Posted by: James Wapotich | June 7, 2016

Trail Quest: Bear Camp

Near the headwaters of Sisquoc River, below Big Pine Mountain, are three camps named after our local bears. The camps are in one of the more remote areas of our backcountry and are best visited as part of a backpacking trip.

A loop hike can be made from Santa Barbara Canyon that leads through parts of the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness areas. The route encompasses Judell Canyon, the Upper Sisquoc River, and crosses below Madulce Peak for a total of about 28 miles.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai and continue north on State Route 33 towards Cuyama. As you pass the tiny town of Ventucopa look for Foothill Road on your left. The turnoff is about five miles north of Ventucopa. Foothill Road continues west, across the Cuyama River, which is typically dry, and arrives at Santa Barbara Canyon Road.

Bear Falls Sisquoc River Trail San Rafael Wilderness waterfall los padres national forest hiking backpacking

Unnamed waterfall upstream from Lower Bear Camp

Continue along Santa Barbara Road to the Forest Service gate near Santa Barbara Canyon Ranch. The road is paved, but bumpy in places. At the gate, the road becomes Buckhorn Road and continues unpaved. The gate is closed seasonally from November to May. Buckhorn Road is passable to most vehicles, however, conditions can vary and so it’s best to check with the Forest Service regarding current conditions.

Buckhorn Road eventually arrives at Willow Flat and the beginning of Santa Barbara Canyon Trail. From here, the road continues another three-quarters of a mile to a permanently locked Forest Service gate. From the gate, it’s about 4.5 miles along Buckhorn Road to Sierra Madre Road and then another three-quarters of a mile along Sierra Madre Road to Judell Trail, which leads down to Heath Camp and Sisquoc River Trail.

Heath Camp is about 10.5 miles from the trailhead. From here, Sisquoc River Trail follows Sisquoc River upstream towards Alamar Saddle. The trail leads through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants and initially offers views towards Big Pine Mountain at the top of the canyon.

The trail is in generally good shape, although there are several places along the trail with downed trees. The trail crosses the river, little wider than a creek here, more than a half-dozen times on the way to Lower Bear camp.

Map Madulce Guard Station Bear Camp Upper Sisquoc River Trail Santa Barbara Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness San Rafael Los Padres National Forest

Map Courtesy

At about 3.75-mile mark from Heath Camp, the trail arrives at Lower Bear Camp. The camp, sometimes referred to as Falls Camp, has a fire ring and the remains of an ice can stove. The camp is located on a small flat, next to the river, tucked in under a mix of alder, maple, and California bay laurel.

Just upstream from the camp is an unnamed waterfall. The falls are flowing, and one could reasonably call them Bear Falls in keeping with the other nearby place names.

From Lower Bear, the trail begins to climb as it continues towards the headwaters of Sisquoc River. The trail passes several more small cascades above the main waterfall, before arriving a half-mile later at a large open meadow surrounded by conifers. Damage from the 2007 Zaca Fire is still evident in the burned trees that stand in the small valley. Nevertheless, the area is slowly recovering and the meadow itself remains a picturesque sight.

Along the trail, near the southwest corner of the meadow, amongst the conifers, is Bear Camp. Sometimes referred to as Middle Bear, the camp has a fire ring and picnic table; but currently there is no water in the river nearby. An older camp can be found across the river, at the northeast corner of the meadow. Here, one can find the remains of an old ice can stove.

In the late 1800s, James Ord, who had a homestead in Loma Pelona, took a string a burros up and over Big Pine Mountain to the site to gather cedar wood to make shakes for the roof of his adobe.

The route he followed was called Devil’s Flower Garden Trail. The trail, which no longer exists, came up the south side of Big Pine Mountain from Loma Pelona; crossed over the eastern end of the mountain and descended down a canyon towards what is now Upper Bear Camp, before continuing towards Bear Camp.

Bear Camp Sisquoc River Trail Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness hiking backpacking

Meadow near Bear Camp

During the trip he got caught in a snowstorm and had to wait until the snow had melted enough in order to return over the mountain. With his supplies running out, he was fortunate enough to find a bear that he killed for food and from that point on the site became known as Bear Camp.

