Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2018

Trail Quest: Big Cone Spruce Camp

Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches when planning a backpacking trip. I had a planned a leisurely three-day trip with my girlfriend Sierra to Big Cone Spruce Camp along upper Manzana Creek, but scheduling challenges reduced our available time to two days.

With access to so much of the backcountry closed due to the Thomas Fire and related road closures it can be challenging to find a place to backpack to that doesn’t involve adding extra miles to the hike just to reach the trailhead or desired destination.

East Camino Cielo Road is closed east of Gibraltar Road, which limits easy access to the trail camps behind Santa Barbara and parts of the Dick Smith Wilderness. Rose Valley Road is also closed blocking off much of the Sespe Wilderness. And seasonal road closures have similarly limited access to other parts of the forest.

Manzana Trail creek canyon camp hike backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Scenery along Manzana Creek near Manzana Camp

One of the areas that has remained open and generally accessible is the San Rafael Wilderness and in particular Manzana Creek. The trail along the creek offers a variety of camps to choose from and can be used to access points farther in the backcountry for longer treks.

Not finding many alternatives to Manzana Creek and reluctant to give up our destination we opt to hike to Big Cone Spruce Camp as overnight trip and decide on an early start to give us the whole day to enjoy a more relaxed pace.

The trailhead for upper Manzana Creek is reached from Santa Barbara by taking State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass and continuing to Armour Ranch Road. From Armour Ranch Road continue along Happy Canyon Road. The route leads through scenic ranch country and on our drive we were treated to seeing two coyotes dash across the road, as well as a dozen deer grazing along side the road.

Happy Canyon Road crests over the San Rafael Mountains at Cachuma Saddle and continues down the backside becoming Sunset Valley Road. The road passes Davy Brown Campground and the trailhead for lower Manzana Creek before ending at Nira Campground and the trailhead for upper Manzana Creek. An adventure pass is unfortunately required to park at Nira.

Manzana Creek is a popular destination, with a half-dozen trail camps spread out over the length of the upper creek. In springtime, there is generally water in all of the camps. From Nira Campground, it’s about 14 miles roundtrip to Manzana Narrows Camp and about 19 miles roundtrip to Big Cone Spruce Camp.

Grey Ghost Foothill Digger Pine Manzana Creek Trail hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

A stand of gray pines is seen from Manzana Trail

From the trailhead, Manzana Trail quickly crosses the creek and leads through a mix of riparian plants along the creek and chaparral on the hillsides. Amongst the riparian plants are alder, sycamore, mule fat, and willow. And amongst the chaparral is ceanothus, manzanita, yerba santa, chamise, and yucca. Also in the mix is coast live oak.

Many of these plants can be seen along other trails, and so in some ways the stand out plant here is gray pine, which is fairly common along Manzana Creek. Gray pines are found throughout parts of California and recognizable by their branching trunk, that can give the tree a narrow y-shaped profile. Pine nuts from its relatively large cones are edible and were used by native people throughout much of California, including the Chumash.

Settling into our hike, we quickly cover the first mile to Lost Valley Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and metal fire ring and grill. The camp is near the beginning of Lost Valley Trail, which leads up to Hurricane Deck.

From here, Manzana Trail becomes generally more exposed, staying on the northern side of the canyon as it rides above the creek and crossing the creek just before arriving at Fish Camp. Fish Camp is about 2.5 miles from the trailhead and features two sites, each with a picnic table and metal fire ring and grill.

Canyon Wren Manzana Creek Fish Creek San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Canyon Wren

We take our first rest stop at Fish Camp and walk a short ways downstream to the swim hole found below the confluence of Fish and Manzana Creeks. It’s not quite warm enough for a swim, but a spirited canyon wren keeps us entertained hopping from rock to rock.

Continuing upstream from Fish Camp, the trail soon crosses the creek, and again climbs away from the creek, staying on the more exposed northern side of the canyon. The trail then descends back down to the creek and arrives at Ray’s Camp, which features a picnic table and metal fire ring and grill. The camp is about 4.5 miles from the trailhead and is named for local author and trails advocate Ray Ford.

Past Ray’s Camp, the trial generally stays closer to the creek, becoming more shaded and offering a lot of rich scenery to take in. The trail crosses the creek several times on the way to Manzana Camp and it is refreshing to see clear, flowing water here in the backcountry.

As we continue, the canyon starts to narrow, which lets us know that we’re about to arrive at Manzana Camp where we plan to take another rest stop.

Manzana Camp is about six miles from the trailhead and features two sites. The first site is near the creek underneath a large sycamore tree and features a picnic table. The second site is under a canopy of coast live oaks and lacks a picnic table. Both sites have a metal fire ring and grill.

From Manzana Camp, we continue another mile up to Manzana Narrows. The camp features four sites, three with picnic tables and all with metal fire rings and grills. The camp is situated under a mix of coast live oak, canyon live oak, and California bay laurel.

There is usually water year-round at Manzana Narrows Camp and in the springtime one of the more attractive features is the medium-sized cascade in the creek.

Waterfall pool Manzana Narrows Camp trail creek hiking backpacking san rafael wilderness los padres national forest

Cascade and pool at Manzana Narrows Camp

Past Manzana Narrows, Manzana Trail continues upstream another half-mile to the intersection with Big Cone Spruce Trail. Here, Manzana Trail leaves Manzana Creek and continues over towards South Fork Station and the Sisquoc River.

Continuing up Manzana Creek, Big Cone Spruce Trail takes on more of a wilderness feel. The trail becomes more overgrown and as we continue we start to see bear sign on some of the trees and bear scat with cherry pits along the trail that are likely from last fall when cherries were on the bear’s menu.

