Posted by: James Wapotich | January 24, 2018

Trail Quest: Gifford Ranch Trail

Located in the canyons and mountains north of the Cuyama River is a little known trail to the old Gifford Ranch.

The hike to the ranch site is about five miles roundtrip. The hike can be extended with a loop up to the top of the mountains that traces the east and west sides of Gifford Canyon, which adds another five miles roundtrip and includes views of the Carrizo Plain.

There is little shade along the route and so the best time to go is during the late fall and winter when temperatures are cooler. The trails are open to mountain bikes and horses and there is adequate space for horse trailers at the trailhead. A topographic map is recommended to help follow the different jeep and ranch roads.

Gifford Ranch Trail hike cuyama Highway 166 conglomerate stone outcropping Los Padres National Forest

Outcroppings of conglomerate stone are seen along the trail

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north to Santa Maria. Continue past Santa Maria to the exit for State Route 166 East and take State Route 166 towards New Cuyama.

There is no sign marking the turnoff to the trailhead, instead look for Rock Front Ranch. Just past the ranch, State Route 166 crosses the Cuyama River and arrives at the turnoff for the trailhead on the left. A short dirt road leads to the unpaved parking area where there is a sign for the trailhead.

From the trailhead, the trail follows a small side canyon eastward, which it then climbs out of. Continuing east, it passes above private ranch land separated by a fence.

The trail then arrives at a wire gate strategically placed between two oaks. Just past the gate the trail passes an outcrop of conglomerate stone and continues eastward.

Gifford Ranch Trail map Los Padres National Forest Gillam Spring Highway 166 New Cuyama hike

Map courtesy Maps.com

The trail then crests a rise overlooking Gypsum Canyon and drops down into the canyon where it meets the old Gifford Ranch Road that came up from State Route 166. Over the years the road through the canyon has become more of a single-track trail, but is still easy to follow.

Nearing the ranch site, a dilapidated cattle chute appears on the right. In the distance, I can see a dozen cows resting under the trees near where the ranch house used to be. They look at me and quickly decide to clear out, heading up the ranch road to the right that leads up towards a water tank.

Gifford Ranch was purchased by California Department of Fish and Wildlife to help provide habitat and water for tule elk.

What remains of the ranch house is the cement foundation, which now has non-native trees growing up through it. Nearby are the rusted remains of a stove, refrigerator, and other household fixtures.

Continuing towards the cattle trough, which is the main attraction for the cows, I pass an array of old farm equipment. The trough is fed by a nearby water tank, which likely receives water from Gifford Spring, located further up the canyon. There is a steady drip of water into the trough that could be gathered and filtered for drinking.

Gifford Ranch Trail cattle chute hike los padres national forest cuyama valley

An old cattle chute is seen at the Gifford Ranch site

From the ranch site the hike can be extended by making a loop up to the top of the mountains and following the old jeep roads that trace the east and west sides of Gifford Canyon.

I opt for the west side of the canyon, which in the end proved to be the lesser of two evils. Both routes have steep sections but the east side is somehow more unrelenting in its arrangement.

From the ranch site, the trail crosses the dry creek, passing a small hay barn and corral as it begins its steady climb up the western side of Gifford Canyon to the top of the mountains. The trail is generally easy to follow leading through first wild grasses dotted with oaks before transitioning into chaparral, where the route is kept open in large part by the cattle.

Roughly two miles from the ranch site, the trail crests the top of the ridge where it arrives at a locked gate with a no trespassing sign. From here, the trail continues east, briefly following the fence line, before continuing along the top of the mountains passing through mostly chamise.

From the top of the mountains, the views extend north out across the Carrizo Plain towards the Temblor Mountains. The elevation is not high enough to see all of Soda Lake, but I can see glimpses of its currently blue waters. To the east the Caliente Mountains and Caliente Peak can be seen, and, to the south, the Cuyama Valley and Sierra Madre Mountains.

As the trail continues along the ridge it starts to lose elevation, transitioning from chamise back into grasses and oaks.

Enjoying the downhill, I somehow miss the turnoff that leads down the east side of Gifford Canyon and back to the ranch site. It isn’t until I’m a little east of the ridge that it becomes apparent. Debating whether to double back or not, I decide to press on since the easy to follow jeep road I’m on leads towards Gillam Spring, which I was planning on visiting anyway.

Caliente Peak Mountains Gifford Ranch Trail Cuyama Valley hike Los Padres National Forest

Caliente Peak and the Caliente Mountains are seen from the trail

The side trip to Gillam Spring adds an additional four miles roundtrip to the hike. I’ve already been keeping a strong pace to try to fit all 14 miles into the available daylight, but needing to look for the return trail will take extra time.

The trail towards Gillam Spring continues east before then turning north. In the distance I can see the jeep road descending into a small canyon and climbing over a hill. I press on aware that every foot of downhill will be slower going uphill on the way back.

From the top of the next hill, the trail essentially descends all the way down to Gillam Spring. I decide to make the most of it by upping my pace.

Just as the the trail starts to level out, I spot three cows in a small ravine off to the side of the trail. Their coloring seems wrong; they’re brown, but something seems odd. They look up and their ears also seem a little wrong. Without breaking stride I think maybe they’re wild boars, but they’re too big to be boars and slightly smaller than cows. I wonder if I should stop and look, but the jeep road has already descended such that I can no longer see them, besides why take time to look at cows.

A little further down I spot three deer staring at me and just past them a half-dozen flickers burst into flight. The jeep road descends a little more and then meets another ranch road. On the other side of the road is a large watering hole fed by Gillam Spring.

I continue along the road to the left and then follow a cattle trail down to the trough that is my ultimate destination. The spring-fed trough has a steady drip similar to the one at the Gifford Ranch site and could also be filtered for drinking.

On the hike back out I pause at the spot where I’d seen the three cows. On the ground is bear scat from a couple months ago and it dawns on me the three cows might’ve actually been bears, a mother and two good size cubs.

oak Gypsum Canyon Gifford Ranch Trail hike los padres national forest cuyama valley

An oak is seen along the trail in Gypsum Canyon

From the top of the ridge, I back track to where the turnoff ought to be for the return hike. Hiking out along the eastern ridge of Gifford Canyon, I spot the well-defined jeep road below and follow it back up to the top where it quickly fades amongst the wild grasses. I decide to add a pile of stones to mark the turnoff for the next visitor.

Following the jeep road back down it rapidly descends along the ridge, veering off at one point through wild grasses to join the more-established ranch road coming up from the ranch site. The road is refreshingly level and I relax thinking the worst of it is over.

However, the road soon rounds a corner and immediately resumes its vigorous descent. In the distance I can see it also climbs one last hill before arriving at a water tank and returning to the ranch site.

At the base of this last hill, I notice a cattle trail leading into the canyon above the ranch site. I figure the cows would likely favor a more direct route to the trough, and remember seeing a similar trail heading up the canyon behind the ranch house ruins. The trail not only proves to have a much more reasonable descent, but also provides a nice change of scenery.

From the ranch site, I retrace my route back to the trailhead, arriving just before dark.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 22nd, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


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