Posted by: James Wapotich | June 5, 2014

Trail Quest: Grapevine Trail

Gazing north from State Route 154 towards the San Rafael Mountains it can be hard to picture all different canyons hidden there, particularly those tucked away between Little Pine and West Big Pine Mountains. And yet, it’s here that one finds the headwaters of Santa Cruz Creek, and traversing a number of these little canyons, Grapevine Trail.

The 5.5-mile long trail runs west to east through San Rafael Wilderness and connects Santa Cruz Trail to Buckhorn Road and Bluff Camp. Amidst the rich scenery along the trail are several interesting historical sites that one can explore.

The area is best visited as part of a multi-day backpacking trip. The more commonly used routes involve starting at either Cachuma Saddle, and making use of Mission Pine Trail to reach either Santa Cruz Trail or Buckhorn Road, both of which connect to Grapevine Trail; or by starting at Upper Oso Campground and hiking in along Santa Cruz Trail to Grapevine Trail.

Los Padres National Forest Pelch Grapevine San Rafael Wilderness Santa Barbara hiking trial

West Big Pine is seen from Grapevine Trail

The eastern end of Grapevine Trail starts from Buckhorn Road, near Bluff Camp, and descends down into the Santa Cruz Creek drainage. The trail follows an unnamed canyon through mostly chaparral that leads down to East Fork Santa Cruz Creek. The trail is in generally good condition, and there is currently water flowing in the creek.

From here, Grapevine Trail continues west, upstream along East Fork Santa Cruz Creek, passing through a healthy variety of riparian plants. The trail then climbs out of the creek, and over to the next canyon.

As the trail descends down towards a small creek, it offers views out across the canyon to where the grapevine once grew that gives the trail, as well as the creek further downstream its name. The trail crosses the small creek and continues on the opposite side of the canyon, arriving at a spring. The spring is more of a trickle of water, but it is noticeable by the wild blackberry and roses that grow there in contrast to the surrounding oak and chaparral.

map grapevine trail hike pelch camp hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness

Map courtesy

Continuing a short way past the spring, the trail crosses a small side creek, and it’s here, on the left or downhill side of the trail, that the grapevine was once located.

The grapevine’s origins to this day remain a mystery. One of the more more fanciful stories involve the infamous bandit Joaquin Murieta. It’s said that while he was attending a party in Montecito at the site of the famous Parra Grande, another large grapevine, that he was tipped off that the sheriff was coming to arrest him. Making a hasty retreat Murieta fashioned a horse whip from the Parra Grande vine, and fled into the backcountry. When he arrived at his hideout, located somewhere in the upper reaches of the Santa Cruz Creek drainage, he is said to have taken the whip and planted it in the ground near a spring, where it grew and flourished.

Other accounts suggest that it may have been planted there by one of the early homesteaders in the area. Nevertheless, the vine is said to date back to mid 1800’s and covered close to an acre, draping from the oaks and growing on top of other plants.

In a 1954 report to the Forest Service, Dick Smith described the site as “…a narrow spring-laden mountain slope almost directly underneath West Big Pine Mountain”.

There is still a fair amount of water seeping from the hillside, supporting a number of riparian plants in addition to the oaks. However, the grapevine appears to have died out.

A Forest Service report, written in 2010, indicated that the vine may have dried out during a period of drought, and that any remaining evidence of the vine was burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire. Currently the site is covered in a thick layer of native plants, including ferns and wild blackberry.

Grapevine Trail hike backpacking santa barbara Los Padres national forest san rafael wilderness

Grapevine Creek near Pelch Camp is seen from Grapevine Trail

Continuing west, past the grapevine site, Grapevine Trail climbs out of the canyon and over a small ridge before descending down toward Grapevine Creek and the turnoff to Pelch Camp.

The turnoff to the camp is about a half-mile west of the grapevine site, and about four miles from Bluff Camp. The intersection is marked with an old Forest Service sign that points back towards “Murieta Grapevine” and Bluff Camp.

From the turnoff, it’s a relatively short hike to Pelch Camp. The trail is somewhat overgrown and follows Grapevine Creek downstream to a small, open area surrounded by oaks, where one can find a picnic table. Nearby, one can find the remains of the old hunting camp situated above the confluence of Grapevine Creek and one of its tributaries.

Pelch Pinkham Camp P-P Grapevine Trail Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness

Hunters gather around the fire at Pelch Camp circa 1934 – image courtesy Amanda Pelch

Originally called Camp P-P, the camp was the hunting retreat of Frank Pelch and Fred Pinkham. Pelch and Pinkham used the site as a base camp for deer hunting trips that they hosted for their friends during the 1930s. The camp had an outdoor stove and oven for cooking, a box for drying deer meat, and a screen covered dining area. There was also a small cabin that Pelch and Pinkham had built from wood gathered from the abandoned Romo Homestead, which was located several miles away.

According to Amanda Pelch, Frank Pelch’s granddaughter, the site was leased by her grandfather from the Forest Service under a 99-year lease, which ended when her grandfather passed away in 1963.

The name Pelch may be more familiar to those who remember Pelch & Sons Sporting Goods Store. The store was located in downtown Santa Barbara at the corner of State and Anapamu Streets, where State & A Restaurant used to be located.

In 1907, Mr. Pelch immigrated to the United States from what is now Czech Republic, and in 1909, moved with his wife to Santa Barbara. In 1911, he opened a barbershop with Basil Blauvelt; the shop also stocked pipe and chewing tobacco for its customers.

An avid hunter and fisherman, Mr. Pelch soon began stocking the shop with fishing gear and sporting goods, as well as a wide array of magazines and periodicals. In 1922, they moved across the street into a larger space at 1201 State Street, where the store was located until 1966. The store benefited from its central location across from Woolworth’s (where Old Navy is now located) and the Post Office (where Santa Barbara Museum of Art is now located).

In 1941, after Mr. Blauvelt retired, Mr. Pelch’s son, Otto, who had worked at the store, became a full partner. The store then became Pelch & Sons Sporting Goods and continued to operate until 1976.

Pelch Camp San Rafael Wilderness Grapevine Trail Los Padrees National Forest

Fireplace and oven from the hunting camp can still be seen at Pelch Camp

Today, at Pelch Camp, one can still find the remains of the outdoor fireplace and oven, and if you look carefully, in the surrounding area, you can find both the corrugated sheet metal from the cabin, as well as what’s left of the cast iron stove.

Continuing west, past the turnoff to Pelch Camp, Grapevine Trail follows Grapevine Creek upstream, before then climbing out of the canyon and continuing through a more open area referred to as Jackrabbit Flats. The trail crests one last rise and then descends towards Coche Creek and Santa Cruz Trail.

From Santa Cruz Trail, one can continue north towards Mission Pine Basin to complete a loop back to Cachuma Saddle, or continue south towards Santa Cruz Camp and Upper Oso.

In either direction one can find a nearby place to camp along Coche Creek. To the north, along Santa Cruz Trail, less than a quarter mile, is Coche Camp. The camp has three ice can stoves, and does not appear to be used that often.

To the south, along Santa Cruz Trail, also less than a quarter mile, is Kellogg Camp. The camp is more spacious than Coche, and has a fire ring and raised wood table but no benches. The camp was named for Kerry Kellogg who served as Trails and Wilderness Manager for the Santa Barbara Ranger District.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 30th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: