Posted by: James Wapotich | August 3, 2012

Trail Quest: The Search for the La Jolla Trail

One of the things that the backcountry can teach a person is that not all problems or mysteries can be solved in a single day or even several days. 

The La Jolla Trail for example at one time ran all the way from Figueroa Mountain Road down to Ballard Camp in Birabent Canyon and then up one of the side canyons to the top of the San Rafael Mountains. The trail however over the years has become overgrown and is no longer easy to find or passable part of the way and so more work remains to establish a route and reconnect the two ends of the trail. 

Last year, in the spring, I had hiked the La Jolla Trail down to Ballard Camp and followed the trail downstream below the camp for roughly a half-mile before it became little more than an overgrown bear trail. Later that year the California Conservation Corp or CCCs went in and opened up the trail down to where the original Ballard Camp used to be located. They were later followed by a group of volunteers who then worked on the trail, pushing it open still further.

La Jolla Springs Trail meadow Los Padres National Forest

A view of the meadow along the upper portion of the La Jolla Trail

Inspired by these improvements I thought I’d try my luck at finding the rest of the trail. Since the trail can be accessed from either end, it seemed like the best way to tackle the challenge during the summer, was to break it up over two days. On the first day I drove to the trailhead at the top of the San Rafael Mountains to hike down the trail. The first part of the drive to the trailhead from Los Olivos along Figueroa Mountain Road is one of the more relaxing drives into the backcountry. 

The road travels through Alamo Pintado Valley, past rolling hills dotted with oaks and flat pasture lands used for cattle grazing. The road then reaches the end of the valley and begins its climb towards Figueroa Mountain. As it climbs out of the valley, on the left, one is treated to views of Birabent Canyon and the San Rafael Mountains and to the right expansive views of the Santa Ynez Valley.

As the road nears Figueroa Mountain it intersects with Tunnel Road, on the right, and immediately on the left is the trailhead for the La Jolla Trail from Figueroa Mountain Road. A quarter-mile past this intersection, also on the left, is the unsigned turnoff for Zaca Catway Road and the route to the trailhead from the top of San Rafael Mountains. 

The Catway Road is a dirt road, which is closed during rainy weather, that traverses the slopes of Figueroa Mountain and offers some great views looking down Birabent Canyon towards the Santa Ynez Valley. The road then follows the San Rafael Mountains westward offering some amazing views of Hurricane Deck and the Sierra Madre Mountains to the north.

great horned owl los padres national forest la jolla trail

A great horned owl seen along the upper portion of the La Jolla Trail

This part of the drive however also involves some rather tense moments as the rutted road in some sections is steep and narrow. And although it doesn’t require a 4-wheel drive vehicle, a high clearance vehicle is recommended. It’s also not the kind of place you want to run out of gas or be stuck with a flat tire so make sure that you’re well prepared. [In August 2015 I drove this road after not having driven it for three years. Conditions through the one long steep section have worsened such that I would now recommend 4-wheel drive.]

The road eventually arrives at an unmarked intersection with the road to the right continuing west along the spine of the San Rafael Mountains and the road to the left turning towards Zaca Peak. Stay to the left and look for the trailhead on your left shortly after the intersection.

Birabent Canyon La Jolla Trail hike Los Padres national forest backpacking

A view of Birabent Canyon from the La Jolla Trail

From the trailhead, the trail descends through pines and chaparral. Here the regrowth from the 1993 Marre Fire is evident. The trail is eroded in places, but is still quite followable. 

At about the one-mile mark the trail arrives at ridge overlooking an open grassy meadow. Most accounts suggested that the trail continued along the ridge before dropping down into the canyon, however the trail I found along the ridge seemed more like an overgrown bear trail that eventually gave out and from that vantage I didn’t see much that looked like a trail. 

From this same ridge there is a trail that continues down to the meadow. I also hiked more or less around the entire meadow looking for possible indications of a route and found only thick chaparral. Wherever the trail was once located it’s likely that it may have become closed up with regrowth from the fire. The meadow can make for a good return point for the roughly 2-mile roundtrip hike.

The second day I went back and hiked the La Jolla Trail from Figueroa Mountain Road. This section of the trail is in much better shape, continues further before becoming overgrown, and is also easier to get to, making for a nicer hike overall. 

Parking for this trailhead is found in a large turnout along the road across from the trailhead. An adventure pass is not required to park at the trailhead.

From the trailhead the trail passes through a grassy hillside dotted with oaks laden with mistletoe, before then descending down into Birabent Canyon. The trail is good shape and is easy to follow and offers some great views of the canyon.

banded alder borer La Jolla Trail hike birabent Canyon Los Padres National Forest

A banded alder borer seen along the La Jolla Trail through Birabent Canyon

At about the 1.75-mile mark, the trail arrives at the creek and Ballard Camp. Currently, there is still water flowing in the creek. There are two campsites each with a grated stove; the trail passes through both of them. 

From here, the trail continues downstream along the creek and is well shaded through most of this section. At about the 2.25-mile mark the trail arrives at a small grassy clearing on the left, where the original Ballard Camp was located.

Just before the clearing, the trail, sometimes called the La Jolla Springs Trail after the nearby spring, crosses the creek and heads north up the adjoining side canyon. If you look closely you’ll see one of the old blazes that were once used to mark trails on an oak just as the trail crosses the creek. Such blazes or marks on a tree trunk are usually between two to four feet from the ground and consist of a 7-8 inch square blaze with another roughly 3-4 inch rectangular blaze above it. Trails are no longer marked in this way and so the older ones may be hard to recognize at first appearing as unusual scars on the tree.  

From here, the trail follows the side canyon and starts to climb towards the San Rafael Mountains. The trail is more overgrown through this section but is still followable. About a quarter-mile later the trail crosses another side creek and climbs out of the creek and continues east along a sort of low ridge before disappearing into the chaparral. 

La Jolla Springs Trail Los Padres National Forest hike backpacking

Coast Live Oaks along the La Jolla Trail

Even more frustrating where the trail ends is just a couple hundred feet past an oak tree with a blaze on it. I also hiked up the nearby hillside hoping to see some remnant of the trail but found nothing. Making this lonely piece of wilderness the return point for a roughly 5-mile roundtrip hike.

It may be that the route is findable and I missed it requiring another visit, or that it is overgrown and in need of repair. The gap between the upper and lower sections of the trail is roughly a half-mile.

Given the limited resources and funding available to the Forest Service it will likely fall to volunteers to help open up the trail and reestablish it from Figueroa Mountain Road to Zaca Catway Road.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 3rd, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press


  1. When will the full article be here on the blog?

    • I ideally like to get them up here within 45-60 days of publication.

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