Posted by: James Wapotich | August 18, 2012

Trail Quest: Rice Ranch Open Space

Living in Santa Barbara it can be easy sometimes to take for granted just how much open space we have available to us. We can literally after work, hop in our cars and within 10-15 minutes be out on the trails. However in other communities it can require more planning and driving to get out in nature.

In Santa Maria for example there are very few hiking trails available, particularly trails close to town, but that’s starting to change. In May of this year the trails in Rice Ranch Open Space were officially opened to the public. Not only are these the newest trails open to the public in Santa Barbara County, they are also a testament to a community working together to provide open space for residents to enjoy. The 306-acre open space is located along the southern edge of Orcutt.

To get to the trailhead take highway 101 to Clark Avenue exit and head west. If you’re coming from Santa Barbara, Clark Avenue is the first exit as one arrives at the beginning of the Orcutt-Santa Maria area. Continue on Clark Avenue, turn left onto Bradley Road and follow Bradley Road until it dead ends into Orcutt Community Park, 5800 Bradley Road.

Parking is found either within Orcutt Community Park or along Sage Crest Drive just outside the park. Both the park and the open space are open from 8:00AM to sunset and are managed by the Santa Barbara County Parks Department. The trails are open to hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian use, although currently there is no good area for horse trailer parking.

The developed park is essentially in the middle of Rice Ranch Open Space, meaning that one can hike both to the west and the east or make a larger loop of about 6 miles by combing the two hikes.

The hike to the west over towards Orcutt Hill is about 2.5 miles roundtrip and leads through a mix of plants and scenery. One can start from either the parking lot or the trailhead on Sage Crest Drive as the two are connected by a path. From Sage Crest Drive follow the path south, past the scenic area, down towards the park where it connects with the trail just as it’s leaving from the parking lot.

The trail or access road follows the southern edge of a low grassy hill dotted with pygmy oaks and sparse chaparral and then crosses the creek that runs through the park. At the about the half mile mark the trail arrives at Yarrow Drive and the beginning of the Orcutt Hill loop.

This past weekend a new trail was created by a group of volunteers lead by Garrett Ederer of Troop 93 as part of his Eagle Scout Project. This single track trail starts from the scenic area, cutting diagonally towards the Orcutt Hill loop and essentially follows the contour of the hill before joining the access road and crossing the creek.

At Yarrow Drive turn left and follow the road just briefly to the beginning of the Orcutt Hill loop. The trail then continues west and begins to climb Orcutt Hill leading through first a grove of eucalyptus trees and then turns south arriving at the beginning of the loop.

The western edge of the loop traverses the side of the hill, leading through a mix of mostly coyote brush and black sage, before turning and climbing on to the top of the hill and passing through manzanita dominated chaparral before completing the loop.

From the top of the hill one can look east out over the park and in the distance, across the Santa Maria Valley, see the Sierra Madre Mountains as they make their way towards to the Pacific Ocean.

The area also supports a surprising amount of wildlife, there are birds ranging from scrub jays, doves and mocking birds to hawks and owls. And there’s evidence of deer, bobcat and foxes.

The eastern loop hike also leads through open space and is roughly 2.75 miles round trip. One can start from the road just outside the park entrance or from the eastern end of the parking lot inside the park. Both trails parallel a small rise dotted with pygmy oaks and converge a quarter mile later.

At about the half mile mark the trail arrives at an access road, here the trails are more numerous, as much of the open space was once a series of social trails. However most of the trails either circumnavigate the open space or cross it and so one can mix and match depending on the hike they want. The views here too are equally expansive.

In the north eastern corner of the open space the trails drop down into a small canyon and the scenery shifts to oak woodland. From this corner there is also a trail that connects to the Cobblestone Open Space, a small 2-acre park about a half mile to the north.

In some sense the trails Rice Ranch Open Space are not new, they’re just now open to the public. People have actually been hiking the various social trails through the ranches and oil fields south of Orcutt for at least the past 30-40 years, many not aware that they were trespassing on private property.

The situation came to a head last year when a cattle rancher with a lease to graze cattle on one of the properties contacted the Sheriff’s Department when their fences started getting cut. The Sheriff’s Department then began patrolling the area and issuing tickets.

“It pretty much went from an unofficial trail network that encompassed roughly 1000 acres and 20-30 miles of trails down to zero overnight” Jon Blanchard, president of the Santa Maria Valley Open Space told the News-Press.

One of the local residents who was instrumental in establishing the Rice Ranch Open Space is Luis Escobar, a cross-country track coach at St. Joseph High School. “Luis was the guy who just started stopping people on the trail when this was happening and saying, this is ridiculous, we’re the biggest city in the county and yet we don’t have any open space, if I put together a breakfast meeting would you come to it?” according to Mr. Blanchard.

That first meeting in September 2011 had 30 people, and eventually grew into the non-profit group Santa Maria Valley Open Space started by Mr. Escobar. In 2005 the same land had been offered to the county as part of the 589-acre Rice Ranch housing development, but the county decided not to take possession of the land over financial concerns around administering the park.

However with the public momentum and growing need for open space, the county became interested, and in a relatively short time frame the county, property owner and Santa Maria Valley Open Space all working together were able to arrive at an understanding. In December 2011 an initiative was put on the ballot and successfully passed and the county assumed ownership of the open space.

Portions of the open space are slated to be developed and so these trails are considered phase one in an ongoing effort to create trails and open space for the residents of Santa Maria and Orcutt. The 1997 Orcutt Community Plan shows a number of potential trails that could be developed to create more hiking and biking opportunities.

There is also a vision to one day connect Rice Ranch Open Space with the hiking trails at Las Flores Ranch, to the southeast, which the city of Santa Maria owns and manages.

To get involved or find out more about Santa Maria Valley Open Space go to www.smvos.org. For a map of the trials click here.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 11th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press. .


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