Posted by: James Wapotich | September 8, 2015

Trail Quest: Thorn Point Lookout

While the trailhead for Thorn Point is some distance from Santa Barbara, roughly 2.5 hours, the hike to the old Forest Service lookout at Thorn Point provides an opportunity to take in some rich scenery and great views that can make the drive worthwhile.

The hike to the lookout is about seven miles round trip.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai and take State Route 33 towards Cuyama. The road crests Pine Mountain summit, before continuing down towards the intersection with Lockwood Valley Road. Turn right onto Lockwood Valley Road and follow it to the turnoff for Grade Valley Road, on the right.

Thorn Point Trail hike backpacking Los Padres national Forest lookout

Mt. Pinos and Frazier Mountain are seen in the distance from Thorn Point Trail

Grade Valley Road is paved for the first 1.5 miles, and then continues unpaved the rest of the way. On the drive in, the road passes the turnoff for Pine Springs Campground, as well as the Fishbowls trailhead, before crossing Piru Creek. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended in order to cross Piru Creek.

Past the creek crossing the road branches. The road to the left continues past the Cedar Creek trailhead and ends at Thorn Meadows Campground and the Thorn Point trailhead. The road to the right continues towards Half Moon Campground and the Johnson Ridge trailhead. Grade Valley Road is seasonally closed December through May.

Because of then lengthy drive, one option is to car camp in one of the nearby campgrounds and explore several trails in the area. The extra time in the area can also help one adjust to the altitude; the trailhead for Thorn Point is around 5,000’ and climbs to almost 7,000’. And during the summer, the best time to hit the trail is early in the morning to avoid the heat on the hike to the top.

Map courtesy

Map courtesy

There are several campgrounds found along the drive, Reyes Creek, Pine Springs, and Thorn Meadows. All of the campsites include a fire ring and picnic table, and are on a first come, first served basis. An adventure pass is required to camp, but not to park at any of the trailheads.

Reyes Creek is perhaps the most popular campground with 30 campsites, roughly half of which are along Reyes Creek. The turnoff for the campground is on Lockwood Valley Road between State Route 33 and the turnoff for Grade Valley Road.

Pine Springs has a dozen campsites and Thorn Meadows has two. Unfortunately, the restrooms and nearby guard station at Thorn Meadows have been needlessly shot up by people with their guns.

Thorn Meadows Campground was originally known as Snedden Campground. The Snedden family homesteaded in Lockwood Valley during the late 1800s and in 1895, purchased the land at Thorn Meadows, which is now part of the National Forest.

The hike to Thorn Point provides an opportunity to get to know some of the plants that can be found in the area. For example, ponderosa pines can be seen growing along much of Grade Valley Road and the trail.

black oak kellogg oak thorn meadows point lookout trail hiking backpacking los padres national forest

Black oak seen along the trail

Another noticeable plant along the trail is California black oak, also known as Kellogg oak. Nature has made it easy to get a sense of this plant by placing a lone specimen in one of the campsites at Thorn Meadows, this in turns makes it easier to spot the tree along the trail.

Black oak has smooth gray bark when it’s young, which becomes thick and ridged as the tree matures. The leaves are dark green, deeply lobed, and somewhat pointed at the end. Of the oaks in our area, it bears the closest resemblance to valley oak, which also has deeply lobed leaves.

Black oaks are found in California and southern Oregon, typically growing inland in the foothills and lower mountains. The tree can live between 100-200 years of age and is often found growing with ponderosa pines or mixed conifers.

The wood of black oak is used commercially for flooring and pallets, and historically the forks of open-grown trees were used for ship keels and ribs. The tree is also used in landscaping.

From the campground, the trail crosses an unnamed creek and enters Sespe Wilderness. The creek is dry and no water is found along the trail.

The trail then continues upstream along another unnamed creek. Here, the trail passes through some breathtaking scenery of conifers and ferns. Western bracken ferns line the trail and in several sections carpet the forest floor. Mixed in with ferns are some very tall ponderosa pines and almost equally tall incense cedars.

western bracken fern ponderosa pines thorn point meadows trail lookout hike backpacking Los Padres national Forest

Ferns and ponderosa pines

At about the .75-mile mark, the trail arrives at the beginning of the first series of switchbacks on its climb to the lookout. Here, the plants transition from riparian and chaparral to mostly conifers. As the climb continues, big cone Douglas fir and sugar pines become part of the mix of trees, with sugar and ponderosa pines becoming the codominant plants.

Sugar and ponderosa pines are the two tallest pines found in California, with both growing to over 200 feet. The tallest sugar pine ever recorded was “Yosemite Giant” found in Yosemite National Park. The tree grew to 269 feet before succumbing to bark beetles in 2007.

Both sugar and ponderosa pines have reddish-brown bark; however, one of the main characteristics that distinguishes sugar pine from other pines is its long pine cones. The cones form near the end of the branches and can be 10-20 inches in length, the longest of any conifer.

Sugar pines can be found in Oregon, California and parts of Baja California. The name is said to come from the sweet-smelling resin the tree produces. The wood from sugar pines is used commercially for doors, molding, and window and door frames, as well as for piano keys.

As the trail continues its climb towards Thorn Point, each hard-earned gain in elevation along the trail is rewarded with equally more expansive views of Grade Valley and Mount Pinos to the north.

Eventually the lookout tower can be seen in the distance, and the trail starts to level out for a brief respite, before making the final push to the top.

Thorn Point Lookout trail hike backpacking peak los padres national forest AWS

Thorn Point Lookout

Thorn Point Lookout hike trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Personnel cabin is seen from Thorn Point Lookout

The trail then arrives at Thorn Point Lookout. The lookout was built in 1933 with material that was hauled up to the site by mules. During World War II, the lookout was manned around the clock and the nearby ground cabin, which is still standing, was added for off-duty personnel. The site was later used a condor monitoring station.

Today, the interior of the lookout, as well as the cabin, could be best described as run down. However, one of the highlights of the lookout tower is the artwork of Lorinda Poole, who manned the lookout during the summer of 1971.

To pass the time she fixed up the cab, including repainting two of the cupboards with a can of red paint, the same red used by the Forest Service to paint trail signs. As the paint dried, using an ice pick, she engraved woodland scenes on the cupboard doors. One cupboard features a picture of a quail on one door and a grey squirrel gathering acorns on the other door. The other cupboard features a scene across both doors of a crouched mountain lion stalking a resting fawn.

The images are well rendered and convey a sense of someone who probably enjoyed her time in nature.

From the lookout site, the panoramic views include the Cuyama Badlands, San Emigdio Mesa, Mount Pinos, Frazier Mountain, Cobblestone Mountain, Sespe Valley, and the Channel Islands.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see some of the unique scenery found in this remote part of Los Padres National Forest.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 8th, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Thorn Point Trail lookout hike sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Cobblestone Mountain is seen in the distance from Thorn Point Trail

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