The plants also change, near the trail juncture is the last of the gray pines, while further up the canyon the trail arrives at the first stand of big cone Douglas fir, also known as big cone spruce. Mixed in are canyon live oak, with the two trees become more prevalent as the trail continues.

We manage to arrive at camp just at sunset with enough light to settle in. The lower camp has a picnic table and grated stove and is nestled under a mix of canyon live oak, California bay laurel, and big cone Douglas fir. Water can be found in the creek near camp year-round.

As a reward for our full day of hiking, I make tri-tip tacos with pre-cooked tri-tip from Whole Foods that I’ve packed in along with tortillas, cheese, and fresh cilantro and onions. For breakfast I’ve packed in fresh eggs and mushrooms to go with the cheese and onions for an omelet.

Manzanita blossoms flowers Manzana Creek San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara County

Manzanita blossoms

In the morning we awake to the raucous sound of several Steller’s jay. Both Steller’s jay and western scrub jays are in the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, and magpies, which in my mind goes a long way to explain why they seem to enjoy making so much noise.

Steller’s jay have a wide range of vocalizations, and even more impressive is their ability to mimic the sounds of other animals such as red-tailed hawks and other raptors. The ploy is used to chase off other birds from productive feeding areas.

Steller’s jay prefer conifer forests and other wooded areas and seem to favor areas with year-round water.

Before leaving the area, we visit the upper camp, which features a picnic table and grated stove. The camp is apparently a favorite of the bears as the table is scratched and there’s even hairs from where bear has used as a scratching post.

With more time on the hike out we notice that in this uppermost part of the canyon that a number of plants have are already starting to flower. In bloom along the trail are California bay laurel, wild gooseberry, nightshade, and bush poppy.

Retracing our route back to the car, we feel renewed, in spite of the miles, and plot our next backcountry adventure.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 5th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Western scrub jay Manzana Creek trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara County

Western scrub jay at Fish Creek Camp

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2018

Trail Quest: Lake Lopez

Less than two hours from Santa Barbara, in San Luis Obispo County, Lake Lopez can provide a fun weekend getaway in our neighboring county to the north.

The lake provides a range of recreational opportunities, including camping, hiking, boating, and fishing.

The 4,276-acre recreation area features a network of trails that can be used to create a variety of loop hikes that offer views of the lake and its three main arms, Arroyo Grande, Wittenberg, and Lopez, which represent the three creeks that flow into the lake.

The two main loops that can be made are Duna Vista Loop, which lets you explore the peninsula between Wittenberg and Lopez arms, and the different trails east of the campgrounds, which can also be combined into a loop. The trails are open to hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.

Lake Lopez High Ridge Fire Road hike

Lake Lopez is seen from High Ridge Fire Road

A map of the trails, as well as information about day use, camping, and campsite reservations can be found on the San Luis Obispo County Parks and Recreation website, Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers also has a useful map on their website,, as well as maps for several other popular hiking and biking destinations in San Luis Obispo County.

To get to Lake Lopez Recreation Area from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north to Arroyo Grande. Exit at Grand Avenue and continue east towards the mountains as Grand Avenue becomes Branch Street and leads through old town Arroyo Grande. Turn right on Huasna Road, which more or less turns into Lopez Drive as it continues up Arroyo Grande Valley. Lopez Drive continues to the park entrance, crossing the dam, and offering views of the lake.

Lake Lopez has over 350 campsites ranging from so-called primitive sites for car camping to sites with full hook-up for recreational vehicles and trailers. At the marina is a boat launch, as well as boat, kayak, canoe, and stand up paddle board rentals. The marina also features a store and bar and grill. The recreation area also includes a water park and ropes course.

In some ways the best time to go is during the off-season, from October to April, when there are less people there.

Lake Lopez Wittenberg Creek Duna Vista Loop Trail hike

Wittenberg Creek is seen from Duna Vista Loop Trail

A satisfying loop hike that can be made starting near the campgrounds is to follow Cougar Trail north to Escondido Spur Trail and take it up to High Ridge Fire Road, retuning back along Blackberry Springs Trail. The full loop is about five miles and offers a mix of ridge-top views and canyon scenery. Most of the trails are well-marked with signs and are in generally good condition.

Cougar Trail runs behind the different camping areas that are east of the main road. The trail meanders through a mix of coast live oak and chaparral, crossing a number of small side canyons. Escondido Spur Trail leads up one of these side canyons and as it climbs offers views out across the lake.

About a half-mile up from Cougar Trail, Escondido Trail crests out of the canyon and branches. A short side trail to the left follows the ridgeline to an overlook. The main trail continues east along the backside of the ridge and connects to High Ridge Fire Road, which traces the eastern edge of the recreation area and parallels Upper Lopez Canyon Road.

The old fire road is more of single-track trail and offers views of the lake and surrounding area. Continuing south on High Mountain Fire Road, the trail passes another old fire road that leads back down to the campgrounds, before then turning westward and arriving at a four-way intersection. At the intersection is the top of both Turkey Ridge and Blackberry Springs Trails, both of which lead back down to Cougar Trail.

Blackberry Springs Trail is perhaps the more interesting of the two. The trail leads through a small canyon, leveling out briefly in a small hidden vale, before continuing down. The area feels more lush than the other canyons thus far and there is a rich mix of plants as the trail leads under a canopy of oaks. Along the trail is coffee berry, elderberry, ferns, and even silk tassel. Lining parts of the canyon are wild blackberry and of course poison oak. Further down, under many of the oaks is wild gooseberry. The trail connects with Cougar Trail to complete the loop.

shell fossils Monterey shale Lake Lopez hike

Shell fossils in Monterey shale

The other scenic loop that can be made is Duna Vista Loop, which follows the trails on the peninsula across the lake from camping areas. The full loop, including the two spur trails, is about 10 miles. The trailhead is reached by continuing along the main road, past the campgrounds, to the end of the paved road where there is a pullout for parking.

