Posted by: James Wapotich | August 29, 2016

Trail Quest: San Emigdio Mesa Spring Trail

Located in northern Ventura County, Mount Pinos is the tallest mountain is our local area. At 8,831 feet in elevation, it is also the tallest mountain in Los Padres National Forest. The mountain is connected to Sawmill Mountain, Grouse Mountain, and Cerro Noroeste forming a single unit overlooking Cuddy Valley, to the north, and San Emigdio Mesa and Lockwood Valley, to the south.

San Emigdio Mesa is a large alluvial fan along the southwestern slope of Cerro Noroeste. The area is predominantly covered in pinyon pine and juniper woodland and can be visited as part of a day hike or backpacking trip.

The mesa is part of the Chumash Wilderness, which was established in 1992. The 38,150-acre wilderness area includes the mountains between Mount Pinos and Cerro Noroeste and extends south towards Lockwood Valley, and southwest through San Emigdio Mesa towards the Cuyama Badlands.

San Emigdio Mesa Spring Trail hike backpacking chumash wilderness los padres national forest

Scenery along Mesa Spring Trail

San Emigdio Mesa Spring Trail, or simply Mesa Spring Trail, leads from the top of the mountains down to Mesa Spring Camp and across the mesa. The trail sees far fewer visitors than nearby Tumamait or North Fork Lockwood Trails, and with reliable water found at the spring, provides a great opportunity to explore this part of the Chumash Wilderness.

From the Cerro Noroeste Road trailhead, the hike to Mesa Spring Camp is about eight miles round trip. If starting from Sheep Camp, as part of a backpacking trip, it’s about 11 miles round trip.

To get to the Cerro Noroeste trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101, south to Ventura. From Ventura, take State Route 126 east to Interstate 5 and continue north on Interstate 5 to Frazier Mountain Park Road, just past Gorman. Continue west on Frazier Mountain Park Road, through Frazier Park, to Cuddy Valley Road. Follow Cuddy Valley Road west to Mil Potrero Highway, and continue west along Mil Potrero Highway, past Pine Mountain Club, to Cerro Noroeste Road. Turn left onto Cerro Noroeste Road and follow it to the top of Cerro Noroeste, also known as Mount Abel.

Map North Fork Lockwood Trail Mount Pinos Sheep Camp Lily Chumash Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

As the road winds its way to the top of Cerro Noroeste it offers some exceptional views to the southwest out across San Emigdio Mesa and the Cuyama Badlands. The road then arrives at the beginning of Tumamait Trail, parking is found along the road. Past the trailhead the road ends at Campo Alto Campground, which has 12 campsites, each with a picnic table and fire ring. The sites are available on a first come, first served basis. The drive from Santa Barbara is about two and a half hours.

From Cerro Noroeste Road, it’s a half-mile descent along Tumamait Trail down to Puerto del Suelo and the beginning of Mesa Spring Trail. Past the intersection, Tumamait Trail continues along the top of the mountains to Mount Pinos.

If coming from Sheep Camp, continue along North Fork Lockwood Trail to the top of the mountains, and then follow Tumamait Trail west 1.5 miles to Mesa Spring Trail.

Puerto del Suelo is the low point along the mountain ridge between Grouse Mountain and Cerro Noroeste. A sign used to mark the trail juncture, but it’s now buried under a large fallen tree.

San Emigdio Mesa Spring Trail hike Chumash Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

San Emigdio Mesa is seen from Mesa Spring Trail

From Tumamait Trail, Mesa Spring Trail descends down the south side of the mountain and leads through predominantly Jeffrey pines. The trail soon joins a dry wash and follows it downstream. The trail is overgrown in places, but is generally followable.

As the trail continues to drop down in elevation, the plants become more diverse. Here, one starts sees flannel bush and canyon live oak mixed in with the pines. The trail then peels away from the wash as it transitions into predominantly pinyon pine, with some juniper and manzanita.

Pinyon pine, also spelled piñon, can be found throughout the southwestern United States and northern Baja California and is the only single-leaf pine in our area. The tree on average can live to be more than 350 years old. The oldest living specimen, recorded in Nevada, is over 900 years old. The tree’s nuts, or seeds, are used by chipmunks, ground squirrels, wood rats, mice, deer, black bears, and various jays. Many of these animals also cache the seeds similar to acorns, which helps to disperse them.

