Posted by: James Wapotich | March 17, 2013

Trail Quest: Agua Blanca Trail

Condor Trail is a through-hike that traverses the southern and northern sections of the Los Padres National Forest. The trail utilizes existing trails and roads to craft a route that highlights some of the best scenery within the National Forest. The hike through the southern portion can conceivably be done as one continuous backpacking trip, or broken up into sections.

The route starts in the south near Lake Piru and travels northwest, first along Pothole Trail, and then Agua Blanca Trail – from Log Cabin Camp, past the Big Narrows, to Ant Camp. There it leaves Agua Blanca Creek and follows Bucksnort Trail over to Alder Creek Trail, before making its way to Sespe Creek. This first section, from Lake Piru to Alder Creek Trail is roughly 20 miles.

Alder Creek Trail can also be accessed from the trailhead at Dough Flat, behind Fillmore, and so this portion of the Condor Trail, from Lake Piru to Alder Creek Trail, can be done as a shuttle trip, with a car at each end or other such arrangements.

The trailhead for Pothole Trial is about five miles from the entrance at Lake Piru Recreation Area, http://www.lake-piru.org, along Piru Canyon Road. From the trailhead it’s another six miles along Pothole Trail to Log Cabin Camp and Agua Blanca Trail. One can also continue north along Piru Canyon Road past the Pothole Trailhead, to the beginning of Agua Blanca Trail, which follows Agua Blanca Creek upstream to Log Cabin Camp, also about six miles.

This alternate route, continues along Piru Canyon Road past the old Blue Point Campground. The road crosses Piru Creek twice and can be challenging if not impassable in wet years. The trail along the lower section of Agua Blanca Creek is overgrown, particularly at the crossings, but there are a number of sections that ride high above the creek that are still in good shape.

In contrast to Pothole Trail, Agua Blanca Trail is much more overgrown. The trail from Log Cabin Camp to the Big Narrows, like the lower section, requires a fair amount of route finding and at times pushing through brush.

Overgrown trails that follow creeks are often worse at creek crossings as plant growth can be more abundant and washouts can make the trail less apparent. The key to finding the such trails is to remember that once out of the creek, the trail often will reappear, albeit at times overgrown, and that the trail was built by someone who wanted it to last by keeping it out of the creek as much as possible. And so part of the trick is determining which side above the creek would be the best location for the trail, and if you do lose the trail, to try to look for it again where it crosses the creek, with that same question, where would be the best place to put a trail away from the creek.

About three-quarters of mile upstream from Log Cabin Camp, the trail passes what’s labeled on some maps as Hollister, where if one looks closely one can find a more or less square-shaped boulder with the letters BM on it for benchmark. Benchmarks are surveyed locations usually marked with a small circular brass plate, used by surveyors and cartographers as a reference point. In the days before GPS they provided a fixed reading of elevation and location.

About 2.5 miles from Log Cabin Camp, Agua Blanca Trail arrives at Cove Camp. The camp is set at a bend in the creek in a large open area with some oaks and sycamores that could be described as cove-like. The camp has a fire ring and a couple ice can stoves.

From Cove Camp it’s another half mile upstream to the Big Narrows. Like the Devil’s Gateway, Big Narrows was formed by the creek wearing its way through a large section of Monterey Formation sandstone.

The Big Narrows are aptly named, as the gorge is roughly a half mile long, with only the occasional side canyon to break up the topography. When the water is low one can hike through the Big Narrows if they’re willing to get their feet wet. With high water the route is not recommended.

Although it’s no longer shown on most maps there is a route that leads around the Big Narrows. It is somewhat challenging to find if you haven’t been there before. As you approach the narrows you’ll round a small ridge on your left that leads up towards the same rock formation that the narrows cuts through. Near the creek this ridge is sparsely covered with chaparral such that one can hike up along the ridgeline and with some luck spot the switchbacks of the old trail on the adjoining ridge. Here, the old Agua Blanca Trail becomes more apparent as it continues towards the small saddle that bypasses the narrows.

While the trail is difficult to find, it is impressive to consider that many of these trails were built in the 1930s, and in spite of not seeing much maintenance the trail has held up quite well. From the saddle the trail descends through a series of switchbacks back down towards Agua Blanca Creek. Here too the trail is overgrown, but if you’re used to hiking overgrown trails in our backcountry the route is followable. The trail crosses one last side canyon before rejoining Agua Blanca Creek.

Above the Big Narrows, the already challenging Agua Blanca Trail becomes more overgrown. And while one can continue to find remnants of the trail and old trail blazes on the trees, there are a couple sections where the trail simply doesn’t exist anymore. Coincidentally because of the contour of the canyon, and the limited places where one could place a trail or find a route, one is likely to walk more or less where the trail used to be.

In many ways Agua Blanca Trail highlights the financial duress the Forest Service is a facing. Agua Blanca Creek is one of the nicer areas within in the Los Padres National Forest, but because of the lack of funds for trail maintenance it is one of the more challenging places to visit.

In fact if you’re not used to hiking overgrown trails that require route finding, pushing through brush and dodging poison oak, then this section of trail is best avoided.

The trail does improve somewhat, the closer it gets to Ant Camp. The route passes through one more small narrows and then at about 6.25 miles from Log Cabin Camp arrives at Ant Camp.

Ant Camp is set in under a couple of oak trees in a large open area overlooking the creek. It has a fire ring, and what’s left of a picnic table and two grated stoves.

Just past Ant Camp the trail branches, Agua Blanca Trail continues to the left upstream toward Saddle Skirt Camp. To the right Bucksnort Trail begins, following first a side canyon before then climbing a ridge out of the canyon. This is also the route the proposed Condor Trail follows.

At about 7.75 miles from Log Cabin Camp, Bucksnort Trail leaves the Agua Blanca drainage offering some great views of Cobblestone Mountain, before then descending towards the junction with Alder Creek Trail. The trail improves here as it passes through a more rolling terrain of low hills dotted with chamise, scrub oak and ceanothus.

At about 9.25 miles from Log Cabin Camp, Bucksnort Trail meets Alder Creek Trail. Here the Condor Trail turns right and continues north along Alder Creek Trail and over towards Sespe Creek.

From this same intersection, one can continue south along Alder Creek Trail to the trailhead at Dough Flat, about 2.5 miles, which is accessed from Goodenough Road behind Fillmore. The road to Dough Flat is currently closed at the Tar Creek Gate, two miles before Dough Flat, until May, and so it’s best to check with the Forest Service for current conditions.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 17th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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