Posted by: James Wapotich | May 12, 2019

Trail Quest: Matias Potrero

With Paradise Road closed at First Crossing many of the features along the road become more remote. And while the convenience of reaching these places is temporarily gone, so are the large numbers of people visiting these sites as well.

Matias Potrero Camp is the westernmost trail camp on the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Located in the foothills above the Santa Ynez River, it can make for an interesting destination even when the road is open.

From the road, the hike to the camp is roughly two miles roundtrip. Starting from First Crossing, the hike is 9.5 miles roundtrip. Those extra miles provide a chance to experience the Santa Ynez River at a more relaxed pace.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 over the Santa Ynez Mountains, and turn right on to Paradise Road. The road is currently closed at the first river crossing, appropriately named First Crossing. In what’s becoming an annual closure, winter rains have deposited rock and debris across the road and raised the water level. Once conditions are favorable, the Forest Service will clear the road and reopen it.

With the closure, First Crossing Day Use Area becomes the trailhead for hikes and bike rides further upstream along Paradise Road. A Parks Management Day Use Pass is required to park there and is available at the day use area. Parking is $10 per day.

From the parking area, I continue over to the Santa Ynez River. The water has gone down significantly since our winter storms and is now relatively easy to cross. On the other side, the road continues through Lower Oso Day Use Area and out towards Red Rock.

Past Lower Oso, the road climbs above the river and offers some sweeping views out across the relatively wide flood plain. It is striking to see so much clear, flowing water in the river. This is no mere stream flowing in a canyon, but a segment of a 92-mile long river that stretches from the mountains north of Carpinteria all the way to the ocean past Lompoc.

At about the 1.5-mile mark, the road arrives at Falls Day Use Area. The picnic area is nestled under several coast live oaks that were spared during the 2013 White Fire.

Crossing through the picnic area, I head for the upper end of the popular swim hole found near the site. Winter rains have activated the thin cascade of water flowing over the rock wall across the river that gives the site its same. Pausing to take in the scenery, I’m struck by how quiet the place is now, no longer just a stone’s throw from the parking area. Sensing some movement in the water, I turn and watch a large school of fish enjoying the abundantly flowing river.

Continuing along Paradise Road towards Red Rock, I aim for an old trail that starts about a half-mile before Camuesa Connector Trail. The trail is located across from the old Santa Ynez Campground that was removed by the Forest Service. My destination is a hidden waterfall I stumbled across last summer.

The old trail is just before a gate along the road and marked with a metal post that may have once had a sign on it. The trail leads down towards the river, becoming lost in the jumble of river stones and plants, but reappears on the opposite bank, near a couple of coast live oaks. The river is narrower here, slightly deeper with more of a current, but still crossable.

On the other side, I follow the trail along the broad floodplain, appearing here as more of a long meadow covered in wild grasses and dotted with sycamore, coast live oak, elderberry, and even a fuchsia-flowered gooseberry in bloom. After about a quarter of a mile, I arrive at the side canyon where the falls are located.

Last summer while driving towards Red Rock, the side canyon caught my eye and I felt called to explore it. My hike led me to the base of a dry waterfall and I made a mental note to come back in the spring when it might be flowing.

Continuing up the side creek now, I quickly arrive at a small, flowing cascade and clamber over it. The creek is overgrown with brush and poison oak, but then opens up as it arrives at another set of small cascades. Past them is yet another round of brush and poison oak, but on the hillsides are California poppies in bloom. The canyon then opens up and arrives at the base of a unnamed 25-foot waterfall.

Taking in its fleeting splendor, I realize that if I hadn’t followed my impulse to explore this side canyon last summer, I wouldn’t have know about the waterfall or got to experience it this spring.

Over the years, I’ve come trust my impulses and intuition more and more, rather than questioning or debating what they have to offer. At first I would follow them just as an experiment, to see where they might lead. Sometimes I would find nothing, but more often than not I’d stumbled across something interesting. After a while, I began to notice that similar to building a muscle, the more I chose to follow my intuition, the stronger and more refined it became.

A number of years ago, while also driving along Paradise Road, a different spot further upstream caught my attention. There was nothing visually unique about the place, and even though I’d driven by it many times before, I decided to stop and follow my senses.

Crossing the river, I felt drawn to a couple of oak trees up on the bank, overlooking the creek. There, beneath the oaks, I found the skeleton of a mountain lion, complete with skull and claws. It was a rare find wrapped in its own mystery. Had the mountain lion been mortally wounded in a fight? Had it been hit by a car? Was it simply old and choose this spot to pass away? Nevertheless, I was amazed to be drawn to the exact spot where it lay, right across the river from a heavily trafficked road.

A couple years later, while also driving along Paradise Road, a different side creek caught my attention, also across the river from the road, just past Live Oak Day Use Area. Intrigued by the noticeable confluence of the creek flowing into the river, I pulled over and made my way across the river.

Arriving on the opposite bank, I felt called to clamber up to a flat area tucked in under a stand of cottonwood trees, next to the confluence. There, scanning the ground, I spotted the remains of Cooper’s hawk. The head and wings were in tact, but the body was gone, perhaps eaten by a bobcat or whatever animal had captured it and brought it to this shady, somewhat hidden spot. Another relatively rare sight I would’ve missed if I had dismissed my impulse or intuition, and instead had just kept driving towards the trailhead for my intended hike.

Hiking back from the waterfall, I arrive at the Santa Ynez River, and regain the old trail, following it a short way upstream to Camuesa Connector Trail. Like First Crossing, the river here is broad and easy to ford, and the trail puts me back on Paradise Road. From here, it’s another mile along the road to Matias Connector Trail.

From the signed trailhead, Matias Connector Trail climbs away from the river, transitioning into chaparral. Along the trail is larkspur, fiesta flower, and shooting stars all in bloom. Further up the trail, also in bloom, is blue dicks, owl clover, lupine, and paintbrush, as well as peonies getting ready to bloom. From the trail are also some great views of the nearby canyons and sandstone outcrops.

About a mile from the road, the trail arrives at Matias Trail. To the right, Matias Trail leads over towards North Arroyo Burro Trail and to the left, leads over towards North Tunnel Trail. Near the signed trail juncture, on the open, grassy hillsides, are numerous examples of poison oak growing as a hearty bush.

At the juncture, I turn left and follow Matias Trail a short way to the signed turnoff for Matias Potrero Camp. The side trail leads down into a small canyon and then abruptly turns 90 degrees to cross the small creek, which is currently flowing. Just upstream at the edge of the clearing is the camp, which features a grated stove and picnic table.

Past the camp to the left, a short trail leads up to another small meadow or pasture, where there is a horse corral and cement trough. Potrero is Spanish for pasture.

The camp and potrero are named after Matias Reyes, who filed a homestead claim there in the late 1800s, with his wife Griselda, a Cahuilla Indian. Reyes also owned 101 acres in Rattlesnake Canyon that included part of what is now Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Skofield Park. Reyes used to gather firewood from mountains, bringing it down into town by burro, and selling it door to door in Santa Barbara; he passed away in 1902, at the age of 83.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 29th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

hidden waterfall camuesa connector trail paradise road hike santa barbara los padres national forest

Hidden 25′ waterfall near Camuesa Connector Trail

garter snake santa ynez river paradise road los padres national forest

Garter snake

santa ynez river paradise road camuesa connector trail los padres national forest

Santa Ynez River near Camuesa Connector Trail

santa ynez river camuesa connector trail paradise road los padres national forest

Scenery along the Santa Ynez River near Camuesa Connector Trail

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Pasture and corral near Matias Potrero Camp

Miner's lettuce paradise road los padres national forest

A sea of miner’s lettuce along Paradise Road



  1. Thanks and looks like fun!

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