Posted by: James Wapotich | May 22, 2018

Trail Quest: Santa Lucia Wilderness, Part 1

Created in 1978, Santa Lucia Wilderness covers 18,593 acres within Los Padres National Forest and another 1,893 adjacent acres that’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The relatively remote wilderness area is located in San Luis Obispo County and has just three hiking trails, which are about two hours from Santa Barbara.

The wilderness features several scenic waterfalls and two trail camps, which provide great opportunities to explore the southernmost reaches of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

A hike to Big and Little Falls can make for an engaging day trip. Both waterfalls are relatively close to their respective trailheads, however the main challenge is the road in, which requires a high-clearance vehicle because of the numerous creek crossings. In fact, the best to time go is late spring when the water is typically lower.

A hike to Little Falls is about a mile round trip and a hike to Big Falls is about two miles roundtrip. A loop hike of about nine miles can be made that connects Big Falls and Little Falls Trails and provides a way to see more of the area.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north to Arroyo Grande and exit at Grand Avenue. Take Grand Avenue through old town Arroyo Grande and turn right on Huasna Road, which more or less turns into Lopez Drive.

Continue on Lopez Drive towards Lake Lopez Recreation Area. The road crosses Lopez Dam, before arriving at the entrance to the recreation area. The recreation area, with over 350 campsites ranging from car camping to full hook-up for recreational vehicles and trailers, is one way to combine the day hike with some easy camping.

Just before the entrance to the recreation area, the road branches. To reach the falls, stay to the right and follow Hi Mountain Road a short way to Upper Lopez Canyon Road. Turn left on to Upper Lopez Canyon Road, which traces the eastern edge of the recreation area as it makes its way into the national forest.

Where the paved road ends the route becomes more challenging because of the creek crossings. From this juncture it’s about a mile and half to the beginning of Little Falls Trail and the road crosses Lopez Creek seven times before arriving at the signed trailhead. The road ends another two miles upstream at the Big Falls Trailhead.

The unpaved road is a private access road open to visitors, but parking is only allowed at the trailhead for either Little Falls or Big Falls Trails. Please respect private property.

From the trailhead for Little Falls Trail, the trail immediately crosses the creek and makes its way up Little Falls Canyon. Here, the stand out plant is red stem dogwood. While fairly common throughout much of the Unites States, the plant typically prefers moist and wet areas and is rare to see in Santa Barbara County. However, here is it one of the dominant plants lining the creek.

As the trail continues upstream it passes through a striking meadow filled with ferns and patches of lupine. Just past the meadow the trail enters Santa Lucia Wilderness and it’s here that any thoughts I have about just the beginning of the trail being lined with poison oak begin to fade. Little Falls Trail appears to be the road less traveled, and while this is great for peace and quiet, the lighter amount of traffic has allowed the hearty plant to stretch itself out into the trail corridor.

Nevertheless, the canyon is strikingly lush, as it leads under a canopy of oaks. The trail is mostly level and easy to follow.

At about the half-mile mark, an informal side trail appears on the left at one of the creek crossings. Just past the crossing the trail climbs away from the creek. The side trail follows the creek a short way upstream, passing a small cascade before arriving at the base of Little Falls.

The moss-lined waterfall has a modest amount of water given the limited rain we’ve had this year. However, there is still a large, shallow pool of clear water at the base of the 50-foot waterfall and the scenic setting is ample reward for the hike so far.

Past the side trail to the falls, the trail climbs above the creek and becomes more exposed. Here, wild flowers flourish in the available sunlight. Along the trail are lupines, poppies, china houses, larkspur, monkey flowers, phacelia, and blue dicks.

The exposed section also provides a respite from the poison oak, before returning back down to the creek corridor.

Pausing at one of the creek crossings, I notice dozens of California newts cavorting in the creek. The newts, which are distinct from Sierra newts, are found only in counties along the coast in California. From December to early May, the newts will typically return to the pool where they hatched to reproduce. Newts secrete a strong neurotoxin and as a result have very few predators, which is probably why they’re largely unfazed by my presence.

