Posted by: James Wapotich | January 28, 2012

Trail Quest: Cottam Camp

There are a number of reasons why people take to the trails and hike. It’s an opportunity to get some exercise, enjoy the scenery and fresh air, explore someplace new or in a lot of cases connect with that hard to describe feeling that comes from being out in nature. The hike to Cottam Camp is one of those trails that lets one experience all of those qualities. Located in Blue Canyon on the other side of the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Montecito, Cottam Camp also makes for a good backpacking destination, the hike to the camp is about 7 miles roundtrip.

To get to the trailhead find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara. Gibraltar Road starts just past the Sheffield Reservoir where Las Canoas Road and West Mountain Drive meet, and continues all the way to East Camino Cielo, which runs along the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. From Gibraltar Road turn right on to East Camino Cielo and follow it to the first large turnout on your right. This is where the Cold Springs Trail arrives at East Camino Cielo, and is also recognizable by the cement water tower located there. The drive to the trailhead is about 30 minutes from Santa Barbara.

Cottam Camp Blue Canyon Santa Barbara Hike Trail Los Padres National Forest

The meadow at Cottam

From the trailhead take the Cold Springs Trail down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains towards Forbush and Mono Camps. The trail is downhill most of the way so pace yourself for the hike back out and allow enough time for the hike. The upper half of the trail has been recently brushed and makes for easy hiking.

The Cold Springs Trail down to Forbush Flats is one of the nicer hikes one will find. The trail is generally well maintained, but sees far fewer visitors than on the front country side. The trail descends from East Camino Cielo through Gidney Canyon and can bring with it a sense of discovery. Being on the northern facing side of the mountains, the canyon supports a wide variety of chaparral plants including ceanothus, manzanita, scrub oak, bay laurel, and toyon, which further add to the feeling of venturing into the backcountry.

Forbush Flats Blue Canyon Santa Barbara Trail Hike Los Padres National Forest

View of the Ridge at Forbush

At about the one mile mark the trail briefly follows the contour of the ridge between Gidney and Forbush Canyons and provides some excellent views of the surrounding area. In addition to the San Rafael Mountains in the distance, from this vantage one can gaze across the length of Blue Canyon as it stretches eastward, and even make out the blue waters of Jameson Lake and beyond that Divide Peak. Blue Canyon takes its name from the blue-green serpentine rock outcroppings that can be seen from here, and one can also see the large grassy meadow at the western end of Blue Canyon where Cottam Camp is located.

At the 1.75 mile mark the trail arrives at the turnoff for Forbush Flats, here Gidney creek veers to the west and heads toward Gibraltar Reservoir and Forbush Canyon starts, descending east. Part of the mystique of Forbush Flats is that it rests in a small meadow at the intersection of these two canyons, which itself rests along the Santa Ynez Fault. This fault defines the watercourse for Gidney, Forbush and Blue Canyon creeks as well as the accompanying ridgeline that parallels the Santa Ynez Mountains. This same ridge also shelters Forbush Flats giving it the feel of being part of a hidden canyon.

Blue Canyon Santa Barbara Hike Trail Los Padres National Forest

Forbush Canyon

Forbush Flats takes its name from Frederick Washington Forbush who built a cabin there in 1910; one can still find olive and pear trees that were once part of his small orchard. There are two campsites at Forbush located under the trees near the creek, each with a picnic table and stove. Forbush Flats makes for a shorter hiking or camping destination and is about 3.5 miles roundtrip from East Camino Cielo.

Continuing past the turnoff for Forbush Flats one arrives at a signed trail juncture, here the Cold Springs Trail continues over the small ridge and down the backside of the mountains towards Mono Camp, crossing the Santa Ynez River along the way, while the Forbush Trail continues to the right down through Forbush Canyon and towards Cottam Camp.

Scrub Jay Blue Canyon Santa Barbara Hike Trail Los Padres National Forest Blue Canyon

Through much of this area you’ll like see a variety of shell fossils embedded in the rocks. This too is a reflection of the fault as uplifting has brought up layers of bedrock loaded with fossils.

The Forbush Trail takes on an even more remote feeling as fewer people still make the hike down to Cottam. The trail descends through Forbush Canyon and wandering thorough this stretch of the backcountry it is easy to forget that Montecito is just on the other side of the Santa Ynez Mountains from here. The trail is shaded much of the way and eventually starts to level out; it’s through this section that you may come across sheets of corrugated metal scattered along the trail. These are likely remnants of a guest camp managed by the Show family at one time. If you look closely and are willing to venture through the poison oak you can also find cement foundations.

Blue Canyon Cottam Camp Santa Barbara Hike Trail Los Padres National Forest

Blue Canyon Creek at Cottam

The Forbush Trail then arrives at the edge of the large open meadow near where Forbush and Blue Canyon Creeks meet. Cottam Camp is located at the southern edge of the meadow along the creek, under several large oaks trees and has a picnic table and fire ring.

The camp is near where Albert Cottam built a cabin in 1915 and it’s interesting consider this whole area as someone’s neighborhood. Both Forbush Flats and Cottam Camp along with some of the other sites along the upper reaches of the Santa Ynez River basin are all within a day’s walk of each other.

Blue Canyon Santa Barbara Hike Trail Los Padres National Forest

Both Cottam Camp and Forbush Flats make for great overnight backpacking destinations as they are close to home, but still feel remote. There is generally water in the springtime at both camps, but typically not year round. Currently both creeks have water running in them.

Regardless of how far you go you will get to see some of our local backcountry and maybe even be inspired to stay longer and explore more of the surrounding area.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 28th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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