Posted by: James Wapotich | May 9, 2016

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Falls

Although this year’s El Niño has provided some rain, it so far hasn’t been enough to offset the past several years of drought we’ve experienced, nor has it done much to help bring to life the different waterfalls found in our local mountains. Nevertheless, the timing and amount of rain we’ve received has been a boon to the local wildflowers.

And while Figueroa Mountain remains the most popular destination for viewing wildflowers, many of our local backcountry trails have also seen a great variety of wildflowers in bloom.

Santa Cruz Trail from Upper Oso to Santa Cruz Camp, for example, had more than 25 different wildflowers, including poppies and lupines on Little Pine Mountain. The trail offers both day hiking and backpacking opportunities as there are several trail camps along the route.

Santa Cruz Falls trail hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness creek

Santa Cruz Falls

The hike to Santa Cruz Camp is about 21 miles roundtrip. From the camp, it’s roughly another mile upstream to Santa Cruz Falls. When the falls are really flowing they can make for a great off-trail destination, but even in a year such as this they still provide an excuse to visit a remote part of our backcountry.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass. Turn right onto Paradise Road and continue to Lower Oso Day Use Area. From there, turn left onto Romero-Camuesa Road and continue to Upper Oso Campground. As you approach the campground stay to the right and park in the parking area just before the locked Forest Service gate. An adventure pass is still required to park at the trailhead.

From the trailhead, Santa Cruz Trail follows the unpaved Buckhorn-Camuesa Road for the first three-quarters of a mile before arriving at the beginning of the single-track trail.

The route through Oso Canyon follows the creek and leads through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants. Some of the wildflowers on display this year included fiesta flower, blue dicks, shooting stars, fairy lanterns, mariposa lilies, larkspur, and paintbrush.

Map Santa Cruz Trail falls Little Pine Spring Happy Hollow 19 Oaks Upper Oso San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

At about the 2-mile mark, the trail arrives at the turnoff to Nineteen Oaks. From here, it’s a relatively short hike, mostly uphill, to the camp. There are two campsites, each with a picnic table and fire ring. The closest water source is Oso Creek; the creek does not flow year round.

Past the turnoff, Santa Cruz Trail crosses a side creek that flows into Oso Creek, and then begins the roughly 3.5-mile climb to Alexander Saddle. As the trail leaves the creek, it passes through predominantly purple sage, coastal sage, and yucca, with a little white lupine thrown in.

As the trail climbs, it offers some exceptional views out across Oso Canyon and eventually the Santa Ynez Valley.

At about the 5.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at Alexander Saddle. Here, the view extends north towards the San Rafael Mountains. At the saddle is beginning of the connector trail to Little Pine Mountain and Happy Hollow, both of which are about three-quarters of a mile away. This year Little Pine Mountain, like a number of open, grassy hillsides in our backcountry, was ablaze with poppies.

Fiddleneck Alexander Saddle Little Pine Mountain Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest

Fiddleneck flowers cover a hillside near Alexander Saddle

From the saddle, Santa Cruz Trail continues down the backside of the mountain, and about a mile later arrives at the turnoff for Little Pine Spring. The quarter of a mile side trail down to the spring more or less follows the edge of the chaparral along the grassy hillside before turning left and crossing the drainage, and arriving at camp. The camp has a picnic table and fire ring, and nearby, flowing into a large trough, is the reliable spring.

Past the turnoff, the trail continues towards Santa Cruz Camp, making its way towards a long side canyon. Here, the trail arrives at what is affectionately known as the 40-mile wall. So named because this roughly 2-mile stretch of trail, with its southern exposure, can seem to go on forever, particularly on the hike back out.

Checkerspot butterfly holly-leaf cherry Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest

Checkerspot butterfly on holly-leaf cherry

This same section, however, perhaps because of its southern exposure, has a lot of holly-leaf cherry growing along it. Holly-leaf cherry is found throughout much of California, from Mendocino County, down through San Diego County and into Baja California. It is a large, evergreen shrub with spiny or toothed leaves similar in appearance to holly.

The plant flowers March through May with its clusters of yellowish-white flowers. In September and October the fruit ripens. The fruit is edible, however the fleshy part is just a thin layer over a large pit. Nevertheless, the cherries are popular with the bears. During the fall, one can find a fair amount of scat along this section of trail, suggesting that the bears make regular visits to this extended grove for the cherries.

The Chumash also made use of holly-leaf cherry. Although instead of harvesting it for the fruit, they would gather it for the pits. Once gathered, the fruit was allowed to rot off; the pits were then cleaned and cracked open to get at the kernels, which could be stored similar to acorns. Because the cherry pits contain hydrocyanic acid, which is both poisonous and bitter tasting, the Chumash would first leach the kernels before preparing them. A popular food item, cherry kernels were said to be worth twice as much in trade as an equal volume of acorn kernels.

Also found along this section is chia sage. Chia sage can be found throughout the southwest. The plant, with its blueish-purple flowers, blooms in the spring and then goes to seed in the late spring and early summer. The Chumash used the seeds as a food source and like cherries and acorns, the seeds could be stored. Another popular food item, chia seeds were even more valuable than cherry kernels in terms of trade; the seeds were said to be worth five times a similar volume of acorn kernels.

Santa Cruz Trail is also home to a couple wildflowers that are considered rare. Near Alexander Saddle on the backside of the mountain one can find Ojai fritillary and near the creek by one of the camps at Santa Cruz Camp one can find Humboldt lily. Although both plants can be found over a wide range, the frequency and number of specimens found were they do appear is much more limited in comparison to other plants.

Springtime has also brought out the butterflies. Common along the trail are checkerspot and swallowtails. Another treat that can be seen this time of year are white-lined sphinx moths and their caterpillars. Sometimes referred to as hummingbird moths because their rapid wing movement, hovering and darting from flower to flower to drink nectar is similar to that of hummingbirds.

Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest hiking backpacking

Santa Cruz Canyon

Past the 40-mile wall section, Santa Cruz Trail rounds a corner and descends down towards Santa Cruz Creek. The trail crosses the creek and continues towards camp. The creek is currently is flowing, but does not flow year round.

The camp is spread out along side the creek under a grove of coast live oaks. There are two main sites, each with a picnic table and metal stove. Because neither the camp or the section of trail from Upper Oso is in the wilderness, Santa Cruz Camp also makes for a suitable destination for mountain bikes.

At the camp, Santa Cruz Trail meets Santa Cruz Jeepway, which is an unpaved Forest Service access road that connects back up to Buckhorn Road.

For the hike to the falls, continue east along the road towards the first creek crossing. There is no trail to Santa Cruz Falls; from the crossing it’s about a mile of rock-hopping upstream to the confluence of East and West Fork Santa Cruz Creeks. Along the way one can find dry side channels and the occasional animal trail to help ease the hike. The falls are located along East Fork Santa Cruz Creek, just above the confluence.

Regardless of how far you go, Santa Cruz Trail provides a wide array of scenery and natural history to discover.

This is article originally appeared in section A of the May 9th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

White-line sphinx moth hummingbird Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest

Sphinx moth on purple sage

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