Posted by: James Wapotich | October 31, 2016

Trail Quest: Plowshare Spring

Pine Canyon is in the northwest corner of the national forest within Santa Barbara County. There are two trails through the canyon, Kerry Canyon Trail and Indians Trail.

When I hiked these trails several years ago, I somehow missed the turnoff to Plowshare Spring, which is in a side canyon off the main canyon, and was now feeling called to go back and look for it.

During that previous hike, I also found it odd that the trail through Pine Canyon changed names mid-way through the canyon. Kerry Canyon Trail actually starts to the east in Kerry Canyon; follows Kerry Creek up to Pine Flat; and then drops down into Pine Canyon. Half-way through Pine Canyon it becomes Indians Trail. There’s even an old camp right where the trail transitions, as if at one time it sat at the intersection of two trails.

Sierra Madre Mountains Indians Trail Pine Canyon Los Padres National Forest hike

Sierra Madre Mountains frame a view from the old Indians Trail

A visit to the USGS website with its online collection of historic topographic maps revealed the answer. The original Indians Trail started near Lake Ridge Trail and dropped down into Pine Canyon, where it met Kerry Canyon Trail, before continuing down to Brookshire Campground, as it does today. The question remained, however, was there anything left of the old section of trail to be found and how badly overgrown would it be?

Using another modern convenience, I reviewed Google satellite images of the area. Tracing the old route, it appeared to pass through mostly grassy hillsides dotted with oaks. It also looked like there was a trail of sorts. It was indistinct coming up out of the canyon, but became more defined as it followed the ridgeline overlooking Pine Canyon.

My plan was to start from Pine Flat; visit Plowshare Spring; and use the old section of Indians Trail to make a loop down to Brookshire Campground, where I’d camp for the night. A hike of about 15 miles roundtrip.

Pine Flat is reached from Santa Barbara, by taking Highway 101 north to Santa Maria. Continue past Santa Maria to State Route 166 East.

State Route 166 East heads towards Cuyama, passes Twitchell Reservoir, and follows the Cuyama River upstream towards the turnoff for Sierra Madre Road. Sierra Madre Road is an unpaved road that leads to the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains and along the way offers some exceptional views out across the Cuyama Valley and down into Pine Canyon. The road eventually arrives at a 5-way intersection. To the left, is the road up to Miranda Pines Campground; straight ahead, Sierra Madre Road continues along the top of the mountains; to the right, is Miranda Pine Road, which leads down to Pine Flat; and closer to the right is the road to Miranda Pine Spring.

Miranda Pine Road intersects Kerry Canyon Trail at Pine Flat, where there is also parking. The road ends at Brookshire Campground.

Kerry Canyon Trail Indians Pine Canyon hike Los Padres National Forest

Unnamed camp at the intersection of Kerry Canyon Trail and Indians Trail

From Pine Flat, I followed Kerry Canyon Trail down into Pine Canyon. The trail quickly descends through a mix of canyon live oak and chaparral before reaching the canyon floor. The scenic canyon slowly widens as it continues downstream. Noting the different side canyons along the route, I easily recognized the one for Plowshare Spring as the first one wide enough to even have a trail. Not sure how I missed it the first time around. Concerned about how much time I might need to find the old Indians Trail, I decided to save Plowshare Spring for the hike out.

In the distance, I could see the hillside where the old Indians Trail would’ve been and was again relieved to see that it was not covered in chaparral.

A half-mile later, I arrived at an even larger side canyon. Here, was the unnamed camp where the two trails intersected. At the camp is a broken down picnic table and a metal stove with a chimney set in a cement foundation. Bryan Conant on the 2015 revision of his San Rafael Wilderness map has opted to call it Pine Canyon Camp to identify the site; the revised map also includes the old Indians Trail.

According to the topographic map, Indians Trail continued up this broad canyon a short ways before turning up the first distinct side canyon. I proceeded from the camp, following a well-established cattle trail to a small side wash on the left, where I found an open ridge large enough for both man and beast to start the climb out of the canyon. The trail was distinct, but started to fade as if the cows fan out to graze after reaching a certain point in the climb. I continued cross-country up to the ridge overlooking Pine Canyon and arrived at a more established trail.

Here, the cattle trails again converged making a single clear route. As I followed the trail, I felt my sense of anxiety around reaching camp before dark start to dissolve. The trail proved easy to find, no bushwhacking through chaparral, just a simple hike up the hill thanks to the cattle. The route also matched the old Indians Trail almost precisely.

Nearing the top, I could see a wooden fence, likely part of the ranch building shown on the map, which meant I was also nearing the beginning of Lake Ridge Trail. In the distance along the ridge I could see cattle grazing.

Lake Ridge Trail hike Pine Canyon Los Padres National Forest

Pine Canyon is seen from Lake Ridge Trail

At the top, the trail joins a ranch road and continues to the left around the building and over to Lake Ridge Trail, which follows the ridgeline between Pine Canyon and Aliso Creek.

After about a mile along Lake Ridge Trail, I caught up with the cattle. They were enjoying the shade and grazing on new growth from our recent rain. And when they saw me coming they bolted, not wanting to take any chances with a potential predator coming down the trail.

I caught up with them again at a dry vernal pool, which likely gives the trail its name. The cattle again fled, and we continued in this fashion all the way down to the intersection with Willow Spring Trial, where they finally turned to the right, while I took the trail to the left.

From the ridge, I followed Willow Spring Trail down to Pine Canyon, where it meets Miranda Pine Road. This last section of the hike was more overgrown, having not received the benefit of heavy cattle traffic. From the road I continued up the canyon to Brookshire Campground.

The campground has two sites, each with a picnic table and metal fire ring. Nearby, in the creek, I found only standing pools of water with far too many cattle tracks. A short way up the creek, however, I was able to find a clear, unmolested pool of water to filter.

That night I was serenaded by a pair of screech owls calling to one another. In the morning, I was rousted awake by a gang of woodpeckers out-competing a neighboring group of scrub jays over who could greet the day with the most fervor.

I followed Indians Trail up Pine Canyon to the intersection with Kerry Canyon Trial, and continued from there to the side canyon where Plowshare Spring is located.

The trail to the spring starts out easy to follow and then climbs to the right above the creek as it passes through an outcropping of conglomerate stone. Above these narrows, the trail continues upstream along the creek and alternates between being distinct and indistinct depending on how the different cattle, animal, and hunter paths converge.

As I continued up the canyon, it became necessary to push through chaparral. I’d found my bushwhacking opportunity after all.

About a half-mile up the canyon, I arrived at Plowshare Spring Camp, nothing more than an old ice can stove marking the location. Across the creek, amongst the rocks, I found an old trash heap filled with rusted cans. Just upstream from the camp, I spotted a dense growth of healthy looking deer grass along the creek. There was no water in the spring, but it did look like it had flowed earlier in the year.

Having found the camp, I returned back down the canyon and completed the hike, inspired to find more old trails and camps to visit.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the October 31st, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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