Posted by: James Wapotich | March 1, 2014

Trail Quest: Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve

Just north of Lompoc, surrounding Vandenberg Village, Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve is home to a variety of plants and animals.

Burton Mesa is a broad marine terrace that rises east of Purisima Point between San Antonio Creek and the Santa Ynez River, and is covered with Aeolian or wind driven sand from the coast that was deposited there during Pleistocene. And it is this sand that has given rise to a unique habitat of maritime chaparral known as Burton Mesa chaparral.

Burton Mesa chaparral at one time covered as much as 35,000 acres of land, and today can still be found from Vandenberg Air Force Base to as far east as La Purisima Mission Historic State Park. Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve is located between the base and the mission and essentially wraps around Vandenberg Village, forming a horseshoe that’s open at the south.

Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve freshwater marsh Vanderberg Village Lompoc trails hiking

The freshwater marsh at Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve

Within the 5,125-acre reserve one can also find about 28 miles of informal trails that criss cross the reserve. These social trails provide an opportunity to explore this unique area. One such route leads to a freshwater marsh found in the northwestern part of the reserve; the hike to the marsh is about 3 miles roundtrip.

To get to the main entrance to the reserve, from Lompoc continue north on State Route 1 towards Vandenberg Village and turn right onto Constellation Road.

Coming from Buellton and Highway 101, one would take State Route 246 west, towards Lompoc, and turn right onto Purisima Road, and continue towards State Route 1 and Constellation Road.

Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve map trail hike Lompoc Vandenberg Village

Map courtesy

The trailhead is located at the end of Constellation Road, near Cabrillo High School and Northoaks Drive. Parking is found along the street. The reserve is open to the public from sunrise to sunset. No bikes or equestrian use is allowed.

The land was acquired by the State in 1991 as the result of an anti-trust lawsuit against six major oil companies for alleged price-fixing. One of the plaintiffs, Unocal, settled out of court; and as part of the $78 million settlement, five parcels of land owned by Unocal were transferred to the State, including what is now Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve. The reserve is owned by California State Lands Division and is managed by California Department of Fish and Game.

Within the reserve is a network of social trails that have been created over the years. A map showing some of these trails can be found by going to and scrolling down to the link titled Trails and Roads. The website also includes a variety of maps for the reserve, as well as species list for the different plants and animals that can be found there.

Coast live oak Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve hike trails Lompoc Vandenberg Village

One of a number of dense stands of coast live oak along the trail and at the reserve

For the hike to freshwater marsh, from the trailhead, follow the main trail as it heads west and then quickly turns south. The trail leads through mostly Burton Mesa chaparral, with the more noticeable plants being manzanita, coast live oak, and chamise.

One of the rarest plants in the reserve is Vandenberg monkeyflower, which grows in sandy open places exposed by gaps in the chaparral canopy. Related to the more common orange bush monkeyflower, which has orange-colored flowers, Vandenberg monkeyflower with its yellow flowers is found in only seven locations within the reserve. The plant is being considered for listing as an endangered species.

At about the quarter-mile mark, the trail reaches an open area free of chaparral and arrives at a four-way intersection. From here turn right, or west, as the trail follows the edge of the open area before reentering the chaparral. Here, the trail turns north, again threading its way through the chaparral.

At times the trail can feel like a topiary maze cut through the dense chaparral, with only the occasional dips in the brush allowing one to gaze out across the sea of plants.

Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve hike trail Lompoc Vandenberg Village

A view out across the reserve from one of the trails

One of the tricks for navigating through this type of terrain where there are few landmarks that one can see, is to track in what direction the trailhead is relative to where you are. This is can be helpful when making a loop hike through an area or when you don’t have a particularly good map. If for example, your hike leads west and then north, to complete the loop whatever trail you take back will need to head generally east and south. This can sometimes help one at trail junctures narrow down the different options.

At about the one-mile mark the trail branches again. Here, the main trail continues north along the western edge of the reserve making a final turn east to arrive at the marsh. The trail to right is a more meandering social trail that also makes it way north towards the marsh, where the two trails meet. Of these two trails, the one along the western edge of the reserve is more open.

The freshwater marsh is definitely one of the highlights of the hike, appearing as a small lake. The two trails arrive at points overlooking the marsh, and enter through the oak woodland that surrounds the marsh basin. The marsh itself is encircled with reeds and cattails, particularly at its northern end, which opens up onto a field that is part of an agricultural lease.

Burton Mesa Chaparral Ecological Reserve Lompoc hike trail Vandenberg Village Muffin Hill

A view across the oaks towards the freshwater marsh at the reserve

From the marsh one can either retrace their route back to the trailhead, or continue east along the trail between the marsh and the field, and pick up one of the social trails that leads east and south towards Vandenberg Village, and thereby make a loop back to the trailhead.

None of the trails are marked, and true to the nature of socials trails there are a number of divergent paths. However, with some luck one can find a route that leads southeast towards the trail access found at the end of Vanguard Drive, and from there follow the trail that traces the edge of the reserve, along the backside of the houses, to the trailhead at the end of Constellation Road.

This is just one of the many routes one craft along the network trails found in the reserve.

Regardless how far you hike, you will get to see some of what makes this a unique area within Santa Barbara County.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 1st, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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