Posted by: James Wapotich | May 7, 2013

Trail Quest: Cuyama Peak

Condor Trail is a through hike route that traverses Los Padres National Forest. Similar to other well known routes such as Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail, Condor Trail lets one hike through the forest in one long continuous hike. The route utilizes existing trails and roads and as such can also be broken up into smaller sections.

In the southern part of Los Padres National Forest, Condor Trail passes through Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties. The route highlights some of the best places within the Sespe, Dick Smith, San Rafael, Garcia, and Santa Lucia Wildernesses.

The route connecting the southern and northern portions of Los Padres National Forest is still under development, however, the route resumes in the northern Los Padres National Forest passing through the Silver Peak and Ventana Wildernesses.

Tinta Trail Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hike

Scenery along Tinta Trail

The southern end of the trail starts at Lake Piru in Ventura County and as it travels north and west passes through the Sespe Wilderness before crossing State Route 33 near Lockwood Valley Road.

One of the challenges faced by the designers of the trail was the section crossing State Route 33. While there are trails and roads that lead from State Route 33 into the backcountry and provide access, they weren’t necessarily laid out with the through-hiker in mind.

Originally the route considered by the Condor Trail Association continued from Pine Mountain Campground along Pine Mountain Road, crossed State Route 33, and followed Potrero Seco Road to Don Victor Fire Road before arriving at Don Victor Camp. In all about 16 miles of road hiking with little shade and no access to water. From Don Victor Camp the route would’ve followed Don Victor Trail to Puerto Suelo Trail. Don Victor Trail has a reputation for being one of the more overgrown trails in our backcountry.

It was eventually decided to take Condor Trail further north and continue from Pine Mountain Campground down Boulder Canyon Trail to State Route 33. From there, follow the highway for less than a mile to the Deal Canyon Trailhead and continue through Rancho Nuevo Canyon over to Tinta Canyon. And from there take Dry Canyon Road to Santa Barbara Canyon Road and the Santa Barbara Canyon trailhead. And then continue up Santa Barbara Canyon to Madulce Camp and over to Puerto Suelo Trail.

This route adds roughly 22.5 miles to the overall length of Condor Trail, but allows one to see the dramatic features of Rancho Nuevo Canyon and visit the site of the historic Madulce Guard Station. The route still involves some road hiking and waterless miles, but there is more shade to be found along the way and if one is hiking it in sections, more options around how to approach the route.

The hike from Rancho Nuevo Campground to the Santa Barbara Canyon trailhead is about 16.5 miles. The portion of the route along Tinta Trail can also be done as a day hike, about 14 miles round trip if one hikes the length of the trail. A visit to Cuyama Peak can be added on to the hike, about 4.5 miles round trip.

To get to the Tinta trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north towards Cuyama and Bakersfield. State Route 33 passes both the turnoffs for Rose Valley and Pine Mountain before descending down into the Cuyama Valley and arriving at the turnoff for Lockwood Valley Road. Continue two miles past Lockwood Valley Road and look for a signed turnoff on your left that lists the campgrounds and trailheads for Rancho Nuevo and Tinta.

The unpaved road to the trailheads crosses the Cuyama River, more of a creek crossing here unless the river is really flowing. The road then branches, with the road to the left leading to Rancho Nuevo and the road to the right leading to Tinta. Both roads can be bumpy.

At Tinta Campground there are three car camping sites each with a picnic table, two with a fire ring.

Tinta Trail is officially designated as a motorcycle trail and is used at times by dirt bike riders, however, the trail isn’t any wider than a regular trail and so it still has a predominantly backcountry feel.

From Tinta Campground the trail continues up Tinta Canyon. The canyon is mostly dry, but does have some nice scenery reminiscent of the canyon above Rancho Nuevo Campground. The trail starts off level and then climbs a series of switchbacks, riding above the canyon for a ways before then returning closer to the seasonal creek.

About a mile into the hike the trail rounds a bend and one gets their first glimpse of Cuyama Peak in the distance. At about the 3.75-mile mark the trail arrives at an intersection, the road to the left is private and leads down to Brubaker Canyon. It is also through this section that Condor Trail quietly passes from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County.

The trail skirts the edge of the Dick Smith Wilderness leading through mostly chaparral with occasional pines or oaks mixed in. Burn damage from the 2007 Zaca Fire is still evident in places along the trail.

At about the 5.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at Upper Tinta Camp. The camp is typically dry and sees little use. There is a fire ring as well as chimneys from two ice cans stoves and other metal stove parts laying around. The camp is off the trail and easy to miss.

From Upper Tinta Camp, Condor Trail continues along Tinta Trail and, at the 7-mile mark, arrives at Dry Canyon Road. To the right Dry Canyon Road climbs 2.25 miles to the top of Cuyama Peak and the lookout, and to the left continues towards Santa Barbara Canyon Road.

Cuyama Peak can also be accessed by continuing north on State Route 33 past the turn off for the Tinta trailhead, to Foothill Road, about 12 miles. Turn left onto Foothill Road and follow it across the Cuyama River and then left onto Santa Barbara Canyon Road which eventually meets Dry Canyon Road and leads to the peak. A high-clearance or 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for last few miles of the road.

From Cuyama Peak one can enjoy views down Tinta Canyon and across the Dick Smith Wilderness to the south and east. And impressive views to the east and north out across the Cuyama Valley and towards Mt. Pinos.

Cuyama Peak Lookout was built in 1934 and harks back to another era when fire suppression relied on lookouts and the watchful eyes of the rangers manning them. Like many lookouts it ceased being used by the 1960s. The cabin next to the lookout has since collapsed and just this year the open cab at the top of lookout collapsed.

From the Tinta Trail junction, Dry Canyon Road heads out of the Tinta watershed and crosses into the Dry Canyon drainage. Dry Canyon is well named as there is generally no water to be found there. If you’re hiking the Condor Trail as a through hike this is one of the more challenging sections because of the lack of water.

Normally in the spring one can find water in Santa Barbara Canyon near the Santa Barbara Canyon trailhead, however because this year is so dry, one is likely to have to continue another seven miles to Madulce Camp before finding water. In other words this section is not recommended for through hiking during dry years or dry times of the year, and it is always best to check on current conditions.

At about the 13-mile mark from Tinta Campground, Dry Canyon Road meets Santa Barbara Canyon Road. Here, Condor Trail turns left and continues south along Santa Barbara Canyon Road and a mile later arrives at the Santa Barbara Canyon trailhead.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 4th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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