Posted by: James Wapotich | June 2, 2016

Trail Quest: Rattlesnake Falls

Although this year’s rain hasn’t provided much relief from the drought we’re experiencing, it has added enough water to the backcountry to make for some great backpacking opportunities. And while the waterfalls don’t have enough water to be described as spectacular, the rains have provided enough fresh, flowing water to still make some of them satisfying places to visit.

One of the more remote waterfalls in our backcountry is Rattlesnake Falls. The falls are found in a side canyon along the upper reaches of Sisquoc River in San Rafael Wilderness. A visit to the falls can make for a good backpacking adventure with the falls as an incentive for the hike. The shortest route to the falls starts from Santa Barbara Canyon and follows Judell Trail down to Sisquoc River. The hike is about 25 miles roundtrip.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai. From Ojai, continue north along State Route 33 towards Cuyama. State Route 33 follows North Fork Matilija Creek; climbs out of that drainage; and continues past to the turnoff to Rose Valley. From there, it follows Sespe River towards Pine Mountains Summit and then descends down towards the Cuyama River. Continue on State Route 33 past the tiny town of Ventucopa towards Foothill Road.

Rattlesnake Falls Sisquoc River hike backpacking trail Los Padres national forest San Rafael Wilderness Cottonwood Camp waterfall

Rattlesnake Falls

Foothill Road can be easy to miss. The road follows the Santa Barbara – San Luis Obispo County line west across the river, which is often dry, and arrives at the beginning of Santa Barbara Canyon Road. To avoid having to cross the river, continue north on State Route 33 to State Route 166 and turn left towards Cuyama and then double back on Kirschenmann Road to Foothill Road.

From Foothill Road, Santa Barbara Canyon Road continues south and follows Santa Barbara Canyon into the Sierra Madre Mountains. The road is paved, becoming bumpy in places as it passes through scenic ranch land. The road then arrives at the gate near Santa Barbara Canyon Ranch. The gate is closed seasonally from November to May. Past the gate, the road continues unpaved but is generally accessible to most vehicles.

The road passes Dry Canyon Road, and eventually arrives at Willow Flat and the beginning of Santa Barbara Canyon Trail. From here, the road continues another three-quarters of a mile and arrives at a locked forest service gate and the beginning of the hike to Rattlesnake Falls. An adventure pass is not required to park at the trailhead. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 2.5 hours.

From the trailhead, continue along Buckhorn Road. The unpaved access road follows Alamo Canyon and then begins its climb to the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains offering views back down the canyon. At about the 4.5-mile mark, the road arrives at the intersection with Sierra Madre Road. Continue west along Sierra Madre Road another three-quarters of a mile to the signed beginning of Judell Trail. The road leads through some scenic rolling hills covered with wild grasses.

Map Judell Trail Rattlesnake Falls Sisquoc River Heath Cottonwood San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

Judell Trail starts at the top of Judell Canyon, appearing here as little more than a crease in the hillside. The trail passes Santa Barbara Potrero, where one can find a picnic table, before the canyon starts to take on some definition. The trail is in generally good condition, although overgrown with wild grasses.

As the trail descends down through the canyon the burn damage from the 2007 Zaca Fire is still evident. Regrowth from the fire has brought new vitality to the canyon, and here, one can see willow, canyon live oak, big cone spruce, and even maple along the route.

The trail then officially enters San Rafael Wilderness, arriving at a sign that has been well-decorated with scratch marks from the local black bears.

Judell Canyon, as well as Samon Peak, are named for Judell M. Samon, who from 1929-1933, served as Assistant Supervisor of Santa Barbara National Forest, the forerunner to Los Padres National Forest. Samon later served as Assistant Supervisor of San Bernardino National Forest.

As the trail continues towards Sisquoc River, it passes through an unburned section of the canyon, offering a glimpse of pre-Zaca Fire conditions. Along the route the diversity of plants continues to increase and includes ceanothus, scrub oak, elderberry, yerba santa, coffeeberry, and chokecherry.

Judell Canyon Heath hiking trail backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Judell Canyon scenery

At about the 10.5-mile mark from the trailhead, the trail arrives at Sisquoc River and Heath Camp. The camp has a fire ring and grated stove and currently there is water flowing in the river. Two more sites can be found by continuing upstream along the trail, look for a break in the brush and a faint side trail that leads over to the river. Both sites have a grated stove and see little use.

