Posted by: James Wapotich | May 12, 2019

Trail Quest: Deal Junction, Rancho Nuevo Canyon

Deal Junction Camp is located at the confluence of Deal and Rancho Nuevo Creeks and can make for a good overnight backpacking destination that can serve as a base camp for exploring more of the area. The area features some great scenery and represents a transitional zone in some ways. 


The mountain ridge that defines the southern edge of the Rancho Nuevo drainage basin lies between Pine Mountain Ridge and the San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains. The ridge runs west from Pine Mountain Summit and fades out just north of Madulce Camp, which is near Madulce Peak and the San Rafael Mountains, as well as in the same neighborhood as the eastern Sierra Madre Mountains.

The area also marks a transition from the relatively cooler and wetter mountains down into the drier Cuyama Valley. Along the trails are plants from both regions mixed together. In the different canyons are big cone Douglas fir and canyon live oak, as well as pinyon pine and juniper.

The camp is reached by both Deal and Rancho Nuevo Trails. The hike along Deal Trail from State Route 33, is roughly six miles, and from there it’s another 3.5 miles upstream to Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp, as well as roughly two miles downstream to Rancho Nuevo Trailhead. The road to Rancho Nuevo Trailhead is currently closed, which adds another mile and a half to the parking area along State Route 33. A shuttle trip can also be made utilizing the two different trailheads.

To reach the trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north towards the Cuyama Valley. As the route crests Pine Mountain Summit, it makes its way down towards the Cuyama Valley. The Deal Trailhead is about a mile before Ozena Fire Station and the intersection with Lockwood Valley Road; the turnoff for Rancho Nuevo is three miles further along State Route 33.

Joining me for the hike is naturalist Mike Kresky. From the trailhead we make our way up Bear Canyon along Deal Trail. Winter rains have added to the modest flow of water normally found in the creek this time of year.

Along the trail is Great Basin sagebrush, coffeeberry, willow, yerba santa, and ceanothus, plus wildflowers enjoying their own local super bloom. Growing in patches on some of the hillsides are Bigelow’s coreopsis with its yellow flowers, and along the trail are yellow violets and Coulter’s jewel flower.

Most of this area west of the Cuyama River was burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire; and while the chaparral is growing back strong, many of the conifers have not recovered.

At about the mile and a half mark, we arrive at Deal Connector Trail. The trail leads back up to State Route 33. We drop our packs here and follow the connector trail a quarter of a mile to Mine Spur Trail, which leads over to Mine Camp.

Along the connector trail is a vibrant patch of tidy tips in bloom; also in the sunflower family along with Bigelow’s coreopsis.

Arriving at Mine Spur Trail, the old road cut leading to the camp is still evident, although appearing now as more of a single track trail. The route continues up the canyon, transitioning from predominantly chaparral into a mix of big cone Douglas fir and canyon live oak, before arriving at Mine Camp.

The shaded camp features a weathered picnic table and stone fire ring. Nearby is the collapsed cement foundation from a stove likely installed when the camp could be reached by vehicle. An informal trail continues up the creek through the relatively forested canyon. The creek is currently flowing.

The site was used as a base camp by Mr. Deal, who prospected the area searching for uranium. He didn’t find any, but both the trail and nearby canyon were named after him.

Returning back to the main trail, we continue along Deal Trail as it begins its climb up out of the canyon, gaining elevation as it arrives at the saddle overlooking Deal Canyon. Here, the trail enters the Dick Smith Wilderness.

As the trail drops down into Deal Canyon, we start to see more pinyon pines and juniper mixed in with the chaparral. Both plants are more common in the Cuyama Badlands to the northeast.

Reaching the canyon floor, the trail threads its way through chaparral and willow as it continues downstream. The trail through the canyon is in great shape all the way down to the where the canyon narrows thanks to the work of volunteers from Los Padres Forest Association. The somewhat overgrown section through the narrows will likely be cleared within the next year.

Continuing downstream, the trail then arrives at Deal Junction Camp. The camp features a grated stove set in a stone fire ring, and is on a relatively broad flat dotted with yerba santa that rests above the confluence of Deal and Rancho Nuevo Creeks. Here, Deal Trail meets Rancho Nuevo Trail.

