Posted by: James Wapotich | March 20, 2017

Trail Quest: Rose Valley Falls

With all the great rain we’ve been receiving, now is a perfect time to tour some of the many waterfalls and cascades our local mountains have to offer.

I had already been wanting to revisit Rose Valley Falls in the mountains behind Ojai, but had been waiting for more water to bring them back to life. Said to the be the tallest waterfall in Ventura County, the two-tiered waterfall flows down the backside of Nordhoff Ridge.

The hike to the lower falls from Rose Valley Campground is less than a mile roundtrip. The trail is shaded with fairly easy terrain, which also makes it a great hike for kids.

The falls in the video in order are Lower Rose Valley, Upper Rose Valley, three cascades in a side creek along Lion Canyon Trail, West Fork Lion Falls, first cascade past East Fork Lion Camp, and just above that “Spruce Falls”.

The trail to the falls is also near Rose-Lion Connector Trail, which can be used to hike over to Lion Canyon, where there are two more smaller waterfalls. This longer hike is about 6.5 miles round trip and leads past two trails camps that provide opportunities for overnight backpacking trips.

To reach the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai, and continue north on State Route 33. State Route 33 leads through North Fork Matilija Canyon and eventually climbs out of the canyon. Just as the road levels out, it arrives at the turnoff for Rose Valley Road.

Continue east on Rose Valley Road to the turnoff for Rose Valley Campground, which is at a four-way intersection. To the left, the road leads down to Lower Rose Lake. Straight ahead, Rose Valley Road continues towards Middle Lion Campground, as well as the Piedra Blanca Trailhead along Sespe River. To the right, the road continues to Rose Valley Campground.

Continuing towards to the campground, I pass Upper Rose Lake and can see the upper falls in the distance. I park along the road with the other cars at the beginning of Rose-Lion Connector Trail and walk a short way up the road to the campground.

Rose Valley Campground has nine sites each with a picnic table and fire ring. The sites are $20 per night through Parks Management, the new concessionaire. The sites are on a first come, first served basis.

The trail to the falls is at the far end of the campground and is in good shape. The trail leads through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants as it follows Rose Valley Creek. Along the route are several side trails down to the creek that lead to small pools and cascades.

The trail ends at the base of lower Rose Valley Falls. Here, the cascading water is spread out over a large rock face forming a number of rivulets. In the summer, there are often crimson columbines growing along the face of the lower falls.

In the short time I was there I watched a number of people attempt to reach the upper falls by scrambling up the unstable rocky slopes on either side of the lower falls. The people who had the most success were those who went back down the trail and found a route on the right hand side of the canyon. Several people have died and others have been injured trying to reach the upper waterfall, which makes it not worth attempting when there are easier places to visit in our backcountry.

Returning to the parking area, I continue next along Rose-Lion Connector Trail, which leads over to Lion Canyon where there are two smaller, but satisfying waterfalls to be found.

The connector trail crosses Rose Valley Creek just upstream from Upper Rose Lake, so I make a quick detour downstream to take in the views. The man-made lake captures water from the creek and its tributaries and is framed by Pine Mountain Ridge in the distance.

As the trail continues, it follows a side creek that also feeds the lake, passing several small ponds lined with willows, before transitioning into mostly chaparral. Here, the rains have helped transform the exposed and sparse feeling area into a renewed little canyon with an idyllic stream waiting to be rediscovered.

The trail eventually crests a small saddle and descends into Lion Canyon, following another flowing side creek on the way down to Lion Creek. Again, I’m given pause at how the addition of water to the landscape adds to the sense of vitality and expansiveness all around me, and makes each turn in the canyon seem more animated.

At about the 1.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at Lion Creek. The creek is flowing well, and I have to continue downstream a bit just to find a place to cross. The trail then meets Lion Canyon Trail. From here, it’s about a mile and a quarter down the canyon to Middle Lion Campground, which can be reached from Rose Valley Road.

As I continue up the canyon, my eye is drawn to the dense stands of willow that line the creek, their leaves and buds currently giving the plant a colorful gold and reddish appearance.

Along the trail I pass a small side creek on the left that forms a small pool next to the trail. Scrambling up the nearby rocks to get a better view of the creek, I can see a series of three small cascades in the rocky canyon below.

At about the two-mile mark, the trail arrives at a signed four-way intersection. Lion Canyon Trail continues straight ahead, eventually climbing out of the canyon and continuing up to Nordhoff Ridge. To the right is the side trail to West Fork Lion Camp, and to the left is the side trail to East Fork Lion Camp.

With the sky becoming more overcast, I decide to hike to West Fork Lion Camp first, knowing that I’ll probably spend more time in East Fork Lion Canyon. The side trail follows West Fork Lion Canyon upstream. As I continue, I’m surprised that there are no Humboldt lilies sprouting up along the trail. Last year there were close to 20 along the trail, so either they haven’t started yet or they’re taking a year off.

After roughly a half-mile, the side trail arrives at West Fork Lion Camp. The camp is right along the trail and features a grated stove and fire ring. Across the creek is another smaller campsite with a grated stove, and just downstream from that there’s an ice can stove in a small clearing.

Past the first campsite, the trail continues across the alder-lined creek and then starts to fade. From here, it’s a short hike upstream to the falls. The falls form a chute over an exposed outcropping of conglomerate rock. The cobblestone-looking material was originally deposited during the Cretaceous period as a mixture of loose rock and finer material that fused over time and was later uplifted with the mountains.

I pause here for a quick lunch. The air is cool and I’m glad I brought a down vest. The wool cap I found earlier along the trail proves helpful, but the sunglasses I found at West Fork Lion Camp…not as helpful.

Back at the four-way intersection, I next follow the side trail that leads up East Fork Lion Canyon, entering Sespe Wilderness. The trail crosses the creek several times, and with the higher water it proves challenging to keep my boots dry.

After roughly a half-mile, the side trail arrives at East Fork Lion Camp. The camp has two sites, each with a grated stove and fire ring. The larger, more spacious site is under two large big cone spruce. The site was originally called Spruce Falls Camp.

The trail continues past the camp, before arriving at the first cascade. Here too, the water is flowing over conglomerate rock, only instead of a single large outcropping, it’s a series of huge boulders made of conglomerate rock.

After a short bit of rock scrambling I arrive at the base of the falls, which prove to be the highlight of the day. Here, four separate channels in a row are flowing across a large rock face into a single pool. The water is crystal clear and the sights and sounds are so engaging that I regret not bringing camping gear to have more time to enjoy the canyon before heading home.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the March 13th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 20, 2017

Trail Quest: Tangerine Falls

With all the great rain we’ve been getting, our waterfalls are finally flowing once again. And not just mere trickles like the past five or six years, but actual rushing, roaring water tumbling over rock walls and filling the canyons with energy.

The largest, and perhaps best, of the front country waterfalls is Tangerine Falls in Cold Spring Canyon. The waterfall has been largely non-existent since the drought but is now in full force and promises to continue flowing for some time.

The hike up to the falls is about three miles round trip and involves a fair amount of rock scrambling once off the main trail.


To get the trailhead from Highway 101, take Hot Springs Road exit, and continue north along Hot Springs Road to East Mountain Drive. Turn left onto East Mountain Drive and continue to where the road crosses Cold Spring Creek. Parking is found along the side of the road on both sides of the crossing.

Cold Spring Trail starts along the right side of the canyon, passing through mostly oaks with California bay laurel mixed in and chaparral plants coming down from the side of the canyon.

At about the quarter-mile mark, the trail branches, just below the confluence of Cold Spring and East Fork Cold Spring Creeks. To the right, Cold Spring Trail follows East Fork Cold Spring Creek upstream, before eventually climbing out of the canyon and continuing towards Montecito Peak and the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. To the left, West Fork Cold Spring Trail crosses the creek and continues along the left side of the canyon, following Cold Spring Creek upstream towards the turnoff to Tangerine Falls.

Standing at this first crossing, I’m given pause. The water level requires more of a leap than I’m willing to make. I push upstream, following East Fork Cold Spring Creek, until I find a collection of boulders in the creek that I can hop across. I continue over the wedge of land separating the two creeks, squeezing past the poison oak with its glistening leaves. After finding a place to cross Cold Spring Creek, I tie back into West Fork Cold Spring Trail and continue up the canyon.

With so much water in the creek, I can already feel my excitement at seeing the falls.

The trail is well-shaded. passing through a mix of coast live oak and California bay laurel. From the trail, I can see sycamore and maple in the canyon below. The trail is in good shape, particularly given the recent rains. There are no major slides and no downed trees.

Already, there are some wildflowers in bloom. Milk maids with their white flowers line parts of the trail, as does non-native sour grass, or oxalis, with its yellow flowers.

Having become accustomed to the drought, it is only slowly sinking in that there is water continuously flowing along the length of the canyon. As I slow down to take in this new awareness, I can smell the moist earth beneath my feet and see the newly washed leaves on the trees and bushes. And I can imagine the rainwater making its way down to their roots, providing an infusion of relief from the drought.

As the trail rounds another corner in the canyon, Tangerine Falls comes into view. In the distance, I can see water tumbling over the rocks, forming an electric white line of energy coursing down the canyon.

The trail soon arrives at the turnoff for Tangerine Falls, which is now marked with a sign thanks to a recent project by the Boy Scouts, who installed signs along many of the front country trails east of Gibraltar Road.

The trail juncture is just above where West Fork Cold Spring Creek joins the main creek. To the left, West Fork Cold Spring Trail follows West Fork Cold Spring Creek and continues towards Gibraltar Road. To the right, the off-trail route to Tangerine Falls, crosses West Fork Cold Spring Creek and then continues up Cold Spring Creek, sometimes referred to as Middle Fork Cold Spring Creek.

The off-trail route to the falls is unmaintained and requires rock scrambling. As it continues along Cold Spring Creek, it quickly arrives at a second trail juncture, this one without a sign. The trail on the left, which is at a right angle to the creek, leads above the waterfall.

As I continue along the trail that follows the creek upstream to the falls, I notice a half-dozen Humboldt lilies. Having already seen a dozen so far, I start to count them. In all, there are close to 50 lilies sprouting up along the trail, recognizable with their green leaves growing in a ring around a fairly straight stalk.

Humboldt lilies are considered rare to endangered because of their limited distribution. However, where they do grow, there are sometimes several more plants nearby. They prefer partially shaded canyons and the north slopes of mountains. Humboldt lilies bloom in June, showing orange flowers with maroon spots; and when flowering, the plant can reach as much as eight feet in height.

The trail then crosses the creek. Here, a large outcropping of Coldwater sandstone on one side of the canyon provides a narrow channel for the water to race through, effectively providing the experience of following a cascading mountain stream.

Past the second crossing, the trail leads through a section lined with mostly California bay laurel, before arriving at another rock outcropping. Here, the informal route to the falls scrambles over the outcropping and arrives at a medium-sized cascade.

The canyon then narrows still further, as the use-route transitions into mostly rock scrambling. The route continues up the west side of the creek and is normally dry, even when the creek is flowing. However, because of the volume of water currently in the creek, a side channel is now flowing directly down the use-route, adding to the sense of literally climbing up the creek to the falls.

The use-route then moves past where the water is flowing in and soon arrives at an overlook that provides some impressive views up towards the falls in all their glory.

To get to the base of the falls, I scramble down into the creek and aim for the one place narrow enough to hop across, and then slowly make my way up the sloped rock face. I’ve scrambled up this surface before, but not when it’s completely wet. I make a point of taking my time, not wanting a free ride back down to the creek. At the base of the falls, the spray coming off the cascading water is so strong that it’s like standing in a light rain, so I retreat back behind a nearby rock to take in the views without getting soaked before working my way back down to the creek.

Tangerine Falls takes its name from the orange and rust-colored minerals that have built up on the face of the falls and in the creek, which gives the waterfall a slight orange cast. The effect is more evident when the water level is lower.

On the way out, because there’s still some daylight, I decide to hike up the trail that leads above the falls. The trail climbs away from the creek and follows the contours of the canyon up to the outcropping of Coldwater sandstone that defines Tangerine Falls. The trail does not provide access to the top of the falls, but does offer views down into the canyon, including out towards Tangerine Falls.

Just past the outcropping of sandstone, the trail rejoins the creek and continues through the upper canyon towards an old homestead site. This section of trail sees fewer visitors than the canyon below and feels more like backcountry trail. There are even scratch marks made by black bears on several of the trees.

Returning to the trailhead, I can’t help but think this is going to be a good year for backcountry adventuring and enjoying the natural splendor of our local mountains.

The article originally appeared in Section A of the March 6th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 20, 2017

Trail Quest: Snowshoeing at Mount Pinos

Went Snowshoeing at Mount Pinos with my buddy Casey back in February (there’s likely still some decent snow there). From the main parking area, we made our way cross-country towards Inspiration Point and then tied into the trails over towards to Mount Pinos. From there we continued out to Sawmill Mountain before heading back.

Article appears in Section A of the February 20th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Snow-covered pines Mount Pinos Snowshoe southern california frazier park los padres national forest

Snow-covered pines at Mount Pinos

Mount Pinos snowshoe cross-country skiing Inspiration Point Trail Los Padres National Forest southern California

Scenery near Inspiration Point Trail

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.

Tumamait Trail Mount Pinos Chumash Wilderness snowshoeing cross-country skill southern california los padres national forest

Scenery along Tumamait Trail

Posted by: James Wapotich | February 9, 2017

Backpacking Made Easy

Backpacking class instruction workshop Santa Barbara hiking trails Los Padres National Forest wilderness


Backpacking class instruction workshop Santa Barbara hiking trails Los Padres National Forest wilderness


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. 

Past participants have said: “James and Sierra make a perfect team. They made the richness of the backcountry accessible to me, even though I started with very little experience. They helped open me to a level of connection with nature I had never experienced.”

“The best part was the combination of practical skills and teaching with the nature connection, as the two together inspired the confidence that I can do this.”

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

March 11 – 25

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
March 11th 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
March 18th 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.

March 25th 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
April 1-2

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.

Sierra Boatwright is a UC Certified California Naturalist, council facilitator, and nature connection guide. An alumna of Pacific Crest Outward Bound School, Sierra has backpacked in the Appalachians, Sierras, and our local backcountry.

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
Sierra (805) 708-4058

Posted by: James Wapotich | February 9, 2017

Hiking Santa Barbara’s Wilderness Trails

Hiking Backpacking Santa Barbara Wilderness Trails Los Padres National Forest


Hiking Santa Barbara’s Wilderness Trails

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

Wednesday, March 1st, 7:00PM
Karpeles Manuscript Library
21 W. Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, CA

Santa Barbara County is home to more than a quarter million acres of designated wilderness. Within these wild lands are waterfalls, quiet meadows, homestead sites, and miles of trails to explore. This talk will highlight a number of backpacking and day hike routes through this rich and ever changing landscape that’s right next door to where we live.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images, stories, and trail conditions from his treks through our local backcountry. James has hiked many of the trails in the southern Los Padres National Forest. He is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service, and is the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

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

Posted by: James Wapotich | February 7, 2017

Trail Quest: Hiking above Seven Falls

Hiked above Seven Falls weekend before last. A nice off trail scramble to see the famous series of pools and cascades, as well as the lesser known three pools above Seven Falls. All the falls are flowing, however the waterslide at the uppermost of the three pools is currently unusable due to the pool being silted up; the water is not even knee deep at the very base of the slide.


Article appears in Section A of the February 6th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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 | February 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Wildlife camera tracking with David Lee

I’ve been looking at getting a couple of wildlife cameras to take with me into the backcountry and stumbled upon David Lee’s camera tracking class. David is a local wildlife biologist who’s been putting wildlife cameras at various locations in the Ventura/Ojai area such as the Ventura Hills and Ventura River Preserve. Over the past four years he’s captured images of everything from coyotes, bobcat, bears, mountain lions, foxes and deer to various birds and even ringtails with his cameras.

David’s next class will be Thursday, March 2nd, at the Carpinteria Public Library, for more details or to see some of his photos and videos go to

Article appears in Section A of the January 30th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Grey Fox David Lee wildlife camera tracking trapping Ventura River Preserve Ojai Valley Land Conservancy

Grey fox photographed at Ventura River Preserve, image courtesy David Lee

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.

ringtail cat david lee wildlife camera tracking trapping ventura river preserve Ojai Valley land conservancy

Ringtail photographed at Ventura River Preserve, image courtesy David Lee

David Lee wildlife camera tracking trapping Big Rock Preserve Ventura River

David Lee installing a wildlife camera along the Ventura River at Big Rock Preserve

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 23, 2017

Trail Quest: Refugio to Gaviota, Part 2

The Gaviota Coast extends west from Goleta towards Point Conception. The largely undeveloped stretch of coastline provides numerous opportunities to explore some of southern California’s more remote and scenic beaches.

Along the Gaviota Coast are three state beaches that provide direct access to the coast, as well as camping and other recreational opportunities. Heading west from Goleta they are El Capitan, Refugio, and Gaviota.

When the tides are low enough it’s possible to hike between the different state beaches. The hike from Refugio to Gaviota is about 9.5 miles one way and is best done as a shuttle hike. The area can also be explored by starting at either end and hiking as far as the tides permit before turning back.

Gaviota Coast beach walk hike low tide Refugio Arroyo Hondo

Scenery along the Gaviota Coast

To get to Refugio from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 west. Continue past the exit for El Capitan State Beach to the exit for Refugio State Beach. To reach Gaviota State Park, continue further up the coast. Currently, the turn off for Gaviota is closed and you will need to continue to the exit for State Route 1 and double back. Parking is found at both Refugio and Gaviota and is $10 per day for day use.

From Refugio, head down to the beach, and continue west around the point that defines the cove at Refugio. The point is one of the more narrow sections along the hike and serves as good indicator whether the rest of the route is passable. Ideally, you’ll want to time your hike to be midway at the lowest point of the tide. A minus low tide is best in that it affords one the best opportunity to complete the hike at a reasonable pace.

About a mile from Refugio, the route leads around another point and the views open up dramatically to the west. From here, one can spot in the distance the train trestle at Arroyo Hondo.

At about the 4.5-mile mark, roughly midway through the hike, one arrives at Arroyo Hondo. Here, the beach is also narrow, but improves as you continue towards Gaviota. Behind the trestle is the arch bridge that served as the original route for Highway 101 across the canyon. The bridge can visited from the nearby Vista Point along Highway 101. From the Vista Point, there is also an informal access down to the beach.

The exposed rocks along the coast at Arroyo Hondo offer some of the best tide pooling along the hike. Here, one can find sea anemones, mussels, limpets, chitons, black turban snails, and a fair amount of starfish.

The long beach walk also affords an opportunity to observe our local shorebirds. Overhead, California brown pelicans regularly flyby in formation. At the water’s edge are long-billed curlews and sanderlings foraging, and of course plenty of seagulls. Depending on what’s washed ashore, one can also find turkey vultures scavenging along the beach.

As the hike continues west, its rounds a number of points on the way to Gaviota. While most of the canyons and points seem to alternate, Cañada de Molina, about 1.5 miles west of Arroyo Hondo, is unique in that the sycamore-lined creek flows out almost at the point.

At about the 7-mile mark from Refugio, the coast rounds another point and Gaviota Pier comes into view. As the hike continues, it arrives at Cañada San Onofre, which is recognizable by the freestanding outcropping of Monterey shale that can be seen at the mouth of the creek.

The coast rounds one final point, before arriving at the mouths of Cañada Alcatraz and Cañada del Cementerio. The two creeks meet the ocean next one another, and both have unique and somewhat forgotten histories.

In 1897, Alcatraz Asphalt Company built a plant and pier at the site to process asphalt. The company’s owner, William F. Crocker, part of the San Francisco banking family, had leased the oil rights to Sisquoc Ranch, where the asphalt was located near La Brea Creek. Two pipelines were built between the sites, one that carried liquid asphalt to the coast, and another that carried naphtha to the mine, which was used to liquify asphalt. Four years later operations ceased when cheaper sources of asphalt were developed in Carpinteria and where UCSB is now.

When oil was discovered south of Santa Maria in the early 1900s, the site was converted to an oil refinery. It was owned by various oil companies over the years, and later served as a marine terminal. Tanks at the site can be seen from the freeway near Mariposa Reina.

Just west of Cañada Alcatraz is Cañada del Cementerio. In 1774, the De Anza expedition, following the route established by Portolà five years earlier, passed through the area. Here, they found a deserted Chumash village and its cemetery, and named the site El Cementerio.

In December 1900, the canyon become our own local version of Promontory Summit when the railroad along the coast was finally completed. For years there existed an unserviced section between Santa Margarita and Ellwood known as “The Gap”. Due to terrain and the resistance of some landowners it wasn’t until 1900 the Southern Pacific line was completed, providing direct service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

About a mile past Cañada Alcatraz, one arrives at Gaviota. On August 24th, 1769, the Portolà expedition camped here while on their way to Monterey. When they arrived, there was a Chumash village of about 300 people called Onomyo, which the Spanish named San Luis Rey de Francia. It’s said that when a soldier looking for firewood shot a seagull the site became known as Gaviota, Spanish for seagull.

Serving as a scout in the expedition, José Francisco Ortega, later help found the Santa Barbara Presidio and served as its first commandant from 1782-1784. In 1795, Ortega retired from military service. The previous year he had been awarded a land grant from the Spanish Crown, which he named Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio, Our Lady of Refuge.

The grant covered 26,529 acres from Refugio to Cojo Bay, and inland into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Over the years, the grant was broken up and sold off by his heirs.

During the 1850s, the Hollister and Dibblee families acquired most of land that was part of Ortega’s original land grant, as well as Rancho San Julian to the northwest.

William Welles Hollister, moved to California in the early 1850s, and established a successful sheep ranching operation in Monterey County. After he sold the operation, he moved to Santa Barbara County, where he began purchasing land, including property in Tecolote Canyon, which he named Glen Annie, after his wife, Hannah Annie James Hollister. The road leading to their ranch is now known as Hollister Avenue.

Albert and his brothers Thomas and Henry Dibblee arrived in Santa Barbara County around the same time as Hollister and also began purchasing land.

Seeing mutual advantage, the Hollisters and Dibblees formed a partnership. Together they ran one of the largest sheep ranching operations in the state, controlling close to 140,000 acres of land in Santa Barbra County.

As part of their ranching operation along the coast they built a wharf at Gaviota in 1874, near where the current pier is now. The pier was later destroyed during a storm in 1912.

Over the years, the facilities at Gaviota were expanded to include a stage coach station, inn, and general store that also served as a post office. When the railroad arrived, the site became a railway station.

In the late 1880s, the Hollisters and Dibblees dissolved their partnership and divided up their holdings.

In 1926, the county of Santa Barbara purchased 8.8 acres of land around the beach for a county park, and in 1951, built a new pier. The pier suffered storm damage in 2014, and is currently closed.

