Posted by: James Wapotich | June 8, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Trail

Hiked Santa Cruz Trail over Little Pine Mountain as part of a 4-day backpack trip with my friend Jasper to explore the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage. Much of the trail, from Upper Oso over Alexander Saddle and down to the turnoff to Little Pine Spring, was damaged in last year’s Rey Fire and subsequent winter rains.

The first section from Upper Oso to Nineteen Oaks is in fair shape and is enjoying its own mini version of a super bloom. The shale slide sections, further up, are now larger and require more care, but are still somewhat passable. The upper meadow does not appear to have been burned, but is now clogged with wild grasses and mustard. The worst section of trail however is from Alexander Saddle down to the turnoff to Little Pine Spring. Winter rains have washed loose dirt down across large sections of the trail. The route can be challenging and is not really recommended until it can be cleared and repaired. 

mariposa lily super bloom nineteen oaks rey fire santa barbara los pardes national forest santa cruz trail hike

Mariposa lilies cover a hillside near Nineteen Oaks

Little Pine Spring is fine, being located outside the burn area, and the spring itself has a steady trickle. The rest of Santa Cruz Trail is past the burn area, however wild grasses and mustard are experiencing their own super bloom–gaiters are highly recommended.

Article appears in section A of the May 22nd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. The next article will focus on the homesteads and old cabin sites in the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage, specifically the Alexander Cabin, and Romo and Flores homesteads.

Older articles can be seen by scrolling down or using the search feature in the upper right corner. Articles from the News-Press appear here a couple months after they appear in the paper.

Upper Lower Oso vetch connector trail hike los padres national forest

Purple vetch in bloom along the connector trail between Lower Oso and Upper Oso

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 15, 2017

Trail Quest: San Ysidro Falls

Hiked up San Ysidro Canyon a couple weeks ago visiting the different cascades and pools including a hidden waterfall tucked away in the canyon. Article appears in section A of today’s edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

The video is a collection of some of those cascades and pools in San Ysidro Canyon, including San Ysidro Falls.

Older articles can be seen by scrolling down or using the search feature in the upper right corner. Articles from the News-Press appear here a couple months after they appear in the paper.

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 9, 2017

Trail Quest: Caliente Mountain

While Carrizo Plain is perhaps better known this year for its wildflowers covering parts of the valley floor and nearby mountains, the area has other features of interest as well, including the Caliente Range and Painted Rock.

The Caliente Range overlooks Cuyama Valley to the south and Carrizo Plain to north, and a hike along the top of the range offers exceptional views of the surrounding area.

I had spent the previous day viewing wildflowers around Soda Lake and in the foothills of the Temblor Mountains and had set aside my second day to hike to Caliente Mountain.

Caliente Mountain Range wildflowers super bloom Carrizo Plain trail hike

Wildflowers frame a view of Caliente Mountain

The hike to the top of the mountain is about 16.5 miles round trip and requires the better part of a day. Plan on 6-8 hours. However, because of the moderate terrain and engaging scenery, the hike doesn’t feel as long as it sounds. Another option is to backpack there and camp overnight, breaking up the miles over two days.

The best time to go is during the spring or fall when the weather is cooler, with spring having the added bonus of getting to see wildflowers along the hike. There is no water or shade along the route.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north towards San Luis Obispo and continue to State Route 58. Take State Route 58 east through the little town of Santa Margarita, which is the last stop for gas or amenities of any kind. From State Road 58, turn right onto Soda Lake Road.

Soda Lake Road leads into Carrizo Plain National Monument. The paved road continues past Soda Lake, before arriving at Painted Rock Road, where the visitor center is located. Painted Rock Road is unpaved but passable for most vehicles.

Soda Lake Road can also reached from State Routes 166 and 33, although much of the route is unpaved and impassable during wet weather. The drive from Santa Barbara along either route is around 3.5 hours.

The Goodwin Education Center is open Thursday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and features interpretative displays describing the natural history of Carrizo Plain, as well as rangers on duty who can answer questions about the area, current conditions, and what to see.

Carrizo Plain was designated as a national monument in 2001 by President Bill Clinton and encompasses close to a quarter-million acres of protected land. Carrizo Plain is the single largest remaining native grassland in California and is home to a number of endangered, rare, or threatened animal species such as San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and giant kangaroo rat. The area is managed by Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. Visitor information and natural history resources can be found on their website.

wildflowers Caliente Mountain Range trail hike super bloom carrizo plain

Wildflowers cover the hillsides along the trail to Caliente Mountain

Continuing past the turnoff for the visitor center, Soda Lake Road arrives at Selby Campground Road. The unpaved road leads to Selby Campground and the beginning of Caliente Mountain Road.

Selby Campground has 13 campsites on a first come, first served basis. Dispersed camping is allowed in the surrounding foothills, but not along the valley floor.

Just before Selby Campground, the road branches, with Caliente Mountain Road continuing to the right. The unpaved road is narrow, and at times steep, and is not recommended for low-clearance vehicles.

Caliente Mountain Road leads to the top of the mountains. Pullouts along the road provide views out across Carrizo Plain and a number of them are also suitable for dispersed camping.

Near the top, the road arrives at the parking area for the trailhead. Past the parking area the road continues a short way before branching. The road to the left ends at a locked gate and leads along the top of the mountains towards Caliente Mountain. A trail from the parking area ties into this road. The road to the right descends down the front side of the mountains towards Cuyama Valley before ending at another locked gate.

From the trailhead, I follow the old road cut along the north side of the ridge. The trail leads through a mix of juniper and Tucker’s oak, which is a type of scrub oak. Growing in the shade beneath them is a surprising amount of miner’s lettuce and white fiesta flower.

The old road cut joins the unpaved access road along the ridge. The road is well-maintained and follows the ridgeline along the top of the mountains. At about the 2.5-mile mark, it arrives at a repeater-station tower, which serves as the first landmark along the trail. Past the tower, the road is less maintained.

white fiesta flower Caliente Range trail hike Carrizo Plain

White fiesta flower spilling out from beneath a juniper

The road then crests a small rise and descends down to a meadow. At the far end is a corral, weathered picnic table, and collapsed trailer. Essentially an old cow camp, the site was used to collect stock when the area was used to graze cattle.