From there, continue about a mile along the unpaved road towards Camp French, which is managed by the Boy Scouts. The road essentially traces the edge of Wittenberg Arm before crossing the creek. Stay to the left as the road branches, which leads you past the Event Center. From there, continue across the open flat above the creek towards the beginning of the signed single-track trail.

The single-track trail continues downstream above Wittenberg Creek and leads through a mix of oak and chaparral. In the small side canyons, there is coffee berry, elderberry, sycamore, and some poison oak. In the more exposed areas there is chaparral with predominantly coastal sagebrush and the occasional lupine. Amongst the oaks are coast live oak and valley oak, with many of them featuring lace lichen dangling from their branches.

At about the 1.25-mile mark from the beginning of the single-track trail, the trail branches for the beginning of the actual loop. Staying to the left provides the shorter route to the two Duna Vista Lookouts, if one wants to shorten the hike.

From here, the trail starts its climb to the top of the ridge that separates Wittenberg and Lopez Canyons, and forms the long peninsula between these two arms of the lake.

Lake Lopez Duna Vista Loop Trail hike

Lake Lopez is seen from Duna Vista Loop Trail

As the trail climbs it offers views out across the lake. Here, the plants start to include toyon, ceanothus, and black sage. The trail then crests the top of the ridge and offers some great views out across the Lopez Arm of the lake and towards the ocean.

Here, the trail branches again. To the left, Duna Vista Spur Trail continues south another mile to Duna Vista Spur Lookout, which overlooks the dam. To the right, the main trail continues north along the ridge to complete the loop.

The trail to Duna Vista Spur Lookout has what feels like the most forested sections along the ridge, passing through toyon, oak, ceanothus and in some areas holly-leaf cherry and tanbark oak. The view from the overlook includes the dam, as well as Arroyo Grande Valley, Arroyo Grande, and the Oceano Dunes.

Construction of Lopez Dam began in 1967 and was completed in 1969. The dam was built to prevent flooding in the valley below, with the reservoir providing water for Arroyo Grande and the Five Cities area. The lake is currently at 50 percent capacity.

Continuing back along the ridge between Wittenberg and Lopez Canyons, the trail climbs to its highest point along the ridge, passing a second lookout spot, which offers views of both arms of the lake from a single vantage point.

The trail then starts to descend along the ridge, arriving at the juncture with the trail for the return loop and the beginning of Encinal Spur Trial, which leads down to the lake in Lopez Canyon.

Encinal Camp Lake Lopez hike oaks

Oaks near Encinal Camp

Encinal Spur Trail is definitely the least used trail on the peninsula. The slightly overgrown trail descends a half-mile down towards the lake and provides numerous opportunities to maneuver around poison oak. Near the lake, the trail arrives at a sign for Two Waters Trail, the previous name for Duna Vista Loop Trail.

At the sign, turn right and continue to Encinal Camp, which is situated in a large grove of coast live oak. The camp features a metal fire ring and grill and two picnic tables. Reservations for the campsite, which is only accessible by boat or along the trail, need to be made by calling the rangers at Lake Lopez.

From Encinal Camp, return back up to the trail juncture, and continue along the connector trail to complete the loop and return back to the trailhead.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get see a unique part of San Luis Obispo County.

Article appears in section A of the February 19th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | February 8, 2018

Backpacking Made Easy

backpacking class Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest


backpacking class Santa Barbara los padres national forest


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, not in a classroom. 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 around 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. The richness of the natural world is what makes it worthwhile to invest the time and energy to head out into the backcountry, the exercise from carrying gear for many of us is secondary. Feeling a deeper sense of connection and immersion in the elements is the often the real payoff for being outdoors.

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 you can get out there and get started.

Backpacking Made Easy
Saturdays, March 24 – April 7

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 sharing circles that allows for learning on many levels.

Lay of the Land
March 24th 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 and how to navigate without a compass or GPS. Learn about the different gear options and how to choose equipment that suits you.

Nature Connection
March 31st 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. Learn how to feel at home in the woods. Practical skills include trail navigation, menu planning, personal care and basic first aid skills.

April 7th 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 14-15

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 and interests 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 8, 2018

Into the Mountains! Trails and Tales of the Santa Barbara Backcountry

Santa Barbara backcountry hiking backpacking los padres national forest trail rangers chumash vaqueros homesteads miners


Into the Mountains! Trails and Tales of the Santa Barbara Backcountry

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

Wednesday, February 28th, 7:30PM – doors open at 7PM
Farrand Hall – Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara, CA

This talk will highlight several historic trails that lead from Santa Barbara into our local backcountry. Trails that can still be visited today as part of a day hike or backpacking trip and connect with the San Rafael and Dick Smith WIlderness areas. Trails highlighted will include those used by the Chumash, early settlers, mercury miners, cowboys, and early rangers. 

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his hikes and backpacking trips along these historic trails. James has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry. 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

This talk is sponsored by Santa Barbara Audubon Society, for information about their upcoming bird walks, fields trips, and other events go to

Posted by: James Wapotich | February 5, 2018

Trail Quest: Yellow Banks, Santa Cruz Island

We’re probably always surrounded by more wildlife than we actually see or notice, but somehow on Santa Cruz Island, maybe because there are less distractions, and of course plenty of foxes, it can become a little easier to see wildlife in action.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the four islands directly off the coast from Santa Barbara. The islands are home to more than 140 species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, including the island fox and Santa Cruz Island scrub jay.