In 1952, the county deeded the park to the State of California, but maintained the campground under a lease until 1969. In 1964, the state acquired additional land expanding the park into the Santa Ynez Mountains, and three years later purchased the land around Las Cruces.

Today, Gaviota State Park encompasses 2,787 acres and has over 30 miles of trails. The site features 39 campsites, although currently the park is only open for day use; the campsites are scheduled to reopen in March. For more information about the park go to

This article originally appeared in Section A of the January 23rd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 17, 2017

Trail Quest: Refugio to Gaviota, Part 1

The Gaviota Coast from Goleta out towards Point Conception is one of the more scenic sections of coastline in our area. It is rich with history and offers numerous opportunities for long, quite beach walks. The coastline runs parallel to the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the different canyons and contours create a variety of points and coves to explore.

The are three state beaches along the coast that provide direct access to the beach, as well as camping and other recreational opportunities. Heading west from Goleta, the first is El Capitán, followed by Refugio, and then Gaviota. When the tides are low enough it’s possible to hike between the different sites.

The hike from Refugio to Gaviota is about 9.5 miles. The easiest way to set up the hike is as a shuttle trip and the best time to go is when there’s a minus low tide. One can also start at either end and hike as far as the tide permits and then turn back. It’s best to time your hike so the lowest point of the tide is roughly midway through your hike.

Refugio State Beach Tajiguas Gaviota Coast hike Santa Barbara Goleta

View looking west near Tajiguas Beach

To get to Refugio State Beach from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north and continue past El Capitán State Beach. Take the exit for Refugio State Beach and continue into the park. Day use at the park is $10.

The first people along the coast were the Chumash, with sites dating as far back as 13,000 years ago. The Chumash had a number of villages along the Gaviota Coast at different points in their history. The village of Qasil was located along Refugio Creek, near where the state park is now.

The village likely served as a trading port between the islands and the interior, with Chumash tomols, or wooden plank canoes, carrying goods back and forth between Santa Cruz Island. From Qasil there was a trail over the mountains to the villages in the Santa Ynez Valley. There was also a trade route along the coast to Mikiw and Kuya’mu in Dos Pueblos Canyon. Another route likely went up the coast to Osomyo, where Gaviota State Park is now.

In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first European to sail up the coast of California, stopping at the Channel Islands. However, the first overland expedition wasn’t until 1769, when Gaspar de Portolà set out to establish an overland route to Monterey. The expedition had already traveled from Baja California to reach San Diego and continued north through what is now southern California passing through Santa Barbara and along the Gaviota Coast on the way to Monterey.

Tajiguas Beach Gaviota Coast Refugio walk hike Santa Barbara Goleta

Tajiguas Beach

In the expedition, serving as scout, was José Francisco Ortega, who had been recruited by Portolà. Ortega was a Spaniard living in Baja California. A former soldier, he was serving as the mayor of a mining community when Portolà asked him to re-enlist.

Ortega was one of the first Europeans to see San Francisco Bay, and later founded the Presidio in Santa Barbara in 1782, serving as its first commandant. In 1795, he retired from the military.

The previous year the Spanish Crown had awarded him a land grant, which he named Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio, Our Lady of Refuge. The grant extended along the coast from Refugio to Cojo Bay, and inland into the Santa Ynez Mountains, covering 26,529 acres. Ortega built his home near Refugio Creek. When he passed away in 1798, his descendants inherited the grant.

In addition to cattle and farming, it’s said that one of the main activities of the ranch was smuggling. Prior to Mexico’s independence from Spain, only Spanish ships had permission to trade along the coast. Ships from other nations wanting to engage in trade needed to find secluded places and willing participants for their commerce. Refugio Bay proved an ideal location, and with the limited supply of goods available legally, the Ortegas became one of the wealthiest families in California.

In 1818, Hippolyte Bouchard, a privateer in the service of the newly independent Argentine Republic, sailed to Monterey, where he looted and burned the city. Bouchard had heard of Ortega’s wealth and continued down the coast to take it. However, the Ortega’s had been tipped off of his arrival, hid their valuables, and fled over the mountains to Mission Santa Ynez. Finding little to take, Bouchard burned the Ortega’s home and killed their livestock. When the Ortegas rebuilt their adobe it was further inland.

Over the years, the original land grant was broken up and sold. In the early 1900s, the land at Refugio Creek was acquired by Stephen and Jessie Rutherford.

During the 1920s, with automobiles becoming more common and people visiting the coast, the Rutherfords saw a business opportunity. They built cabins for rent and a store at the beach, and also planted the long row of palms trees still seen there today.

In 1950, the Rutherfords sold the land to the State of California, and 13 years later it became a state beach.

