Posted by: James Wapotich | March 21, 2016

Trail Quest: Ballard Camp

Although the original Ballard Camp no longer appears on today’s maps, the site is still relatively easy to locate and can make for an interesting destination. The camp is in Birabent Canyon, which is tucked up against the San Rafael Mountains.

The trail down into the canyon and along the creek leads through a diverse mix of plants and the hike to the original Ballard Camp is about 4.5 miles round trip.

To get the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 to Los Olivos and turn right onto Figueroa Mountain Road. Continue along Figueroa Mountain Road through the broad valley of Alamo Pintado Creek to the mouth of Birabent Canyon. From here, Figueroa Mountain Road begins its climb out of the valley, towards Figueroa Mountain and the top of the San Rafael Mountains.

Birabent Canyon Ballard Camp La Jolla Trail hiking Figueroa Mountain San Rafael Los Padres National Forest

The meadow where the original Ballard Camp was located

The drive offers some exceptional views out across Birabent Canyon to the north and the Santa Ynez Valley to the south. As the road approaches the top of the mountains look for the signed beginning of La Jolla Trail on your left. Parking is found in the pullouts on both sides of the road. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far if you arrive at the turnoff for Figueroa Mountain. An adventure pass is not required to park at the trailhead.

From the trailhead, continue across the open, grassy field, which is dotted with mistletoe-laden oaks. Here, the views across the canyon are framed by Zaca Peak, the back side of Grass Mountain, and the San Rafael Mountains.

The trail then transitions into a mix of ceanothus, toyon, coast live oak, and the occasional grey pine. As the trail continues and descends down into Birabent Canyon, the plants begin to feel much more woodsy, as one starts to see scrub oak, taller manzanita, and big cone Douglas fir. The trail then follows a series of more exposed switchbacks, as the trail leads through a mix of chaparral including holly-leaf cherry, yerba santa, coastal sagebrush, and black sage.

The canyon was likely named for Jean Marie Birabent who homesteaded in the area. Birabent was born in France, in 1834, and in 1853, came to America and settled in San Francisco. Following the drought of 1864, which cost him his entire herd of cattle, Birabent moved to Santa Barbara with his family and opened a hotel. In 1880, he retired from the hotel business and returned to ranching, homesteading near Figueroa Mountain. Birabent passed away in 1909.

Birabent Canyon La Jolla Trail Springs hike backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

Birabent Canyon is seen from La Jolla Trail

The trail into the canyon is in good shape and the descent is well spread out, which makes the hike back up not as hard as it could be. At about the 1.75-mile mark, the trail arrives at Ballard Camp. The camp has two sites each with a grated stove. The second site is just downstream from the first and both are along the trail.

From here, it’s roughly a half-mile downstream to the site of the original Ballard Camp. The trail follows the creek and is well-shaded, and has the feeling of being in a hidden world with the San Rafael Mountains seeming to tower above. The creek through here typically has some water flowing in it year round, and recent rains have made it into a pleasantly babbling brook.

Along the creek is a mix of riparian plants and trees. Here, one can find wild blackberry, gooseberry, mugwort, poison oak, and nettle. The trees include alder, maple, coast live oak, sycamore, arroyo willow, and California bay laurel.

Of the trees, the two most prominent are alder and maple. The alder trees are a good indicator that the creek flows nearly year round and with its golden catkins currently on display is easy to recognize. But the real star of the show is maple. Big leaf maple can be found in the mountain canyons of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, but here their numbers seem particularly plentiful.

Big leaf maple is found in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The tree can grow to 50-80 feet and is the largest maple in North America.

Maple prefers moist areas such as forests and canyons, and is recognizable by its characteristic five-lobed palmate leaf, and has the largest leaves of any North American maple. The leaves are deciduous turning golden yellow before falling and becoming a rusty brown on the ground, similar in appearance to sycamore leaves. In fact, during the fall Birabent Canyon offers some rich autumn colors with the leaves of alder, maple, sycamore, and arroyo willow all changing color.

The bark of maple starts out smooth and grayish brown on younger trees, becoming furrowed and more reddish brown as they mature. The tree can live to 50-200 years. Its range is limited by cold winters to the north and insufficient rain to the south, and in southern California is largely confined to riparian woodlands. The tree is also found on Santa Cruz Island.

Cortinarius mushroom birabent canyon ballard camp los padres national forest la jolla trail hike san rafael mountains

Cortinarius mushrooms are seen pushing up through the leaf litter

Also along the trail this time of year one can find cortinarius mushrooms poking up through the leaf litter. Our recent cycle of rain alternating with warm sunny weather has inspired the mushroom, with its rusty orange color and noticeable gills, to appear. Cortinarius has a mycorrhizal relationship with coast live oak and it’s interesting to observe just how far from the trunk of the oaks the mushrooms are growing, in some cases 50-70 feet. A reflection of not only how far the roots of oak extend, but also how far down the mushroom’s mycelium reaches.

At about the 2.25-mile mark, the trail arrives at a side canyon on the right. Here, La Jolla Trail turns and follows this spring-fed canyon on its way to the top of the San Rafael Mountain. However, by continuing downstream one can find an informal trail the leads up to an open, grassy area above the creek, on the left, where the original Ballard Camp was located.

