Posted by: James Wapotich | June 11, 2013

Trail Quest: Horse Gulch Canyon

Condor Trail is a through hike route that traverses Los Padres National Forest utilizing existing trails and roads. As the route passes through the San Rafael Wilderness it follows Sisquoc River Trail from Alamar Saddle, past Manzana Schoolhouse, to Horse Gulch Canyon. From there Condor Trail travels up Horse Gulch Canyon and across the upper reaches of the La Brea Creek drainage on its way to Roque Camp before continuing west and north towards State Route 166.

This section of Condor Trail passes through one of the more remote corners of the San Rafael Wilderness and can be a challenging route to follow.

From Manzana Schoolhouse, Condor Trail continues downstream along Sisquoc River Trail passing several homesteads along the way before arriving at Horse Gulch Canyon.

Los Padres National Forest Sisquoc River Horse Gulch Canyon Manzana Schoolhouse trail hike Santa Barbara Backcountry

Wells homestead with Wheat Peak in the background

The homesteads hark back to an era when settlers lived along the Sisquoc River and its tributaries in the late 1800s.

From Manzana Schoolhouse Camp the trail crosses the Sisquoc River and continues along the north side of the river following the road cut that leads up to Wheat Mesa. The trail then leads past both the Wells and Wheat homesteads.

The first and more noticeable of the two homesteads, with its chimney still standing, is that of William Wells, who was married to Elizabeth Wheat the daughter of Hiram Preserved Wheat. Mr. Wheat was the leader of a group of homesteaders from Kansas.

The homestead of Hiram Preserved Wheat is located just past where the road along the mesa descends back down to the river. All that remains of the Wheat homestead is a small pile of stones from the base of the chimney.

The road then crosses the river and can become hard to follow. Continue downstream looking for an open channel that parallels the river, this will then turn back into a followable route, which then crosses the river again. From there the trail continues along the north side of the river through a long grassy flat to the mouth of Horse Gulch Canyon and the edge of the National Forest.

Horse Gulch Canyon is roughly two miles below Manzana Schoolhouse. Across the creek, outside of the National Forest one can see the ruins of Edward Forrester’s homestead, please respect private property. On the east side of the canyon one can find the grave of Edward’s mother, Cassandra Forrester.

Here, Condor Trail continues up Horse Gulch Canyon entering the burn area from 2009 La Brea Fire. Quick growing chaparral has already returned to the area and flood damage following the fire has more or less obscured the trail. However, there are some cairns and flagging marking a route, and because the canyon is narrow the route itself is not too confusing.

Roughly two miles up Horse Gulch Canyon, one arrives at an open flat area with and metal and stone barbecue, likely built by horse packers and used as a camp.

Two miles past this camp, with some luck one can find the first of two sites associated with Sluice Box Camp. The first site is on a small flat under some oaks and the second site upstream is on a larger, more open flat overlooking the creek. Both sites are on the east side of the creek and each has a grated stove, and neither look as though they’ve been used in a while. Horse Gulch Creek is currently flowing intermittently.

Past Sluice Box Camp, the flagging along the route generally improves, although the trail itself does not. The route continues up the canyon roughly another five miles, with often the best path being game trails. The canyon eventually arrives at a pronounced “Y”. Here the route continues up the left branch towards a low saddle.

Because the trail is not very clear through Horse Gulch Canyon and only becomes worse as one traverses the La Brea Creek drainage it is highly recommended that those interested in hiking through this section of the San Rafael Wilderness bring along a USGS topographic map and take some time beforehand studying the route using both the map and satellite images available through Google Earth.

Roughly 10.25 miles from the mouth of Horse Gulch Canyon, one arrives at the saddle between Horse Gulch Canyon and South Fork La Brea Creek. From the saddle the route descends roughly three-quarters of a mile down towards South Fork La Brea Creek. Again there is no real trail, however one can follow the ridge down from the saddle, and by staying to the right take advantage of a less steep and open grassy hillside dotted with oaks.

Once down in the canyon one can find a halfway decent cow trail to follow downstream towards Hiawatha Camp, roughly a mile. While coming down the canyon look the first significant creek on your right. Hiawatha Camp is located just below this confluence while the trail to the next camp, Roque Camp, continues up the side drainage.

There is not much at Hiawatha Camp, just a flat area and an ice can stove leaning against an oak tree looking as though it was left there by high water.

Several miles downstream from Hiawatha, near the confluence of South Fork La Brea Creek and Owl Canyon is where the 2009 La Brea Fire started. Investigators determined that the fire was the result of sparks or flames from a fire that was being used for cooking by individuals operating a marijuana growing site. At the camp was found melted irrigation tubing, empty canisters of fertilizer, propane tanks and a large amount of trash. It was estimated that there were 30,000 marijuana plants being grown with water from the nearby creek. The resulting fire lasted two weeks, burned 89,489 acres and cost the public roughly $35 million to fight. Much of the area had not been burned since 1922.

It is likely the remoteness of the area is what inspired the growers to select the site; prior to the fire the area was overgrown and rarely visited.

From Hiawatha Camp the trail becomes even less defined. The route continues up the side canyon, leaves the drainage, and crosses two more drainages, Salsipuedes Canyon and Stag Canyon, before arriving at Roque Canyon and descending down to Roque Camp.

This section from Hiawatha Camp to Roque Camp is roughly four miles and is one of the more challenging sections of Condor Trail as it involves essentially cross country hiking. This is not a route for beginners. Currently, the cross country hiking is comparatively easy because the fire has reduced the density of the chaparral, however it is only a matter of time before it all grows back.

About 18 miles from Manzana Schoolhouse, the trail arrives at Roque Camp. The camp is on the north side of the creek and has two ice can stoves. There is generally reliable water in Roque Creek at the campsite.

Just below Roque Camp there used to be a trail that continued up the north side of the canyon along a ridge line to the Sierra Madre Road. The trail, roughly a mile and a half long, has disappeared over the years, although one can still find some remnants of the trail about three-quarters of the way up. The trail meets the road roughly 4.5 miles east of Miranda Pines Campground and represents an alternate way to access the camp.

From Roque Camp, Condor Trail continues down Roque Canyon where it meets Kerry Canyon and Kerry Canyon Trail. From there it continues north along Kerry Canyon Trail to Indians Trail and over to Brookshire Campground, and then follows Willow Springs Trail before arriving at State Route 166.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 9th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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