The island offers year-round camping and lends itself well to hiking with a variety of trails and old ranch roads to explore.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers out of Ventura,, which offers regularly scheduled boat rides to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park.

As part of my three-day trip with friends and family, I plan to hike over towards Smugglers Cove and continue to Yellow Banks. From the campground it’s about seven miles roundtrip to Smugglers Cove and another three miles roundtrip to Yellow Banks.

A map of the trails, as well as hiking and camping information can be found on the Channel Islands National Park website,

From the landing pier, we make our way past the old ranch buildings to Scorpion Campground. Both the lower and upper campgrounds are nestled under non-native eucalyptus trees that line the floor of Scorpion Canyon. The trees provide welcome shade as much of the eastern end of the island is grassland and chaparral.

As we settle into our campsite, I hear the distinctive cry of a scrub jay and spot a blue flash darting over to the next tree. A pair of Santa Cruz Island scrub jays are busy foraging on the eucalyptus trees for insects.

Island scrub jays are found only on Santa Cruz Island. They are a third larger than their mainland relative and have brighter and more vibrant coloring. Other birds that can also be observed on the island include hummingbirds, morning doves, flickers, sparrows, and house finches.

Both lower and upper campgrounds have potable water and restrooms. All of the sites have picnic tables, as well as metal storage boxes to keep food and belongings safe from inquiring ravens and foxes, which regularly visit the campgrounds.

During the orientation at the pier, the ranger cautioned us not to leave packs unattended as both ravens and foxes are keenly aware that visitors bring with them food and both are adept at opening up gear and tents and scattering the contents about.

He also emphasized the importance of not feeding foxes, as cute as they are, because it significantly undermines the foxes ability to remain wild and not become dependent on people.

The island fox is found on six of the eight Channel Islands and has made a remarkable recovery. In 1999, with dwindling numbers, a captive breeding program was started along with other measures to protect the fox. With growing success, captive breeding was ended in 2008; and in 2016, the fox was removed from the endangered species list.

On the second day, I set out for Smugglers Cove and points beyond since I have the whole day to work with. From the upper campground, the trail continues up Scorpion Canyon.

Just past the last campsite, I spot a well-worn side trail leading into the creek and decide to follow it. Across the creek from me are several large toyon bushes laden with ripe, red berries, similar to those I’ve seen elsewhere on the island.

I return to the main trail and continue up the canyon; a few moments later I hear a rustling sound behind me. Turning back, I spot a fox eating berries in the tall toyon bush I had just been standing in front of.

Returning to the creek, I watch as the fox maneuvers itself amongst the branches to get at the ripe berries. On the ground are numerous piles of fox scat, suggesting that this is a popular spot with the foxes.

Island foxes are related to grey foxes found on the mainland. The island fox is a third smaller in size; both foxes are the only North American canines that can climb. The foxes are also both omnivores. Island foxes will eat deer mice, crickets, and a variety of berries when available.

Sensing this fox might be there for a while, I continue up the canyon, passing several more foxes along the way.

The previous day I had been reflecting on the different approaches to immersing in nature. While I enjoy sitting in one place and observing what’s around me, my wanderlust often takes me on long treks where I get to see the landscape unfold and change over the course of the hike.

Both have their merits but I sometimes wonder what it would be like to spend even more time in one place. Of course, the long hike ultimately wins out, but the climbing fox just outside camp makes a compelling argument for not needing to travel far to see interesting things.

The trail continues another quarter-mile up the scenic canyon, before beginning it’s climb out of the canyon.

At about the 1.5-mile mark, the trail meets Montañon Trail. At the intersection are the remains of an old oil well.

ThisMost of the the trail junctures on the island are well-marked. From this juncture, the trail to the right continues up towards the Montañon Ridge. To the left, it continues another half-mile, where it meets Smugglers Road, which comes up from the pier and leads over to Smugglers Cove.

Continuing towards the south shore, the road eventually crests a rise in the terrain revealing the balance of the hike. From here, I can see the trail wind its way down to Smugglers Cove. To the east, Western Anacapa Island comes into view.

As the road continues its descent it passes through a stand olive trees planted in the late 1800s.

Near the beach is a stand of eucalyptus trees, also a remnant from the ranching days. The trees provide shade for the picnic tables where there are plenty of foxes to keep me company while I stop to rest.

The tide is out and so I wander down the sandy beach to see how far I can get. At the far end, the beach becomes rocky, but as I press on I can see a way to clamber over the point and continue on to Yellow Banks.

The beach at Yellow Banks stretches out about a half-mile and unlike Smugglers Cove is covered in cobblestone. The ongoing action of the surf pushes against the stones creating essentially a long wall, which I walk along the top of.

Yellow Banks takes its name from the outcroppings of Monterey shale visible even from offshore that have a distinctive yellow color. I hike down the beach as far as the mouth of Cañada de Aguaje. On the way back I pass the same fox I’d seen earlier foraging amongst the rocks; this time it watches me as I wander by.

From the beach, I make my way up the hillside and join the long ranch road that loops back over to Smugglers Cove and continue on towards Scorpion Campground, retracing my route as the sun sets.

Even hiking in the dark is different on the island, there are no bears or mountains to worry about and any mysterious rustling sounds are likely from a fox.

On the last day, before returning to the mainland, I check the wildlife cameras I’d set out in the dry creek near camp. Viewing the images on my digital camera I can see where a fox has been very interested in several rocks along the side of the creek. It also looks like the motion-activated camera has taken a lot of “blank” photos, maybe from the wind moving through the brush.