Nothing remains of the camp, but the open meadow, awash in sunlight and framed by the canyon can make for a nice picnic spot.

Ballard Camp was named for William N. Ballard. Ballard worked for the Overland Mail Company and served as the superintendent for the stagecoach line that ran from San Francisco to Yuma, Arizona. Realizing the need for a stagecoach stop between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara he moved to the Santa Ynez Valley. In 1860, under his direction an adobe was built between what is now Los Olivos and the town of Ballard.

The adobe housed a dining room for passengers, a Well’s Fargo express office, and Ballard’s residence. The site, which included two horse barns, was named Alamo Pintado Station by Ballard, but became known as Ballard’s Station.

A second adobe was added in 1866. The two buildings were later joined and still stand today, serving as a private residence. In 1981, the structure became a Santa Barbara County Historical Landmark.

In 1862, Ballard’s friend, George W. Lewis, asked him if he would manage his nearby ranch while Lewis went to Mexico to look after property he had there.

Alder tree la jolla trail Birabent Canyon ballard camp los padres national forest hike san rafael mountains

Alder trees line the creek in Birabent Canyon

In 1870, with his health failing, Ballard sent for his fiancé, Cynthia Lunceford, and the two were married. Three months later Ballard passed away. Following Ballard’s death, Lewis returned to the Santa Ynez Valley to manage his ranch, as well as the stage coach station. And after an appropriate amount time, married Ballard’s widow.

In 1881, Lewis surveyed the site of what would become the town of Ballad and named it in honor of his friend.

It’s said that both Lewis and Ballard hunted in Birabent Canyon and likely used the site along the creek as a hunting camp.

From the turnoff towards the original camp, La Jolla Trail continues up the side canyon. The trail becomes more overgrown, but is still followable for another quarter-mile before damage and regrowth from the 1993 Marre Fire makes the trail essentially unhikeable.

Regardless of how far you go, the hike through Birabent Canyon offers a chance to visit another unique place in the San Rafael Mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 29th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Alamo Pintado Creek birabent canyon los padres national forest ballard camp la jolla trail



The last time I visited this trail, Trail Quest: The Search for the La Jolla Trail, I wasn’t able to find the middle section of the trail, which had become overgrown with regrowth from the 1993 Marre Fire. I had hiked down from Zaca Ridge Road to the “meadow” and hunted around, as well as came at it from Birabent Canyon. In both cases I wasn’t able to find enough of the trail to connect the two ends.

Since then, I had heard that someone had opened up the middle section of the trail and was curious to see if that was case. Instead, it looked like just the very beginning of the trail coming out of the canyon had been worked. Nevertheless, it proved enough to get me started, and this time around I was able to “hike” the entire middle section.

La Jolla Trail birabent canyon San Rafael Mountains hike Los Padres national forest meadow ballard

View looking back down canyon from the middle section of La Jolla Trail

From the trailhead along Figueroa Mountain Road, La Jolla Trail is in decent shape all the way down to where it turns up the side canyon fed by La Jolla Springs. The trail then continues another quarter-mile along the creek, before it climbs up onto a low ridge covered with coast live oaks that separates two side canyons on the east side of the creek. Just before the trail reaches the chaparral it hooks left to stay up on the ridge between the two canyons. Here it starts a series of switchbacks, the very first portion of which appears to have been worked.

The switchbacks are overgrown, with knee-high brush crowding in and growing in the tread in a number of places. As the trail climbs, the switchbacks become intermittent from slide and sluff damage. At one point the trail returns back to the ridge separating the two side canyons, and it’s here that it appears to continue into the canyon on what would be your left, before returning, and crossing back over into the canyon on your right, where the first set of switchbacks is located.

Because I was pressed for time I did not recon this portion completely. That is, I followed the trail up the left canyon until it become too brushy and then doubled-back to the ridge. From there, I just continued cross-country up the ridge on the assumption that I would refind the trail, which I did, and continued from there.

La Jolla Trail birabent canyon ballard hike San Rafael Mountains Los Padres national forest


The tread along this “upper” section of the trail is in a little bit better shape, but still overgrown with plants growing in the tread, as well as ceanothus crowding in. The trail then starts to become more overgrown and more meandering, and eventually arrives at an old water catchment for a spring that’s next to the trail – essentially a rain barrel surrounded by travertine. From here, the trail becomes still more overgrown, requiring, in places, crawling through brush in order to stay on the trail, before making the final push up to the meadow and connecting with the existing, hikeable section of trail.

meadow la jolla trail Birabent Canyon Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Mountains hiking

Part of the meadow along the upper part of La Jolla Trail


  1. I “accidentally” did this hike today. I headed down the creek, turned right at the blazed tree, and then pushed through a lot of poison oak. I ended up climbing a hill, following footprints in the dirt until I hit my turn-around time. Since the hike was an accident, I did not have a topo map with me, and was careful not to get lost. But you’ve intrigued me, and perhaps I’ll head back try again some time soon.

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