Past the camp, the road narrows to a single track. Rounding a corner, I am reminded why spring is perhaps the best time for the hike. Lining the trail are hillside daisies. On the northern side of the ridge, under juniper and scrub oak is more miner’s lettuce and white fiesta flower. Here, white fiesta flower appears to almost be flowing out from underneath the juniper and oak and spilling down the hillsides.

Further along the trail, I arrive at a point overlooking one of the canyons that leads down to Cuyama Valley. Here, the sides of the canyon, and many of the nearby ridges, are covered in wildflowers.

At about the 6-mile mark, the trail descends down another short hill and arrives at what’s called a guzzler. Essentially a large, flat surface made of corrugated metal, the structure gathers rain water and directs it into a shaded cistern to create a water source for wildlife.

Continuing along the ridge, Caliente Mountain comes into view. From here, the trail descends down one last hill before making the final ascent towards the summit.

Caliente Mountain, with an elevation of 5,106 feet, is the highest point in the Caliente Range, as well as the highest point in San Luis Obispo County. At the summit is the remains of the World War II lookout cabin that was used to watch for enemy aircraft and threats to the strategic oil fields further inland.

Caliente Mountain lookout cabin ruins hike trail ridge Carrizo Plain

The remains of the lookout cabin at Caliente Mountain

The summit provides nearly panoramic views. To the northeast is the Carrizo Plain and Temblor Mountains. To the southeast is Mount Pinos. To the southwest is the Cuyama Valley and Sierra Madre Mountains.

Standing there, gazing out across these two distinct valleys, I remember the sense of journeying I had the previous day while visiting Painted Rock.

The first people to arrive at Carrizo Plain were Chumash, Salinas, and Yokut Indians. 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, they began painting in the large rock alcove at Painted Rock. The site is now managed by BLM in cooperation with the Chumash and public access is granted on a limited basis. No photos of the site may be used commercially or posted to social media websites.

Ranger-led hikes are offered on Saturdays, from March 1 to July 15. Reservations are made through The hike to Painted Rock is about 1.5 miles round trip.

According to the ranger leading the hike, the site is considered sacred to the Chumash and has served as a pilgrimage site dating back at least 3,000 years. Descendants of the Chumash still visit the site today.

For me, one way to visit a sacred site is to clear my mind and approach the site from a place of reverence and notice where my awareness leads me. The ranger invited us to observe silence while inside the rock alcove, which helped to facilitate being in a mindful state.

While looking at the different pictographs, one of the images reminded me of a Chumash tomol, or wood-plank canoe, which was used to travel between the islands and along the coast. And while the image was probably about something else, the thought called to mind the journey the Chumash regularly made from the islands to the mainland, as well as the larger journey native people made over the land bridge from Asia into North America.

That journey was not only part of mankind’s dispersal out across the earth, but also our journey through the ages; and each of us, in our own lives, are part of that unfolding journey or story. And perhaps, each time we’re out wandering in nature, we are in way embodying that larger journey across the landscape and through time.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 8th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Carrizo Plain Wildflowers

The impact of our winter rains can be seen in a variety of ways on the landscape. Bountiful snowfall has covered the tops of Sierras and Mount Pinos. Waterfalls have become reactivated and, in parts of southern California, the rains have set in motion what’s being referred to as a super bloom of wildflowers.

Seeds that have lied dormant for years are now in bloom as far south as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Closer to home, just the right amount of rain and heat, after years of drought, have covered parts of Carrizo Plain, and the nearby mountains, with wildflowers.

The best time to see the wildflowers is March and April with largely the amount of heat we continue to get determining how far into May the display will last.

Anticipating large crowds visiting Carrizo Plain, I set out the night before to find a place to camp for the weekend.

Coreopsis super bloom Carrizo Plain national monument

Coreopsis are seen in bloom at Carrizo Plain

Carrizo Plain is reached from Santa Barbara by heading north on Highway 101, past San Luis Obispo, to State Route 58. There is no gas or amenities of any kind past the little town of Santa Margarita, so it’s best to stock up in San Luis Obispo. From Highway 101, continue east on State Route 58 to Soda Lake Road. Turn right and follow Soda Lake Road into the national monument. The road is paved all the way past Soda Lake before becoming unpaved.

Carrizo Plain can also be reached from the south from State Routes 166 and 33. Soda Lake Road runs the length of Carrizo Plain, however, from the south, only the first part of the road is paved. The unpaved portion is currently passable by most vehicles, but can become impassable during wet weather. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 3.5 hours.

Carrizo Plain is the largest single remaining native grassland in California. In 1984, Nature Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management began looking at ways to preserve this unique resource, and within four years started acquiring land there. Today, the preserve encompasses close to a quarter-million acres. In 2001, a proclamation was signed by President Clinton designating the area as a national monument.

The Bureau of Land Management’s website has a wealth of information about Carrizo Plain, including its natural history and visitor information.

wildflowers carrizo plain temblor mountains soda lake

Wildflowers and the Temblor Mountains frame a view of Soda Lake

The closest campground to Soda Lake, as well as many of the main wildflower viewing areas, is Selby Campground. The campground is reached by an unpaved road passable to most vehicles. The campground has 13 sites, which are available on a first come, first-served basis. Dispersed camping is also available in the foothills and mountainous areas, but not down along the valley floor. Camping is also available at KCL Campground, which has 12 sites. Both campgrounds have picnic tables and outhouses.

With Selby Campground already full, I park at the far end of the campground and continue on foot into the hills and find a spot overlooking the campground, settling in just before sunset. There are also good places for dispersed camping along the road leading up to Caliente Ridge.

