Posted by: James Wapotich | June 4, 2018

Trail Quest: Santa Lucia Wilderness, Part 2

The Santa Lucia Mountains extend along the coast from Monterey County south into San Luis Obispo County. The southernmost end of the range is part of Santa Lucia Wilderness within Los Padres National Forest.

Tucked away in these mountains is Upper Lopez Canyon, a hidden world of lush plant life and year-round water. From the trailhead along Upper Lopez Canyon Road, Lopez Canyon Trail follows the creek upstream passing through Sulphur Pot and Upper Lopez Camps before making its way to the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

The hike to Sulphur Pot Camp is about four miles and from there it’s another mile to Upper Lopez Camp. Both camps make for great overnight backpacking destinations. Past Upper Lopez Camp, the trail continues another 2.5 miles to top of the mountains.

The trailhead is reached from Santa Barbara by taking Highway 101 north to Arroyo Grande and exiting at Grand Avenue. Continue east on Grand Avenue through old town Arroyo Grande and turn right onto Huasna Road, which more or less turns into Lopez Drive.

Continue on Lopez Drive towards Lake Lopez Recreation Area. The road crosses Lopez Dam and branches just before the entrance to the recreation area. Stay to the right and follow Hi Mountain Road a short way to Upper Lopez Canyon Road.

Upper Lopez Canyon Road traces the eastern edge of the recreation area and makes its way into the national forest. Where the paved road ends, it continues as a private access road with parking allowed only at the trailheads. A high clearance vehicle is recommended to ford the dozen plus creek crossings along the road.

The unpaved road passes Little Falls Trailhead before ending at a locked gate, which is also the trailhead for Big Falls and Lopez Canyon Trails. 

At the trailhead, my friend Casey and I gather up our backpacking gear and continue up Lopez Canyon along the trail. 

The trail continues past the gate, along the private, unpaved road for the first 2.25 miles before entering Santa Lucia Wilderness. There is no sign denoting the beginning of the wilderness and so without a GPS it’s hard to tell where it officially starts. Please respect private property. 

The road follows the creek upstream and over the course of those first three miles fades from a viable jeep road to an overgrown road cut, gradually becoming impassable for vehicles, although there are occasionally sections that are more open.  

The canyon is lush with plant life, well-shaded with a canopy of coast live oak, maple, willow, sycamore, and madrone. Beneath this canopy, in the dabbled sunlight, is a mix of wild blackberry, poison oak, ferns, and other plants.

The dense understory and enclosed feeling from the canopy adds to the sense of being in another world; it’s only when we’re able to glimpse chaparral higher up on the canyon wall is the spell broken.

As I approach one of the many creek crossings, a golden eagle sitting on a rock in the creek takes flight. I pick up my pace, hoping that it might land on a tree upstream, but it has other plans for the day. A little further up the trail, after settling back into the hike, I spot the eagle through a break in the trees, circling high above the canopy.

At about the 3-mile mark, the road reappears one last time through a relatively open area, before finally ending.

Here, the canyon and creek narrow creating a scenic chute-like cascade. Looking around, I half expect to see redwoods in the lush canyon and imagine they probably did grow here during the last ice age when the area was wetter and cooler. Adding to the scenery is Potrero Creek, which creates its own little cascade as it flows into the chute, joining Lopez Creek.

Potrero Creek has a series of built up travertine pools and so we continue up the side canyon to explore them. Each is a variation on a theme with water cascading over mossy rocks into pools shaped by the travertine and in some cases framed with ferns. It is a scene seeming almost tropical.

Curious how far the pools extend up the canyon, I follow what looks like an off-trail route, which turns out to be a well worn bear trail that leads above the pools. Here, the creek is still flowing, but with less travertine built up.

Back at one of the travertine pools, Casey points out where not only have newts laid their eggs, but other newts are now eating them. I watch as a newt takes in its mouth a ball of eggs about the width of a quarter in one gulp.

Continuing past the confluence with Potrero Creek, the trail starts to become more overgrown and the poison oak more challenging to avoid. 

At about the 4-mile mark, we arrive at Sulphur Pot Camp. A short trail leads up to the camp, while the main trail continues on the opposite side of the creek. The camp is under a mixed canopy of coast live oak, maple, and California bay laurel, and features a picnic table and metal fire ring, as well as an outhouse that the bears are slowly tearing down. 

Near camp, an unnamed side creek flows into Lopez Creek. Here too, built up travertine has created a series of shallow pools that have been named Sulphur Pots due to their shape and the sulphur in the creek further upstream.

Past Sulphur Pot Camp, the trail becomes even more overgrown, but still relatively easy to follow. At some of the crossings, dogwood, which grows along much of the creek, has become so overgrown that the route through it requires ducking down, but probably works just fine for the bears. 

About a half-mile from Sulphur Pot Camp, the trail arrives at an old trail juncture on the western side of the creek. Here, a metal sign with an arrow marks the route for Lopez Canyon Trial.

Shown on older topographic maps as a pack trail, the now overgrown trail leads up to the saddle between Lopez and Gay Mountains, which overlook this portion the canyon. 

Continuing along Lopez Canyon Trail, just past the juncture, is an old road cut on the eastern side of the creek that leads a short way up to a gate, before continuing through private property.

Continuing upstream, at about the 5-mile mark, we arrive at Upper Lopez Camp. The camp is situated near the creek, under several tall coast live oaks that stretch up towards the sky. The camp features a picnic table and metal fire ring.

After setting up our tents, we continue up the canyon to explore the rest of the trail.

Lopez Creek continues in its northwesterly direction up the canyon, before turning ninety degrees. The change is almost imperceptible, but about a quarter of a mile later, the trail starts up a side canyon on its way to the top of the mountains. Lopez Creek continues southwest, before making another ninety degree turn and wrapping around Lopez Mountain.

As the trail climbs away from Lopez Creek, the amount of poison oaks starts to diminish, until it’s all but forgotten. The trail follows several sets of switchbacks on its way out of the canyon. Here, tanbark oak starts to become more noticeable, complimenting the madrone and sword fern growing canyon. 

Gaining more elevation, knobcone pines begin to appear in the mix, until the plants along the trail transition into predominantly knobcone pine with an understory of manzanita and chamise. 

Knobcone pines have a closed-cone and one of their striking characteristics is that the cone grows directly on the trunk and branches, instead of hanging from the branches. The cones can remain closed for many years, requiring the heat of a forest fire to open them and disperse the seeds.

As the trail nears the top of the mountains it traverses a ridgeline before meeting East Cuesta Road and the upper trailhead. From the road, the views to the west stretch out across the city of San Luis Obispo towards the ocean and include Oceano Dunes and Morro Rock.

The unpaved access road is an alternate way to reach Upper Lopez Canyon, particularly when the creek is high and the crossings are impassable along Upper Lopez Canyon Road. From this upper trailhead, it’s about 4.75 miles to the beginning of the gated road, which starts near Cuesta Pass along Highway 101.

After enjoying open sky above us we return to camp and hike out the next day.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 4th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Lopez Canyon Trail cascade Potrero Creek Santa Lucia Wilderness hike backpacking San Luis Obispo

Lopez Canyon Cascade near the confluence with Potrero Creek

California newt eggs lopez canyon santa lucia wilderness los padres nation forest

California newt and eggs

Lopez Mountain canyon trail hike Santa Lucia wilderness los padres national forest San Luis Obispo East Cuesta Ridge hike

Lopez Mountain is seen from Lopez Canyon Trail

Pacific starflower Trientalis latifolia lopez canyon trail Santa Lucia Mountains wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Pacific starflower


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