Today, Refugio State Beach has 69 reservable campsites, including three group sites, as well as picnic areas and a convenience store. Reservations can be made at

For the beach hike, head west along the coast, rounding the point that defines the cove at Refugio. The rocky point is one of the narrowest along the hike, and a good indicator of whether the rest of the route is passable. The coast near Arroyo Hondo, roughly halfway, is another narrow point between Refugio and Gaviota. By starting 2-3 hours before the tide is at its lowest and keeping a reasonable pace, it is possible to make it all the way to Gaviota.

The main rock type along the coast is Monterey shale, and through one section, with a little imagination the large pieces of eroded rock can look like fallen Roman columns. Amongst the crevices of these rocks one can find numerous striped shore crabs hiding out.

The low tide also offers an opportunity to see some of the marine life that is often hidden by the water. Along the hike it’s possible to see mussels, limpets, chitons, and sea anemones on the exposed rocks.

After about a mile, the hike rounds a point and the views open up dramatically to the west. The scenery extends along the coast and is framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. In the distance one can spot the train trestle at Arroyo Hondo.

About a mile later, one arrives at Tajiguas Creek. The creek passes under the freeway and railroad through a cement tunnel, and so the main landmark here is a large, lone eucalyptus tree next to the beach. On August 23, 1769, Portola’s expedition camped along Tajiguas Creek on their way up the coast.

Another mile further is Arroyo Quemada, which is easier to identify. Here, the canyon is more open and one can see houses overlooking the beach. Please respect private property.

Continuing along the coast, the beach begins to narrow as it approaches Arroyo Hondo, however there is a long cement retaining wall that can be used if the tides are against you.

At about the 4.5-mile mark from Refugio, one arrives at Arroyo Hondo. Across the canyon is a large railroad trestle, as well as the bridge that served as the original route for Highway 101. The bridge can also be visited from the Vista Point along Highway 101. There is an informal access from the Vista Point down to the beach.

Arroyo Hondo was the last parcel of land from the original Nuestra Señora del Refugio grant to pass from the Ortega family. The property was sold in 1908 to the Hollister family. In 2001, the Hollisters sold the land to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, which now manages it.

From here, it’s another five miles to Gaviota State Park. The route becomes even more scenic and a little easier in terms of the tides. There are still some rocky points, but overall they’re not as narrow as the area near Arroyo Hondo and the point at Refugio.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the January 16th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

striped thin-line shore crab gaviota coast refugio state beach walk hike

A striped or thin-lined shore crab watches from the rocks

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 9, 2017

Trail Quest: The Big Three

Many of the tallest mountains in Santa Barbara County are located in the San Rafael Mountains. Big Pine Mountain is the highest with an elevation of 6,827 feet. In the vicinity of Big Pine Mountain are Madulce Peak (6,536’), West Big Pine (6,490’), and Samon Peak (6,227’). These four mountains are referred to as the Big Four by peak baggers.

San Rafael Mountain is the second highest mountain in Santa Barbara County with an elevation of 6,593 feet; nearby are McKinley Mountain (6,182’) and Santa Cruz Peak (5,570’). These three summits are collectively referred to as the Big Three.

The hike visiting all three summits from Cachuma Saddle is about 31.5 miles round trip and is best done as part of backpacking trip.

San Rafael Mountain 100 peaks hike trail wilderness Mission Pine Los Padres National Forest snow

The top of San Rafael Mountain is seen from Mission Pine Trail

To get to the trailhead Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 north and continue past Lake Cachuma to Armour Ranch Road. Take Armour Ranch Road to Happy Canyon Road, and follow Happy Canyon Road to Cachuma Saddle.

At Cachuma Saddle, there is a four-way intersection, to the left is Figueroa Mountain Road. To the right is McKinley Mountain Road, and straight ahead Happy Canyon Road turns into Sunset Valley Road, which continues towards Nira Campground.

It is already raining when I arrive at the large parking area at Cachuma Saddle. The rain is predicted to continue into the next morning. However, nighttime temperatures are supposed to drop below freezing at the higher elevations, which means the rain will likely turn to snow. So for a little bit of hardship I might get to enjoy snow-covered mountains.

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McKinley Mountain is seen from Mission Pine Trail

From Cachuma Saddle, I set out along McKinley Mountain Road. The unpaved, gated forest service road follows the top of the San Rafael Mountains all the way to McKinley Saddle, which is the jumping off point for the three different summits.

After about four miles, the road arrives at metal water tank; next to it is a trough and picnic table. The water tank makes a natural windbreak and so I pause here for a moment to get out of the rain. I try the faucet on the spring-fed tank that fills the horse trough. It’s dry – another victim of the drought.

