Posted by: James Wapotich | November 10, 2014

Trail Quest: Rancho Nuevo Trail

This year not only marks the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, but the 30th Anniversary of the California Wilderness Act, which created Dick Smith Wilderness.

Dick Smith Wilderness was the second area designated as wilderness in the southern Los Padres National Forest, after San Rafael Wilderness. Located in an area between San Rafael Wilderness and State Route 33, Dick Smith Wilderness encompasses 64,700 acres of our local backcountry.

The wilderness is named for Richard J. “Dick” Smith, who was a local writer, photographer, sculptor, naturalist, and conservationist. Born in Minnesota in 1920, he worked for a Minneapolis paper while attending school. In 1948, during a vacation to Santa Barbara, he was inspired to move to California; and was hired by Santa Barbara News-Press, where he served as promotions manager, staff artist and reporter.

Rancho Nuevo Trail Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hike trail Dick Smith Wilderness

Hikers make their way up Rancho Nuevo Canyon

During his tenure he covered stories concerning the backcountry including the forest fires, and wrote an outdoors column titled “Nature Notes”, as well as other related features and articles.

A self-trained naturalist, he spent much of his free time exploring the Santa Barbara backcountry, becoming a well-known authority on the California condor. He was the author with Robert Easton of California Condor: Vanishing American.

He also helped build support for the creation of San Rafael Wilderness. Dick Smith passed away in 1977, and in 1984, Dick Smith Wilderness was named in his honor.

One of the more remote and least visited wilderness areas in our local backcountry, Dick Smith Wilderness has less than 50 miles of total trails, and provides a unique opportunity to see an area of California that has remained largely unchanged.

map Dick Smith Wilderness Rancho Nuevo Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

There are three main entry points into Dick Smith Wilderness, the Indian-Mono Trailhead near Mono Campground behind Santa Barbara, and in the Cuyama Valley near State Route 33, Santa Barbara and Rancho Nuevo Canyons.

Recently, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, Los Padres ForestWatch hosted a series of ten hikes in Los Padres National Forest, each to one of the ten wildernesses found within Los Padres National Forest.

For Dick Smith Wilderness, the group organized a hike through Rancho Nuevo Canyon to Deal Junction that included Susan Soria, Dick Smith’s daughter. The hike along Ranch Nuevo Trail to Deal Junction is about 4.5 miles roundtrip.

To get to the trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 North, past Pine Mountain Summit, and into the Cuyama Valley. Continue past Lockwood Valley Road, and look for the signed turnoff on your left for Rancho Nuevo. From, here the unpaved access road heads west, and crosses Cuyama River, which is typically dry most of the year except for in the spring. Past the river crossing, the road branches, with the road to the left ending at Rancho Nuevo Campground and the trailhead for the hike to Deal Junction.

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Rancho Nuevo Canyon

From the trailhead, the trail follows Rancho Nuevo Creek upstream and quickly enters Dick Smith Wilderness. The trail is in good shape, and as it continues it passes through a strikingly scenic canyon. The canyon is shaped by steep sandstone cliffs on one side and dotted with big cone spruce. The trail then levels out before arriving at Deal Junction.

Deal Junction Camp is situated on a small flat above the confluence of Deal and Rancho Nuevo Creeks. The camp features a fire ring and grated stove, but no picnic table. Upstream along Rancho Nuevo Creek, one can continue another 3.5 miles to Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp for a longer hike. As the trail continues upstream it becomes more overgrown. Water is typically only available at the camps in the spring.

At Deal Junction, Susan Soria shared stories and anecdotes about her father and his love of our local backcountry. She also related that during the hike she could easily imagine her father regularly stopping, as he often did, along the trail with his binoculars or camera to study a particular plant or animal, or even the view itself.

“He was always very curious about what he was seeing, and would come back from his trips and pull out his reference materials and start looking things up and making notes.” Ms. Soria told the News-Press. “He had hundreds of these long reporters’ notebooks that he’d filled.”

“He also enjoyed the people he encountered out on the trails and made friends with a lot of them. They were kindred souls, who shared the same feeling he had about the backcountry.”

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail hike Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Susan Sonia and a group of hikers explore Rancho Nuevo Canyon

The Rancho Nuevo Canyon hike was hosted by Los Padres ForestWatch. An organization that was started in 2004 by a group of concerned citizens to help preserve and protect the national forest. At that time, there were two main issues that served as the catalyst for the group. The first was a proposal for increased oil drilling within the national forest, Los Padres National Forest is the only national forest in California that has commercial quantities of oil and gas. And the second was that the forest service was in the process of revising and updating their management plan for the forest.

“Our concern was that plan seemed to favor development and resource extraction more than outdoor recreation, land conservation and wildlife protection.” Jeff Kuyper, Los Padres ForestWatch Executive Director told the News-Press.

“One of the things that is different about a National Forest, than, for example, a National Park, is that National Parks are managed for recreation and preservation, so you’re not going to see mining, oil drilling, cattle grazing, or logging there. But those things are allowed in a National Forest, and the companies that want to do those things put pressure on the Forest Service to gain more access to public lands. We wanted to serve as a counter balance to that, and serve as a voice for the forest and wildlife, and the people who use it for recreation.”

The group now serves as the only watch dog organization focused solely on Los Padres National Forest. The group actively tracks issues and proposed projects that affect the forest, and is currently working on ensuring that oil drilling that occurs in the forest or near sensitive condor habitat is being done in an environmentally responsible way. Other areas of concern are over-grazing on public lands, and habitat damage from off-road vehicles riding illegally off trail or along non-designated routes.

The group also hosts a wide range of volunteer projects, from pulling out abandon barbwire fence along the Carrizo Plain, removing trash from the now closed Cherry Creek target practice area, cleaning up abandoned marijuana grow sites, and removing invasive plants and other habitat restoration projects. They’ve also organized projects to clean up micro-trash at different sites throughout the forest to help protect the endangered California condor, which often bring back micro-trash to their nests and mistakenly feed it to their young.

On Sunday, November 16th, the group will be celebrating their 10th anniversary with an event open to the public in Santa Barbara. To learn more about their upcoming events, volunteer opportunities, or to become a member, go to

This article originally appeared in section A of the November 3rd, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Deal Junction Rancho Nuevo Trail Los Padres National Forest hike Dick Smith Wilderness

Deal Junction

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