Posted by: James Wapotich | October 31, 2017

Trail Quest: Ellis Apiary

Piru Creek, in Sespe Wilderness, is one of the more remote watercourses in our local backcountry. The trail to Ellis Apiary is unmaintained and access to the beginning of the trail requires a lengthy hike that further discourages visitors.

The area is best visited as part of a backpacking trip or a combination of mountain biking and hiking to help overcome the access issues. The beginning of the trail is about 5.5 miles from the nearest public access in Lake Piru Recreation Area. From there, Ellis Apiary is about 2.25 miles along what was once Cobblestone Trail.

Lake Piru is reached from Santa Barbara by taking Highway 101 south to Ventura. Continue on State Route 126 towards Valencia. From State Route 126 turn left onto Main Street into Piru and continue through town. Main Street turns into Piru Canyon Road and continues up Piru Canyon, passing Santa Felicia Dam, before arriving at the Lake Piru Recreation Area entrance gate.

My girlfriend Sierra and I are fortunate to know someone who owns property near the beginning of the trail and we were able to visit the area as part of a day hike.

Lake Piru Recreation Area is open to the public. There is a $10 per day use-fee to park at the lower lot, which is about a mile from the entrance. From here, it’s about seven miles to the beginning of the trail to Ellis Apiary. During the summer, typically from mid-May to mid-September, the first locked gate is open and it’s possible to drive in as far as the Juan Fernandez boat launch, eliminating another mile and a half. Parking at the boat launch area is $13 per day.

Past the boat launch area, the paved road arrives at a second locked gate. From here, the road continues along the western side of the canyon offering views out across Piru Lake before arriving at Pothole Trail.

Currently, the Forest Service is working with United Water Conservation District, which manages the recreation area, to develop a plan that will provide visitor access to the Pothole trailhead. Once finalized, this will make the hike to the beginning of Cobblestone Trail less than three miles.

Past Pothole Trail, the road continues to the now closed Blue Point Campground and the third locked gate. Blue Point Campground was closed during the 1990s to protect the endangered arroyo toad.

Past Blue Point Campground, the road continues unpaved, crossing Piru Creek twice and passing through private property before arriving at the last locked gate. Please respect private property.

A short ways past the gate the road branches. The road to the left leads to the beginning of Agua Blanca Trail. To the right, the road continues towards Ellis Apiary.

The road crosses Agua Blanca Creek and then Piru Creek twice before ending at the next crossing and a large debris pile.

We had read that other hikers had to contend with wading through water and pushing through brush on their way up the creek and so weren’t sure what we would find.

As we step down to the creek, leaving the road behind, there is an electric feeling in the moment. A dozen little frogs scamper into the clear, flowing water as we advance. The exposed sand and gravel bed in the middle of the creek is dotted with plants sprouting up and the vitality of the canyon feels palpable.

On the other side of the creek, we find a use-trial that follows what was likely Cobblestone Trail and enter Sespe Wilderness. The canyon then narrows with towering walls of conglomerate stone. Here, the trail appears to end, having nowhere to go but up the middle on the creek.

I spot a faint opening in the willows and try my luck, but it quickly becomes a little too dense. Sierra has continued up the creek and so I backtrack and join her to look for another route out of the creek.

I know from experience that most trails, even a use-trail, will want to stay out of the creek as much as possible. And while it’s tempting to abandon looking for the trail and just hike up the creek, finding a trail can often save time in the long run.

On this premise, I cut through another thin spot in the willows, leaving the creek, and stumble on what appears to be a continuation of the route I had just tried, but is now more manageable. The route hugs the edge of the rock wall and carries us up to the next crossing where it appears to continue.

In this fashion we began to calibrate our senses to finding the overgrown route, which does start to become more apparent. The use route alternates between following the sandy, willow-lined edge of the creek and threading through narrow lanes in the riparian plants that are growing in the dry channels next to the creek. The feeling of mystery and weaving through plants, adds to the sense of adventure. I try not to think about what the route looks like in the spring time when the creek is really flowing.

As we continue, the canyon starts to open and the route becomes a little less demanding. I’m hopeful that we might even make it all the way to Piru Gorge, which is two miles past Ellis Apiary and stretches for nearly a mile in length.

The trail continues to improve as it moves onto a flat above the creek that features a couple of pine trees. Here, we find the remains of a hydraulic gold-mining operation. Gold mining along Piru Creek dates back to the late 1800s, when the Castaic Mine operated further upstream past what is now Pyramid Lake.

Past the mining site, the trail drops back down into the creek but does reappear further upstream crossing another large flat. The trail then rounds a corner and arrives at a stand of coast live oaks surrounded by wild grasses.

Here, tucked under the oaks, is Ellis Apiary Camp. The site does not look like it’s been used in a long time. Its most striking feature, seeming almost of out place, is a pedestal barbecue stove, complete with chimney and extendable plates on each side.

The site once served as the location for a beekeeping operation.

At one time, Cobblestone Trail continued past the camp, upstream to the confluence with Turtle Creek. From there, it made a large loop along the north side of Cobblestone Mountain, passing long forgotten camps such as Halfway Spring and Cobblestone, before tying back into the upper reaches of Agua Blanca Creek.

Continuing upstream, we find a shady place along the creek to stop for a late lunch. I later learn the plant growing right along the creek at our picnic spot is dogbane or Indian hemp. The plant grows mainly near streams in shady, moist areas, preferring sandy or gravelly soil.

The Chumash used both dogbane and milkweed to make cordage, even referring to dogbane as red milkweed, because of the plant’s reddish-brown stalks. The plant was harvested in the fall. The stems were cut open and the long silky fibers removed, which could then be twisted into string to make cordage.

In her book, Chumash Ethnobotany, Jan Timbrook notes the Chumash used dogbane for a variety of purposes. Fishing nets, net bags for carrying things, and tump lines for carrying large loads could all be made from dogbane. The fiber string could be used to sew things together, ranging from buckskin bags to creating ceremonial regalia such as feathered capes, skirts, and headbands. The material was also used in the construction of tomols, or wooden-plank canoes, to lash the planks together.

After lunch, we press on, still finding an intermittent use route; however, hiking the length of the gorge and returning before dark is starting to look unrealistic. I had anticipated this outcome, but choosing not to see just a little bit more of the backcountry is always a little heart-breaking. Fortunately, at the very next creek crossing, we find a great swim hole as a consolation prize.

The hike back proves easier as we retrace our route to the beginning of the trial, vowing to come back another day and explore more of the canyon.

This article originally appeared in section A of the October 23rd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Piru Creek Narrow Conglomerate stone Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike

First set of narrows along Piru Creek several crossings above the confluence with Agua Blanca Creek

Piru Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike Cobblestone Mountain Trail

Piru Creek

Ellis Apiary Camp Cobblestone Mountain Trail Turtle Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike

“winged” stove at Ellis Apiary

Piru Canyon Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Piru Canyon


  1. That stove is incredible

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