Cielo and literally follow the road all the way to the end, roughly an hour and 45 minutes from Santa Barbara. East Camino Cielo is paved to Romero Saddle where the road then becomes the Romero-Camuesa road, is unpaved and continues down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

In many ways the drive to the trailhead is a tour of the Upper Santa Ynez River Recreation area. The road passes the old Juncal Campground, before arriving at the turnoff for Agua Caliente Hot Springs; at this intersection continue straight on the Romero-Camuesa Road and almost immediately on your left you’ll see Middle Santa Ynez Campground and then shortly after that on your right P-Bar Flat Campground.

The road then continues still further, past Mono Campground, and then branches with the road to the right heading to Little Caliente Hot Springs–road conditions are such that you’ll want to walk the last quarter mile to the hot springs, but they are worth a visit.

Mono Creek Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

Mono Creek

From that intersection stay to the left, the road soon ends at a locked gate where the hike begins. An adventure pass is required to park or camp in the Los Padres National Forest. There are several gates along Romero-Camuesa Road that the Forest Service often closes because of rain so it is best to check with them and make sure the road is open all the way to Mono Campground. And although drive in is along a bumpy dirt road a 4-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary.

From the locked gate continue along the Romero-Camuesa Road for the first mile, along the way you’ll pass the Mono-Alamar Trail, cross Mono Creek and then very soon after that cross Indian Creek. Each time I cross these two creeks in quick succession I’m always stuck by how far each of them extend into the backcountry, each up their own canyon into some of the more remote areas of Los Padres National Forest.

Indian Creek Debris Dam Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

Indian Debris Dam

At the one mile mark the road arrives at the trail head for Indian Canyon, from here the trail continues to follow the creek most of the way to Indian Campground while the Romero-Camuesa Road continues all the way over to Upper Oso Campground. From the trailhead the Indian Trail quickly arrives at Indian Debris Dam which includes a nice swimhole.

One of the things you may notice along the trail is the tracks and signs of the many animals that move through the canyon. On this trip I found evidence of mountain lion, bear, coyote, bobcat, fox and deer as well as a variety of hawks and owls. The canyon itself provides a good mix of chaparral and riparian plants and when the creek is flowing a number nice places to stop and take in the scenery.

The best time to visit Indian Canyon is during the spring as the lower portion of the creek along the trail can often dry up in the summer, although at its source near Bluff Camp, much further up the canyon there is actually a year round spring. On this trip, because of this past year’s rain the creek was flowing the entire length of the trail.

At the 4.5 mile mark the trail arrives at the turnoff for the Pie Canyon Jeepway which leads back over to the Mono drainage, and a half mile later the trail arrives at the Pie Canyon Trail which also connects to the Pie Canyon Jeepway. Here the Indian Trail leaves Indian Creek and briefly follows one of its tributaries, Buckhorn Creek.

Mountain Lion Tracks Dick Smith Wilderness Indian Creek Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry Hike

Mountain Lion Tracks near Meadow Camp

At the 5.5 mile mark the Indian Trail arrives at Lower Buckhorn Camp, a somewhat lonely looking site situated under several oaks, with a small stove and dilapidated picnic table. From Lower Buckhorn the trail continues over a small rise back to Indian Creek and arrives at Meadow Camp, passing the turnoff for the Buckhorn Trail along the way.

Meadow Camp is located at the far end of Indian Meadow above the creek and can make for a good return point for a day hike of about 12 miles roundtrip. Meadow Camp can also make for a good trail camp to break up the backpacking miles to Indian Campground or as a base camp from which to then day hike to Indian Campground and explore the falls a mile and half past Indian Campground.

Indian Creek Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry Hike

The trail is generally in good shape all the way to Meadow Camp, although like many trails, sees less use the further in one hikes. However after Meadow Camp the trail becomes more challenging. The trail crosses the meadow and continues up Indian Canyon, and very soon requires pushing through chamise, ceanothus and scrub oak. The trail improves some, however like many trails in the Los Padres National Forest because of the limited funds available for trail maintenance is overgrown.

The trail through this section of Indian Canyon crosses the creek numerous times and often requires some diligence to re-find the trail, however with some perseverance one will eventually arrive at Indian Campground. Much of this area of Indian Creek was burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire, and although the damage is not as evident along the creek, it is more noticeable on the hillsides.

Bear Sign Los Padres National Forest Dick Smith Wilderness Indian Creek

Bear Sign on Sycamore Tree

The camp is situated under several large oaks in small meadow overlooking the creek and can be a welcome site after the long trek in. There are actually two camps, the first and more obvious one with a table and stove and another just past it with a stove but no table.

If you’ve made it this far it is definitely worth the effort to hike upstream the additional mile and a half to see the falls. If you look sharp you can find remnants of the old trail to break up the hike, but much of it will involve some rock hopping.

Indian Meadow Camp Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry

Indian Meadow

Regardless of how far you hike you will get to see a rarely visited corner of our local backcountry.

This article originally appeared the January 6th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. to get to the indian creek trailhead you turn RIGHT at the top of gibralter road, not LEFT.
    rich scholl

    • Thanks Rich, hopefully that’s the first and last time my dyslexia makes it into print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: