Posted by: James Wapotich | October 30, 2017

Trail Quest: Sisquoc Trail Survey

The sky is still overcast as we leave camp, delaying at least the heat of the day. It is the last volunteer trail project of the season before temperatures in the backcountry become unbearable. The project is based out of Manzana Schoolhouse Campground, which is located at the confluence of Manzana Creek and Sisquoc River.

It’s the morning of the second day and the volunteers are being divided into groups to tackle various projects organized by Los Padres Forest Association.

One group makes their way back up Manzana Trail to clear brush, picking up where they left off the day before. Another group is tasked with clearing the bypass trail that leads around one of the private inholdings, and a third group is heading out along Sisquoc Trail to cut out several large trees that have fallen across the trail.

I’ve been invited to join Joan Brandoff and Jim Blakley. Their task is to survey sections of Sisquoc Trail between Manzana Schoolhouse and Water Canyon Camp to ensure that no significant archeological resources will be adversely affected by trail maintenance.

Roberts Flat Sisquoc Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike Jim Blakley homestead Joan Brandoff archeologist

Roberts Flat

Earlier in the year, Mr. Blakley had surveyed the trail, backpacking in along Jackson Trail to Sycamore Camp and hiking Sisquoc Trail down to Manzana Schoolhouse. He had run out of time to thoroughly visit several places between Water Canyon Camp and Manzana Schoolhouse and was returning to survey the sites he’d missed.

Joining him is Ms. Brandoff, who worked as an archeologist for the Forest Service from 1973-2009, starting with Monterey Ranger District and later becoming Heritage Program Director for Los Padres National Forest. It was through the Forest Service that she met Mr. Blakley’s father, E. R. “Jim” Blakley. Mr. Blakley Sr. had done extensive research on the homesteads along Sisquoc River, interviewing settlers and their descendants; gathering old photos of homesteads; and visiting the different sites.

In some ways, Mr. Blakley’s interest in backcountry history grew out of his father’s work. “He had not paid as much attention to the rock art sites he had visited,” Mr. Blakley told the News-Press, “and later recruited me to go hunt them down and gather more precise information when he got too old to go himself and verify what he remembered seeing.”

“It then made sense to share what I found with the Forest Service.” he added, which is how he got know Ms. Brandoff, the Forest Service archeologist at the time.

Roberts homestead Sisquoc Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Jim Blakley archeolgocial survey

Stove parts from the Roberts homestead

In preparation for the survey, they had gathered the available information from the Forest Service for the different sites along the route to verify and update that information with what we find.

Our route leads across Manzana Creek and up onto what’s known as Roberts Flat, one of the many terraces, or benches, overlooking the floodplain of the river.

Roberts Flat is cut by several dry creek channels that drain Hurricane Deck. As we approach the first side canyon I remember reading Mr. Blakley Sr. had noted that stove parts from the Roberts homestead could be found leaning against an oak tree. Having been through the area several times without ever finding them, I mention it off-handedly to Mr. Blakley.

He hasn’t heard that detail, but from previous visits has a sense of where the site should be. As we near the area, he makes a bee-line to the exact oak where the stove parts are located, as if the answer was already written in his DNA.

We pause here, while Mr. Blakley notes the location and takes measurements and photos of the stove parts for the site record that will be created when we return. We then search the area for other evidence of the homestead but come up empty.

Henry Irving Roberts was the son-in-law of Hiram Preserved Wheat, who was the de facto leader of the homesteading community along Sisquoc River and Manzana Creek. In the late 1800s a group of settlers, largely interrelated through marriage, headed out from Santa Maria and lived here until the early 1900s.

Sisquoc Trail follows sections of the old road built and maintained by the homesteaders.

Sisquoc Guard Station San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Jim Blakley Joan Brandoff archeology survey

Jim Blakley and Joan Brandoff take notes and measurements at the Sisquoc Guard Station site

Our next stop is what’s left of Sisquoc Guard Station. The administrative cabin was built in 1910, and is said to have been made with wood salvaged from the homesteads. The site was used by backcountry rangers and is off the main trail near a side canyon with a spring. The structure collapsed in 1983, and was never rebuilt.

The site record for the cabin isn’t very detailed and so we take extra time to do a thorough survey, noting the plants and topography, taking measurements and recording various features, as well as creating a diagram of the area.

The information gathered from these site records is put into a database so researchers and resource managers can access it without necessarily visiting the site.

“We talk so much about resources.” Ms. Brandoff reflected. “There are renewable resources like the water, plants, and animals. And then there’s non-renewable resources, things that you can’t grow back again, like cultural resources.”

Cultural resources provide us a richer understanding of our local heritage and the people who came before us. However, time and the elements can degrade site features. And unfortunately artifacts both historic and prehistoric have been removed by people, starting with the first explorers and homesteaders, and including modern-day visitors.

Older site records often describe items at sites that are no longer there.

Not only is it illegal to remove artifacts from federal land, it reduces the contextual experience of a site.

“If you can go out and find parts of the plow, or old cooking equipment that was there, or other parts of the settlers’ lives,” Ms Brandoff added, “it enhances the experience, more than just coming up to the remains of a chimney.”

Chumash tools arrowheads drills chert Sisquoc River San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest archeology cultural resources survey

Spent chert core used for making stone tools

While hiking along the trail, I would often observe Mr. Blakley scanning the trail corridor, looking for what he called lithics. The term means stones, however, in this context specifically refers to stone material that has been intentionally worked.

