Posted by: James Wapotich | May 29, 2013

Trail Quest: Upper Sisquoc River

The Sisquoc River flows roughly 57.5 miles from its headwaters in the San Rafael Wilderness to its confluence with the Cuyama River. The two rivers form the Santa Maria River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean near Guadalupe Dunes.

Sisquoc River Trail follows the Sisquoc River from its headwaters near Alamar Saddle to where it passes out of the National Forest near Horse Gulch Canyon. This is also the same route followed by Condor Trail as it traverses the southern Los Padres National Forest.

From Alamar Saddle the trail descends through mountain oak, pine, and cedar before arriving a half-mile later at Upper Bear Camp. The camp is nestled under cedars and has a fire ring. Water can usually be found in the small spring fed creek behind the camp. The site was originally used by the Hartman brothers as a hunting retreat and later by the Civilian Conservation Corp during the construction of the Buckhorn Road.


The impact from the 2007 Zaca Fire is still evident along the trail as many of the pines and cedars are either burned or damaged and a fair amount new ceanothus can be seen growing along the trail.

Continuing down canyon roughly another half mile, Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Bear Camp, sometimes referred to as Lower Bear. The site has a picnic table and fire ring. The camp got its name when a homesteader and his party got stuck there during a snowstorm and had to kill a bear for food. The area is still popular with bears as one can find plenty of evidence of bear activity between the two camps, ranging from tracks and scat to scratch marks on the trees.

Sisquoc River is one of 16 rivers in California with the designation National Wild and Scenic River, and as one hikes the trail and takes in the scenery it’s easy to see that the designation is well deserved.

Past Bear Camp the trail follows the river as it descends down into the canyon, offering views of three small cascades and a waterfall before arriving a half mile later at Lower Bear Camp. The camp is labeled Falls Camp on the Forest Service map, a reference to the unnamed waterfall visible from the trail and a short hike upstream from the camp.

Lower Bear Camp has a fire ring and homemade bench, and is situated under several bay laurel trees.

From Lower Bear Camp the trail continues downstream to the next camp. The trail from Alamar Saddle all the way to South Fork Station is in good shape thanks to the work of California Conservation Corp and volunteers from Los Padres Forest Association. In the wake of the Zaca Fire and subsequent winter rain damage the Forest Service put together a multi-year trail maintenance plan to help restore the upper portion of Sisquoc River Trail from Alamar Saddle to the junction with Sweetwater Trail, as well as White Ledge Trail from South Fork Station to White Ledge Camp. Also included in the plan was maintenance along Sweetwater and Judell Trails in order to provide access and resupply support for the work crews. All four trails are much improved.

At about the 5.25-mile mark from Alamar Saddle the trail arrives at Heath Camp. The camp is named for Jim Heath, a colorful character of his day who is said to have tamed bears and mountain lions for exhibitions in Maricopa and hunted with Theodore Roosevelt. The camp has a fire ring and grated stove. There are also two other sites upstream, off the trail, that often go unnoticed and unused, each with a grated stove.

Heath Camp is situated at the mouth of Judell Canyon at the intersection of Sisquoc River Trail and Judell Trail. Both the canyon and trail, as well as Samon Peak, were named in honor of Judell Samon, Assistant Supervisor of Santa Barbara National Forest, the forerunner to today’s Los Padres National Forest.

Continuing downstream roughly another mile and a quarter, Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Cottonwood Camp. The camp has three sites, two with grated stoves and a third downstream across the river that has a metal fire ring.

A half mile past Cottonwood Camp, the trail arrives at the turnoff to Rattlesnake Falls. The side trail is marked and in good shape. The falls are well worth a visit and only a short hike from the main trail.

Sisquoc River Trail continues downstream and, at about the 7.75-mile mark from Alamar Saddle, arrives at Mansfield Camp. The camp was constructed in 1971, and named after retired Assistant Forest Fire Control Officer Howard W. Mansfield. The camp has three sites – two obvious sites along the trail each with a fire ring and grated stove, and a third site hidden in the salt brush that has grown back since the Zaca Fire.

About a mile and a quarter past Mansfield, Sisquoc River Trail arrives at Skunk Camp. The camp has an ice can stove and grated stove.

It is through this section that the trail passes along the northern boundary of the 1,200 acre Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary. The sanctuary was created in 1937 to protect the condor who’s numbers had been declining since the 1800s. The selected site along Fall Canyon was considered critical condor habitat.

Instrumental in establishing the sanctuary were Cyril Robinson, Deputy Supervisor for Santa Barbara National Forest and local businessman Robert Easton. At the time the Forest Service through the Civilian Conversation Corp was actively building access roads through the backcountry to aid in fire suppression. One such route under construction was the proposed Hurricane Deck Road which would pass near Fall Canyon. Work had already begun along Lost Valley taking the road from Nira up to Hurricane Deck.

Mr. Easton, who worked for the Sisquoc Ranch, suggested that if work on the road were to stop that the Sisquoc Ranch would likely give the Forest Service right of way through the ranch’s property at Montgomery Potrero. This would allow the Forest Service to complete another planned road, this one along the Sierra Madre Ridge, offering in essence an alternate route. Forest Supervisor Stephen Nash-Boulden agreed to a moratorium on the Hurricane Deck Road to further study the condor situation. And that study in turn led to the agency’s support of the sanctuary.

By 1982 there were less two dozen condors left. In 1987, the remaining wild condors were captured and a captive breeding program was initiated to bring the species back from the verge of extinction. In the early 1990s as the program began to prove successful condors starting being released back into the wild. Today, there are over 400 condors, with more than half of them in the wild.

Although no condors currently nest in the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary, condors released into the wild are fitted with a tracking device, which have shown that reintroduced condors do visit the sanctuary.

At about the 12.5-mile mark from Alamar Saddle, the trail arrives at South Fork Station. The station was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp. The structure was saved durning the Zaca Fire by the Forest Service’s Hot Shot fire fighters who wrapped the structure in heat resistant material. The cabin however was need in repair and didn’t become usable until a group of Volunteer Wilderness Rangers worked to restore the building.

At the South Fork site there are several campsites, one behind the cabin with a table and grated stove, two sites below the cabin along creek, each with a grated stove and one with table. There are also two sites upstream from the cabin each with a grated stove, sometimes referred to as Voodoo Camp.

From South Fork Station, Condor Trail continues downstream along Sisquoc River Trail towards Manzana Schoolhouse.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 24th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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