Posted by: James Wapotich | March 22, 2013

Trail Quest: Alder Creek Trail

Condor Trail is a through-hike route that traverses the southern and northern sections of the Los Padres National Forest utilizing existing trails and roads. The section through Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties is about 185 miles long and can be broken up into a number of smaller trips, or in the spirit of a through-hike done as one long, continuous backpacking trip.

Because of the challenging trail conditions and limited access to the trailhead for Pothole and Agua Blanca Trails, one approach to hiking the Condor Trail is to start at Dough Flat and join the route from there and continue along the next section that follows Alder Creek and Sespe River Trails.

To get to Dough Flat, from Ventura take State Route 126 east towards Valencia, passing Santa Paula on the way to Fillmore. At Fillmore turn left on to Main St. and follow it as it passes through Fillmore, before joining Goodenough Road. Goodenough Road continues north and then transitions into more of a backcountry road, sometimes called Squaw Flat Road.

The road climbs and winds its way through Sespe and Little Sespe Canyons and offers some impressive views of the surrounding area. The road is shared with oil trucks accessing the Sespe Oil Field and so some caution is required while driving. The road is also subject to slides and closures and so it’s best to check with the Forest Service regarding access and current conditions.

Currently, the road is closed at the gate at Tar Creek until May as part of a seasonal road closure. Parking can be found at the Tar Creek Gate. From here it’s an additional two miles along the road to the trail head at Dough Flat.

Just before Dough Flat there is a short side trail on the right that leads to an overlook intended for condor viewing that includes an interpretive sign. At Dough Flat, one can find a restroom, as well as a map of the area and the trails, and parking when the road is open.

From Dough Flat, Alder Creek Trail heads north along the remnants of an old dirt road. Alder Creek Trail, along with Bucksnort Trail, follows a corridor through the Sespe Condor Sanctuary that is open to the public.

Sespe Condor Sanctuary was established in 1947, and later expanded in 1951, to its present size of 53,000 acres to help protect the California condor. The California Condor is the largest bird in North America and once enjoyed a range that included parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and even Florida. However, because of a variety of threats such as lead poisoning from lead ammunition, microtrash ingestion, loss of habitat, and the effects of DDT in the food chain, the condor saw its numbers dramatically reduced, until in 1984, there were only 9 condors left in the wild. These remaining condors were captured and a captive breeding program was initiated.

Captive breeding has helped to return their numbers, and there are now over 75 condors in the wild in California. Many of those condors were raised at the nearby Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and released into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary.

About a mile from Dough Flat, the trail passes through Squaw Flat and an undesignated camp that does have water in the spring.

The trail climbs several small hills through mostly chaparral and, at the 2.5-mile mark from the Dough Flat trailhead, arrives at the signed junction with Bucksnort Trail and the route followed by Condor Trail. Condor Trail starts at Lake Piru and traverses Pothole and Agua Blanca Trails before then following Bucksnort Trail. Here, the Condor Trail joins Alder Creek Trail and continues north and west across the southern section of Los Padres National Forest.

Coming from Dough Flat, at this intersection stay to the left, and continue northwest along Alder Creek Trail. About a mile later Alder Creek Trail arrives at Cow Springs. The cows have long since left area, and the last grazing permit issued for the area expired in 1964. The spring behind the camp currently has a trickle of water in it, but can be dry in the summer. The camp is fairly exposed and offers little respite from the heat. The campsite has one metal stove set in cement and a fire ring.

Past Cow Springs, the trail follows a large, exposed outcropping of reddish Sespe formation sandstone, known as the Stone Corral. In the distance one is also treated to views of Topatopa Peak and Devil’s Heart Peak.

The trail then descends down into the Alder Creek drainage offering views to the north of San Rafael Mountain and McDonald Peak. Much of the trail is exposed and passes through mostly chaparral.

At about the 6-mile mark from Dough Flat, Alder Creek Trail passes Dripping Springs, a fairly reliable spring that feeds a small side creek and offers some relief to hikers.

About a quarter mile past the spring, the trail arrives at a signed intersection. The metal sign, like a number of Forest Service signs, was burned in the 2006 Day Fire. The Day Fire burned over 160,000 acres including large portions of the Sespe Wilderness, and much of the regrowth and damage seen along the trails is a result of the fire. During the fire many of the Forest Service signs had their painted information burned off. However in most cases, if you squint or have good eyes you can still make out the information.

Here, the original Alder Creek Trail continued north toward McDonald Cabin, following the upper stretches of Alder Creek. The trail is badly overgrown and does not appear on most newer maps.

At this intersection, continue to the left along what could described as Alder-Sespe Connector trail. The trail continues west down through East Fork Alder Creek canyon, where it becomes overgrown. There are remnants of the trail that can be found above the creek on the left, however, most people have taken to just hiking down the creek, which is often dry.

The creek and trail then arrive at Alder Creek, which thankfully has water this time of year. At about the 6.75-mile mark from Dough Flat, the trail arrives at Alder Camp.

Alder Camp is a pleasant camp along Alder Creek with a fire ring, ice can stove, and grated stove. The camp, like the creek, is named for the Alder trees found along some stretches of the creek. Continuing along the trail, past the next creek crossing is a second, smaller campsite with a fire ring and grated stove.

From here, the Alder-Sespe connector trail follows Alder Creek downstream, the trail remains overgrown and often the easier route is through the creek bed. At about the 7.5-mile mark from Dough Flat, the trail arrives at another signed intersection. Here, Sespe River Trail officially begins. This trail juncture is easy to miss as it sits above the creek. However, less than a quarter-mile past this intersection, continuing down Alder Creek, one arrives at Shady Camp. Below the are what could be described as Alder Narrows or Gorge. Both that camp and the narrows provide substantial clues that one has missed the beginning of Sespe River Trail.

Nevertheless, Shady Camp can make for a nice alternate camp. The camp is situated under several large oaks and has a fire ring and grated stove. Downstream from Shady Camp, past the narrows or gorge, Alder Creek joins Sespe Creek.

From the signed intersection before Shady Camp, Sespe River Trail begins its climb out of the Alder Creek drainage. Like Alder Trail, this section of the trail is also overgrown. However, a mile later, as the trail crests the ridge separately the two drainages, the trail improves dramatically as it descends down towards Sespe Creek.

From here, Condor Trail follows Sespe River Trail to the trailhead at Piedra Blanca near Rose Valley.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 22nd, 2012 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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