No Chumash sites were found along the route we surveyed, however, Mr. Blakley did find what they both described as a spent core along the trail. The small piece of chert was left over from a larger nodule of material that was used to produce stone tools such as arrowheads, scrappers, and drill points. Pieces of material would’ve been cleaved from the original rock, and the chips and flakes worked further to produce different tools.

Chipped stone scatters are one of the more common remnants of Chumash activity in the backcountry, however they do not always indicate that a site was a village or camp. They can also be found where a native person was sharpening or creating new tools, for example, while waiting and watching for game.

Men were not the only ones who made stone tools as Ms Brandoff pointed out. “Women also needed sharp tools to cut basketry materials and it is not uncommon to find chipped stone scatters near bedrock mortars.”

In this case it’s likely the person carrying the spent core had gotten all the useful material they could from it and either discarded it or lost it.

Placing the item back where he found it, Mr. Blakley notes its description and location, but does not create a site record. There would need to be additional pieces or other artifacts nearby to record it as an archeological site.

Root Cellar Lucien Forrester homestead Sisquoc River San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Joan Brandoff archeology survey

Joan Brandoff surveys the remains of Lucien Forrester’s root cellar

Eventually our route leads across Sisquoc River, and we arrive at an open flat on the north side of the river. Here, the trail branches. To the left the trail follows the old road cut as it continues above the river. To the right, an off-trail route follows the river rejoining the trail further upstream.

Near the intersection are the remains of William Henry Spitler’s homestead. In his research, Mr. Blakley Sr. noted that Spitler had an apple orchard near his cabin. Today, all that can be found are the hearth stones. The fruit trees were likely swept away by the river during heavy rains.

From here, we opt to follow the use-trail route along the river and include it in our survey, since it will also take us past the homestead of Lucien Forrester, which lacks a site record.

At the site we find remnants of Forrester’s root cellar, a rectangular stone wall with oak saplings now growing in the center. Root cellars were used in the days before refrigeration to keep vegetables, fruits, and preserves cool. Along with chimneys, or hearth stones, root cellars are some of the more common remnants from the homesteading period still found in the backcountry.

Past the Forrester site we visit two more homestead sites before returning to camp. The next day we make our way back to the trailhead and head home. The information we’ve gathered will be added to what the Forest Service has on file and this particular section of trail is now clear for trail maintenance projects.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 25th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 23, 2017

Navigating Wilderness

Navigating Wilderness


Navigating Wilderness skills class map reading route finding edible and medicinal plants tracks tracking hiking backpacking Mike Kresky Lanny Kaufer


Navigating Wilderness
Saturdays, Oct. 28-Nov. 18

Learn from local experts how to read the landscape and trails, and become more familiar with the native plants and animals of our area through this immersive class.

The Santa Barbara and Ojai backcountry offers more than 500,000 acres of designated wilderness and hundreds of miles of trails to explore, and yet often the biggest obstacle to venturing out on the land or going deeper into nature is simply having the skills and confidence to get started.

Through this immersive four Saturday workshop, you will learn how to read the landscape and trails; become more familiar with the edible and medical plants of our region; learn about the animals of our area and how to recognize their tracks; and build skills and awareness that allow you to feel more at home in the woods.

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.

Reading the Landscape
October 28th, 9AM-2PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the local landscape, read the topography, and create your own mental maps. Discover how to navigate the backcountry without the use of a compass or GPS; and learn to remove the word lost from your vocabulary.

Edible and Medicinal Plants
November 4th, 9AM-2PM

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

Join local plant expert Lanny Kaufer as we learn about the edible and medicinal plants in our area. Many of these plants were first used by the Chumash and have a rich ethnobotanical history.

Plants are great teachers of how to adapt to a particular place and move with the seasons. Learn how to recognize a number of our native plants; where to find them; and their different uses.

Animal Tracks and Tracking
November 11th, 9AM-2PM

Our backcountry is home to a rich variety of animals that often goes unseen by us. Join local tracker and naturalist Mike Kresky as we learn about these animals and their relationship to the land. Learn how to recognize some of the common tracks of our local mammals, birds, and even reptiles.

Tuning into the wildlife around us can deepen our awareness of place and through our senses connect us to the aliveness of the natural world.

November 18th, 9AM-2PM

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. We will work with how to create a trail narrative and interpret the landscape, and begin to see nature as an ally and how to hone and trust your senses.


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

Lanny Kaufer regularly leads Herb Walks and Nature Hikes in Ojai and Santa Barbara and recently celebrated his 40th year of teaching people about edible and medicinal plants. He has studied with William LeSassier and has led herb walks with the late Chumash plant expert Juanita Centeno and Dr. Jim Adams of the USC School of Pharmacy.

Mike Kresky is an accomplished naturalist and wildlife tracker. He co-authored the field guide Animal Tracks and Scat of California and has completed the intensive Kamana Naturalist Training Program. He leads workshops on tracking and has explored much of the local backcountry.

All four Saturday classes take place on our local trails.

To sign up or for more information, please contact:
James (805) 729-4250

Workshop is $175 per person, or bring a friend and both $150 each.
Must be able to comfortably hike 2-3 miles

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 23, 2017

Trails of Santa Barbara’s Early Backcountry Rangers

Forest Reserves Rangers Santa Barbara backcountry San Rafael Dick Smith Wilderness Pine Mountain Zaca Lake Madulce Fir Canyon John Libeu Edgar Davison Tom Dinsmore Ocean View Trail


Trails of Santa Barbara’s Early Backcountry Rangers

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

Thursday, October 19th, 6:30PM
Faulkner Gallery – Santa Barbara Public Library
40 East Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, CA

In 1898, the first Forest Reserves were created in our local backcountry and the first rangers began patrolling the trails and mountains behind Santa Barbara. These reserves were later combined to form Los Padres National Forest.

