Posted by: James Wapotich | June 26, 2013

Trail Quest: Willow Spring Trail

Condor Trail is a through hike route that traverses the Los Padres National Forest utilizing existing trails and roads. The trail begins in the south at Lake Piru and ends in the north at Botchers Gap in Monterey County and highlights some of the best areas within the National Forest. It’s envisioned that the trail will someday connect the southern and northern sections of Los Padres National Forest forming a single, continuous 421-mile route.

The section through Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties is about 185 miles long and can be broken up into a number of smaller hikes. The route can make for an interesting way to get to know our local backcountry.

The last section of Condor Trail through Santa Barbara County follows Willow Spring Trail from Brookshire Campground to State Route 166, about nine miles. As with other trails that can be accessed from either end by car, the first few miles from each direction are in generally good shape, with the middle section being the more challenging.

Condor Trail Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry hike Willow Spring Brookshire

Willow Spring Trailhead near Brookshire Campground

To get to Brookshire Campground from Santa Maria take State Route 166 west toward New Cuyama and look for Sierra Madre Road on your right. The turnoff is halfway between Santa Maria and New Cuyama. Sierra Madre Road is an unpaved road that runs along the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains.

From Sierra Madre Road, turn on to Pine Canyon Road, which ends at Brookshire Campground. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended as the drive from State Route 166 to the campground follows about 24 miles of unpaved road.

The Willow Spring trailhead is a half mile before Brookshire Campground. The trail starts near a horse corral with distinctive blue fence posts and climbs its way up to the ridge separating Pine Creek from the next drainage to the north. This section of the trail is well marked with flagging.

About a mile later, at the ridge, Willow Spring Trail meets Lake Ridge Trail, with both trails at this point appearing as fuel breaks along the ridge. Willow Spring Trail continues to the left and then steeply descends down into the next drainage before climbing up to the top of the next ridge. The trail alternates between following, paralleling and criss-crossing the well-established fuel break.

The trail then continues northeast along the top this second ridge, following a fuel break for roughly a mile and a half. Here the chaparral gives way to open hillsides dotted with oaks. The trail then arrives at a dirt road, turn left here and continue downhill toward the next intersection, roughly a half mile.

Here, the trial becomes more challenging as there is no clear turnoff for Willow Spring Trail. From this ridge Willow Spring Trail continues north, crossing two more creek drainages before arriving at Willow Spring. It is essentially cross-country hiking down into one drainage and up to the next ridge, and then down into the next drainage and up to that next ridge where one does start to find an overgrown trail.

Part of the challenge is that if instead of hiking north cross-country and trying to follow the historic Willow Spring route one continues west along the easier to hike ridge they will find several more intersections to choose from. In his revised map of the San Rafael Wilderness, Bryan Conant describes the area between Brookshire Campground and State Route 166 as “a hodgepodge of trails, cattle roads, fire roads, and overgrown sections of trails”. And this is exactly what one finds. Each of these cattle trails and dirts roads can be more enticing than the cross-country hiking, but they ultimately do not lead where you want to go.

It’s recommended that you bring a compass and topographic map, and expect roughly two miles of cross-country hiking to traverse this section.

Once you reach the last ridge, the overgrown trail begins to reappear becoming an overgrown fire road which then drops down towards the top of the next canyon and arrives at Willow Spring. Water from the spring is piped into a cattle trough and can be gathered from the pipe. This is the only reliable source of water along the trail.

From the spring the trail improves. Continue uphill along the dirt road, the route then levels out near a rusted cow trough and turns into two diverging cattle trails. Follow the cattle trail to the left, which soon arrives at another road in a more open area. Continuing towards the left along this road, one quickly arrives at a metal sign with the number “64” printed on it, marking an underground pipeline.

From here continue north along the easy to follow road to the next intersection where you turn left and continue west. The road then turns into a trail as it begins its descent towards State Route 166 and the Cuyama River, passing through oak woodland and offering views out across the river. The trail here is in good shape and well flagged.

It’s also through this section that one can see Adobe Trail across the canyon climbing to the top of the next ridge. Eventually Willow Spring Trail starts down a series of switchbacks, crossing a dirt road, before arriving at the trailhead and State Route 166.

Because the trail to Willow Spring from State Route 166 is in good shape it can make for a reasonable day hike of about 6 miles roundtrip. The route can also be ridden by horse. The trailhead along State Route 166 is about 4 miles north of Pine Canyon Ranger Station. The trailhead is marked with a sign, behind an unlocked gate, and is large enough for horse trailers.

From the Willow Spring trailhead, Condor Trail continues north along State Route 166 about 3 miles to Adobe Trail. Here, Condor Trail leaves Santa Barbara County and continues through the remainder of the National Forest in San Luis Obispo County, roughly another 70 miles, before arriving at Cerro Alto Campground and State Route 41. Along the way the trail passes through the Garcia and Santa Lucia Wildernesses and crosses Highway 101 at Cuesta Grade.

From Cerro Alto Campground the route is less well defined as the trail through the mountains for the next 40 miles to the northern portion of Los Padres National Forest will need to pass through privately held land. And so one option for now from Cerro Alto Campground is to continue down State Route 41 towards Morro Bay and pick up California Coastal Trail and follow it along the coast to San Carpoforo Beach and rejoin Condor Trail where it reenters the National Forest.

Aside from developing the easements between the southern and northern portions of Los Padres National Forest, the biggest challenge facing Condor Trail is the overall condition of trails in our local backcountry. While many trails are in generally good shape, there are others in need of maintenance and brushing and in some cases need to be reestablished. This is the same challenge the Forest Service is facing with its limited resources.

If you’d like to help improve trail conditions in our local backcountry you can contact your local representatives and let them know that funding for trail maintenance is important to you.

Volunteer opportunities are also available. Both Condor Trail Association,, and Los Padres Forest Association,, organize volunteer trail work trips into our backcountry.

The best time to hike Condor Trail is between November and April when water is generally more available and temperatures are not as hot.

If you’re interested in experiencing Condor Trail more vicariously, Hollister Brewing Company is currently offering its locally brewed Condor Trail Pale Ale, proceeds of which benefit Condor Trail. The ale is infused with water gathered from the headwaters of the Sisquoc River and white sage gathered from the La Brea Creek area, both along Condor Trail.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 21st, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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