Back home, viewing the images on my computer, a different story emerges. Noticing subtle changes between the “blank” photos, I zoom in to discover that the camera captured images of Santa Cruz Island deer mice.

During the night, the fox had visited the creek bed. In the exact spot where it had been sniffing around, 30 minutes later two mice pop up and boldly scamper about. The scene repeats itself several times throughout the night, with the fox unsuccessfully catching any mice.

The photos add to the sense that our islands are busy with activity, even when we’re not around or stop to notice.

This article originally appeared in section A of February 5th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Santa Cruz Island fox climbing tree toyon Channel Islands National Park hike Scorpion Canyon

A Santa Cruz Island Fox feasting on toyon berries

Santa Cruz Island fox climbing tree toyon Channel Islands National Park hike Scorpion Canyon


Smugglers Cove hike Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Cove

Yellow Banks hike Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Yellow Banks is seen in the late afternoon light

Santa Cruz Island fox napping Channel Islands National Park

A Santa Cruz Island fox settling in for a nap

Scorpion Anchorage Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Anacapa Island frames a view overlooking Scorpion Anchorage

Western Anacapa from Santa Cruz Island Smugglers Road Cove hike trail Channel Islands National Park

Western Anacapa Island is seen from Smugglers Road


A Santa Cruz Island fox Yellow Banks Channel Islands National Park

A Santa Cruz Island fox watches at Yellow Banks

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 24, 2018

Trail Quest: Gifford Ranch Trail

Located in the canyons and mountains north of the Cuyama River is a little known trail to the old Gifford Ranch.

The hike to the ranch site is about five miles roundtrip. The hike can be extended with a loop up to the top of the mountains that traces the east and west sides of Gifford Canyon, which adds another five miles roundtrip and includes views of the Carrizo Plain.

There is little shade along the route and so the best time to go is during the late fall and winter when temperatures are cooler. The trails are open to mountain bikes and horses and there is adequate space for horse trailers at the trailhead. A topographic map is recommended to help follow the different jeep and ranch roads.

Gifford Ranch Trail hike cuyama Highway 166 conglomerate stone outcropping Los Padres National Forest

Outcroppings of conglomerate stone are seen along the trail

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north to Santa Maria. Continue past Santa Maria to the exit for State Route 166 East and take State Route 166 towards New Cuyama.

There is no sign marking the turnoff to the trailhead, instead look for Rock Front Ranch. Just past the ranch, State Route 166 crosses the Cuyama River and arrives at the turnoff for the trailhead on the left. A short dirt road leads to the unpaved parking area where there is a sign for the trailhead.

From the trailhead, the trail follows a small side canyon eastward, which it then climbs out of. Continuing east, it passes above private ranch land separated by a fence.

The trail then arrives at a wire gate strategically placed between two oaks. Just past the gate the trail passes an outcrop of conglomerate stone and continues eastward.

Gifford Ranch Trail map Los Padres National Forest Gillam Spring Highway 166 New Cuyama hike

Map courtesy

The trail then crests a rise overlooking Gypsum Canyon and drops down into the canyon where it meets the old Gifford Ranch Road that came up from State Route 166. Over the years the road through the canyon has become more of a single-track trail, but is still easy to follow.

Nearing the ranch site, a dilapidated cattle chute appears on the right. In the distance, I can see a dozen cows resting under the trees near where the ranch house used to be. They look at me and quickly decide to clear out, heading up the ranch road to the right that leads up towards a water tank.

Gifford Ranch was purchased by California Department of Fish and Wildlife to help provide habitat and water for tule elk.

What remains of the ranch house is the cement foundation, which now has non-native trees growing up through it. Nearby are the rusted remains of a stove, refrigerator, and other household fixtures.

Continuing towards the cattle trough, which is the main attraction for the cows, I pass an array of old farm equipment. The trough is fed by a nearby water tank, which likely receives water from Gifford Spring, located further up the canyon. There is a steady drip of water into the trough that could be gathered and filtered for drinking.

Gifford Ranch Trail cattle chute hike los padres national forest cuyama valley

An old cattle chute is seen at the Gifford Ranch site

From the ranch site the hike can be extended by making a loop up to the top of the mountains and following the old jeep roads that trace the east and west sides of Gifford Canyon.

I opt for the west side of the canyon, which in the end proved to be the lesser of two evils. Both routes have steep sections but the east side is somehow more unrelenting in its arrangement.

From the ranch site, the trail crosses the dry creek, passing a small hay barn and corral as it begins its steady climb up the western side of Gifford Canyon to the top of the mountains. The trail is generally easy to follow leading through first wild grasses dotted with oaks before transitioning into chaparral, where the route is kept open in large part by the cattle.

Roughly two miles from the ranch site, the trail crests the top of the ridge where it arrives at a locked gate with a no trespassing sign. From here, the trail continues east, briefly following the fence line, before continuing along the top of the mountains passing through mostly chamise.

From the top of the mountains, the views extend north out across the Carrizo Plain towards the Temblor Mountains. The elevation is not high enough to see all of Soda Lake, but I can see glimpses of its currently blue waters. To the east the Caliente Mountains and Caliente Peak can be seen, and, to the south, the Cuyama Valley and Sierra Madre Mountains.

As the trail continues along the ridge it starts to lose elevation, transitioning from chamise back into grasses and oaks.

Enjoying the downhill, I somehow miss the turnoff that leads down the east side of Gifford Canyon and back to the ranch site. It isn’t until I’m a little east of the ridge that it becomes apparent. Debating whether to double back or not, I decide to press on since the easy to follow jeep road I’m on leads towards Gillam Spring, which I was planning on visiting anyway.