Among these early rangers were John Libeu, Edgar Davison, and Thomas Dinsmore, who often lived in the backcountry part of the year, patrolling places that are now part of the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness areas. Places that can still be visited today.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from his hikes 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 part of the ongoing Wilderness Hiking Speaker Series hosted by the Santa Barbara Public Library. The talks are the third Thursday of the month and feature topics related to hiking, backpacking, and our local natural history.

Posted by: James Wapotich | September 23, 2017

Backpacking and Hiking in the San Rafael Wilderness

B&H San Raf


Backpacking and Hiking in the San Rafael Wilderness

Free lecture with James Wapotich

Co-sponsored by the Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society
and the Los Olivos Library

Thursday, October 12, 7:30 p.m.
Santa Ynez Valley Grange
2374 Alamo Pintado Avenue, Los Olivos

Ever changing, the Santa Barbara backcountry is a place of surprising diversity and rich beauty. Within these natural lands, you’ll find waterfalls, quiet potreros, old homesteads, and miles of trails to explore. This talk will highlight some of the best trails and camps in and around the San Rafael Wilderness that can be used to craft backpacking trips and day hikes.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories 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.

James will also be available to answer questions on safety, equipment, and backpacking basics.

For more information about the Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society and its other upcoming lectures and programs go to

Posted by: James Wapotich | August 17, 2017

Trail Quest: Forbush Flats

While the best time to visit Forbush Flats is when temperatures are cooler and the creek is flowing, part of appreciating the beauty of our backcountry comes with experiencing it in all seasons.

The hike to Forbush Flats is about 3.5 miles roundtrip and follows North Cold Spring Trail down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The hike can be extended by continuing from Forbush Flats down to the Santa Ynez River, which adds roughly another 3.5 miles round trip.

From previous hikes, I knew in the canyon past Forbush Flats there would still be some water flowing in the creek and small pools where I could cool off. My plan was to get an early start to avoid the heat as much as possible hiking in, spend my time in the lower canyon during the heat of the day, and hike out in the late afternoon.

Alder Forbush Flats camp hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest Cold Spring Gidney Creek

Alder trees line the creek above Forbush Flats

The trailhead is reached from the Santa Barbara Mission, by taking East Los Olivos Street to Mountain Drive and following it to the beginning of Gibraltar Road. Gibraltar Road leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where it meets East Camino Cielo. Turn right onto East Camino Cielo and continue along the top of the mountains to Cold Spring Saddle, which is the first pullout on the right that includes a nearby cement water tower. Parking is found at the trailhead.

Gathering my gear, I cross the road and walk over to the trailhead, and gaze out across the expansive backcountry behind Santa Barbara. North Cold Spring Trail is a continuation of Cold Spring Trail and leads down the backside of the mountains into the upper reaches of Gidney Canyon on its way towards Mono Campground.

At 8 a.m. in the morning I can already feel the heat and wonder if I shouldn’t have gotten an even earlier start. I tell myself that this first section is on the east-facing side of the canyon and that once it transitions to the west-facing side it will be cooler.

Gidney Canyon North Cold Spring Trail hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest Forbush Flats

Upper Gidney Canyon is seen from the trail

Each time I hike this trail, different plants stand out, whether because they’re in bloom, changing colors, or in the case of summer starting to bear fruit.

Along the trail, are green acorns appearing in pairs on the scrub oak, pale green cherries starting to form on the holly leaf cherry, and small green fruits developing on the toyon.

Continuing down into the canyon, the trail crosses an unnamed, dry side creek that joins Gidney Creek. Here, the plants are more riparian, with willow, cottonwood, and even some dried up Humboldt lilies.

The western side of the canyon is still cool from the night before. Near the dry creek, are yellow-green pepper nuts growing on the California bay laurel and reddish-green fruits developing on the coffee berry.

As the trail makes its way down the mountains, it offers views out towards the ridge that frames Forbush Flats, as well as out across Blue Canyon to the east.

I’m already feeling the heat as I arrive at the turnoff for Forbush Flats. The meadow, which wraps around a small rise, is named for Frederick Washington Forbush, who built a cabin here in 1910. Forbush also planted apple, pear, and olive trees near where the two camps are now.

Each of the different trees currently have some fruit on them and it’s somehow satisfying to see fruit trees that are more than a hundred years old not only surviving in the backcountry on their own, but also bearing fruit.

The camp has two sites. The first is under several large oaks with cedars growing nearby. The second site is just past the first and is also under several large oaks with pine trees growing nearby. Both sites feature a picnic table and grated stove. Currently, there is no water at either campsite. However, flowing water can be found by continuing a short ways upstream from the first camp.

From the second camp, I continue through the meadow that wraps around the flat towards North Cold Spring Trail. The meadow is bordered to the north by a low ridge that frames the flat.

Because of its geologic history and unique topography the meadow straddles two drainages. The camps are located along Gidney Creek, which flows northwest towards Gibraltar Reservoir. The meadow near the ridge is actually the beginning of Forbush Canyon, which flows east, down into Blue Canyon.

Running through the flat is the Santa Ynez Fault. The nearly 80-mile long fault runs along the backside of the Santa Ynez and Topatopa Mountains and is the largest fault in Santa Barbara County. Five million years ago the Santa Ynez Mountains were uplifted along this fault.