It was not recorded whether the bear he killed was a grizzly or black bear. Grizzly bears started becoming extinct in California at the turn of the last century. As grizzly bears declined, black bears began to expand into their areas. This process was supplemented during the 1930s, when California Department of Fish and Game began moving black bears from the Sierras to the mountains of Southern California.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that there are currently 25,000-30,000 black bears throughout the state, with less than 10 percent of those in Southern California.

California black bears can vary in color from black to brown or tan, with some even having a small white chest patch. Adult females can range from 100-200 pounds, and adult males average from 150-350 pounds.

Omnivorous, bears are master foragers and remember through past experience where and when to look for specific foods. In the spring and into the summer they’ll graze on wild grasses; during the summer they eat insects, as well as wild berries. Bears will also eat fawns when they can catch them and carrion when they find it. In the fall, they add acorns to their diet. Intelligent, curious, and opportunistic, bears roam over a wide area, with territories ranging from 15 to 80 square miles.

From Bear Camp it’s another half-mile to Upper Bear Camp. The trail passes through mostly cedars and pines, with an understory of ceanothus. Along the trail are encouraging signs of regrowth. In addition to ceanothus, which seems to have no trouble growing just about everywhere, there are numerous cedars and pines sprouting up.

Through this section, one can also find a fair amount of bear sign, particularly on the burned cedar trees. Bears will bite and scratch trees such as alder, sycamore, and pine, as well as man made objects, such as wooden signs, outhouses, and cabins. Bears will repeatedly mark trees along their travel routes, as well as near access points to good feeding areas.

Normally solitary creatures, except when breeding, it’s believed that bears also mark areas that are most important to them to alert other bears of their presence to avoid unnecessary conflicts.

Upper Bear Camp is a simple site with a fire ring tucked in under a couple of cedars, but it has the distinction of having generally reliable water. The camp is at the mouth of a small side canyon and just upstream from the camp one can find a spring-fed creek. The creek near the camp is surrounded by ferns and cedars giving it a uniquely alpine feel.

Hartman Brothers stove upper bear los padres national forest hunting camp san rafael wilderness sisquoc river trail hiking backpacking

Stove built by the Hartman Brothers at Upper Bear

In the early 1920s, the Hartman Brothers used the site as a hunting camp. Near the creek, upstream from camp, one can still find the old metal stove they built resting on its cement foundation. In 1939, the camp was used by Civilian Conservation Crops while building the Buckhorn Road and other trails in the area.

From Upper Bear it’s a half-mile up to Alamar Saddle. The trail transitions from conifers to mostly canyon live oak, before arriving at the saddle and Buckhorn Road. From the road it’s about a mile to Madulce Trail and from there three miles to Madulce Camp and Santa Barbara Canyon Trail. From Madulce Camp, it’s another eight miles down through Santa Barbara Canyon to complete the loop.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 6th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Bear Sign los padres national forest San Rafael Wilderness burned cedar tree

Bear sign on burned cedar


In early May I did a three-day backpacking trip to the Upper Sisquoc with my friend Jasper for a series of three articles. Starting from the Buckhorn Road in Santa Barbara Canyon we hiked in via Judell Trail and came out along Santa Barbara Canyon Trail for a loop hike, visiting Rattlesnake Falls, the various Bear Camps, and Madulce. Two weeks later I made a solo hike to Upper Bear via Santa Barbara Canyon to get some more photos.

While I was out there I did in fact see a bear at Upper Bear. I was gathering firewood right at camp and saw the bear moving quickly up the trail. I took just a few steps to get a view of the bear without the trees in the way. I was so intently focused on the bear that I didn’t adjust my camera, which is why these photos are a little fuzzy. The bear saw me, sniffed the air to try to catch my scent, and then decided it was just going to come on over for a visit. Not really liking this turn of events in a strong voice I “scolded” the bear, saying “Hey,..No!” as it started to move towards me. At the sound of my voice the bear turned and dashed up the trail and a few moments later I heard it yelp, as if to say “That was scary, I didn’t like that”, which made me think that maybe there was a mama bear nearby. But no other bears appeared, and the bear did seem too large to be cub. In fact, based on its behavior, i.e. being all curious and yelping I’m guessing that it was a teenager on its own.

California Black Bear Upper Sisquoc River Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Camp


California Black Bear Upper Sisquoc River Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Camp


California Black Bear Upper Sisquoc River Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Camp


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