Heath Camp is named for Jim Heath, who had a ranch in Cuyama Valley and led hunting and fishing trips into the backcountry. He is said to have hunted with Theodore Roosevelt, as well as tamed mountain lions and bears for exhibitions in Maricopa.

From Heath Camp, Sisquoc River Trail continues upstream towards Bear Camp and Alamar Saddle and offers several options for creating extended backpacking trips.

To visit the falls, continue downstream from Heath Camp towards South Fork. The trail follows the river and leads through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants and, about mile later, arrives at Cottonwood Camp.

The camp has three sites. The main site has a fire ring and grated stove. Nearby, under a coast live oak, near the outhouse, is a second site with a grated stove. And downstream, across the river, just off the trail, is a third site with a fire ring and grated stove. There is currently water at the camp.

Sisquoc River Trail hiking backpacking Cottonwood Camp Rattlesnake Falls San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres national forest

Sisquoc River near Cottonwood Camp

Cottonwood Camp likely takes its name from the nearby grove of cottonwood trees. In fact, given the number of cottonwood saplings found there, it could easily be described as a natural nursery.

There are two types of cottonwood common to our area, black cottonwood and Fremont cottonwood. Both have heart-shaped leaves. Black cottonwood is found along the coast and has leaves with smooth edges, while Fremont cottonwood prefers the backcountry and has leaves with scalloped edges.

Cottonwoods favor riparian areas and are often found along creeks and rivers. Fremont cottonwood was named after John C. Frémont and is found in the southwestern United States and western Mexico. The tree can live for more than 130 years, with its bark starting out smooth when it’s young and becoming more furrowed as it ages. In the late spring, the fruit, which is a fluffy wind-dispersed achene, begins to appear and can look like patches of cotton hanging on the trees. And it’s this effect that gives the tree its name. The tree is deciduous and in the fall the leaves turn a golden yellow.

From Cottonwood Camp, it’s about a half-mile downstream along the trail to the turnoff to Rattlesnake Falls. Continue along Sisquoc River Trail towards Mansfield Camp and look for the signed beginning of Rattlesnake Canyon. From the sign, it’s less than a quarter-mile along the informal trail to the base of the falls.

The falls are surprising tall given the contours of the canyon and tumble over a high rock wall, flowing across the face of moss-covered travertine. At the base, is a fairly appealing pool of water that adds to the sense of quietude the falls seem to offer.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 23rd, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Bear sign scratches trail sign Los padres national forest San Rafael Wilderness Judell Canyon

San Rafael Wilderness sign decorated with bear scratches

Visited the Upper Sisquoc a couple weeks ago with my friend Jasper. Hiked in along the Buckhorn Road to Sierra Madre Road and then down Judell Trail to the Sisquoc. Got hail on the hike in and then rain. Camped the first night at Cottonwood Camp.

The next morning day-hiked down to Rattlesnake Falls, and then returned to Cottonwood Camp and backpacked to Upper Bear. Originally we’d planned to hike to Madulce Camp with a side trip to Madulce Peak that day, however because we had more rain on part of the second day, we opted to camp at Upper Bear so I’d have a chance to try for more photos of Bear Camp the next morning for the second article.

At Upper Bear, with enough daylight to cause ourselves trouble we decided to day hike to the top of Big Pine Mountain (7 miles round trip), you know ’cause it was still light out.

Anyway the next day, it cleared just enough in the morning for me to hike down to Bear Camp and take some photos. Then from Upper Bear we hiked back to the car via Madulce and Santa Barbara Canyon Trails, with a side hike up to Madulce Peak.

There is water currently along most of the Upper Sisquoc. Water at Cottonwood, Heath, Lower Bear, Upper Bear, and a trickle upstream from Madulce Camp. No water at Bear Camp.


  1. Where do you park on Sierra madre Rd and how far is it to judell trailhead? Do you know when they open the gate?

    • The route one takes is via Santa Barbara Canyon Road. There is a Forest Service gate near Santa Barbara Ranch that is seasonally closed from November – May. Past the gate, the road continues unpaved as the Buckhorn Road to Willow Flat and the beginning of Santa Barbara Canyon Trail. Buckhorn Road continues another three-quarters of a mile past Willow Flat to a permanently locked Forest Service gate. From there it’s roughly 4.5 miles to Sierra Madre Road, and then another roughly three-quarters of mile along Sierra Madre Road to the beginning of Judell Trail.

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