Posted by: James Wapotich | March 12, 2013

Trail Quest: Pothole Trail

Condor Trail is a thru-hike route that traverses both the southern and northern portions of Los Padres National Forest. The route utilizes existing trails and roads, and showcases some of the best scenery within the National Forest. The section of the trail through Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties is about 185 miles long and can be broken up into a number of smaller hikes, or in the spirit of a thru-hike, done as a long multi-day backpacking trip.

The route begins in the south near Lake Piru, and the first section of trail that it follows is Pothole Trail. Pothole Trail leads through Sespe Wilderness, past a unique geologic formation called the Pothole, and eventually arrives at Agua Blanca Creek where one can find a nearby campsite and visit a narrow gorge known as Devil’s Gateway. The hike along Pothole Trail can be done as a long day hike or part of a backpacking trip. The hike to Agua Blanca Creek, because of the road closure is about 20 miles roundtrip.

To get to the trailhead from Ventura, take State Route 126 east towards Valencia. State Route 126 passes through Santa Paula and Fillmore before arriving at Piru. At Piru, turn left onto Main St. and follow it through town. Main St. then turns into Piru Canyon Road and dead ends at Lake Piru Recreational Area, 4780 Piru Canyon Road. From the kiosk at the lake entrance it is about 5 miles to the actual trailhead.

The drive from Santa Barbara is about 1.5 hours. And while Lake Piru may seem like a distant destination, it is actually no further from Santa Barbara than the drive to the trailhead at Nira for San Rafael Wilderness or to Agua Caliente Hot Springs.

Lake Piru Recreational Area is open to the public, however there is a $10 day-use fee for parking at the lower lot, which is open year round and is about 4 miles from the trailhead. During the summer season, typically mid-May to mid-September, one can drive to the Juan Fernandez boat launch area, which is about 2.25 miles from the trailhead. Parking there is $13 per day, however summer is not the best time to be hiking in our local backcountry. One can also park along the side of the road before the entrance to recreation area.

Because of the extra hiking required along the road, some people bring a mountain bike to simplify that part of their day hike. For a backpacking trip the options are more limited. Either way it’s important to get an early start because of the added distance.

The beginning of Pothole Trail is marked somewhat unceremoniously with a Forest Service sign that identifies the route only as 18W04, which is the Forest Service designation for the trail. If you’ve been on our Forest Service trails you may have noticed that the Forest Service seems to have its own secret code for naming the trails. For example nearby Agua Blanca Trail is also known as 19W10.

And while at first glance the numbering schema may seem esoteric, if you look at a topographic map you’ll start to notice that the trail designations correspond to the Township and Range numbers. That is Pothole Trail is located in Township 18W.

Township and Range, also know as the Public Land Survey System, was adopted by the US Government in the late 1700s as a way of surveying public lands. The system uses a series of baselines and meridians that are divided into 36 square mile townships, which were then further subdivided. It’s this same pattern that gives much of the midwest its checkerboard look when seen from the air. In California, topographic maps show a mix of Township and Range designations as well as Spanish and Mexican Land grants, reflecting the state’s history.

From the trailhead, Pothole Trail climbs its way north towards a long grassy ridge. This first section of the trail is well marked with a number of brown, flexible carsonite signs. The trail is somewhat overgrown with wild grasses, as almost the entire area around the lake was burned in the 2007 Ranch Fire.

After about the first mile from the trailhead, the trail joins the long ridge that stretches northwest. There were likely some switchbacks at one time, but now the route that people seem to follow is exclusively along the ridgeline. This is actually a mixed blessing in that it’s easier to know where to go, but also more strenuous. Along the way one is treated to expansive views of Piru Canyon and Lake Piru towards the south and Blue Point to the north.

At about the 1.75-mile mark from the trailhead, the trail arrives at a saddle, here the views shift to include not only the lake area, but further to the southeast one can see Valencia, and to the northwest one can see the Sespe Wilderness stretching out before them.

The trail then continues along the ridgeline towards the next prominent rise and is a little more brushy and overgrown, with knee- to waist-high chaparral.

At about the 2.5-mile mark from the trailhead, the trail leaves the ridge and officially enters the Sespe Wilderness, where the trail thankfully begins its descent. Here Pothole Trail cuts across the front of the mountain, making several nice switchbacks before joining the ridgeline that separates the Pothole drainage from the next canyon to the east. The trail is moderately overgrown.

As the trail follows this ridgeline it offers views of the Pothole, and another open area below it, known as the Devil’s Potrero. The Pothole was formed by a large landslide that piled debris across the canyon at some point in the past, forming a large basin. The basin looks like a small dry lake bed dotted with a handful of trees, and lined with willows at its downstream edge.

As the trail continues it offers a glimpse of Devil’s Gateway to the north, before leaving the ridge and dropping down towards the canyon floor. The trail arrives below the Pothole, although one can find a route that leads back up to the Pothole.

From here the trail continues north, along the edge of Devil’s Potrero before entering a small canyon and offering views toward Pothole Spring. The spring is another small basin, this one choked with plants because of the available water.

At about the 5-mile mark from the trailhead, Pothole Trail arrives at the ruin of an old homestead. The one room cabin with corrugated metal siding is still standing, but the windows, door, and much of the interior has been destroyed. Outside however there is a fine collection of farm equipment that does evoke a simpler time, as well as raise the question of how much effort it must’ve taken to bring it all there.

At the cabin there is a fire ring where one could camp, however the site is on private property and because of the nearby spring, can be buggy.

Pothole Trail continues past the cabin and down the canyon, following a small creek, on its way to Agua Blanca Creek. Here the plants transition to include wild blackberry and poison oak.

At about the 6-mile mark from the trailhead, Pothole Trail arrives at Agua Blanca Creek. From here it’s a short hike upstream along Agua Blanca Trail to Log Cabin Camp, which has 3 campsites, and an equally short hike downstream to Devil’s Gateway.

Devil’s Gateway is narrow gorge cut by Agua Blanca Creek with 150-200 foot high walls. Depending on the water levels one can hike through the gorge.

From here Condor Trail continues upstream along Agua Blanca Trail.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 10th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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