Posted by: James Wapotich | April 12, 2015

Trail Quest: Visiting Mono Campground

Sometimes the best way to explore new trails is by car camping somewhere and day-hiking the nearby trails. There are a number of campgrounds within Los Padres National Forest that are located near trailheads, and each can offer new hiking opportunities.

Mono Campground is located in the upper Santa Ynez River Recreation Area and provides access to several different trails that lead into our backcountry, as well as Little Caliente Hot Spring.

To get to the campground from Santa Barbara, find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara. Gibraltar Road leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. At the top, turn right and continue east along East Camino Cielo Road. The road travels along the top of the mountains and offers stunning views of the coast on one side and the backcountry on the other.

Mono basin is seen from Romero-Camuesa Road near Mono Campground

Mono basin is seen from Romero-Camuesa Road near Mono Campground

At Romero Saddle, the road transitions, becoming Romero-Camuesa Road and continues unpaved down the backside of the mountains. A high clearance vehicle is recommended. The road eventually crosses the upper Santa Ynez River and continues towards the campgrounds.

Just before Middle Santa Ynez Campground, the road arrives at the intersection with Big Caliente Road. To the right, Big Caliente Road continues towards Rock Campground and ends at Agua Caliente Hot Springs. To the left, Romero-Camuesa Road continues towards Middle Santa Ynez Campground, P-Bar Flat Campground and eventually arrives at Mono Campground. The drive to Mono Campground from Santa Barbara is about 1.5 hours.

Mono Campground Map Indian Canyon Little caliente hike trail Lower Middle Camuesa P-Bar Flat Middle Santa Ynez River Campground Los Padres National Forest Cold Spring Trail

Map courtesy

Mono Campground is a walk-in site. From the parking area one needs to carry in their gear a short way across an open meadow to the campsites, which are tucked in under the oak trees. The campground features three campsites each with a picnic table and metal fire ring.

An adventure pass is required to camp at the campgrounds, but not to park at the trailheads. All campsites are on a first come, first serve basis. There are three different gates along Romero-Camuesa Road that are closed during inclement weather. Current road and campground conditions and closures for our area are listed on the forest service’s website at

From the campground, a short walk can be made upstream along the well-established social trail to the base of Mono Debris Dam. The dam was built in 1936 to keep additional sediment from flowing into Gibraltar Reservoir. At the base of the 35-foot high dam there can sometimes be a great swim hole. Currently, with the lack of water we’ve received, the pool is not very inviting.

mono debris dam historic archive los padres national forest campground

Mono Debris Dam image courtesy Los Padres National Forest Archive

mono debris dam campground los padres national forest

Mono Debris Dam today

One of the main features of Mono Campground is its proximity to Little Caliente Hot Spring. From the campground, it’s about two miles roundtrip to the hot spring.

To walk there, continue north along Romero-Camuesa Road to the Y-shaped intersection. To the right, the road continues up Little Caliente Canyon towards the hot spring. To the left, the road continues a short way farther to a locked forest service gate that represents the trailhead for both Indian Canyon and Mono-Alamar Trails.

The road to Little Caliente Hot Spring is drivable and parking is found at the end of the road. From the parking area, it is a short walk over to the hot spring. There are three small developed pools tucked into the canyon. There is no shade at the site, which in the evening lends itself well to stargazing.

Little Caliente Hot Springs Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara

Little Caliente Hot Springs

From the parking area, the road continues just briefly to the beginning of an old road that leads a quarter-mile down to Mono Creek. The road is gated and overgrown, appearing now as a single-track trail, but does tie into Mono-Alamar Trail and provides additional opportunities for exploring. In fact, a loop can be made back down to Romero-Camuesa Road along Mono-Alamar Trail. The loop, however, is best done during the day, as the lower stretch of Mono-Alamar Trail is badly overgrown, and, at times, difficult to follow.

Perhaps the nicest of the nearby trails is Indian Canyon Trail. From Mono Campground, continue along Romero-Camuesa Road, and stay to the left at the Y-shaped intersection to arrive at the forest service gate. From the small parking area at the gate, continue along the road. The road passes the beginning of Mono-Alamar Trail, crosses Mono Creek, and then almost immediately crosses Indian Creek, which is currently flowing.

Hummingbird Los Padres National Forest Indian Creek

A hummingbird hovers while taking a drink along Indian Creek

The road then continues up Indian Canyon, and, about a mile from the locked gate, arrives at the beginning of Indian Canyon Trail. From here, it’s a short walk along the trail to Indian Debris Dam. The small, cement flood control dam provides a great swim hole at its base. The hike to the swim hole from Mono Campground is about 2.5 miles round trip and is mostly level.

From the debris dam, the trail continues upstream along Indian Creek and provides additional hiking opportunities. The scenic canyon generally has water during the spring. Lower Buckhorn Camp is about 4.5 miles from the beginning of the trail, and Meadow Camp is roughly a half-mile farther.

Another hike that can be made along Romero-Camuesa Road is to Lower Camuesa Camp. From the the beginning of Indian Canyon Trail, continue along the road, which makes its way up a side canyon, eventually arriving at a cement water tower. From here, the road descends down into the next canyon, which joins Camuesa Creek.

At about the 1.75-mile mark from Indian Canyon Trail, the road arrives at a locked forest service gate. This gate represents the end of the OHV route that starts from Upper Oso. The road continues another .75 miles down into the canyon and arrives at the turnoff for Lower Camuesa Camp.

Lower Camuesa Camp has three campsites, two that each have a picnic table and metal fire ring, and a third that has two picnic tables and a cinder-block barbecue pit. Currently there is no water in Camuesa Creek at the campsites, but water is flowing just downstream. The hike to Lower Camuesa Camp from Mono Campground is about seven miles round trip.

Camuesa Peak Los Padres National Forest

Camuesa Peak is seen from Romero-Camuesa Road

Surprisingly it’s the trail that is closest to Mono Campground that is in the worst condition. At the parking area is the beginning of Cold Spring Trail, which is marked with a brown, flexible carsonite sign. Cold Spring Trail leads from Mono Campground, over the Santa Ynez Mountains, and ultimately arrives at Mountain Drive behind Montecito.

Cold Spring Trail as heads out of Mono Campground is overgrown and loaded with poison oak. The trail at times can be challenging to follow, but is flagged with blue ribbons tied every so often to brush or tree branches to mark the route. The trail follows the eastern edge of the basin, through an area largely dominated by cottonwood trees.

At about the 1.75-mile mark, the trail arrives at the Santa Ynez River, which currently has a little bit of water flowing in it, and is crossable. From here, the trail continues up a side canyon and about a quarter-mile later arrives at the beginning of Gibraltar Trail. Gibraltar Trail continues west, essentially paralleling the Santa Ynez River toward Gibraltar Reservoir. An interesting destination along this trail is Sunbird Quicksilver Mine, which is about three miles from the trail junction.

From the intersection with Gibraltar Trail, continue upstream along Cold Spring Trail. The trail soon arrives at what’s referred to as Emerald Pools. Here, mineral deposits have built up a series of small pools and a moss-covered cascade that can be quite picturesque during wetter years. From here, it’s another 1.5 miles uphill to Forbush Camp. The hike to Emerald Pools from Mono Campground is about four miles roundtrip.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll have to a chance to visit some of Santa Barbara’s backcountry trails.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 30th, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. Thanks again to for producing maps for the articles.

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