Continuing upstream the canyon starts to narrow and the trail begins to make its way out of the canyon and towards the top of the mountains. As the trail climbs out of the canyon and becomes more exposed, the plants transition into chaparral including ceanothus, chamise, and black sage.

At about the 2.5-mile mark, Little Falls Trail arrives at Hi Mountain Road. Just across the road, to the north, is Rinconada Trail. Rinconada Trail represents an alternate way to reach the falls from the backside of the mountains, particularly when Lopez Creek is too high to easily cross. The trail is accessed from Pozo Road near Santa Margarita Lake.

Hi Mountain Road traverses the top of the mountains and offers great views back down into the canyon. The unpaved jeep road is also accessed from Pozo Road and ends at the top of Big Falls Trail.

From the top of Little Falls Trail it’s about a mile and a half west to the top of Big Falls Trail to continue the loop hike.

From the road, Big Falls Trail descends down into Big Falls Canyon and quickly reenters Santa Lucia Wilderness, passing through several scenic hillside meadows before returning into oak woodland.

The trail then arrives at the first creek crossing, which features several shallow pools. Here, western pond turtles compliment California newts as the noticeable wildlife in the creeks. Not possessing a strong neurotoxin like the newts the turtles waste little time disappearing.

A little further down, the trail arrives at a series of medium-sized pools as the creek carves its way through sandstone. Just past these scenic pools the creek plunges over a rock wall and then over Big Falls.

The trail continues down towards the base of the 90-foot waterfall. Again the amount of water is modest, but the large pool at the base of the falls is inviting enough that I feel obliged to go for a swim.

Relaxing after the swim and savoring the rest stop, my mind wanders, freed from the activity of hiking. At the far side of the pool I sense some movement and look to see three turtles stealthily surfacing near a large willow branch in the creek. They silently make their way onto the branch to sun themselves, content in a world of their own.

From Big Falls, the trail continues downstream towards the lower falls passing several little cascades before pulling away from the creek.

Although Big Falls Canyon provides the same opportunities for poison oak to flourish as Little Falls Canyon, the heavier traffic along the trail helps keep it from crowding into the trail corridor. Perhaps it’s the combination of swim holes and waterfalls that make this the more popular route.

The trail then returns to the creek and arrives above the lower set of falls. Visible from the trail is a pool tucked into the canyon below what could be described as the middle falls. The pool requires a bit of rock scrambling to reach from the base of the lower falls.

The lower waterfall is about 50-feet tall and can be reached from a short side trail that leaves the main trail.

From here, it’s a quarter of a mile downstream to the Big Falls Trailhead and Upper Lopez Canyon Road.

Big Falls Trailhead, at the end of Upper Lopez Canyon Road, is also the parking area for Lopez Canyon Trail, the third trail in Santa Lucia Wilderness. Lopez Canyon Trail leads further up Lopez Canyon to Sulphur Pot and Upper Lopez Camps.

From the Big Falls Trailhead, it’s about two miles downstream and seven creek crossings along Upper Lopez Canyon Road back to the Little Falls Trailhead to complete the loop.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 21st, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Little Falls Canyon Trail Santa Lucia Wilderness hike los padres national forest

Little Falls

Little Falls Canyon Trail hike Santa Lucia Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Little Falls Canyon

Big Falls Canyon Trail Santa Lucia Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Big Falls

Big Falls Canyon Trail hike Santa Lucia Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Big Falls Canyon

Big Falls Canyon trail hike Santa Lucia Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Cascade Big Falls Canyon

Big Falls Canyon Trail hike Santa Lucia Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

“Middle Falls”

Western pond turtle Big Falls canyon Santa Lucia wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Western pond turtle suns itself near Big Falls

Coast Live Oak Little Falls Canyon Santa Lucia Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Coast Live Oak, Little Falls Canyon


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