The off-trail route through the meadow meets North Cold Spring Trail just as it intersects Forbush Trail, which leads down towards Cottam Camp and Blue Canyon.

From here, North Cold Spring Trail climbs over the low ridge and begins its descent down to the Santa Ynez River.

Blue lobelia maidenhair fern the grotto emerald pools North Cold Spring Trail hike Los Padres National Forest

Blue lobelia and maidenhair fern

After about a mile along the trail, I arrive at the unnamed creek the trail follows the rest of the way down to the the river. The first two crossings are dry, but as I continue, I start to see some water in the creek and soon pass a series of small pools carved out of the travertine and sandstone. Three western pond turtles waste no time diving from the bank into the water before I can even get down to creek.

The pools are fed by a steady trickle, which continues intermittently downstream. Lining much of the creek is blue lobelia. The perennial plant does well along the banks of streams and around pools, and is thriving along the intermittent creek. The plant blooms June through October.

At each place I stop the flowers are in full bloom with usually several western tiger swallowtail butterflies making the rounds and feeding on the nectar produced by the flowers. The butterfly is one of the largest in California and can be found throughout much of western North America. The butterfly with its colorful yellow wings and black stripes can often be seen near riparian areas where the plants it uses during its larval stage as a caterpillar are readily available, such as cottonwood, willow, alder, sycamore, and maple.

Western tiger swallowtail blue lobelia North Cold Spring Trail hike Los Padres National Forest

Western tiger swallowtail on blue lobelia

Further down the trail, I arrive at what is sometimes referred to as the Grotto or the Emerald Pools. Here, built up layers of travertine have created a series of pools, the last one resting on top of a waterfall, which is also built out with travertine. Growing on the face of the trickling falls is more blue lobelia along with maidenhair fern. In years of heavy rain the falls become a scenic cascade.

Continuing down through the canyon, I flush out several more turtles basking in the sun. In all, over the course of the day exploring the creek, I saw more than a dozen, including a young one no more than three inches long.

Western pond turtles are the only native fresh-water turtle in California and can grow to be about eight inches in length. Their coloring is typically olive green to brown and they can live as long as 50 years.

Western Pond Turtel Santa Ynez River Forbush Flats North Cold Spring Trail los padres national forest

Western pond turtle sunning itself

The water in the creek plays out just before the trail arrives at the intersection with Gibraltar Trail, which leads over towards Sunbird Mercury Mine and Gibraltar Reservoir. From the intersection, it’s roughly a quarter-mile down to the river, which can make for a natural return point.

Currently the river is dry where the trail crosses, with just some intermittent pools upstream. From the river, North Cold Spring trail becomes more overgrown, harder to follow, and less appealing during the summer heat as it continues towards Mono Campground.

On the hike back out, I stop at one of the pools framed by cattails I’d surveyed earlier and finally get a chance to cool off, staying the water until I feel thoroughly chilled for the hike back out.

Pausing again at Forbush Flats it occurs to me that from a certain perspective there are a variety of pathways through backcountry. There is the literal path of the trail. There is the evolutionary route that each of the plants and animals took to get to be where they are now. There is the more figurative pathway through the seasons, in this case timing the hike to avoid the heat and staying cool in the water. Which I imagine the plants and animals do in their own way, shifting their schedules and in the case of animals even their routes according to the seasons and available resources.

All the more reason to visit the backcountry at different times throughout the year.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 14th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | July 19, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Paula Canyon

With summer upon us and heat waves raising temperatures across southern California, finding places in the backcountry with water deep enough to get into becomes even more of a premium. Winter rains have helped bring back a number of swim holes and one of the places with a great collection of pools is Santa Paula Canyon.

Santa Paula Canyon is a popular destination. The canyon features a waterfall and swim hole, as well as a narrow gorge with more pools that are sometimes referred to as the Punch Bowls. The hike to Santa Paula Canyon Falls is about seven miles roundtrip and the hike to the Punch Bowls is about 8.5 miles roundtrip. The best time to go is during the week.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south to Ventura. From Ventura, take State Route 126 east towards Santa Paula, and exit at Santa Paula. Follow State Route 150 through the town of Santa Paula and continue past Steckel Park towards Thomas Aquinas College. The drive is about an hour. The trailhead can also be reached by taking the back way through Ojai, which is about ten minutes longer. Parking is found along the side of the road or in the two dirt lots near the entrance to the college.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls graffiti creek punch bowls big cone spruce camp hiking backpacking trail waterfall

Santa Paula Canyon Falls seen from the hill overlooking the creek near Big Cone Camp

The hike to Santa Paula Canyon leads through the campus and two private ranches. The route is well-marked. Please respect private property.

From the road, walk up to the entrance to Thomas Aquinas College and follow the access road as it veers to the right and traces the eastern edge of the campus.

Established in 1971, Thomas Aquinas College is a Roman Catholic liberal arts school tucked up in the mountains, just above the confluence of Santa Paula and Sisar Creeks. One of the striking features on the campus is the chapel with its scenic bell tower and dome framed by the mountains.

East Fork Santa Paula Creek trail hiking backpacking punch bowls

Scenery along East Fork Santa Paula Creek

The route then continues to the right along a ranch road through Ferndale Ranch. It then descends down a hill, passing several oil derrick pump jacks, before arriving at the beginning of the second ranch, Rancho Recuerdo. The route then continues through an avocado orchard before arriving at a second set of pump jacks.

