Posted by: James Wapotich | November 19, 2016

Trail Quest: Pine Mountain Lodge

In the fall, one of the challenges in the backcountry is finding places to visit that still have some flowing water. Pine Mountain Lodge is located in the Sespe Wilderness, near the eastern end of Pine Mountain Ridge, and is a good destination for either a backpacking trip or a long day hike.

The camp is along Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail, which leads past two other trail camps along the way that can make for shorter hike destinations.

Curious how much water would be available at the camps I opt for the day hike, telling myself that the climb into the mountains will be rewarded with a visit to the pine forest surrounding Pine Mountain Lodge. The hike to Pine Mountain Lodge is about 13 miles roundtrip and involves a gain of about 3,000 feet.

To get to the Piedra Blanca Trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai. From Ojai, continue north along State Route 33. The road follows the Ventura River and then continues along North Fork Matilija Creek, before climbing out of the canyon. Just as the road levels out, it arrives at the turnoff for Rose Valley. Turn left onto Sespe Road and follow it past the turnoff to Rose Valley Campground, as well as the one for Middle Lion Campground. The road ends at the trailhead.

Piedra Blanca sandstone Gene Marshall Ojai sepse wilderness hike backpacking Los padres national forest

Piedra Blanca sandstone is seen along Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail

Big cone spruce douglas fir

Big cone spruce are seen along Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail

At the trailhead, I gather my gear, noticing the cool morning air is in the low 60s and that perhaps fall has finally arrived. The trail from the parking area drops down towards Sespe River and crosses Lion Creek, which is dry. Both the cottonwoods and willows are showing their fall colors, and along the trail I can see red rose hips glistening the sun.

The connector then trail crosses Sespe River, which is also dry, and joins Sespe River Trail. I turn left and follow Sespe River Trail west to the beginning of Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail. The sign at the junction indicates that from here, it’s 5.5 miles to Pine Mountain Lodge. Just past the sign, the trail enters Sespe Wilderness.

As the trail continues, it leads through the large weathered outcroppings of Piedra Blanca sandstone, or white rock, that gives the trail part of its name. The outcroppings are interspersed with chaparral and dotted with the occasional big cone spruce, creating a vista that could easily serve as the backdrop for an old western movie. Then, as if on cue, the trail passes directly between two large outcroppings of sandstone, before dropping down into a side drainage of Piedra Blanca Creek.

From there, the trail turns and follows Piedra Blanca Creek upstream. As I continue up the canyon, I start to hear the sound of running water somewhere down in the creek, and notice my enthusiasm rise, knowing that there will likely be water at the next two camps.

At about the 3-mile mark, the trail enters a small grove of coast live oaks and I arrive at the turnoff for Piedra Blanca Camp. I continue over to the creek, which is lined with alder and flowing even now, suggesting that the camp likely has year round water. The camp has three sites each with a fire ring and grated stove. Two of the sites are close together and a third is just downstream.

Continuing up the trail, about a quarter-mile later, it crosses Piedra Blanca Creek, and arrives at the signed turnoff for Twin Forks Camp. I follow the side trail across North Fork Piedra Blanca Creek, which is also flowing, and continue up to the first camp site. A somewhat indistinct trail leads from the first site down to the second camp. Both sites have a fire ring and grated stove. The camp is named for its proximity to the confluence of the two creeks just downstream.

From the turnoff to Twin Forks, the trail continues along North Fork Piedra Blanca Creek and begins its climb towards Pine Mountain Lodge. The ascent starts off gradual, but then become more much serious about the work out it provides as it approaches the upper end of the canyon.

At the next crossing, I pause marveling at the amount of shade provided by all the alder trees growing along the creek. Here, in the dappled sunlight, even the poison oak with its gold and red leaves seems magical.

The trail crosses the creek two more times, and at the third crossing, looking downstream, I notice that the creek appears to just drop off suggesting that there’s a small cascade to be found. I make my way towards it, pushing through some poison oak, which is now seeming a little less magical, and scramble down the rock face to visit the pool and take in the cascade.

Past the third crossing, the trail climbs above the creek, offering views of the canyon in both directions, before then arriving at the fourth crossing, which is completely dry. I don’t know it yet, but here is where the real work begins. Over the next mile and a quarter the trail gains 1,600 feet.

The first part of the climb is exposed, leading through mostly scrub oak and ceanothus. As I climb, I find myself pausing more frequently, the hike seeming longer than I remember from last time. The trail then, transitions into a stand of big cone spruce and canyon live oak, which offer some shade, but not an end to the uphill.

Eventually the trail crests out of the canyon and I arrive at a refreshingly level area filled with Jeffrey pines, sugar pines, and cedar. Nearby, I can hear two Steller’s jays calling to one another and suspect that there must be some water in the vicinity. The trail soon arrives at a trail sign, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Past the sign, the trail crosses a small creek and then arrives at the turnoff for Pine Mountain Lodge Camp, which is also the beginning of Cedar Creek Trail. Past the turnoff, Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail is currently closed due to the Pine Fire.

I cross the creek, which has barely a trickle of water in it. The camp has four sites close together, each with a fire ring and adjustable grill.

The camp takes its name from the lodge that was built in the area in 1895, by a group of hunters and outdoorsmen who called themselves the Sisquoc Rangers. Often spending the better part of the summer hunting in the area they had decided to pool their resources and build a cabin to serve as a base for their extended stays. The 16 x 20 foot lodge was built from native pines and cedar, and included a stone fireplace; and was said to have enough space to accommodate twelve people.

In 1898, the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Forest Reserve was created and local rangers began using the site as well. As time went by the lodge fell into disrepair, until the forest service was ready to tear it down, however public outcry saved the structure.

Then, ironically, an effort to preserve the lodge through preventative maintenance dealt the final blow. Around 1945, the forest service decided to remove an ailing pine growing next to the lodge over concerns that it would fall onto the building. Using a block and tackle to guide the tree, they cut down the troublesome pine only to have the block and tackle break and the tree fall directly on top of the lodge splitting the roof in half.

The lodge was never repaired. Over the years the logs were used for firewood and the chimney stones gathered by campers to make fire rings, and the remains of the lodge slowly disappeared.

Just as I leave the camp, I notice a use trail continuing upstream along the eastern side of the creek. The trail leads up a side canyon to several small pools with flowing water fed by the spring further upstream.

I filter some water, and add the camp to the list of viable destinations for the fall; and make the return hike, grateful that the balance of the hike is downhill.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the November 14th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Pine Mountain Lodge Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca trail hiking backpacking Ojai Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Scenery near Pine Mountain Lodge

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