Caliente Peak Mountains Gifford Ranch Trail Cuyama Valley hike Los Padres National Forest

Caliente Peak and the Caliente Mountains are seen from the trail

The side trip to Gillam Spring adds an additional four miles roundtrip to the hike. I’ve already been keeping a strong pace to try to fit all 14 miles into the available daylight, but needing to look for the return trail will take extra time.

The trail towards Gillam Spring continues east before then turning north. In the distance I can see the jeep road descending into a small canyon and climbing over a hill. I press on aware that every foot of downhill will be slower going uphill on the way back.

From the top of the next hill, the trail essentially descends all the way down to Gillam Spring. I decide to make the most of it by upping my pace.

Just as the the trail starts to level out, I spot three cows in a small ravine off to the side of the trail. Their coloring seems wrong; they’re brown, but something seems odd. They look up and their ears also seem a little wrong. Without breaking stride I think maybe they’re wild boars, but they’re too big to be boars and slightly smaller than cows. I wonder if I should stop and look, but the jeep road has already descended such that I can no longer see them, besides why take time to look at cows.

A little further down I spot three deer staring at me and just past them a half-dozen flickers burst into flight. The jeep road descends a little more and then meets another ranch road. On the other side of the road is a large watering hole fed by Gillam Spring.

I continue along the road to the left and then follow a cattle trail down to the trough that is my ultimate destination. The spring-fed trough has a steady drip similar to the one at the Gifford Ranch site and could also be filtered for drinking.

On the hike back out I pause at the spot where I’d seen the three cows. On the ground is bear scat from a couple months ago and it dawns on me the three cows might’ve actually been bears, a mother and two good size cubs.

oak Gypsum Canyon Gifford Ranch Trail hike los padres national forest cuyama valley

An oak is seen along the trail in Gypsum Canyon

From the top of the ridge, I back track to where the turnoff ought to be for the return hike. Hiking out along the eastern ridge of Gifford Canyon, I spot the well-defined jeep road below and follow it back up to the top where it quickly fades amongst the wild grasses. I decide to add a pile of stones to mark the turnoff for the next visitor.

Following the jeep road back down it rapidly descends along the ridge, veering off at one point through wild grasses to join the more-established ranch road coming up from the ranch site. The road is refreshingly level and I relax thinking the worst of it is over.

However, the road soon rounds a corner and immediately resumes its vigorous descent. In the distance I can see it also climbs one last hill before arriving at a water tank and returning to the ranch site.

At the base of this last hill, I notice a cattle trail leading into the canyon above the ranch site. I figure the cows would likely favor a more direct route to the trough, and remember seeing a similar trail heading up the canyon behind the ranch house ruins. The trail not only proves to have a much more reasonable descent, but also provides a nice change of scenery.

From the ranch site, I retrace my route back to the trailhead, arriving just before dark.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 22nd, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 8, 2018

Trail Quest: Through smoke and fire

It started December 4, near Santa Paula, far away from Santa Barbara. Within five days the Thomas Fire had reached Santa Barbara County, driven by strong Santa Ana winds and in some cases burning through brush that hadn’t been burned in more than 50 years. A week later it was bearing down on Santa Barbara. Families were evacuated and thousands of firefighters were mobilized as we watched and waited, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

It wasn’t until the fire reached the burn scars from the 2008 Tea and 2009 Jesusita Fires that it started to stall out near Santa Barbara. It’s somewhat ironic to consider that we were in part saved by those previous fires. With less easy to burn fuel, combined with the efforts of fire crews creating fuel breaks and burning back fires, the Thomas Fire was effectively stopped on the frontside of the mountains, but continues to burn in the backcountry. Full containment is predicted for early January.

Now the largest California wildfire in recorded history, the Thomas Fire in many ways has changed how we’ve come to view wildfires.

In its first seven days the Thomas Fire burned more than 230,000 acres during December; it took the 2007 Zaca Fire seven weeks to burn the same amount of land during the middle of summer. It seems like we’ve gone from one large fire every couple of years in the tri-county area to sometimes two or three fires in a single year.

Each of these fires have left a mark on the landscape and in many of our lives.

When the Zaca Fire burned more than 240,000 acres, its growth through the backcountry was hard for me to keep hearing about. Every time the news reported the fire reaching yet another camp or trail, it was like hearing about another great painting being destroyed. Some were places I’d visited and loved, others were places I hadn’t visited and now would never get to see in their pristine state.

Monitoring the progress of this new fire as it threatened people’s homes and moved towards the city, I found myself unwilling to give it all of my attention, preferring to balance the scenes of destruction with activities that were more enriching.

In my own life, I have seen enough loss. My father passed away when I was six, leaving me, my sister, and my mom to carry on the best we could. Those events unknowingly set me on a lifelong journey to overcome the pain of that loss. A path that included wanting to avoid feeling pain; wanting to blame myself and the world around me for the pain; as well as wanting to eliminate the causes of pain in the world.

And while those steps were part of my own personal process, what ultimately allowed me to begin healing was actually feeling the pain, grieving the loss, and rebuilding my life. And that grief work was just that–work. I’ve often likened it to physical therapy, where the day to day gains seem minuscule, the timeline for recovery seems endless, and the necessity of going through it seems unfair.

What helped me stay with it and gave me inspiration was the belief that things could truly be better, that a feeling of wholeness could return.

One of the models for me of that is nature. Nature is unstoppable in its ability to renew itself. Life will find a way to not only survive, but when given the opportunity will flourish and thrive.

