Posted by: James Wapotich | March 1, 2013

Trail Quest: Condor Trail

If you’ve spent much time looking at a map of our local backcountry you may have wondered if it’s possible to hike from one end of Los Padres National Forest to the other. If you have, you’re not alone.

Condor Trial is a thru-hike route that traverses Los Padres National Forest and could one day connect together the southern and northern sections of forest as well. The proposed 421-mile route showcases some of the best trails and sights found within Los Padres National Forest.

In the past 50 years thru-hiking has become more popular and well known. Some of the more familiar thru-hike routes include the 2,179-mile long Appalachian Trail in the east, which follows the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. The 3,100-mile long Continental Divide Trail, which traces the continental divide through the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada. And the 2,663-mile long Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican Border through California, Oregon and Washington to the Canadian Border, and traces the crests of both the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain Ranges.

Condor Trail Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backpacking hiking hike

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In the strictest sense thru-hiking or long distance hiking is defined as hiking a route in a single, continuous trip, which for each of these three big trails takes on average six months to complete. Such trips require the hiker to plan their entire hike ahead of time and arrange for food and resupply drops along the way. However, given that not all of us have that kind of flexibility in our schedule, many people also hike these trails in sections, breaking it up over however many trips they want.

The idea of a local thru-hike that would traverse the Los Padres National Forest was originally conceived by Alan Coles back in the mid-1990s. That first iteration of the trail traced a route through our backcountry that started at Lake Piru in the south and, utilizing existing trails and roads, made its way west and north through Sespe Wilderness; across State Route 33; and into Dick Smith Wilderness to Alamar Saddle and the headwaters of Sisquoc River. The route then continued down Sisquoc River to Manzana Schoolhouse, where it turned and followed Manzana Creek upstream to the trailhead near Nira Campground.

Early on Mr. Coles enlisted the support of Chris Danch, who at the time was President of Los Padres Forest Association. Mr. Danch helped raise awareness of the trail within the hiking and outdoor community and during that time the idea of the trail grew to include both the northern and southern sections of Los Padres National Forest.

With Mr. Danch’s involvement much of the early work of designing the route and organizing trail maintenance projects for the proposed trail were done with the assistance of Los Padres Forest Association.

However, by the early 2000s the two men had moved onto other projects and the idea of a Los Padres thru-hike languished somewhat until 2009 when Bryan Conant agreed to step in and take the reigns. Mr. Conant had originally attended one of Mr. Danch’s talks about the trail at the Santa Barbara Public Library and was inspired by the idea early on.

Over the years Condor Trail Association has considered a number of different routes for the trail, each with its own plusses and minuses.

“The intention is to design the trail to be within the wilderness as much as possible, and when we have the option, staying off of forest service roads, even if there’s a quicker route, we’ll bypass that road to stay within the wilderness.” Mr. Conant, Condor Trail Association, President, told the News-Press. “We’re also trying to highlight the best places in the forest. We still want to keep a nice linear route from north to south, but when possible run it by for example hot springs, beautiful waterfalls, and different places that might be appealing for hikers.”

“It also offers a real wilderness challenge for hikers to take on.” Mr. Conant added, “As unfortunately many of our trails are pretty overgrown and there is the issue of seasonal water availability that you don’t necessarily have with other areas.”

In fact, because of our climate the best time to visit our local backcountry is between October and May. Which is another benefit to thru-hikers in that many of the other thru-hikes are best done during the summer, when our backcountry is generally too hot to be appealing.

Condor Trail Association has been in communication with the Forest Service in developing a route that supports both the recreational opportunities of the National Forest and makes use of the existing trails. The route, like other thru-hikes, includes a number of places where one can access the trail, either for resupply support, or to break up the hike into smaller sections.

The designated route follows much of the original route envisioned by Mr. Coles, starting in the south at Lake Piru, following a section of Agua Blanca Creek before then following Sespe Creek to Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail through the Sespe Wilderness, and then over Pine Mountain to State Route 33. The trail crosses State Route 33 and continues through Rancho Nuevo on its way to Santa Barbara Canyon where it then leads through the Dick Smith Wilderness to Alamar Saddle. Then like the original route follows the Sisquoc River through the San Rafael Wilderness, continuing past Manzana Schoolhouse to Horse Gulch, where it traverses a remote corner of the San Rafael Wilderness before arriving at State Route 166.

Condor Trail then crosses State Route 166 and continues north through San Luis Obispo County traversing the Garcia and Santa Lucia Wildernesses before reaching the northern limit of the southern Los Padres National Forest. From here the trail is still in development as the proposed route would pass through more than a dozen private land holdings before arriving at the northern portion of Los Padres National Forest.

In the northern section of Los Padres National Forest, the trail traverses through the Silver Peak and Ventana Wildernesses before reaching the northern end of both the trail and Los Padres National Forest at Botchers Gap Trailhead.

Condor Trail is named in honor of the endangered California Condor who’s historic flyways covered much of the same area that the trail passes through. With the ongoing recovery of the California Condor, hikers now have a chance to see this magnificent bird along the trail, particularly in the sections that pass near Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Big Sur area.

An avid backpacker, Mr. Conant is probably better known for the maps of the Santa Barbara and Ventura backcountries that he designed. A cartographer for Maps.com, Mr. Conant took what he describes as two of his great passions and combined them. In 2003 he released his first map of the San Rafael Wilderness, followed in 2008 with a map of the Dick Smith and Matilija Wildernesses. Both maps include trail mileage and conditions and are considered by many to be the best map to bring with you into the backcountry. Both maps have now each seen a second revision as trail conditions in the backcountry continually change and need to be updated.

To find out more about Condor Trail, or to help out with upcoming volunteer trail work projects or donate to the trail go to http://www.condortrail.com. Condor Trail Association currently has a $5,000 matching grant for donations between now and the end of May, funds raised will go to towards the development of a comprehensive website that will list all of the trails and camps within the Los Padres National Forest along with current trail conditions.

Mr. Conant’s maps of the backcountry are available at REI, Chaucer’s, and other outdoors related stores, and at http://www.bryanconant.com.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 1st, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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