Posted by: James Wapotich | January 26, 2019

5 Favorite hikes from 2018

I don’t normally do Top 10 lists, but felt inspired to name my five favorite hikes from 2018.

#5 Lion Canyon Trail [post Thomas Fire] – On Memorial Day, I hiked Lion Canyon Trail, behind Ojai in Rose Valley. The area was burned during the Thomas Fire and wasn’t reopened to public access until May 24. It was definitely a hot hike due to the lack of shade and time of year, but there was still water in the pools at East & West Fork Lion Falls to cool off in. 

While seeing the burn area and its impact, combined with the subsequent rains on the landscape was interesting, the real highlight of the hike was all the wildflowers, both fire-followers and the regular spring bloom all benefiting from the ash-enriched soil and lack of competition for sunlight and other resources. It was also cool to see all the bear tracks and other evidence of wildlife activity, including an in person encounter with a rattlesnake that had 11 rattles on its tail. See Trail Quest: East and West Fork Lion Falls.

East and West Fork Lion Canyon Falls trail hike backpacking Thomas Fire burn area regrowth Sespe Wilderness Ojai Los Padres National Forest

Lion Canyon

#4 Lopez Canyon Trail – Earlier in the year, with many of the trails in the Thomas Fire burn area still closed, I ventured north into San Luis Obispo County for two articles on the Santa Lucia Wilderness. In May, I made a loop hike visiting both Big and Little Falls for the first article, and then two weeks later, returned to hike Lopez Canyon Trail with my friend Casey for the second article.

Lopez Canyon is an amazingly lush canyon. Located just behind the mountains along the coast, it features a rich riparian corridor. The year round creek is lined with mostly dogwood, and growing along the canyon floor is lots of madrone, sycamore, willow, and maple. Higher up in the canyon, in addition to madrone, is sword fern and tanbark oak. And still higher up along the trail is Bishop pine.

In Santa Barbara County, dogwood, madrone, sword fern, tanbark oak, and bishop pine are all considered relic plants from a time when southern California was wetter and cooler and so it was great to see them all here as part of the landscape in San Luis Obispo Country.

In addition to all the great plants, the canyon features two trail camps and several picturesque cascades, and doesn’t seem to see that many visitors. See Trail Quest: Santa Lucia Wilderness, Part 2

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

Lopez Canyon Cascade near the confluence with Potrero Creek

#3 Fir Canyon – I never thought this would become one of my favorite hikes, but the first mile of Davy Brown Trail down from Figueroa Mountain Road is a rich, diverse world unto itself.

The canyon features a year round, intermittently flowing creek, lined with alder and maple, and shaded by big cone Douglas fir. In the autumn, the maple and alder leaves turn gold and orange adding to the scenery. The canyon also supports a rich array of wildlife, including bear, mountain lion, fox, and bobcat.

On one particular hike in the fall, after it had rained, I counted more than two dozen banana slugs along the trail, including a group of four at one of the creek crossings. It was also on that same visit that I first noticed dogwood growing in the canyon. During the Thomas Fire, we made a hike there to escape all the smoke in Santa Barbara, and found a dead band-tail pigeon along the trail that became part of the inspiration for an article I later wrote about my own reflections on the fire. See Trail Quest: Through smoke and fire.

This past year I’ve made close to a dozen hikes there for various reasons including a two-part article on Ranger Edgar Davison. Part 1 covers the hike through Fir Canyon, see Trail Quest: The Trails of Edgar Davison, Part 1, and Part 2 covers the trails through Munch and White Rock Canyons. Davison was one of the first forest rangers in our local mountains and built the trail down through Fir Canyon, along with several other nearby trails.

great horned owl fir canyon hike davy brown trail figueroa mountain los padres national forest

Great horned owl in Fir Canyon

Cascade pool Fir Canyon Davy Brown Trail Los Padres National Forest

Cascade and pool along Davy Brown Creek

#2 Backcountry Beach Camping on Santa Rosa Island – In October, I did a 4-day solo trip on Santa Rosa Island as part of a series of articles on the islands. During the last Ice Age, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were all part of one single, larger island called Santarosae. The series highlights the hiking and backpacking opportunities on the islands as part of an imagined traverse across Santarosae. 

What impressed me the most about this particular hike was all the subtle ways it reminded me of backpacking in the backcountry, but on the islands. I’ve backpacked on both Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands before, but this time it had even more of that wilderness feel.

The first day I backpacked to Cow Canyon on the north shore, the second day I made a traverse across the island to La Jolla Vieja Canyon on the south shore, and the third day I backpacked from there to Water Canyon Campground. The second day was the toughest of the three and included a section following a largely non-existent trail and another section that was overgrown with wild grasses. Originally I was worried about hiking all day in the exposed sun, but instead mid-afternoon fog and wind had me soaked and leaning into the wind so as not to get knocked over. By the time I arrived at La Jolla Vieja Canyon it was after dark, and when I got there I discovered that elephants seals were hauled out on the beach where I’d intended to camp and had to improvise an alternative.

The combined experience of route finding, cross-country hiking, dealing with the elements, hiking in the dark, scrambling to find a place to camp, and hiking up different creeks to find water to filter was just a great adventure and reminiscent of the challenges of hiking in our local wilderness, all combined with the rich scenery of the islands. See Trail Quest: Black Mountain, Santa Rosa Island

Lobo Canyon Santa Rosa Island hike trail Channel Islands National Park

Lobo Canyon

#1 Birabent Canyon to Manzana Creek – The middle section of La Jolla Trail had been on my mind for some time and eventually grew into a great idea for a shuttle backpacking trip. In fact, I would count Birabent Canyon up there with Fir Canyon as one of my favorite places in the western San Rafael Mountains.

In 2012, I tried to find the middle section of La Jolla Trail between the canyon floor and the upper meadow, about a mile below the top of the mountains. I hiked the trail from both the bottom and the top, but couldn’t connect the two pieces and had to let it go at that. The trail was damaged in the 1993 Marre Fire and it seemed like the middle section was now lost to regrowth. See Trail Quest: The Search for the La Jolla Trail.

Then in 2016, on one of my subsequent visits, I noticed someone had worked a short segment of the first section coming up out of the canyon, which was enough to get me started. From there I was able to piece together and route-find the rest of the damaged trail and reach the upper meadow. See the description at the bottom of Trail Quest: Ballard Camp.

While I was out there I was struck by the inspiration to come back later and hike the trail as part of a backpacking trip. The idea was to follow the trail to the top of the mountains and then come down Zaca Springs Trail, which I hadn’t hiked since 2011; tie into Cedros Saddle Trail, a mile-long trail I’d yet to hike; and then take Sulphur Springs Trail and hike out along Manzana Creek.

In 2018, the idea solidified while I was reading Ranger Edgar Davison’s journal. In it he references what he called “Cascade Canyon”, a feature that isn’t shown on any map I could find. However, based on his description of it as “the narrow and precipitous outlet of two large canyons through the south wall of the Manzana” I was able to determine that it was likely just upstream from Coldwater Camp, and so with that last piece I felt called to head out and connect up these various destinations.

Curt Cragg proved to be the perfect partner in crime for the hike, not only was he interested in seeing the somewhat fabled middle section of La Jolla Trail, but as the founder of Santa Barbara County Outdoor Foundation he had also installed most of the trail signs in the Zaca Ridge/Zaca Lake area, including along Zaca Springs and Cedros Saddle Trails, and was curious to see how they were holding up.

In April, we hit the trail for the overnight trek that turned into a two-part article. See Trail Quest: La Jolla Trail to Manzana Creek, Part 1 for a description of the hike along La Jolla Trail, and Trail Quest: La Jolla Trail to Manzana Creek, Part 2 for Cascade Canyon and the hike along Manzana Creek.

La Jolla Springs Trail Birabent Canyon Zaca Ridge hike backpacking Los Padres National Forest

Curt hiking along the middle section of La Jolla Trail

waterfall cascade canyon San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres national forest Manzana Creek

Small waterfall in “Cascade Canyon”


  1. Hi James,

    Thanks for the list. I just did an MLK Day presentation at Midland School and went on a short hike up Fig Mtn Rd from there on the Midland Trails to “Indian Mounds” in a stretch of serpentine outcroppings. I’m looking forward to getting back up there for more exploration. And, of course, I love the hike to East Fork Lion Falls.



    • I’m glad you did the hike up Birabent Canyon, I’ve been thinking it’d be fun to go there with you because of all the different plants along that trail.

  2. ALWAYS enjoy reading of ur adventures- and thinking I’ll do them- someday. You give me hope. Keep em coming. Be safe. RonW~

  3. Thank you sharing all your wonderful adventures.  Sincerely, Melinda Romero

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