Past the pump jacks, the trail arrives at Santa Paula Creek. Here, the trail crosses the alder-lined creek, tracing its northern edge. The trail has been washed out a number of times over the years due to flooding. The trail follows the creek, briefly crossing the end of a ranch road, before then veering away from the creek.

Here, the trail passes through a somewhat boggy corner of the floodplain. It’s surprising to see alder trees growing so far from the creek, but apparently there is enough water to support them, as well as the ferns and blackberry growing there.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls Pool swim hole punch bowls creek hiking backpacking trail last chance

Great pool just above Santa Paula Canyon Falls

Santa Paula Canyon Trail then enters a more exposed section before returning to the creek. Here, the trail branches. Because this is such a popular destination there are a number of use trails all trying to reach the same place. The trail to the left is an off-trail route that leads up the creek to the falls. The main trail crosses the creek and connects with the old road cut that used to run through the canyon.

The trail follows the south side of the creek for a stretch, before veering away from the water and heading up into the chaparral. There are number of side trails to contend with and the best option is to keep staying to the right, until the old road cut becomes apparent. The unpaved road is overgrown, appearing as more of a single track trail. Amongst the plants are white sage, toyon, buckwheat, and sumac all in bloom.

As trail rounds a corner in the canyon it offers some greats views back down the canyon. Up ahead is a lone hill in the middle of the canyon. The trail then passes over a low point between the hill and the backside of Santa Paula Ridge and descends down towards Big Cone Camp.

Punch bowl Santa Paula Canyon Last Chance Trail Cross Camp waterslide

Large pool in the narrow gorge of Santa Paula Canyon past Cross Camp, featuring a waterslide.

The camp has four sites. The main site is under a grove of big cone Douglas-fir, which give the camp its name and also dot the back side of Santa Paula Ridge. The second site is just across the trail from the first. Further up the trail, on either side, are two more sites. Each site features a metal fire ring or grated stove.

Just past the last two camp sites, the trail drops back down to the creek. However, a brief detour worth making is from the last camp on the left. Follow the short use trail that leads up the hill overlooking the creek, which offers views directly down towards the waterfall.

Past Big Cone Camp, the trail drops down to East Fork Santa Paula Creek, crossing to the other side where the trail branches. Santa Paula Canyon Trail continues to the right. The trail is overgrown and leads towards Cienega and Bluff Camps, as well as Santa Paula Peak. The more traveled route, Last Chance Trail, continues to the left and leads above the falls. A short off-trail route leads down the creek to the falls.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls is the first in a series of swim holes in the canyon. The waterfall and pool are a popular destination and it’s not uncommon to see more than a dozen people swimming there. There is also a disappointing amount of trash and graffiti.

Giant Stream Orchid Santa Paula Canyon last chance trail punch bowls

Giant Stream Orchid along side creek, Santa Paula Canyon

waterfall Santa Paul Canyon creek last chance trail hiking backpacking

Unnamed waterfall in Santa Paula Canyon

Above the falls, the creek has carved its way through Matilija sandstone forming one of the deeper pools in the canyon. The ten-foot deep pool, with its clear, flowing water is one of the highlights of the hike. The pool is hard to reach and best accessed by continuing along the trail above the falls and returning down into the creek.

Continuing along the trail above the falls, the trail climbs away from the creek; rounds a corner; and then drops back down to the creek, arriving at Cross Camp. The camp features three sites. Two on this side of the creek surrounded by California bay laurel and black walnut. The third site is harder to find and is on the opposite side of the creek.

At Cross Camp, the trail actually branches. Last Chance Trail crosses the creek, passing the third campsite, and continuing towards Jackson Hole. The main use route however, continues upstream towards the narrow gorge referred to as the Punch Bowls.

Continuing along the more heavily traveled off-trail route, the canyon itself quickly branches. To the right is a small side canyon that features another waterfall. Growing along the creek are giant stream orchids. More plentiful further north, they are found in wet or moist places, and bloom in the late spring and early summer.

The canyon to the left is the narrow gorge where more swim holes are found. There is no trail and the route requires rock scrambling, and in some places just wading through the water. There are several smaller pools, but the main attraction is the large pool less than a quarter of a mile up the canyon that features rope swings and a natural water slide.

Santa Paula Canyon Last Chance Trail sespe wilderness

Scenery along Last Chance Trail, past Cross Camp heading towards Jackson Camp

From Cross Camp, the hike can be extended by continuing along Last Chance Trail to Jackson Camp, another three miles roundtrip. The trail enters Sespe Wilderness as it climbs away from the creek. The trail follows a series switchbacks up an exposed hillside overlooking the canyon, before rounding a corner and offering some dramatic views back down towards the narrow gorge. The trail is more overgrown and sees far fewer visitors than the route leading to the swim holes.

As Last Chance Trail continues up the canyon it eventually drops back down towards the creek and arrives at the turnoff to Jackson Camp, which is marked by a blue survey flag with a rock on top of it. The side trail down to the camp is overgrown and at times hard to follow. The camp currently has flowing water and features a stone fire ring.

Further up the canyon, along the trail, are Jackson Falls and Jackson Hole, which is a pool carved in sandstone by the creek. Currently there is no water flowing at either destination. From Jackson Hole, Last Chance Trail continues to the top of the Topatopa Mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 17th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | July 3, 2017

Trail Quest: Fraser Point

Santa Cruz Island is the largest island off the coast of California. The island covers roughly 96 square miles and is one of eight islands that make up the Channel Islands found here in Southern California. These islands are home to a rich variety of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Fraser Point is the westernmost point on Santa Cruz Island and visit to the point provides a unique opportunity to explore this remote part of the island.

The eastern portion of Santa Cruz Island is part of Channel Islands National Park and is open to the public. The western 76% of the island, however, is managed by The Nature Conservancy. Through the conservancy, private, non-commercial boaters may obtain a landing permit to visit parts of the island during the day. Permits are $30 per month, or $70 per calendar year. Proceeds support the work of the conservancy. For more information go to

Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Natural Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

Secluded cove at Fraser Point

Recently, Island Packers, through a special arrangement with The Nature Conservancy, offered a trip to Fraser Point, providing a rare opportunity to visit this part of the island on one of their boats. Island Packers is the authorized concessionaire for Channel Islands National Park and regularly offers transportation to destinations within the national park.

Since 1991, Island Packers has also been regularly providing trips to Pelican Bay, which is on land managed by The Nature Conservancy. As part of the arrangement an Island Packer’s naturalist must accompany visitors while on the conservancy’s land.

During the government shutdown in 2013, which closed our national parks and forests to visitors, Island Packers working in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy was able to offer additional trips to western Santa Cruz Island, including Cueva Valdez on the north shore.

Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Natural Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

Santa Rosa Island frames a view of Fraser Point from the ridge overlooking the western end of Santa Cruz Island

The trips were so well-received that after the shutdown, Island Packers continued to explore ways to provide visitors with unique places on the island to visit. Working with The Nature Conservancy, Island Packers offers a limited number of day trips to Cueva Valdez, as well as Willows Anchorage on the south shore of the island.

Fraser Point is the third such destination on western Santa Cruz Island, and this recent trip was actually the maiden voyage for visitors. The trip will likely be offered again.

From Ventura Harbor, we made our way out towards Santa Cruz Island. The boat ride out and back actually circumnavigates the island providing a visual tour of both the south and north shores. The ride across the channel often includes sightings of marine wildlife. This time around, thanks to the keen eyes of the crew, we saw common dolphins, humpback and blue whales, and even a basking shark.

Nearing the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island, golden fields of non-native grasses framed by the reddish-brown rocks of Montañon Ridge come into view.

Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

Wildflowers frame a view from Fraser Point

The first recorded inhabitants of the island were the Chumash people who were there more than 10,000 years ago. There were at least 10 Chumash villages on the island, which the Chumash called Limuw, or place of the sea.

In 1542, Cabrillo sailed past the island, but did not land there. In 1769, the Portola land-sea expedition landed on the island, giving it the name La Isla de Santa Cruz. Following the war of Mexican Independence, the Mexican government granted the land to Andrés Castillero in 1839. During this time Dr. James B. Shaw, served as the ranch manager. Shaw is thought to be the first to introduce sheep to the island. He later also introduced cattle and horses as well.

In 1857, Castillero sold the land to William Barron. 12 years later, Barron sold it to a group of 10 investors, which included Justinian Caire. By the late 1880s, Caire had bought out all the other investors becoming the sole owner of the island.

Part of Caire’s vision for the island’s operation was to make it self-sufficient as possible. The ranch is said to have cleared rocks on the broad plain east of Montañon Ridge to grow wheat in order to produce flour. On the south shore, overlooking Smugglers Cove, is the olive grove planted by the ranch. Other measures to reduce the need to import from mainland and diversify production included growing fruit and nuts, and raising fowl.

Harbor Seal Forney Cove Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands

A harbor seal watches us land at Forney Cove

Continuing past Smugglers Cove, along the south shore of the island the land ashore transitions from National Park to Nature Conservancy as we pass Willows Anchorage and Bowen Point, which is the southernmost point on the island.

In 1937, following extended litigation amongst Caire’s family the western 90% of the island was sold to Edward Stanton, while the balance of the island stayed with Ambrose Gherini, who was married to one of Caire’s daughters.

Stanton passed away in 1984. Three years later his son, Carey Stanton, also passed away, and under a previous agreement the land passed to The Nature Conservancy. In 1996, the federal government completed its purchase of land from the Gherini Family to include in the National Park. In 2000, The Nature Conservancy transferred 8,500 acres of land to the National Park, creating the boundaries that exist today.

Eventually, the boat arrives at Fraser Point. There is no pier and so we anchor at Forney Cove, which is a small cove on the south side of the point. Using motorized rubber rafts, or skiffs, the crew shuttles us to the island, six at a time, while curious harbors seals bob in the water watching the commotion.

Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy

Pocket Beach at Fraser Point

We disembark on the sandy shore and those who are interested follow the Island Packer’s Naturalist up onto the island. Our route leads past remnants of Campo Punta West, where buildings from a satellite ranch dating back to the days of Justinian Caire were located. Wood from the buildings was later reused to construct Rancho Nuevo several miles down the shore.

There are no designated trails out to the point, which is shaped somewhat like an isthmus sculpted with a couple small coves and pocket beaches. There is also no dense brush or even a lot of wild grasses out on the point. In fact, the real surprise is the amount of wildflowers in bloom thanks to this year’s generous rain.

We make our way cross-country stopping to take in the wildflowers. Among the yellow flowers are goldfields, tar weed, and beach sun cup. Among the pink and purple flowers are sand verbena, phacelia, and checkerbloom. Also present is non-native crystalline and small-flowered ice plant.

