Posted by: James Wapotich | August 17, 2017

Trail Quest: Forbush Flats

While the best time to visit Forbush Flats is when temperatures are cooler and the creek is flowing, part of appreciating the beauty of our backcountry comes with experiencing it in all seasons.

The hike to Forbush Flats is about 3.5 miles roundtrip and follows North Cold Spring Trail down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The hike can be extended by continuing from Forbush Flats down to the Santa Ynez River, which adds roughly another 3.5 miles round trip.

From previous hikes, I knew in the canyon past Forbush Flats there would still be some water flowing in the creek and small pools where I could cool off. My plan was to get an early start to avoid the heat as much as possible hiking in, spend my time in the lower canyon during the heat of the day, and hike out in the late afternoon.

Alder Forbush Flats camp hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest Cold Spring Gidney Creek

Alder trees line the creek above Forbush Flats

The trailhead is reached from the Santa Barbara Mission, by taking East Los Olivos Street to Mountain Drive and following it to the beginning of Gibraltar Road. Gibraltar Road leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where it meets East Camino Cielo. Turn right onto East Camino Cielo and continue along the top of the mountains to Cold Spring Saddle, which is the first pullout on the right that includes a nearby cement water tower. Parking is found at the trailhead.

Gathering my gear, I cross the road and walk over to the trailhead, and gaze out across the expansive backcountry behind Santa Barbara. North Cold Spring Trail is a continuation of Cold Spring Trail and leads down the backside of the mountains into the upper reaches of Gidney Canyon on its way towards Mono Campground.

At 8 a.m. in the morning I can already feel the heat and wonder if I shouldn’t have gotten an even earlier start. I tell myself that this first section is on the east-facing side of the canyon and that once it transitions to the west-facing side it will be cooler.

Gidney Canyon North Cold Spring Trail hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest Forbush Flats

Upper Gidney Canyon is seen from the trail

Each time I hike this trail, different plants stand out, whether because they’re in bloom, changing colors, or in the case of summer starting to bear fruit.

Along the trail, are green acorns appearing in pairs on the scrub oak, pale green cherries starting to form on the holly leaf cherry, and small green fruits developing on the toyon.

Continuing down into the canyon, the trail crosses an unnamed, dry side creek that joins Gidney Creek. Here, the plants are more riparian, with willow, cottonwood, and even some dried up Humboldt lilies.

The western side of the canyon is still cool from the night before. Near the dry creek, are yellow-green pepper nuts growing on the California bay laurel and reddish-green fruits developing on the coffee berry.

As the trail makes its way down the mountains, it offers views out towards the ridge that frames Forbush Flats, as well as out across Blue Canyon to the east.

I’m already feeling the heat as I arrive at the turnoff for Forbush Flats. The meadow, which wraps around a small rise, is named for Frederick Washington Forbush, who built a cabin here in 1910. Forbush also planted apple, pear, and olive trees near where the two camps are now.

Each of the different trees currently have some fruit on them and it’s somehow satisfying to see fruit trees that are more than a hundred years old not only surviving in the backcountry on their own, but also bearing fruit.

The camp has two sites. The first is under several large oaks with cedars growing nearby. The second site is just past the first and is also under several large oaks with pine trees growing nearby. Both sites feature a picnic table and grated stove. Currently, there is no water at either campsite. However, flowing water can be found by continuing a short ways upstream from the first camp.

From the second camp, I continue through the meadow that wraps around the flat towards North Cold Spring Trail. The meadow is bordered to the north by a low ridge that frames the flat.

Because of its geologic history and unique topography the meadow straddles two drainages. The camps are located along Gidney Creek, which flows northwest towards Gibraltar Reservoir. The meadow near the ridge is actually the beginning of Forbush Canyon, which flows east, down into Blue Canyon.

Running through the flat is the Santa Ynez Fault. The nearly 80-mile long fault runs along the backside of the Santa Ynez and Topatopa Mountains and is the largest fault in Santa Barbara County. Five million years ago the Santa Ynez Mountains were uplifted along this fault.

The off-trail route through the meadow meets North Cold Spring Trail just as it intersects Forbush Trail, which leads down towards Cottam Camp and Blue Canyon.

From here, North Cold Spring Trail climbs over the low ridge and begins its descent down to the Santa Ynez River.

Blue lobelia maidenhair fern the grotto emerald pools North Cold Spring Trail hike Los Padres National Forest

Blue lobelia and maidenhair fern

After about a mile along the trail, I arrive at the unnamed creek the trail follows the rest of the way down to the the river. The first two crossings are dry, but as I continue, I start to see some water in the creek and soon pass a series of small pools carved out of the travertine and sandstone. Three western pond turtles waste no time diving from the bank into the water before I can even get down to creek.

The pools are fed by a steady trickle, which continues intermittently downstream. Lining much of the creek is blue lobelia. The perennial plant does well along the banks of streams and around pools, and is thriving along the intermittent creek. The plant blooms June through October.

At each place I stop the flowers are in full bloom with usually several western tiger swallowtail butterflies making the rounds and feeding on the nectar produced by the flowers. The butterfly is one of the largest in California and can be found throughout much of western North America. The butterfly with its colorful yellow wings and black stripes can often be seen near riparian areas where the plants it uses during its larval stage as a caterpillar are readily available, such as cottonwood, willow, alder, sycamore, and maple.

Western tiger swallowtail blue lobelia North Cold Spring Trail hike Los Padres National Forest

Western tiger swallowtail on blue lobelia

Further down the trail, I arrive at what is sometimes referred to as the Grotto or the Emerald Pools. Here, built up layers of travertine have created a series of pools, the last one resting on top of a waterfall, which is also built out with travertine. Growing on the face of the trickling falls is more blue lobelia along with maidenhair fern. In years of heavy rain the falls become a scenic cascade.

Continuing down through the canyon, I flush out several more turtles basking in the sun. In all, over the course of the day exploring the creek, I saw more than a dozen, including a young one no more than three inches long.

Western pond turtles are the only native fresh-water turtle in California and can grow to be about eight inches in length. Their coloring is typically olive green to brown and they can live as long as 50 years.

Western Pond Turtel Santa Ynez River Forbush Flats North Cold Spring Trail los padres national forest

Western pond turtle sunning itself

The water in the creek plays out just before the trail arrives at the intersection with Gibraltar Trail, which leads over towards Sunbird Mercury Mine and Gibraltar Reservoir. From the intersection, it’s roughly a quarter-mile down to the river, which can make for a natural return point.

Currently the river is dry where the trail crosses, with just some intermittent pools upstream. From the river, North Cold Spring trail becomes more overgrown, harder to follow, and less appealing during the summer heat as it continues towards Mono Campground.

On the hike back out, I stop at one of the pools framed by cattails I’d surveyed earlier and finally get a chance to cool off, staying the water until I feel thoroughly chilled for the hike back out.

Pausing again at Forbush Flats it occurs to me that from a certain perspective there are a variety of pathways through backcountry. There is the literal path of the trail. There is the evolutionary route that each of the plants and animals took to get to be where they are now. There is the more figurative pathway through the seasons, in this case timing the hike to avoid the heat and staying cool in the water. Which I imagine the plants and animals do in their own way, shifting their schedules and in the case of animals even their routes according to the seasons and available resources.

All the more reason to visit the backcountry at different times throughout the year.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 14th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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