In the morning, I head over to Goodwin Education Center, which serves as the visitor center. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m, Thursdays through Sundays. The rangers have wisely placed a board outside with answers to commonly asked questions related to the monument, in particular current road conditions and where the best sites are for viewing wildflowers.

wildflower carrizo plain soda lake hillside daisies


Carrizo Plain wildflowers temblor mountains soda lake goldfields


With the exception of the paved portions of Soda Lake Road, the rest of the roads within the monument are unpaved. Panorama Road is closed. Simmler Road is passable with a high-clear vehicle, and often impassable after wet weather. Seven Mile Road can be driven in most vehicles and is the best one for crossing the plain. Elkhorn Road is passable for most vehicles from Seven Mile Road down to Wallace Creek.

Wildflowers are currently blooming around Soda Lake, particularly along Selby and Simmler Roads, as well as in the Temblor Mountains along Elkhorn Road. Inside the center are interpretative displays, maps, and other resources. I learn that while there are wildflowers in Temblor Mountains, much of the access is through private property, whereas the flowers around Soda Lake are all within the national monument.

The first half of Simmler Road from Soda Lake Road is passable by most vehicles and so I begin there. Here, wildflowers line the road and stretch out across the plain in huge, expansive fields. The only trails are those created by other visitors that meander through the flowers. Carpeting the plain are vast fields of hillside daisies and tidy tips. Also in the mix are coreopsis and goldenfields, all with yellow flowers, as well as some purple larkspur.

As I walk between the flowers, I’m struck by how saturated the colors appears. There is a subtle hint of fragrance in the air and the richness of the scene is a reminder to me of how many different variables must come together to create the beauty we see in nature.

Simmler Road leads between the two main basins of Soda Lake and so I’m able to wander down to the lake, taking in views of wildflowers contrasted against white salt flats and blue water.

My next stop is Overlook Hill. The parking area for the trail is reached from Soda Lake Road. It is a short hike to the top of the rise which offers great views out across of the lake and salt flats. From here, the views also include Mount Pinos to the southeast, and looking out across the lake, the Temblor Mountains, which are also awash in wildflowers, appearing as if they’ve been painted with color.

wildflowers soda lake temblor mountains Carrizo plain national monument

Wildflowers and the Temblor Mountains frame a view of Soda Lake

Soda Lake is a series of basins that cover roughly 4.5 square miles. There are two large basins and more than a hundred smaller ones. The average depth of even the largest is only 1-3 feet.

At one time, a river ran through through the Carrizo Plain and flowed into the Salinas River. However, it became cut off through uplift associated with the movement of the San Andres Fault, which runs directly through the plain. Over time, the uplift blocked the river, which reversed course and eventually formed a basin. Today, the creeks within Carrizo Plain flow towards Soda Lake, which is the lowest part of the plain. With no outlet, the water evaporates forming large salt flats. The lake was larger during the last ice age when rain was more plentiful.

Although the wildflowers at Overlook Hill are not as dense or abundant, I did see a greater variety, including baby blue eyes, cream cups, larkspur, and pink crinkled onion.

Another nearby hike is across the road where a trail leads down to the boardwalk along the lake. The hike is about a mile round trip.

Returning to my car, I continue along one of the roads that lead around the lake and happen to spot an avocet wading in one of the side channels that flows into the lake. I pull over to have a look, and while admiring the bird, I sense some movement to my right and notice a fox sunning itself. After a while the fox gets up; makes a nice big stretch; and then walks a few feet over to what looks like the entrance of its den. It makes a little circle stopping to yawn and scratch and basically provide a variety of poses. Meanwhile, cars are zipping by along the road, which the fox is pretty much indifferent to. It wasn’t until people began to stop to see what I was looking at that the fox decided to move on and disappeared into its den.

San Joaquin kit fox stretching Carrizo Plain national monument

San Joaquin kit fox

San Joaquin kit fox Carrizo Plain national monument


san joaquin kit fox carrizo plain


san joaquin kit fox resting carrizo plain


The San Joaquin kit fox is the smallest fox in North America, weighing in at just five pounds. Historically they were found throughout the grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley and adjacent foothills and plains such as Carrizo Plain. However, because of encroaching development and habitat fragmentation their numbers have been dramatically reduced. Listed in 1967 as an endangered species, the largest remaining population is found at Carrizo Plain.

Also found at Carrizo Plain are tule elk and pronghorn antelope, which are just part of the unique wildlife and scenery, in addition to the wildflowers, that can be found there.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 1st, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. The next article will be on the hike to Caliente Mountain.

carrizo plain wildflowers super bloom


Posted by: James Wapotich | May 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Coldwater Camp backpacking trip

With the arrival of spring, now is a great time to head out onto the trails for backpacking. Winter rains have helped to revive the backcountry, and camps that were without water because of the drought are once again viable destinations for camping.

Within our local backcountry are a range of places to visit, some of which lend themselves well for easy overnight backpacking trips.

I was recently asked to lead a backpacking class to help introduce people to our trails and natural history, and was joined by my girlfriend, Sierra Boatwright, who is an avid backpacker and naturalist.

The class met three Saturdays in a row, followed by an optional overnight backpacking trip to allow the participants to put into practice the skills they had learned. Each class took place on a different trail and covered a range of topics including orienteering, maps, gear, basic first aid and self-care, route-finding, trip planning, and nature connection.

There were eight participants in the class, and the destination the group selected was Coldwater Camp along Manzana Creek in the San Rafael Wilderness.

Coldwater Camp is about 5.5 miles roundtrip from the trailhead and typically has year round water.

The trailhead is reached from Santa Barbara by taking State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass to Armour Ranch Road. Turn right onto Armour Ranch Road, and follow it to Happy Canyon Road. Turn right onto Happy Canyon Road, and follow it all the way to the trailhead. Happy Canyon Road leads through scenic ranch land before climbing out of the Santa Ynez Valley. At Cachuma Saddle, it meets Figueroa Mountain Road and continues down towards Manzana Creek, changing names and becoming Sunset Valley Road.

The trailhead for lower Manzana Creek is about a half-mile before Nira Campground, which is at the end of the road. The trailhead is along Manzana Creek with a large, unpaved parking area.