Our counter-clockwise loop provides us vistas of a couple small coves and pocket beaches before arriving at the point. To the west, out across Santa Cruz Channel, we can see Santa Rosa Island, and immediately to our left is Cormorant Rocks, which is loaded with cormorants and California brown pelicans. Completing the loop, we pass two more small coves before arriving back at the landing beach.

wildflowers super bloom channel islands western santa cruz fraser point hike

Wildflowers cover Fraser Point with Santa Rosa Island in the distance

A smaller group of us follow the naturalist on a second hike along an old ranch road, while others enjoy themselves at the beach. The route leads through wild grasses and up to the ridge overlooking the point. The ridge provides some great views back down towards Fraser Point and Forney Cove, as well as views across the narrow West End Flats along the north side of the island.

The boat ride back continues around the island, tracing the northern shore, where bald eagles can sometimes be seen. The ride back also includes a visit to Painted Cave. The sea cave is one of the largest and deepest in the world and Island Packers will often take their boat into the quarter-mile long cave, weather permitting, for sightseeing. Currently, the sides of the cave are lined with sea lion pups left there by their parents, who are out hunting for food.

There are no trips scheduled to Fraser Point or Willows Anchorage at this time, but they will likely be offered again within the next year. Island Packers, however, has three trips available to Cueva Valdez on July 8, August 13, and October 21, in addition to all of its other regular trips to Channel Island National Park. For more information go to

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

Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands


Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands


Wildflowers Fraser Point Western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy Island Packers hike Channel Islands


Posted by: James Wapotich | June 25, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Creek Homesteads

Visited the homesteads and old cabin sites in the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage back in late April with my friend Jasper.

Our route took us up and over Little Pine Mountain (see previous article for trail conditions). We camped the first night at Little Pine Spring. In the morning saw a bear up on the trail above camp with a red tag in its ear. I haven’t heard of any tagging programs in our area, so perhaps it was a delinquent bear that had been relocated.

From Little Pine Spring, we continued down to Santa Cruz Camp; visited the Alexander cabin site; hiked to Santa Cruz Falls; visited the Romo homestead site in Romo Potrero; and then visited Flores Flats, where the Flores homestead was located, before continuing onto Kellogg Camp, where we camped the second night. While hiking from Flores to Kellogg we spotted a large black bear across the canyon grazing on wild grasses. We were too far away for it take any interest in us.

Article appears in section A of the June 12th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Little Pine Spring Camp hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres national forest

Little Pine Spring

California black bear Santa Cruz Trail Little Pine Spring Los Padres national forest

Bear on the Santa Cruz Trail overlooking Little Pine Spring Camp

california black bear tag tagged Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest

Los Padres’ Most Wanted?

Little Pine Spring Los Padres National Forest Santa Cruz trail hiking backpacking camp

Beginning of the trail down to Little Pine Spring

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.

Santa Cruz Falls trail hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Santa Cruz Falls

black mountain romo potrero homestead los padres national forest

Black Mountain frames a view of Romo Potrero near the homestead site

Romo homestead roma potrero los padres national forest periwinkle vinca

Non-native periwinkle and other remnants of the Romo Homestead

Romo Potrero homestead santa cruz trail los padres national forest

Cattle trough Romo Potrero

Flores Flat Santa Cruz Trail creek camp hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Flores Flat

On the third day we hiked to Pelch Camp, and explored the upper reaches of Grapevine Camp. I’d hoped to find Upper Grapevine Camp for a third article, but came up empty. We camped the last night again at Little Pine Spring. Great weather and saw no one on the trails the entire time.

Lower Grapevine Camp canyon trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest ice can stove

Lower Grapevine Camp

Posted by: James Wapotich | June 8, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Trail

Santa Cruz Trail is the closest trail to Santa Barbara that leads into the San Rafael Wilderness. From Upper Oso, the trail climbs over Little Pine Mountain and provides access to Santa Cruz Camp and the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage.

The first half of the trail was burned in the 2016 Rey Fire and subsequent winter rains have added to the damage. The hike to Santa Cruz Camp from Upper Oso is about 21 miles round trip.

Given the uncertain trail conditions, I invited my friend Jasper, who is an experienced backpacker, to join me for a four-day trek into the area.

From Santa Barbara, we took State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass to Paradise Road and continued on Paradise Road to First Crossing Day Use Area. The road is currently closed at the first river crossing and so we start from there, which adds about a mile to our hike.

Upper Oso Creek Santa Cruz Trail Nineteen 19 Oaks hike backpacking Los Padres National Forest

Oso Creek is seen from the trail

Gathering our gear, we follow Paradise Road past the locked gate and down to the river.

The road through the river is covered with rocks and silt, and the only reminder that it was once there are brown carsonite signs that mark the edge of the road. Taking off our shoes, we wade across the river, which is only about knee deep.

The Forest Service hopes to have the road cleared and reopened within the next month, restoring access to Upper Oso and Red Rock trailheads.

On the other side, we continue to Lower Oso Day Use Area. Here, the road branches. Paradise Road follows the river towards Red Rock, while Romero-Camuesa Road continues towards Upper Oso.

Santa Cruz Trail Map Rey Fire burn area Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

From Lower Oso, we take the connector trail that leads to Upper Oso. The trail is in generally good condition and joins the road briefly near the bridge over Oso Creek. The bridge, which is about six feet above the creek, is covered with debris deposited by flooding from this year’s rain.

The unmaintained roads and fewer visitors to the area call to mind the television series Life After People. The series speculates how cities and manmade structures would appear if there were no people and nature was allowed to run its course.