If I had lost my home or a loved one to this fire, my grief would be more immediate and might take years for me to process. There is no way to measure the loss of a loved one and it is difficult to put into terms the impact of losing’s one home or seeing a neighbor lose theirs.

Most of us were fortunate enough to not lose our home or someone close to us to the fire, thanks in large part to the evacuations and the effort of our fire fighters.

Nevertheless, many of us may still feel grief coming up. Our sense of safety has been shaken and our lives disrupted, particularly those who were evacuated or left because of the air quality. And while things are slowly returning to normal, the angst and anxiety from the fire may have restimulated memories of past fires and other losses in our lives. Outside of the cities, there is the loss of habitat and the impact on the plants and animals that can also be hard to define.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. And it’s important, as part of our process, to ultimately reach for renewal. To find ways to return to celebrating what is still living.

The day after the fire reached the burn scar of the Tea and Jesusita Fires, I felt a sense of relief. Optimistic that the worst of the fire was over and the imminent threat to life and property had passed, I went for a hike on the backside of Figueroa Mountain.

It felt good to be out in nature and breathing some fresh air after being cooped up indoors and living under a cloud of smoke and uncertainty.

Halfway down the trail, I found a dead band-tailed pigeon laying on the ground. There were no visible injuries and it couldn’t have been there for more than a few hours. Although I wondered about the circumstances of its death and was saddened by its passing, I was more overcome by its beauty.

I felt like I could almost breathe in the rich, iridescent colors of its green neck feathers. As I admired the precision of the grey and blue feathers on its wings and tail, I found myself marveling at how the arrangement of these forms and features somehow gave it the power of flight. Cradling the bird in my hands, I could easily imagine it flying amongst the oaks and moss-covered pines, plying the little canyon and sipping water from the nearby creek in the timelessness of the mountains.

I wanted to be able to bring it back to life so it could continue being the magnificent creature it was. At the same time I could sense the forest pulsing around me. The sound of running water, the activity of other birds, and the subtle wind through the trees, all part of something larger and unending. Here, even in its humble passing, the bird had given me a great gift, reminding me of the aliveness of the world in the midst of loss.

While I was saddened by the impact of the Zaca Fire, having now hiked many of the trails within burn area, I can see that nature has indeed returned. There are places that are again filled with life. That’s not to say the impact isn’t still being felt, it will be a long time, if ever, for the pines to return to the fullness they once enjoyed, but nature itself is still moving forward.

Now, when I hike through burn areas, I see and acknowledge the devastation and damage around me, but I’m more drawn to the new growth. I look for chaparral plants sprouting back from their root burls, wild flowers blooming abundantly in the ash-enriched soil, and fresh animal tracks on the charred earth. These things tell me that not everything is lost and life will return.

If we give all our attention to destruction and despair and leave no room for hope or joy, we rob ourselves of the ability to renew ourselves and our grief can become endless.

Nature, through its power of renewal, can help us remember, that in addition to acknowledging and grieving our loss, when we are ready we can also rebuild our lives and return to celebrating and participating in the life around us.

In the words of Native American elder and medicine man Nicholas Black Elk, “It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom, and fill with singing birds.”

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 8th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | December 18, 2017

Trail Quest: Hans Christian Andersen Park

Nestled in Solvang is a charming 52-acre park that’s close to the heart of town, but has enough undeveloped open space to offer a sense of being on a pleasant country walk.

The park is shaped by the contours of Adobe Canyon. There are essentially two trails in the park, one on each side of the canyon, that can be used to make a loop hike that’s about a mile roundtrip. The hike can be combined with a visit to Solvang.

To get to the park from Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 over Santa Marcos Pass and continue towards the intersection with State Route 246. Follow State Route 246 to Solvang, turn right onto Atterdag Road, and continue to the park.

Hans Christian Andersen Park hike trail Solvang Santa Ynez Valley

Scenery in Hans Christian Andersen Park

The park entrance is marked with a decorative castle arch. Just inside is a miniature water wheel. Here, the road branches. To the left is the skate park, as well as several group picnic areas under the oaks along the creek.

For the hike, stay to the right as the road continues a short way to the parking lot near the kids play area and more picnic sites. The paved road ends at the parking lot, but an unpaved access road continues past the tennis courts where there is additional parking, which is also suitable for horse trailers. Park hours are from 8 a.m. to sunset.

From the paved parking area, look for a trail on the east side of the canyon, on your left as you enter the park. The trail climbs away from the parking area and offers views towards the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The trail passes through oak woodland as it leads behind the tennis courts.

The trail then arrives at the unpaved parking area past the tennis courts and continues along the gated, unpaved access road. This lower half of the park is less developed and has more of the characteristics of an open space.

The road crosses the creek and here one can find the most variety of native plants in the park. In addition to coast live oak and valley oak, there is elderberry and coyote bush, and in the riparian areas, wild rose, willow, and some poison oak.

decorative water wheel Hans Christian Andersen Park hiking trail solvang santa ynez valley

A decorative water wheel is found near the entrance to Hans Christian Andersen Park

As the road arrives at the drainage detention basin it meets the trail that runs along the western side of the canyon. From here, continue along the access road as it follows the creek downstream to the end of the park.

As I was walking through this section, I started to imagine that it could be the sort of place that deer might visit. Crossing the creek to explore off-trail I did find deer bones and later learned that mountain lions have occasionally been sighted in the park. Mountain lions primarily feed on deer.

The unpaved road ends where it meets State Route 246, which is also the park boundary.

Adobe Creek, which runs through the park is currently dry and even filled with acorns in some places. I imagine during the spring, when it’s flowing over the water-carved sedimentary rocks, it can make for a picturesque setting. The creek joins the Santa Ynez River a quarter of a mile below the park, which is likely the route larger animals would take to reach the park.