We met at the trailhead. The overnight backpacking trip in some ways was the culmination of the class, and everyone was energized about getting out and doing some camping. After a brief safety review of the different hazards along the trail including, rattlesnakes, ticks, and poison oak, we set out for Coldwater Camp.

From the trailhead, Manzana Trail rides above the creek for the first mile and a quarter before descending back down to the water and arriving at Potrero Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and fire ring.

While at Potrero Camp, Sierra and I invite the participants to name the different plants we could see around us that they had learned in class. The group quickly identifies manzanita, hummingbird sage, ceanothus, grey pine, and sycamore, as well as some their attributes.

In a previous class, one of the participants shared the realization that learning about the plants and animals in our local area helped to make wherever we went feel more familiar. He also observed that it made being outdoors that much more engaging.

In many ways connecting with nature is the doorway to having a more immersive experience of the outdoors and a deeper appreciation of how everything is woven together.

At the first creek crossing, I find myself noticing how well the group works together. Winter rains have raised the water level of the creeks, requiring some care in crossing. Watching our diverse group in action, I’m reminded how it’s sometimes easier to find a sense of belonging out in nature and be more accepting of different ability levels and personalities.

Our group included a couple from Germany, who recently moved to Santa Barbara; already avid hikers, they were interested in getting into backpacking, as well as just becoming more familiar with our local area. A former Army medic and his fiancé, a former Navy hospital corpsman, joined to learn more about backpacking. Two other women included a local business owner wanting to get outdoors more and an avid hiker wanting to start backpacking. The men included a speech therapist and musician, who wanted to get back into backpacking, as well as an adventurer, who had been backpacking for more than 40 years, but was interested in meeting other outdoor-minded people.

On the other side of the creek, near the junction with Potrero Trail, we take time for some map review. During the three-week sessions, we learned how to read and navigate the landscape without the use of a GPS or compass.

From Potrero Camp, we continue downstream along the trail weaving around the healthy, vibrant poison oak; stopping to admire the bear sign on a couple of sycamore trees; and making our way through the different creek crossings.

By midday, we arrive at Coldwater Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and metal fire ring. The group fans out into the meadow surrounding our camp and sets up their tents. After lunch, we day hike the mile and a half down to Horseshoe Bend Camp.

While hiking down the trail and taking the lead, I hear what sounds like a rattlesnake. I jump off to the side of the trail, away from the snake. From a safe distance, we stop to admire the healthy-looking snake. No longer feeling particularly threatened, the snake stops rattling at us. And then, tired of being the center of attention, the snake slithers off into the brush, rattling along the way as if to let us know the day was going just fine before all the commotion.

At Horseshoe Bend we enjoy the relatively deep swim holes along the creek. At one point, we watch a western pond turtle patrol the largest pool. Seemingly at ease with the number of visitors to its home, the turtle would swim out into the middle of the pool and back, and then along the rocky edge of the swim hole, putting on quite a show for us.

Arriving back at Coldwater Camp, we start to gather firewood. Under a large coast live oak, I demonstrate something I learned in the Boy Scouts. The leaves of coast live oak are shaped such that rainwater is directed away from the trunk, creating a relatively drier area under the canopy of the tree. By tugging on the dead branches that haven’t fallen yet, you can tell if they are dry enough to gather as firewood. When other wood is wet from the rain, this wood is still mostly dry and can be used to get a fire started.

After gathering enough firewood, we set about building a fire and making dinner. We settled on spaghetti and meatballs for the shared meal. In honor of the couple from Germany, for dessert we decided on s’mores, which apparently are unique to the United States as a quintessential aspect of camping.

Following dinner, we are treated to some fine ukulele music from one of the participants, before heading off to bed. We agree to wake up early in the morning and head out on the land for two hours of solo time as a nature connection experiment.

In the morning, Sierra and I offer some suggestions about how to more easily tune into one’s senses and the environment before the group disperses out onto the landscape to find their spot.

When the time is up, we call them back, and form a circle for a group discussion about the experience. One woman shared that she found being alone on the land uncomfortable, which brought to light the challenges women can face when hiking and backpacking on their own. Others shared how at first they didn’t know what they’d do in one place for two hours, but by the end of the experiment wished they could’ve stayed out longer and spent the whole day immersed in nature, citing the sense of peace and wonder they felt while being out there.

After breakfast, we packed up our gear and shared our appreciations for the group and the time we spent together. Several of the participants shared that they were already planning their next backpacking trip, excited to put their new skills to use and appreciative of the new found confidence they had about exploring our local trials on their own.

We then give thanks to the land for hosting us and begin the hike out. We make a stop at Potrero Camp for one last dip in the swim hole below camp before returning to civilization.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 10th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press..

Posted by: James Wapotich | April 8, 2017

Backpacking Made Easy

backpacking class Santa Barbara wilderness trails hiking skills trail instruction


backpacking class Santa Barbara wilderness trails hiking skills trail instruction


Back by popular demand we will be offering a second session of Backpacking Made Easy.

Through this class, you will learn the basic skills and awareness to set out on our local trails and craft your own backpacking trips. Many of these skills can also be used for day hiking as well.

This class is unique in that it takes place on our local trails. As the best place to learn something is in the context in which it applies, in this case outdoors. You’re also probably interested in backpacking because you want to get out on the trails and experience nature more. 

In general, the class covers three main areas: wilderness navigation; nature connection; and gear/trip planning.

Our approach to wilderness navigation is also somewhat unique. You will learn route-finding and orienteering skills that are not dependent on having a GPS or compass. While we do use these tools on occasion, knowing how to navigate without them can help build the confidence to hike anywhere.

Nature connection is also a big part of our time out on the land. For many of us, the whole point of carrying gear out into the wild is to immerse ourselves in the elements and feel a deeper sense of connection with the natural world around us.

We will cover the gear basics and provide insights into how to evolve your own gear set. You don’t need to buy the latest gear in order to head out into the backcountry; what’s more important is to have the basics covered so that you can get out there and get started.

Backpacking Made Easy
April 29 – 13

Santa Barbara and Ojai are home to a variety of incredible backpacking destinations, and yet, often the biggest obstacle is simply having the knowledge and skills to get started.

Through this immersive workshop, you will learn the basic skills needed to comfortably explore and enjoy our local trails.

Hot springs, waterfalls, epic views, and unspoiled wilderness are just some of the rewards for those who are willing to make the journey.

Each class takes place outside, on one of our local trails, and provides a mix of hands on instruction, immersive exercises, and council sharing circles that allows for learning on many levels.

Lay of the Land
April 29th 9AM-3PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the local landscape, and begin learning the skills and awareness that will help you remove the word lost from your vocabulary. Become familiar with maps and creating your own mental maps. Learn about the different gear options and how to choose equipment that suits you.

Nature Connection
May 6th 9AM-3PM

Venturing out onto the land is even more enjoyable when we take time to develop a meaningful connection with it.

Learn to see the natural world around you as an ally, rather than an obstacle to overcome, and shift your hikes from feeling like endurance contests to journeys of discovery. And learn how to feel at home in the woods. Practical skills include trail navigation, menu planning, personal care and basic first aid skills.

May 13th 9AM-3PM

Many of our local trails are overgrown, particularly those off the beaten path. Learn how to read the trails, practice route-finding, and develop your own sense of “body radar” to help you navigate in the wilderness. Practical skills include trip planning, campsite evaluation, water assessment, and camp set up.

Optional Free
Overnight Backpacking Trip
May 20-21

For those who are interested, we will help organize a free, optional backpacking trip. Here’s a chance to put all these great skills to use, and build on the material covered so far.

Length of the hike and destination for the overnight trip to be determined according to current conditions and the capabilities of the participants.


James Wapotich is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service and the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest. James leads guided hikes and has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry.

Maya Shaw Gale is a mindfulness and nature-based Life-Coach and creator of Inner Nature/Outer Nature and Women in the Wild vision quest retreats. Maya has backpacked in the Sierras, Nepal, and our local backcountry.

Sierra Boatwright is a UC Certified California Naturalist, council facilitator, and nature connection guide, as well as an alumna of Pacific Crest Outward Bound School.

Workshop is $225 per person, or bring a friend and both 20% off.
Limit 12 students. Must be able to comfortably hike 3-4 miles.

To sign up or for more information please contact:

James (805) 729-4250
Maya (805) 857-1789
Sierra (805) 708-4058

Posted by: James Wapotich | April 8, 2017

Exploring Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park Wilderness Hiking Speaker Series Santa Barbara


Exploring Channel Islands National Park

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

Thursday, April 20th, 6:30PM
Faulkner Gallery – Santa Barbara Public Library
40 East Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, CA

Just off the coast, the Channel Islands represent a unique world unto themselves. With their diverse plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world, the islands have been referred to as the Galapagos of North America.

The islands within Channel Islands National Park include Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara, and all five offer hiking and camping opportunities.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his hikes and backpacking trips on the Channel Islands. James has hiked on all five of the islands within the national park and is the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

For more information call (805) 729-4250 or email

Wilderness Hiking Speaker Series

This talk is part of the new monthly Wilderness Hiking Speaker Series hosted by the Santa Barbara Public Library. The talks are the third Thursday of the month and feature topics related to hiking, backpacking, and our local natural history.

The next upcoming talk is Thursday, May 18th, featuring Lanny Kaufer speaking on the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Santa Barbara Region. Lanny is celebrating his 41st year of leading Herb Walks in Ojai and Santa Barbara, and brings with him a wealth of knowledge about our local plants and their uses.

Posted by: James Wapotich | April 4, 2017

Trail Quest: Point Sal State Beach

West of Santa Maria, along the coast, is one of Santa Barbara County’s more remote beaches. The beach is roughly ten miles roundtrip from the trailhead, which adds to the sense of it being the reward at the end of a long journey.

Point Sal State Beach covers 80 acres of land including the beach and out to the point. The area features plants and some unique geology that are more reminiscent of the Channel Islands than the mainland. 

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north towards Santa Maria. Exit at Clark Avenue and continue west, passing through the town of Orcutt, to State Route 1. To right onto State Route 1 and continue north towards Guadalupe. From State Route 1, turn left onto Brown Road, which ends at the trailhead. Parking is found along the side of the road.

Point Sal State Beach Santa Maria hike trail Casmalia Hills

Point Sal State Beach

The trail to Point Sal is open from sunrise to sunset. Most of the route is unshaded and there is no water or amenities along the trail or at Point Sal Beach so plan accordingly. No bikes or horses are allowed on the trail. 

From the trailhead, the hike follows an unpaved access road that winds its way out of Corralitos Canyon, and over the Casmalia Hills, before then continuing down towards the beach.

At the beginning of the hike, the hillsides are mostly covered in non-native grasses. However, as the hike continues the patches of chaparral become more and more expansive. Amongst the plants present are coastal sagebrush, coyote brush, black sage, poison oak, and blackberry. 

With the arrival of spring and many of the plants in bloom, one can also spot gooseberry, bush monkey flower, and paint brush. Further along the trail, where the hillsides seem to retain more moisture, there is even hummingbird sage and wood mint, or hedge nettle.

As the trail rounds a wide bend in the road, on its climb to the top of the Casmalia Hills, it passes through a drier feeling section. Here, the hillsides are dominated in places by black sage. Also along the road is chaparral sunflower, lupine, and ceanothus. The diversity of plants easy dispelling what at first glance can look like nothing more than grassy hills and sagebrush. 

At about the 1.5-mile mark, the trail starts to level out as it approaches a cattle guard. Here, along the left side of the road, are brodiaea, or blue dicks, with its purple flowers, long-beaked stork’s bill, with its light pink flowers, and surprisingly, chocolate lilies. 

Chocolate lilies can also be seen in the San Rafael Mountains along Figueroa Mountain Rain. The plant blooms in March and April, and its brown, or chocolate-colored, flowers are what gives the plant its name. Other members of the lily family that grow in our area are mariposa lilies and the rare Ojai fritillary.

Giant Coreopsis Point Sal State Beach hike trail

Giant Coreopsis are seen along the trail

From the cattle guard, the trail crosses over the top of the Casmalia Hills, passing still more chocolate lilies, before arriving at the Vandenberg Air Force Base Gate. 

Originally Point Sal was accessible by vehicle from Brown Road, passing through the northernmost corner of the base. However, in 1998 winter storms damaged the road and it has been closed since. In 2008, an agreement was reached with Vandenberg Air Force Base that allows hikers to access the road and continue down to the state beach. The base reserves the right to close or restrict access, for example when there’s a missile launch. To check whether access is open or not go to

Past the gate, the access road is paved almost all the way down to the beach, roughly 2.5 miles. The road continues across the top of the hills, before rounding a bend bringing Point Sal into view.

From here, one can trace the line of Point Sal Ridge down to the ocean, as well as see part of the beach. A little further down the road, the views open up to the south. Here, one can see Purisima Point, parts of Vandenberg Air Force, and beyond that Mount Tranquillon and Point Arguello. 

The road makes a long, winding descent down to the coast, passing through hillsides dotted with chaparral, with purple sage now taking the place of black sage.

The road eventually arrives at a second gate. Here, the route down to the beach continues to the right, passing a stand of giant coreopsis, currently in bloom with its bright yellow flowers. A familiar sight on Anacapa Island, where it grows in abundance, giant coreopsis grows along the Pacific Coast from Northern Baja California to as far north as San Francisco. 

Coreopsis is in the sunflower family and can grow to around four feet in height. The plant blooms in the spring, typically from March to May. The flowers and leaves eventually fall off, leaving just the dry stems, giving it the appearance of miniature, barren-looking tree.

The road eventually arrives at the bluffs overlooking the beach. By continuing to the right, there is an informal route that can found that often is often washed out, but with some scrambling, does provides a way to reach the beach.

Point Sal State Beach hike trail Santa Maria

Point Sal is seen from the trail

The pristine beach is about a half-mile long and is one of the highlights of the hike. Swimming, however, is not recommended because of the strong riptides. 

At the far end of the beach one can find outcroppings of ophiolite, a unique and somewhat rare rock type. Ophiolite is a section of the earth’s oceanic crust and underlying upper mantle that has been uplifted and placed on the land. 

The ophiolite at Point Sal is part of the Coast Range Ophiolite, which appears from Santa Barbara County north to San Francisco. It has been suggested that the material was formed at a mid-ocean spreading center, roughly 165 millions years ago during the Jurassic Period. When it was formed, molten rock, or magma, penetrated into the seafloor, where the material either cooled and solidified below the surface, or erupted, forming pillow lava where it met the ocean. 

Portions of the Channel Islands were also formed by submarine volcanic activity, but are much younger geologically.

In studying the magnetic signature of the ophiolite, geologists have determined that it was formed near the equator. Through the movement of plate tectonics it was carried north when Pangaea began to break up and the continents started to drift apart. As part of the Farallon Plate, the material eventually became attached to the western edge of North America. 

When the eastern moving Farallon Plate collided with the North American Plate, the denser Farallon Plate slid under the lighter continental plate. The resulting subduction, volcanic activity, and uplift created the forerunners of the Sierra Nevadas. Essentially acting like a giant, slow-moving conveyor belt, material, including the ophiolite, was scraped off the Farallon Plate as it subducted under the North American Plate and was added to the western edge of the continent.

As the Farallon Plate continued to subduct under the North American Plate the movement bought in behind it the Pacific Plate. However, instead of sliding underneath the North American Plate, the northward moving Pacific Plate began sliding laterally against it, creating a transform fault, which we know as the San Andreas Fault. The shift brought an end to the mountain building and accretion associated with subduction. 

Typically ophiolite is recycled along with other material through the process of subduction. However, because of the path it ending up taking, the ophiolite at Point Sal managed to escape being subsumed back into the earth, providing an unique opportunity to study a section of ancient oceanic crust and learn more about it.

Past the rocks there is no maintained trail or particularly easy route over or around the rocks, even during low tide. But the beach itself provides ample reward for the hike and the satisfaction of having visited a remote corner of Santa Barbara County.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 3rd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press..

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 27, 2017

Trail Quest: Potrero John Trail

Our recent rains have not only helped bring the waterfalls back to life, but have also inspired the plants to get an early start on spring. Potrero John Creek originates near the top of Pine Mountain Ridge, carving a canyon down the mountain on its way towards Sespe River and includes a scenic waterfall along the way.

I thought it’d be interesting to invite local plant expert Lanny Kaufer to join me for the hike. Lanny has led Herb Walks and Nature Hikes in Santa Barbara and Ojai for the past 41 years and was excited about revisiting the canyon and seeing the falls.

The hike to the falls is about six miles roundtrip and follows the creek most of the way, passing through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants.

After picking Lanny up from his home in Ojai, we continue along State Route 33 to the trailhead. The road follows North Fork Matilija Creek before climbing out of the canyon and continuing towards the turnoff to Rose Valley. Past Rose Valley Road, State Route 33 descends down towards Sespe River and follows it upstream towards Sespe Gorge.

Lanny Kaufer Herb Walks Ojai Edible and Medicinal Plant Potrero John Canyon Trail Falls hike

Lanny pauses at one of the cascades along the trail

Potrero John Canyon is the second canyon on the right just past Sespe Gorge. Parking is found in the pullouts along the road.

On our drive, Lanny talked about Tending the Wild, by M. Kat Anderson, a book he is currently reading. The book dispels the narrative of California’s native peoples as hunter-gathers, wandering the landscape, opportunistically looking for food, and instead shows them as stewards, actively tending the wild plants and resources they used. As an example, Lanny offered that when the Chumash harvested brodiaea, or blue dicks, which have an edible bulb, they likely replanted the smaller bulbs and cleared the area around the plants so they would grow back in the same place more vigorously and abundant the following year.