The road is fairly level for the next couple of miles, arriving at an impressive stand of big cone spruce. From here, the road becomes much more serious about gaining elevation as it continues towards the juncture with Big Cone Spruce Trail, which leads down to Manzana Creek.

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Santa Cruz Peak is seen from McKinley Mountain

I eventually arrive at McKinley Spring Camp, which is about 8.5 miles from the trailhead. The camp is situated in a grove of canyon live oak and has a grated stove, fire ring, and two picnic tables, as well as a generally reliable water source.

Rather than start a fire or cook in the rain, I just set up my tent, savor the rest of my sandwich from lunch, and settle in for the night.

In the morning, good fortune prevails. The camp is covered with one to two inches of freshly fallen snow. Breakfast proves easy to make, and I set out for McKinley Saddle.

The first tracks I see in the snow are from a grey fox who visited camp. From the road, I can see several deer paths through the chaparral, and am surprised by just how many rabbits there are in the backcountry, their tracks being the most numerous.

Mission Pine Trail hike San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest snow

Snow covered pines are seen from Mission Pine Trail

McKinley Saddle is about a half-mile from camp. At the saddle is a three-way intersection, with each route leading to a different peak. To the right is the half-mile trail up to McKinley Mountain; to the left is the beginning of Mission Pine Trail, which leads towards San Rafael Mountain; and in the middle, dropping down from the saddle, is Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail, which leads towards Santa Cruz Peak.

I decide to visit Santa Cruz Peak first, since it’s the furthest from the saddle, about 8.5 miles round trip. The peak is not on the main ridge of the mountains, but instead on a spur ridge running off it to the south.

From the saddle, Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail drops down into a small basin, before climbing back up to the ridge that connects over to Santa Cruz Peak. The trail looks like an old bulldozer line that was used for fire suppression or as a fuel break. It is overgrown in places, but generally easy to follow.

The trail levels out some as it approaches the unnamed peak next to Santa Cruz Peak. The trail wraps around it as it heads down towards Romo Potrero and Santa Cruz Trail. I follow the trail briefly, arriving at the fuel break I saw from the saddle that climbs over the peak.

About half-way up the fuel break, I notice that it branches and follow a second fuel break that cuts sideways towards Santa Cruz Peak. The route leads over to a mini saddle between the two peaks.

From the mini saddle, I follow the use trail that leads up Santa Cruz Peak. The trail threads through canyon live oak, before transitioning into chaparral, where it becomes more overgrown and harder to follow. As I push through the brush, I spot a cairn, which leads to another, and then another marking a route along the southeastern side of the peak that leads to the top.

At the summit, amongst the sandstone rocks, is the peak register – two tin cans painted red and nested together with a little notepad inside to record one’s name.

From the peak, the panoramic views include West Big Pine, the backside of Little Pine Mountain, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and Channel Islands. I add my name to the register and return to camp.

While the idea of peak bagging has probably around as long as there has been mountains to climb, the first official list of peaks over 5,000 feet in Southern California dates back to 1946. That was the year Weldon Heald climbed his 100th peak and resolved to encourage other Sierra Club members to participate in his 100 Peaks Game. In 1955, the Los Angeles Chapter of Sierra Club added it as an official activity. The original list included 188 peaks.

Over the years the list has grown and changed, as some peaks have been delisted, while others have been added. Currently, there are 281 peaks on the list, with 15 of them in Santa Barbara County. The list can be seen at

The next morning, I return to McKinley Saddle and make my way towards San Rafael Mountain, which is about 3.5 miles roundtrip from the saddle. I follow Mission Pine Trail east as it enter San Rafael Wilderness. The trail is still covered in snow and climbs along the backside of the mountains, briefly joining the ridge, before continuing along the back San Rafael Mountain.

The trail then crests the ridge and from here it’s a very short side hike to the top of San Rafael Mountain. The views to the south are similar to Santa Cruz Peak, but to the east stretch out past Big Pine Mountain towards Mount Pinos. To the north, I can see snow-dusted Peak Mountain, the highest peak in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

On the hike back to McKinley Saddle, the snow is already starting to disappear along the more exposed sections of the ridge.

From the saddle, I follow the fuel-break which serves as a trail to the top of McKinley Mountain. Here, the views also extend out across the backcountry and towards the islands, but McKinely Mountain offers the best views out across Lake Cachuma and the Santa Ynez Valley.

At the summit are a few remains from McKinley Mountain Lookout. The lookout was built in 1935, and was later destroyed in a windstorm and removed by the forest service in 1974. The mountain is named for President William McKinley.

From McKinley Mountain, I begin my return back to Santa Barbara. On the hike out I find myself wondering about the other peaks over 5,000 feet hidden away in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the January 9th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

MIssion Pine Trail hike snow San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Snow covered ridge is seen from Mission Pine Trail

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