San Emigdio Mesa Meadow trail chumash wilderness los padres national forest

San Emigdio Mesa Meadow

Pinyon pines were also used by the Chumash as a food source. In late summer, they would travel from the coast to sites in the interior where the tree grows to gather seeds. In the early morning, before the pine pitch became too sticky, the Chumash would climb the trees to collect and knock cones to the ground. Later in the day they’d use longer sticks to continue knocking down cones. Cones were then heated in a fire to reduce the pitch and open up the cones, which were then worked to free the seeds. In a good year, a single tree can produce as much as 11 pounds of seeds.

The tree also had other uses for the Chumash. Wood from pinyon pine was used to make bows and the pitch from the trees was collected and mixed with asphaltum to produce yop, which was used to bind and seal the boards of their wooden plank canoes, or tomols.

As the trail continues through the pinyon pines, it crosses several side washes, which are also part of the Apache Canyon drainage, before following a ridge between two washes. Here, the views extend out across the mesa. The trail then crosses several more side washes and eventually arrives at the remnants of an old wooden trail sign, lying on the ground. The sign with its somewhat inaccurate mileage is still a good indicator that you’re on the right path.

Lawrence’s goldfinch San Emigdio Mesa Spring Trail Chumash Wilderness Los Padres national forest

Lawrence’s goldfinches getting water at Mesa Spring

The trail continues a little further and arrives at the first campsite, which features a grated stove. Just past the camp, is Mesa Spring.

The spring is a welcome sight in an otherwise dry landscape and has a steady trickle of water flowing into a large wooden barrel. The spring also serves as a bird magnet and you can often hear the cries of scrub jays even before you can see the site from the trail. At the spring, if you’re willing to sit quietly and watch the action, some of the birds that can be seen there, in addition to scrub jay, are Steller’s jay, northern flicker, raven, Cassin’s finch, and Lawrence’s goldfinch.

Steller's Jay San Emigdio Mesa Spring Trail Chumash Wilderness Los Padres national forest

An inquisitive Steller’s jay at Mesa Spring

Past the spring, the trail continues a short way down to the main camp, which features a picnic table and grated stove. Here, the old jeep road that led from Apache Canyon to the camp and spring becomes more evident. The jeep road was decommissioned when the area became part of the Chumash Wilderness.

Continuing past the camp, the trail leads through more pinyon pine and juniper woodland. Where the trail appears to branch, stay to the right. About a mile from the spring, the trail arrives at the edge of an impressively large meadow. Here, Mesa Spring Trail continues to the right and traces the northern edge of the meadow and connects over to Toad Springs Trail. However, an easier route is to just continue straight along the jeep road until it reaches the far end of the meadow where it also meets Toad Springs Trail.

Toad Springs Trail bisects the western portion of the Chumash Wilderness. The route was designated in 1976, as a motorcycle trail and connects Apache and Quatal Canyons. A landslide along the trail in the 1990s closed the trail to OHV traffic, but it is still otherwise hikeable. Both Quatal and Apache Canyons are part of what’s know as the Cuyama Badlands and can make for interesting side trips.

Quatal Canyon Cuyama Badlands Los Padres national forest

Quatal Canyon

Quatal Canyon Road is an unpaved road that connects Cerro Noroeste Road with State Route 33. The canyon, with its unique geology, is sometimes described as a smaller version of Bryce Canyon.

Apache Canyon Road, also unpaved, starts from State Route 33 and ends at Nettle Springs, near the beginning of Toad Springs Trail. Both roads are more easily traveled with a high-clearance vehicle.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see a unique part of Los Padres National Forest.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 18th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Tarantula Hawks on narrow leaf milkweed Quatal Canyon Cuyama Badlands Los Padres national forest

Tarantula Hawks on narrow leaf milkweed, Quatal Canyon


  1. Hi! I have a question. Is there pretty forest right by the trailhead? I am a photographer looking for pretty forest but I can’t hike in far at all.

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