From the bridge, the trail continues along the west side of the canyon, leading through mostly oaks and wild grasses. The area was burned in the 2013 White Fire and appears to be recovering. Adding to the scenery are large patches of purple vetch in bloom.

The trail then arrives at Upper Oso Campground. Here, the damage from last year’s Rey Fire can be seen.

The fire started August 18, near White Rock Picnic Area and Rancho San Fernando Rey, and may have been caused by an oak limb falling and bringing down a power line along Paradise Road. The fire spread north towards Little Pine Mountain and east as far as the Mono Creek drainage, burning 32,606 acres before it was contained on September 16.

From Upper Oso, Santa Cruz Trail enters the burn area and follows the unpaved Buckhorn Road for roughly the first three-quarters of a mile before leaving the road and continuing as a single track trail.

At times the burn damage seems overwhelming. Much of the vegetation has been burned away, leaving just barren hillsides. Winters rains have washed down debris and the heavy flow of debris and flooding has scoured Oso Creek, making it much wider than before.

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

Mariposa lilies cover a hillside near Nineteen Oaks

In spite of the burn damage, the first section of trail towards Nineteen Oaks is in fair shape. The rain has encouraged a surprising amount regrowth. Along the trail we can see scrub oak, toyon, elderberry, ceanothus, and holly-leaf cherry sprouting back around charred trunks. The real treat, however, is the amount wildflowers. In bloom are fairy lanterns, larkspur, China houses, and fiesta flower.

About two miles from Upper Oso, we arrive at the turnoff to Nineteen Oaks and hike up to the camp. Here, the hillsides are covered with mariposa lilies. Fire has destroyed the picnic table and outhouse at the main site and charred the tables at two other sites. The fire has also cleared the brush around the camp revealing not only tin cans and bottles, but an ice can stove that had probably been all but forgotten. On the plus side, the rain has caused the pipe-filled trough below camp to once again start flowing.

Past the turnoff to Nineteen Oaks, Santa Cruz Trail begins the 3.5-mile hike uphill to Alexander Saddle. The trail steadily climbs away from Oso Creek passing through a hillside meadow that is starting to recover from the fire.

The first obstacle we arrive at is a section of trail that passes through an outcropping of Monterey shale. Here, the already narrow trail has been washed out. We scramble down into the wash and climb back up and continue along the trail.

The next major obstacle is what’s know as the Shale Slide Area. This section of trail is regularly covered in loose shale and often the best approach is just to scramble across it. In the aftermath of the fire and winter rains each of these half-dozen slides are now bigger and require more care to traverse.

The Forest Service is planning next month to look specifically at what would be required to fix this section of trail.

Our next stop is the horse trough just off the main trail, about a mile from Alexander Saddle. Here, instead of seeing gushing water like at Nineteen Oaks, we discover the fiberglass trough has been burned and melted, with no water flowing into it.

Past the trough, the trail arrives at the upper meadow. In contrast to the burn area, the meadow seems almost paradisiacal with its vibrant green grasses and wild mustard. The moment fades however as we have to push through the abundant plants now obscuring the trail.

Upper Meadow Santa Cruz Trail hike backpacking Los Padres National Forests Little Pine Mountain

The upper meadow is seen along Santa Cruz Trail

Eventually, we arrive at Alexander Saddle. I had heard the worst section of Santa Cruz Trail was from Alexander Saddle down to the turnoff to Little Pine Spring. I’d also been told that the Forest Service had created a fuel break that more or less followed the old, overgrown Happy Hollow-Little Pine Spring Connector Trail, which seemed worth trying out as an alternate route.

From the saddle, we continue uphill towards Little Pine Mountain and arrive at Happy Hollow Campground. The site was badly burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire and charred pines can still be seen strewn about the area.

The fuel break starts right at the old connector trail and we follow it to the top of the ridge. The fuel break continues down the backside, but instead of following the old trail it ties into the burn area and unfortunately, because of the terrain, doesn’t provide an easy route over to Santa Cruz Trail.

However, along the edge of the fuel break we spot a trail, likely cut by fire crews, and follow it as it twists and turns its way downhill, leading away from the burn area. Jasper points out a side trail, that might lead to the connector trail, but in my zeal I press on along what seems like the more traveled route, which unfortunately dead ends.

According to Jasper’s GPS we are supposedly standing on Santa Cruz Trail, but we know better. Rather than hike back up to find another route, and sensing that we’re not that far from the actual trail, we opt to push and weave our way through the overgrown brush. Ten minutes later we arrive at Santa Cruz Trail, near the turnoff to Little Pine Spring and decide to head down to the camp.

The camp was not burned in the Rey Fire, sitting just on the edge of the burn area. The quarter-mile trail down to the camp is overgrown, but still somewhat followable. The camp features a picnic table and fire ring, and reliable water from the spring that is piped into a nearby trough.

On the last day, hiking back out, we decide to hike the section of Santa Cruz Trail we’d bypassed the first day. With no plants holding the soil in place, winter rains have caused loose dirt and ravel to slide down the mountain, covering several large sections of trail. The route is challenging to cross, requiring us to take extra time and care in order to not lose our footing.

The good news is that trail is likely still underneath all the loose dirt and once cleared will again become useable, but for now is not recommended for hiking.

Hopefully the damaged sections of Santa Cruz Trail can be repaired and made safe for trail users.

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

Upper Lower Oso vetch connector trail hike los padres national forest

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

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 15, 2017

Trail Quest: San Ysidro Falls

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

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

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

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »