Posted by: James Wapotich | July 9, 2018

Trail Quest: Romero Canyon

With most of the trails now open within the Thomas Fire burn area and volunteer groups actively organizing and leading restoration projects, many of the front country trails devastated by the fire and subsequent flooding are starting to return to life.

Currently only Cold Spring Canyon, including East and West Cold Spring Trails, remains closed to the public. The uppermost portion of East Cold Spring Trail, however, is accessible from East Camino Cielo Road.

In Romero Canyon, both Romero Trail and Old Romero Road have been largely restored. The lower portion of Romero Trail along with all of Old Romero Road have been cleared. The upper portion of Romero Trail still requires some work but can be hiked with caution due to substandard trail conditions.

The hike along Romero Trail to the top of the mountains is seven miles round trip. An extended loop hike of 11.5 miles can be made by returning along Old Romero Road. Both routes provide opportunities to explore the canyon and assess the burn damage and impact of the subsequent flooding and debris flow.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south and exit at Sheffield Drive. Turn right onto Jameson Lane and follow it as it curves north becoming Sheffield Drive. From Sheffield Drive, turn left onto East Valley Road and follow it briefly to the beginning of Romero Canyon Road. Continue on Romero Canyon Road to the end where it meets Bella Vista Drive. Turn right onto Bella Vista Drive and continue to where it crosses Romero Creek and arrives at the trailhead.

At the trailhead, damage from the flooding and debris flow is immediately evident. The flood plain has been cleared of plants and is noticeably wider. The creek channel is much deeper and where the creek crosses the road a new culvert has been installed and the road repaired.

Romero Trail follows an unpaved Edison access road up the canyon for the first half-mile. All of the Edison roads within in the burn area have been cleared and are in good condition.

The access road now crosses through the creek, just downstream from where the bridge was. In one of the more striking examples of how strong the flooding and debris flow were, the bridge is just gone. All that remains are its stone foundations and twisted rebar.

As I take in the scene, the fog and overcast sky adds to the sense of loss and disorientation. The basic topography of the canyon remains, but with the altered creek course and floodplain it’s hard to recall exactly what the canyon used to look like in its finer details. Equally hard to imagine is how it will eventually appear in five to ten years from now.

Past the first creek crossing, the road branches. The road to the left leads over towards Buena Vista Canyon. Staying to the right, Romero Trail continues along the road to the next creek crossing and the beginning of the single-track trail.

The trail sign is gone, likely burned in the fire. From here, the single-track trail follows the east side of the creek upstream, while Old Romero Road continues its long, circuitous journey to the top of the mountains.

The creek is flowing and the canopy of oaks is largely intact. I hear two stellar jays making a lot of noise even for stellar jays and veer off trail to investigate. They are scolding a Cooper’s hawk that’s sitting in one of the trees. My arrival breaks up the party and the birds disperse. Further up the canyon I hear flickers, towhees, and canyon wrens. The level of bird activity is encouraging.

Continuing up the trail, I can see that most of the understory has been burned and the trunks of many of oaks are charred. Growing back beneath the oaks are ferns, canyon sunflower, giant rye grass, and poison oak. As the canyon starts to narrow, Humboldt lilies appear in bloom along the trail and California bay laurel can also be seen growing back.

The trail is good shape thanks to the work of volunteers, as well as the amount of foot and bike traffic the trail is experiencing. The creek crossings are steeper than before but well-marked with cairns. The picturesque pools once seen from the trail are gone, but much of the overall character of the canyon remains or will return.

The trail then heads up a side canyon before following a set of switchbacks up to the intersection with Old Romero Road. Here, Romero Trail continues another mile towards the top of the mountains, while Old Romero Road winds its way there more slowly. From this four-way intersection a shorter return loop of 6.5 miles can made along the road.

As Romero Trail continues it becomes less shaded and the burn damage more evident. Where there was once dense chaparral holding the hillsides in place, loose dirt and ravel have slid across the trail, which volunteers have since cleared.