As we hit the trail, one of the first plants that grabs our attention is chaparral white thorn ceanothus growing abundantly along the trail. The plant with its distinctive pale, whitish bark grows at higher elevations and has yet to show its purple flowers. The plant is distinct from the big pod ceanothus we saw in North Fork Matilija Canyon, along the drive, which was already in bloom with white flowers. The flowers of ceanothus can be rubbed together to produce a lathery soap.

The beginning of the canyon is narrow and shaded. In addition to ceanothus, we see manzanita and yerba santa amongst the chaparral plants, and along the creek we can see mule fat, willow, poison oak, and mugwort.

The next plant we stop at is big cone spruce, also known as big cone Douglas fir. I watch as Lanny walks around the tree. He is looking to see if there are any new needles growing, offering that they are a rich source of vitamin C and have sour, but nutty taste. He concludes, however, that it’s still a little early in the year, and we probably won’t start seeing fresh needles until April.

At the next crossing, we spot several patches of giant stinging nettles. Lanny points out that it is the only native nettle in our area, adding that it is also one of the most nutrient rich plants on the planet. Carefully picking a leaf, he demonstrates how to eat the fresh leaves without getting stung. Taking the leaf and crushing it between his fingers, he rolls it into a ball, pinching hard to deflate the little hairs on the leaves that cause irritation. I do the same, before eating some; the taste reminds me a little of miner’s lettuce, which is also growing along the trail.

Nettles can also be cooked, or steamed, which wilts the hairs on the leaves, eliminating their stinging properties. The leaves are said to be best when they’re young and tender. However, Lanny cautions that once they start to flower it’s risky to eat them, because the leaves begin to produce gritty particles, or cystoliths, that can get into the kidneys and cause kidney stones.

Still, the idea of foraging for a snack in the wild is appealing. Foraging is defined as gathering plants for personal use, any more than that is considered harvesting. A permit is required to harvest plants in the National Forest.

Potrero John Canyon Trail Falls Ojai hike

Potrero John Canyon

Just past the third crossing, the trail enters Sespe Wilderness. As we continue up the canyon, we can hear a group of Steller’s jays excitedly conversing as they flit from tree to tree. In the distance, we can hear the canyon wren’s distinctive descending call that sounds like laughter.

After another crossing, Lanny stops at a small herbaceous plant along the trail and asks me if it reminds me of another plant we’ve seen earlier. Studying the plant, I notice that its dried leaves are still clinging to the stalk similar to mugwort, which proves to be the correct answer.

Lanny points out both plants are in the genus Artemisia, as is sagebrush. This particular member of the genus Artimesia, is wild tarragon. The plant is similar to French tarragon used in gourmet cooking but doesn’t have the same richness of flavor. Nevertheless, can make for a handy seasoning while camping.

Continuing past the wild tarragon, we arrive at a patch of Great Basin sagebrush, also in the genus Artemisia. The plant is related to coastal sagebrush that’s found closer to the coast. The range of Great Basin sagebrush extends inland and takes its name from the Great Basin between the Sierras and Rocky Mountains, where it also grows. The plant can be used to make a liniment to treat muscle pain topically.

Lanny Kaufer Herb Walks Ojai great basin sagebrush potrero john trail canyon los padres national forest sespe wilderness

Lanny studying an example of Great Basin sagebrush

As we continue, the canyon starts to open up. In the distance, we can see Pine Mountain Ridge.

Potrero John Canyon is named after John Powers, who lived in the area during the early 1900s, and grazed his cattle in the canyon. Potrero is Spanish for pasture or meadow.

We pass through several potreros surrounded by mostly chaparral. The south-facing canyon proving favorable to ceanothus, chamise, white sage, yerba santa, and other chaparral plants.

Pausing at a particularly healthy specimen, Lanny points out that yerba santa is Spanish for holy herb. Noting that while the Spanish generally didn’t value the plant knowledge the Chumash people had developed, they were impressed by yerba santa. The plant could cure ailments of the lung and respiratory system, including tuberculosis, far more effectively than any plant the Spanish knew, bestowing upon it the accolade of holy herb.

At about the 1.75-mile mark, we arrive at the unsigned turnoff for Potrero John Camp. The camp is across creek from main trail and tucked under several large interior live oaks. The camp features a grated stove and fire ring and makes for an easy overnight backpacking destination. After pausing for lunch, we continue up the canyon towards the falls.

Potrero John Falls waterfall Sespe Wilderness hike trail backpacking ojai los padres national forest

Potrero John Falls

Past the camp, the trail sees less use and is more overgrown. The trail is generally still easy to follow, although some of the crossings can prove confusing.

The trail favors the west side of the canyon and becomes more shaded as it narrows, eventually narrowing to the point where there is no more room for a trail. From here, it is a short ways to the falls up the creek.

Scrambling over the rocks and rounding a corner in the canyon, we arrive at a point overlooking a small cascade. Just above it is the main falls. We make our way to the base of the falls and take in the crystal clear waters flowing across the tall rock face. The blueness of the sky set against the falls seems impossibly deep and rich.

Sitting there taking in the scenery, feeling the warmth of the sun, and listening to sounds of the water, my mind begins to wander. I find myself imagining a landscape subtly altered by the Chumash over thousands of years, as they tended the plants they used. And I wonder if the groupings and concentrations of edible and medicinal plants I see in the backcountry today are actually remnants of their activity.

Lanny Kaufer regularly offers Herb Walks and Nature Hikes in Santa Barbara and Ojai and will be featuring a walk along Potrero John Trail later in the spring. For more information or a calendar of upcoming events go to

This are article originally appeared in section A of the March 27th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press..

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 20, 2017

Trail Quest: North Tunnel Trail

In January, Gibraltar Reservoir reached full capacity and began spilling over for the first time in six years. The arc-shaped dam was built in part against a large outcropping of sandstone where the river narrows. As water leaves the spillway it flows over the sandstone creating a waterfall comparable to those elsewhere in the backcountry.