From Deal Junction, I continue upstream and day hike towards Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp. The trail is overgrown in places, but generally easy to follow. Winter storms have lowered the creek course since my last visit and the banks at a couple of the crossing are higher than before. Along the creek is willow, wild rose, and the occasional cottonwood, and I again find myself marveling at the absence of poison oak. In bloom along the hillsides are more Bigelow’s coreopsis.

The trail follows the scenic canyon upstream, crossing the creek a number of times. The canyon then visibly narrows and opens up just before arriving at Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp.

The small campsite is tucked in amongst a stand of willows, and features a grated stove and the remnants of an old ice can stove. Currently the creek is flowing near the camp and along the length of the trail.

The last time I visited the canyon I camped at Upper Rancho Nuevo with a friend. It had been a windy night, and hiking back out down the canyon there was still a steady wind blowing up canyon. Just as we were reaching Deal Junction we spotted a black bear grazing on the wild grasses near the camp. It was truly enjoying itself and so engrossed that it didn’t notice us.

While I was busy taking pictures, I thought it’d be great if the bear looked up so I could get a picture of its face and just at the moment the bear paused. Our eyes met and in that moment I came to appreciate just how large the bear was and how it could easily charge towards me. But instead the bear’s expression immediately shifted to utter disappointment, as if its entire day had just been ruined. No longer able to quietly enjoy its buffet of wild grasses, the bear turned and scampered downstream.

Arriving back at camp, Mike and I decide to set up one of the trail cameras I brought. Even though we would only be there one night, it seems worthwhile to see what we might “catch”. An accomplished tracker, Mike selects a spot right along the trail that’s used by both foxes and bobcats.

In the morning, after breakfast, we check the camera and discover that a bobcat passed by in the predawn hours on its way up the canyon.

From Deal Junction, Mike and I make our down through Rancho Nuevo Canyon towards the trailhead. The trail follows the canyon downstream as it starts to narrow into a dramatic gorge. Here, the trail passes through sections of unburned big cone Douglas fir. Along the trail are woodland stars in bloom with their slender stems and white flowers.

As the trail wraps its way through the gorge, riding above the creek, it offers some rich views of the canyon, which is one of the highlights of the hike. Further down along the trail we pass patches of western wallflowers in bloom, most with orange flowers, but a couple with yellow flowers; and then to our surprise we pass a small patch of a half-dozen fire poppies in bloom.

The trail then drops down to the canyon floor, and essentially exits the gorge, and arrives at Rancho Nuevo Campground. The campground features three sites, each with a metal fire ring and grate. From here, the unpaved road leads towards the Cuyama River and State Route 33.

In bloom along the road, interspersed amongst the patches of chaparral are gold fields, also in the sunflower family. At the juncture of Tinta and Rancho Nuevo Roads is a large patch of gold fields dotted with purple owl’s clover adding to the scenery.

The hike along Deal Trail and Rancho Nuevo Trail down to Rancho Nuevo Campground are both part of Condor Trail. The 420-mile long route starts from Lake Piru and traverses the southern Los Padres National Forest utilizing existing trails and roads, before joining California Coastal Trail to connect with the northern Los Padres National Forest, and then completing the traverse through the northern section, ending at Bottchers Gap.

The trail is included in the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act reintroduced by Representative Salud Carbajal and Senator Kamala Harris. The act would designate close to 250,000 acres of land within Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain as protected wilderness and make Condor Trail a National Recreation Trail.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 6th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Cuyama Los Padres National Forest backpacking

Rancho Nuevo Canyon

Deal Junction Camp Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Scenery near Deal Junction Camp

Rancho Nuevo Canyon trail hike dick smith wilderness los padres national forest

Rancho Nuevo Canyon upstream from Deal Juction

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Rancho Nuevo Canyon nearing Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp

Bobcat deal junction rancho nuevo canyon dick smith wilderness los padres national forest

Bobcat making a pre-dawn stroll near Deal Junction

Rancho Nuevo Creek Trail Rancho Nuevo Campground Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Rancho Nuevo Creek nearing Rancho Nuevo Campground

goldfields in bloom rancho nuevo campground cuyama valley los padres national forest

Goldfields in bloom along the road to Rancho Nuevo Campground


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