In some ways, many of our hillsides and mountains are mostly loose dirt and boulders and what helps keep them in place is plants. Growing back from their root burls are toyon, holly-leaf cherry, and ceanothus. On the exposed hillsides are wild cucumber, as well as other plants all taking advantage of the reduced competition, available sunlight, and ash-enriched soil.

Trail conditions in this upper section are currently a mixed bag, with some areas having been worked by volunteers and others in need of repair and requiring care to traverse. There are also sections that are unburned and only partially burned.

Nearing the top of mountains, white sage can be seen sprouting back and yucca is in bloom with its creamy white flowers. Adding to the color are patches of pale orange from bush monkey flower and red from honeysuckle penstemon and crimson larkspur.

The trail then arrives at the signed juncture with Ocean View Trail, the return point for the shorter hike to the top of the mountains.

For the extended loop hike continue north along Romero Trail. The northern section of the trail is unburned and where it passes through a stand of California bay laurel seems almost forested. The trail is overgrown, which in the context of having hiked through the burn area is somehow reassuringly familiar.

The trail then rounds a corner and the views extend out across Blue Canyon and the Santa Barbara backcountry. To the east, I can see the blue waters of Jameson Lake surrounded by the charred mountain landscape that was burned in the Thomas Fire. Scanning west, I can make out where the Thomas Fire meets the burn scar from the 2016 Rey Fire, which also burned a wide swath across the backcountry.

The trail then meets Romero-Camuesa Road. Just down the road, North Romero Trail continues into Blue Canyon.

For the loop hike back, from this juncture, turn left and head west up Romero-Camuesa Road to Romero Saddle. Here, the road arrives at a locked Forest Service gate and meets East Camino Cielo Road. Romero-Camuesa Road is currently closed to vehicles due to winter storm damage, but is open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.

Continue along East Camino Cielo Road a short way past the cement water tower to the top of Old Romero Road.

Old Romero Road is currently in excellent shape. Over the years, brush and rock debris have effectively narrowed the route down to a single-track trail. However, recent trail work has cleared the trail to almost twice its original width.

The road makes a wide loop passing through the upper reaches of San Ysidro Canyon before returning to Romero Canyon and winding its way down into the canyon.

Lining much of the upper road is large-flowered phacelia with its oversized purple-blue flowers. Where there is pronounced southern exposure the plant can be seen dominating the hillsides. A fire-follower, the seeds of large-flowered phacelia can lie dormant for many years until chemical cues created by fire, followed by rain, cause them to sprout. The plant can also be seen in the lower canyon along the trail.

The last fire to burn through this area was the 1971 Romero Canyon Fire, which burned 15,650 acres before it was contained. In comparison the Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres.

At about the 7.5-mile mark into the loop, Old Romero Road meets Romero Trail, which can provide a quicker return route.

The road eventually meets the Edison access road and then makes a wide loop around the front of the mountains before returning back into Romero Canyon. Through this section the views extend out along the coast from Carpinteria Salt Marsh to Santa Barbara Harbor.

The road then meets the beginning of the single-track trail to complete the loop.

Both trails have been largely restored. The lower portion of Romero Trail along with all of Old Romero Road have been cleared. The upper portion of Romero Trail still requires some work but can be hiked with caution due to substandard trail conditions.

All of the front country trails have been reopened except for East and West Cold Spring Trails. However, the uppermost portion of East Cold Spring Trail is accessible from East Camino Cielo Road.

This article originally appeared in section A of July 9th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Romero Creek Canyon Trail hike front country thomas fire burn area los padres national forest

Romero Creek

fire follower large-flowered phacelia old romero road canyon trail thomas fire burn area Los Padres national forest front country santa ynez mountinas

Fire follower, large-flowered phacelia can be seen along the trail

Romero Creek bridge flood debris flow damage thomas first canyon trail los padres national forest front country santa ynez mountains

The bridge across Romero Creek is no more.

Romero Trail canyon santa ynez mountains los padres national forest


fire poppy Papaver californicum thomas fire burn area romero trail canyon santa ynez mountains los padres nation forest

Fading fire poppy

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