Posted by: James Wapotich | March 2, 2015

Trail Quest: Trail Survey with Bryan Conant

Under an overcast sky, Bryan Conant makes his way up McPherson Peak Trail, along the backside of the Sierra Madre Mountains, to check on trail conditions. The trail does not see many visitors, but is still shown on his map of the San Rafael Wilderness. The trail is overgrown, and by midday it has started to rain.

McPherson Peak Trail is just one of a dozen trails that Mr. Conant is currently surveying in preparation for the second revision of his San Rafael Wilderness map. Since the first revision, in 2008, he has visited most of the trails and camps on the map, verifying and updating the information shown there.

Unfazed by the rain, he continues towards McPherson Peak. On this survey, as with other trail surveys, he’s looking to see what are the current trail conditions. Is the trail followable? Is it marked? Is there a camp along trail, and if so, what condition is it in?

All of that field research and first hand experience of the backcountry is what makes Mr. Conant’s map different from other maps of the area.

Bryan Conant San Rafael Wilderness Map hiking backpacking Los Padres National Forest

Bryan Conant scans the terrain along McPherson Peak Trail

Another feature that he’s researched over the years is the availability of water along the trails, and at the camps, a topic that has taken on new significance during our current drought.

“If there is a positive about the drought,” Mr. Conant told the News-Press, “it’s in trying to figure out where there’s reliable year-round water. If there’s a place that had water last summer, it’s pretty much guaranteed that place has reliable year-round water.”

He also conveys that information on his maps, using a dashed line for seasonal water flows and a solid line where there’s generally reliable water.

In his research, Mr. Conant doesn’t just rely on his own information. In addition to looking at other maps, and reading trail reports and commentaries, he also regularly talks with the forest service and other trail users. Since the map was first published in 2003, he’s interacted with thousands of trail users, who have contacted him and often provide updates from their own hikes.

Another unique aspect of his maps is that the trails are color-coded to reflect the current trail conditions. Yellow signifies that the trail is easy to follow and in generally good shape; purple signifies that the trail may require some bushwhacking and/or searching for the route; and green reflects that the trail sees little or no use, and is either non-existent or extremely hard to follow.

For example, based on his survey, McPherson Peak Trail will likely be designated as yellow as it climbs out of the canyon from Aliso Campground, and then purple where it becomes overgrown and continues along the ridge line up to McPherson Peak.

Bryan Conant San Rafael Wilderness Map hiking backpacking Los Padres National Forest

Bryan Conant studies a map printout at an overgrown trail junction

The day before, Mr. Conant surveyed several other trails along State Route 166, on his way to Aliso Campground, including Willow Spring Trail. In 2014, Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers (CCCMB) led a trail project there to redesign and reroute the beginning of the trail to make it more accessible and user friendly. He also surveyed Adobe and Gifford Trails. Only a portion of Gifford Trail even appears on his map, as the rest of it is outside the map area; nevertheless the trail will be included to help people using the map locate the trail.

The original inspiration for the map grew out of Mr. Conant’s twin passions of cartography and backpacking.

“I’d studied cartography at UCSB, and was making maps at work; and at the same time was out there hiking in the backcountry, trying to explore as much of it as I could,” Mr. Conant recalled, “and was pretty frustrated with the existing maps.”

In 2003, an opportunity arose for Mr. Conant to take six months off from work, and he decided to use that time to make the map he had been envisioning. At the time, an affordable GPS with the capabilities he needed wasn’t available, and Google Earth, with its satellite images, didn’t exist. And so he built his own trundle wheel from a kids BMX bike that a friend let him have.

For four months he surveyed and measured the trails in the San Rafael Wilderness, and then spent the next two months creating the map. Once GPS units became more advanced and affordable, the trundle wheel stayed at home.

In 2008, he completed the first revision of the San Rafael Wilderness Map. In 2009, he completed the first edition of his Matilija and Dick Smith Wilderness Map, which includes the Santa Barbara front country trails. Both maps also required the addition of a new feature, outlines showing the fire perimeter for the 2007 Zaca Fire and 2009 La Brea Fire, both of which dramatically changed trail conditions in those areas.

Bryan Conant San Rafael Wilderness Map Los Padres National Forest

Bryan Conant and his dog Bailey surveying McPherson Trail

Born in Ventura, Mr. Conant grew up in Pacific Palisades, near the Santa Monica Mountains. His family regularly backpacked in the Sierras when he was growing up. In 1993, he moved to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB, and it was then that he had his first introduction to the Santa Barbara backcountry.

“My first couple of years at UCSB I didn’t even look at the mountains. Then one day a friend drove me out to Red Rock, and I saw the view coming off the backside of Highway 154, and was just blown away.”, Mr. Conant shared “I had no idea all of this was out here.”

After college, Mr. Conant began work at local map company Magellan Geographix, which later became, and continued to explore the local backcountry in his spare time.

In addition to the maps he’s produced, Mr. Conant’s love of the backcountry and interest in our local trails has lead him to a number of opportunities.

Inspired by a talk about the Condor Trail, Mr. Conant eventually became President of the Condor Trail Association in 2009; and he has actively worked to help promote the trail. The trail is a through-hike route that makes use of existing trails and roads, and stretches from Lake Piru at the southern end of Los Padres National Forest to Botchers Gap in the Big Sur area, at the northern end of the national forest. The trail was included in the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act introduced by Representative Lois Capps. If the bill passes, the trail will become designated as a National Recreation Trail.

Since 2012, he has been working with web designer John Ziegler on Hike Los Padres. The website,, went live in 2014, and features an interactive map of the local backcountry, complete with trails and camps. One of the main benefits of the site is that it allows trail users to post updates and reports from their hikes.

In 2013, Mr. Conant transitioned from working full time with to part time, and began work as the Executive Director of Los Padres Forest Association. The local non-profit organization works closely with the forest service to help educate trail users and maintain backcountry trails through volunteer trail work projects.

In 2014, Mr. Conant designed the kiosk maps for the forest service that now appear at a number of local trailheads, including Nira and Upper Oso. The kiosk maps combine his San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness maps, and with the updates he’s included, is actually his most current map of the backcountry, at least until the new San Rafael Wilderness Map hits the stores.

The second revision of the San Rafael Wilderness map is expected to be out in the spring, and can be found at most outdoor stores, and many local bookstores. For more information or questions about the map go to, or contact Mr. Conant at

This article originally appeared in section A of March 2nd, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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