Returning back to the trail juncture, the route along the western side of the canyon feels more like a single-track trail. The trail overlooks the tree-lined creek and meets the signed spur trail leading up to the Skytt Mesa residential neighbor.

From here, the main trail continues and arrives at one of the group picnic areas; it’s lush green lawn providing a marked contrast to the drier landscape around it. From the picnic area a paved road leads across the creek and back to the parking lot to complete the loop.

Hans Christian Andersen Park was created in 1970, when the county of Santa Barbara obtained the land from the Skytt and Cornelius families. When the City of Solvang was incorporated in 1985, the park became part of the city, which now manages it.

The park is named after Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author who is best known for his fairy tales, including “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “The Ugly Duckling”.

Acorns adobe creek Hans Christian Andersen Park hiking trail Solvang Santa ynez valley

Acorns fill Adobe Creek in Hans Christian Andersen Park

Solvang got started in 1911, when a group of Danes envisioned creating a town for Danish immigrants. They purchased close 10,000 acres of land in the Santa Ynez Valley that could be subdivided into plots for farms and homes with the hope of creating a Danish colony in California. They named the town Solvang, which translates as “sunny field” and placed ads in Danish-language newspapers. Most of the people who bought land and settled there were Danish, either from the midwest, Denmark, or elsewhere in California.

Profits from the sale of the land was used to build a Danish-style folk school, which later became Atterdag College, and served as the community’s cultural center.

In 1947, the town was featured in Saturday Evening Post magazine, which brought national attention to Solvang as a destination for visitors with its unique cultural history. In response, the people of Solvang felt that the appearance of their town should more closely reflect their Danish heritage.

While several earlier buildings and homes utilized Danish architectural elements, notably Bethania Lutheran Church, it wasn’t until 1947 and the construction of Copenhagen Square that these elements became more widely embraced. Older buildings were remodeled and new construction continued the trend. Danish windmills were built; there are now four throughout the town. Main Street was renamed Copenhagen Drive and Solvang eventually became known as the Danish Capital of America.

The town still retains much of its old world charm and on several occasions members of the Danish Royal family have visited Solvang.

Hans Christian Andersen Park hike trail Solvang

Coast live oak and valley oak add to the scenery at Hans Christian Andersen Park

A walk in Solvang can be a nice compliment to the hike and no trip to Solvang would be complete with stopping to at least have some aebleskivers.

The word itself means “apple slices” and it’s said that traditionally aebleskivers had apple filling. Today, these spherical wonders are sometimes described as pancake balls as they’re made from batter similar to pancakes and waffles. Served hot, they come topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar.

The treat can also serve as a fun reward, either before or after the hike, depending on whichever provides the greater motivation.

This article originally appeared in section A the December 18th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

acorns adobe creek hans christian andersen park solvang



This is another hike idea I stumbled across looking at google maps. Earlier in the year I was looking something up and noticed a bunch of open space preserves in San Luis Obispo County that I’d never heard of, but could easily see because they were shown in green. It occurred to me to pan south and “fly over” Santa Barbara County and see if there was anything there I hadn’t seen before or didn’t know about.

In looking at Solvang, I was struck by a good size swath of green right in the heart of the developed landscape labeled Hans Christian Anderson Park. A quick google search revealed that there were even some trails there. It wasn’t until I got to the park entrance that I realized that I’d actually been there before, but had never ventured into the southern, more open part of the park.

Because of Solvang’s unique history, it seemed that even if the hike wasn’t that long I’d have enough to write about for the article. But the real impetus that moved the hike up on my list was the Thomas Fire, which effectively closed many of the trails and because of the smoke made many hikes along the coast less appealing. There was also just something comforting in the idea of offering a simple hike in Solvang in the midst of the uncertainty the fire was creating.

Posted by: James Wapotich | December 18, 2017

Trail Quest: Arlington Peak

Hiked to Arlington Peak a couple weeks ago and continued on to Cathedral and La Cumbre Peaks. The peak was named after the once famous Arlington Hotel, Santa Barbara’s first luxury hotel.

Article appears in section A of the December 4th, 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.

Arlington Peak Dragon's Back Mission Canyon Cathedral La Cumbre hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

Arlington Peak and the Dragon’s Back are seen from the access road in Mission Canyon

White Mountain Santa Ynez Mountains Arlington Peak Cathedral La Cumbre Mission Canyon hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

White Mountain and the Santa Ynez Mountains are seen from the route to Arlington Peak

Arlington Peak Dragon's Back Cathedral La Cumbre hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

View towards Arlington Peak from the off-trail route

Cathedral Peak Arlington La Cumbre trail hike Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

The summit of Cathedral Peak is seen from the off-trail route

layout rebuilt arlington hotel santa barbara

Grounds and layout of the second, rebuilt Arlington Hotel, bordered by State, Victoria, Chapala, and Sola Streets.


Posted by: James Wapotich | November 27, 2017

Trail Quest: Nordhoff Peak

Hiked to Nordhoff Peak and the old lookout tower from Ojai via Pratt Trail. The trail was built in the early 1900s by Ranger George Bald and offers some great views across the Ojai Valley and out towards the Channel Islands. Currently there is no water at Valley View Camp.

Article appears in section A of today’s 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.

Stewart Canyon Valley View Camp Pratt Trail hike ojai Los Padres National Forest Nordhoff Ridge

Upper Stewart Canyon is seen from Pratt Trail

Nordhoff Lookout Tower Camp ridge ojai hike jeep Los Padres National Forest

Nordhoff Tower


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