The shortest route to the dam is from the Red Rock Trailhead at the end of Paradise Road. However, the same rains that have brought our creeks and waterfalls back to life, have also closed Paradise Road at the first crossing of the Santa Ynez River. The wide, flowing river has made the crossing impassable to vehicles.

Fortunately, there is an alternate route down to the dam from the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains that leads through Devil’s Canyon. The hike starts off along North Tunnel Trail and is about eight miles roundtrip.

Gibraltar Reservoir dam trail full los padres national forest

Gibraltar Reservoir between Gidney Cove and the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine

I had already been wanting to see the reservoir spilling over and getting to hike through Devil’s Canyon added to its appeal.

North Tunnel Trail is reached from Santa Barbara by taking Gibraltar Road to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where it meets East Camino Cielo Road. Turn left onto East Camino Cielo and continue towards the first access road on the right. Parking is found along the beginning of the access road.

Sometimes referred to as Angostura Pass Road, the gated access road leads to the beginning of North Tunnel Trail and down to the dam. Past the locked gate, the views open up dramatically out across the Santa Ynez Valley towards the San Rafael Mountains. Here, the various summits from Figueroa Mountain to Madulce Peak can be seen. The burn area from the Rey Fire is also visible on the landscape.

The unpaved road then rounds a corner and Gibraltar Dam comes into view. Even from here, I can see the water flowing over the spillway. Just past the bend, is the beginning of North Tunnel Trail, which is hard to spot now that the trail sign is gone.

From the road, the trail continues down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains, leading through a mix of chaparral, including ceanothus, chamise, manzanita, scrub oak, and toyon. The trail is overgrown in places, but still easy to follow.

The trail is mostly exposed, however there is a patch of shade where the trail passes through a small stand of madrone. More common now to northern California, the tree is a remnant from the last ice age when our area was much cooler and wetter. Madrone is often found on the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, near the top.

The trail briefly shifts onto a small south-facing ridge. Here, the additional sunlight has created opportunities for yerba santa, white sage, and yucca to grow. Passing through the brush, I can see that the rain combined with warmer weather has also been exciting for the local ticks and brush several off me as I continue.

At about the two-mile mark, the trail arrives at a three-way intersection. Here, North Tunnel Trial ends. To the left Matias Trail continues over towards Arroyo Burro Road, and to the right Devil’s Canyon Trail continues towards Gibraltar Dam.

The trail descends into a side canyon, passing through several grassy areas dotted with coastal sagebrush and lined with shooting stars in bloom. Further down, blue dicks, or brodiaea, are also in bloom. On one of the flowers I spot a shy, yellow spider crab that maneuvers its way around the plant each time I try to get a closer look.

The trail becomes more shaded as it starts to follow the flowing creek in the canyon. There are no other footprints along the trail. Part of the charm of Devil’s Canyon is the sense of enclosure, cut off from the visual reference of the San Rafael Mountains or even the reservoir, it is a place unto itself.

Continuing through the canyon I can see bear sign, or scratches, on several of the trees, that add to the sense of remoteness.

The trail then arrives at the confluence of the side creek and the main creek through Devil’s Canyon. Here, alder trees line the watercourse, suggesting that this section of the creek flows year round. I continue downstream along the trail under a canopy of oaks.

Having seen Humboldt lilies along a couple other trails on the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains, I’m hopeful that there are some growing in this canyon. I spot several along the trail, before stumbling across an unusual sight. Surrounding a single cluster of California bay laurel are more than a dozen lilies sprouting up near the trees.

After a number of creek crossings, the trail arrives at the unpaved access road that comes up from the Red Rock Trailhead. From here, the road follows Devil’s Canyon down to the confluence with the Santa Ynez River.

Supported by water from the overflowing reservoir, the river is striking in its fullness, covering completely the trail that leads to the other side. As I continue along the access road towards the dam, the spillway comes into full view. Here, water from the reservoir is pouring over the rock face forming a good size waterfall.

Completed in 1920, the dam was the first along the Santa Ynez River. Its original storage capacity was 14,500 acre feet of water. Over the years, sediment filled the reservoir reducing its capacity by almost half. In 1948, the height of the dam was raised 23 feet, bringing the reservoir back to roughly its originally capacity. Today, after almost 70 more years of sedimentation, the reservoir’s capacity is just 5,272 acre feet, which is why it didn’t take long to fill with water. In comparison, Lake Cachuma has a capacity of more than 190,000 acre feet.

From here, the access road continues above the dam and leads to an overlook that provides additional views of the spillway. Nearby, is a picnic table under a couple of pine trees, next to a quonset hut, that provides shaded views out across the reservoir.

Appreciating the shade, I take a quick lunch at the table and assess the time. I have enough daylight to hike over to Gidney Cove and back out, but not enough to visit the Sunbird quicksilver mine. I know my pace will improve along the access road and decide to revisit the topic at Gidney Cove.

The access road continues eastward another mile and then branches. Here, Angostura Pass Road continues to the top of Santa Ynez Mountains where it meets the trailhead. To the left, Gibraltar Trail continues around the reservoir, eventually meeting North Cold Spring Trail.

I continue along Gibraltar Trail, which follows an old access road around the cove towards the mine. The road makes a wide descending switchback, offering views out across the cove, before then heading towards Gidney Creek. The cove is remarkably placid and quiet, giving the area an almost eerie feeling. I don’t hear the creek until I’m almost upon it.

Continuing past the creek, the road starts to climb as it rounds the far side of the cove offering additional views of the reservoir. At the far side of the cove, I realize that I’m probably just a mile from the mine, and if I keep a steady pace I can make it to the mine and back and only have to hike the last hour in the dark.

As I continue along the road, several more sweeping views out across the reservoir come into view, including one more at the mine where the river flows into the reservoir.

Quicksilver was first mined at the site in the 1860s, and then on and off over the years as the demand and favorable pricing for quicksilver ebbed and flowed. Sunbird Mining Company was the last such venture, which started in the 1960s, and closed in the 1990s. A fence now surrounds the abandoned structure for safety.

After taking in the views, I hasten my return back to the trailhead.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the March 20th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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