Posted by: James Wapotich | May 17, 2013

Trail Quest: Alamar Trail

Condor Trail is a through hike route that traverses the Los Padres National Forest utilizing existing trails and roads. The route through the southern part of the forest starts at Lake Piru and traverses the Sespe Wilderness before then entering the Dick Smith Wilderness. And then continues through the San Rafael Wilderness, eventually reaching the end of the National Forest in San Luis Obispo County.

The route through Alamar Canyon in the Dick Smith Wilderness passes through one of the more rugged and remote areas of the forest. This section of Alamar Trail is typically accessed from Santa Barbara Canyon near Cuyama, although one could also reach it from the Mono-Alamar Trailhead over by Little Caliente Hot Springs.

To get to the Santa Barbara Canyon trailhead, from Ojai, take State Route 33 north towards Cuyama. The drive leads through the small town of Ventucopa. A few miles past Ventucopa look for Foothill Road on your left and continue west on Foothill Road crossing the Cuyama River. Foothill Road is paved except for the crossing, which is often dry. Once across the river look for Santa Barbara Canyon Road immediately on your left.

Looking up Alamar Canyon towards Madulce Peak

Looking up Alamar Canyon towards Madulce Peak

Santa Barbara Canyon Road joins Santa Barbara Canyon and follows it the trailhead. The road is unpaved past the turnoff to Santa Barbara Canyon Ranch and branches a second time at Dry Canyon Road.

If you’re following Condor Trail, from the south, you would be coming down Dry Canyon Road from Tinta Trail and joining Santa Barbara Canyon Road for the last mile to the trailhead.

Both the drive and the hike through Santa Barbara Canyon can be very picturesque. About a mile past Dry Canyon Road, Santa Barbara Canyon Road arrives at the Santa Barbara Canyon Trailhead. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far as three-quarters of mile later the road arrives at a locked Forest Service gate.

From the trailhead, Condor Trail follows Santa Barbara Canyon Trail up Santa Barbara Canyon. The trail is in generally good shape but does become more overgrown the further up the canyon one travels.

Currently the creek is intermittent, with good water available at Chokecherry Creek, about four miles in from the trailhead. If you’re hiking Condor Trail this is likely the best water you’ll see since leaving Rancho Nuevo Canyon. Water can also currently be found in Pine Creek at Madulce Camp.

At about the 6-mile mark from the trailhead, Santa Barbara Canyon Trail climbs somewhat steeply out of the canyon, before leveling off and descending down towards Pine Creek. And at about the 7-mile mark arrives at the site where the Historic Madulce Guard Station was once located.

Here, the trail branches, to the east Don Victor Trail continues over to Puerto Suelo Trail, and to the west Madulce Trail crosses the creek and arrives at Madulce Camp, before continuing towards Buckhorn Road.

From this signed intersection Condor Trail continues to the east, following Don Victor Trail downstream along Pine Creek. And about a half-mile later arrives at the next signed trail juncture. Here, Don Victor Trail continues east towards Don Victor Valley and Puerto Suelo Trail begins.

Condor Trail follows Puerto Suelo Trail south to Alamar Canyon. The trail can be confusing at first, but ultimately follows the ridge that starts to the east of the sign and climbs its way towards the saddle. The trail is badly overgrown.

At about the 8.5-mile mark from the Santa Barbara Canyon trailhead, the trail arrives at the saddle, which offers a brief respite from the brush and provides some great views out across Alamar Canyon.

Puerta Suela is derived from a spanish term for mountain pass. This particular pass was used by the Chumash and later settlers traveling from the coast to the central valley.

From the saddle, Puerto Suelo Trail descends down into what is sometimes referred to as Robel Canyon. The trail follows a couple of switchbacks before then reentering the brush. The trail remains overgrown most of the way to Dutch Oven Camp and includes a fair number of downed trees across the trail, which only add to feeling of hiking an obstacle course. While hiking overgrown and damaged trails one’s pace can easily slow to a mile an hour, so plan accordingly.

At about the 10.5-mile mark from the trailhead, Puerto Suelo Trail arrives at Alamar Trail, the intersection is denoted with a metal sign resting on the top of a rock. Condor Trail continues to the right up Alamar Canyon.

To left and just below the sign is Dutch Oven Camp. The camp includes a fire ring and five ice can stoves.

Continuing upstream past Dutch Oven, Alamar Trail is overgrown and can be challenging to find. What you’re ultimately looking for is the first notable side wash past Robel Creek on your left that then lets you make your way up the hillside along the north side of the canyon. Here, the trail follows the contour of the canyon above the creek, and although overgrown, becomes somewhat easier to follow. The trail then eventually descends back down towards the creek and about 1.25 miles from Dutch Oven Camp arrives at Bill Faris Camp.

The camp has three ice can stoves and was named in 1962 for William L. Faris who was a local scoutmaster who passed away at an early age.

From Bill Faris Camp the trail remains overgrown and continues to be challenging to follow. Historically the trail stayed on the northwest or Madulce Peak side of the canyon for the first mile, but a reroute in recent years takes the trail across the creek before returning to the original route. Both routes are badly overgrown and so one option is continue up the creek to where the trail crosses a large side creek and here it is at least well marked with flags and cairns.

Alamar Trail is one of those trails where a topographic map of the area can be helpful in sorting our where the route ought to be. Another useful resource in this regard is Google Earth, which essentially provides satellite images of almost anywhere in the world. By studying aerial views of an area before a trip one can sometimes determine where the route is in relationship to other features.

At about the 2.25-mile mark from Dutch Oven, the trail passes an unnamed campsite and continues up the canyon a short way before then beginning its climb out of the canyon and heading ultimately towards Buckhorn Road and Alamar Saddle. This next section of the trail although not as badly overgrown is still challenging due to the number of downed pine trees across the trail.

At about the 4.5-mile mark from Dutch Oven, Alamar Trail meets Buckhorn Road and arrives at Alamar Camp leaving the Dick Smith Wilderness. Alamar Camp has a table, fire ring and grated stove, but no water. The site is where Alamar Guard Station was once located.

From here Condor Trail continues to the right along Buckhorn Road towards Alamar Saddle, less than a quarter mile. At Alamar Saddle, Condor Trail enters the San Rafael Wilderness and joins Sisquoc River Trail, which travels from the headwaters of the Sisquoc River downstream toward South Fork Station and Manzana Schoolhouse.

Water can usually be found at Upper Bear Camp a half-mile below Alamar Saddle along Sisquoc River Trail.

An alternate route from Madulce Camp that lets one bypass all the brush along Puerto Suelo and Alamar Trails is to take Madulce Trail to Buckhorn Road, and from there continue south another mile along Buckhorn Road to Alamar Saddle. This route is in much better shape and can include a visit to Madulce Peak.

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

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