Posted by: James Wapotich | April 10, 2013

Trail Quest: Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail

Condor Trail is a through-hike route that utilizes existing trails and roads within the Los Padres National Forest and showcases some of the best places one can visit within our local backcountry. The route starts in the south at Lake Piru, and makes use of Pothole, Agua Blanca, Alder, and Sespe River Trails before arriving at Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail.

Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail starts at the Piedra Blanca trailhead along Sespe Creek and follows Piedra Blanca Creek to its headwaters on the backside of Pine Mountain before descending down towards Reyes Creek Campground near the Cuyama River. Much of the trail near Pine Mountain leads through pines and cedars.

Originally called Piedra Blanca Trail, the trail was granted the designation National Recreation Trail in 1977. In 1992, it was renamed Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail in recognition of the significant role Gene Marshall played in the development of the Los Padres Condor Range and River Protection Act. The act, which passed the same year, included the creation of four new wilderness areas within the Los Padres National Forest – Sespe, Matilija, Chumash, and Garcia Wildernesses, as well as the expansion of both San Rafael Wilderness, and Ventana and Silver Peak Wildernesses in the northern Los Padres. The act also granted the Sisquoc and Big Sur Rivers protected status as Wild and Scenic Rivers and added an additional four miles of protection to Sespe Creek.

To get to the trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north as it follows North Fork Matilija Creek before then climbing its way out of the Matilija drainage and cresting the Sespe drainage where the road levels out somewhat before continuing towards Pine Mountain. As it levels out look for Rose Valley Road on your right.

Rose Valley Road continues east, passing both the turnoff for Rose Valley Campground, an unsigned four-way intersection, and the turnoff for Middle Lion Campground, signed, before then ending at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead. An adventure pass is required to park or camp is this part of the National Forest.

From the trailhead continue east along Sespe River Trail for roughly a half-mile to where it intersects Middle Sespe Trail. Turn left onto Middle Sespe Trail and follow it westward for another half-mile to the intersection with Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail. Turn right on to Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail and continue north. Middle Sespe Trail continues west above Sespe Creek and eventually meets State Route 33.

Past this intersection, Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail soon arrives at a large outcropping of white sandstone that gave the trail its original name, Piedra Blanca, or “white rock” in Spanish. The eroded and sculpted sandstone is quite striking and can also make for a short day hike destination. The trail passes to the east of two of the more prominent rock features and then descends down into a small side canyon before then continuing up Piedra Blanca Canyon.

The trail does not actually cross Piedra Blanca Creek until just before Twin Forks Camp and so if you’re wanting water before then you’ll need to follow one of the side trails over to the creek.

At about the 3-mile mark, the trail arrives at Piedra Blanca Camp, the first designated camp along the trail. Piedra Blanca Camp has two sites each with a fire ring and grated stove and is situated along the creek. From here it’s another quarter-mile to Twin Forks Camp.

Twin Forks Camp is located just above the confluence of Piedra Blanca Creek and North Fork Piedra Blanca Creek and is situated along the later. The camp has two sites each with a fire ring and grated stove. Upstream from the camp along Piedra Blanca Creek one can find several nice pools.

From here Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail continues up North Fork Piedra Blanca Canyon and starts to become more of a climb. About a mile and a half later the trail passes Piedra Spring, near a stand of big cone spruce. Here, the trail becomes even more of a workout as it continues to gain altitude. The trail then leaves North Fork Piedra Blanca Canyon transitioning from exposed chaparral to pines.

At about the 6.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at Pine Mountain Lodge. The site takes its name from the lodge that was built nearby in the late 1800s by a group of hunters who regularly visited the area. The lodge was said to 16 by 20 feet, and was later used as a ranger station.

In the late 1930s the lodge was deemed a fire hazard and slated for removal by the Forest Service, but preservationists rallied to save the site. However, in the mid-1940s the lodge was ironically destroyed when efforts to remove a dead tree hanging over the lodge caused the tree to crash into the lodge splitting the structure in half. Over the years the site degraded, campers used the timbers for firewood and the chimney stones for fire rings and now nothing distinguishable remains from the lodge.

Pine Mountain Lodge Camp has several sites to choose from along a small spring fed creek and is at the intersection of Cedar Creek Trail.

From Pine Mountain Lodge, Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail continues northwest and rejoins Piedra Blanca Creek and continues upstream.

At about the 7.75-mile mark, the trail arrives at Three Mile Camp. The camp is situated along the creek under several pines and has three campsites, one of which includes a picnic table. The trail continues along the creek and two miles later arrives at Haddock Camp, which also has several sites along the creek.

At Haddock Camp is the beginning of Reyes Peak Trail. Here, the Condor Trail turns and follows Reyes Peak Trail to Pine Mountain where it then continues down the backside of Pine Mountain along Boulder Canyon trail to State Route 33. While Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail continues towards Reyes Creek Campground and Camp Scheideck.

Because true through-hiking involves traversing an area in a single, continuous trip, the challenge becomes resupplying oneself along the route. Either by having friends meet you with supplies or mailing packages to yourself where possible, a practice common along the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails.

And so one of the alternate routes for Condor Trail is to follow Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail down to Reyes Creek Campground and Camp Scheideck, where the owners of Reyes Creek Bar & Grill are open to receiving packages and holding them for backpackers hiking Condor Trail. The appeal of this route is not only the great scenery but the chance to enjoy a break from one’s trail menu.

For this alternate route continue past Haddock Camp along Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail. The trail crests out of the Piedra Blanca drainage offering some great views down Bear Trap Canyon.

The trail then follows Bear Trap Creek downstream and at about 13.25-mile mark arrives at Bear Trap Camp. The camp has several sites amongst the pines and is situated along the creek. The camp and creek take their name from the time when grizzly bears roamed our forests and were hunted and trapped in the area.

From here the trail climbs away from Bear Trap Creek and over to Reyes Creek and, at the 15-mile mark, arrives at Upper Reyes Camp. The camp has several sites, with the main site located under a small grove of cedars.

At about the 18-mile mark, the trail arrives at the trailhead, and Reyes Creek Campground, which has a number of car camping sites, and can also be reached from Lockwood Valley Road.

From here one would either return to Haddock Camp and continue along the Condor Trail route, or continue west along Lockwood Valley Road to State Route 33 and rejoin Condor Trail for the next section through Rancho Nuevo.

This article originally appeared section A of April 6th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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