Posted by: James Wapotich | January 25, 2020

Pothole Trail to Cove Camp

After weeks of pondering our destination, making plans, gathering our gear, and then adjusting our schedule to roll with mother nature’s program, we are at last on the trail. Hiking uphill. Yes, that’s how it starts, uphill through golden hills of wild grasses.

I had originally envisioned a trek through evergreen pines along the length of Piedra Blanca Trail. Sierra and I had hiked there Thanksgiving weekend five years ago and the scenery was just epic. But even as I was conceiving of a shuttle hike from Reyes Creek Campground to the Piedra Blanca Trailhead, I was remembering every time I’ve hiked the trail I’ve seen people.

Thinking we might prefer some place less traveled, I began considering where else we could go without adding extra miles or days; the Piedra Blanca Trip would be 18.5 miles over three days. Then it dawned on me, one of our first backpacking trips together was along Pothole Trail to Cove Camp, about 17 miles over three days.

Nevertheless, I remained on the fence, that is until the weather changed. With Sierra’s kids out of town for Thanksgiving, it made sense to start Thursday for a 3-day backpacking trip. We would have Thanksgiving with her kids on Wednesday, hike three days, and have Sunday at home for relaxing.

But nature has her own plans. With a pending storm arriving Thanksgiving Day and predictions of snow at the higher elevations, plus a second storm arriving on Saturday, there was a possibility Highway 33 could be closed and significant portions of Piedra Blanca Trail might be covered in snow, the latter not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than wait until the very last minute, we settled on the Agua Blanca, shifting our timeline to leave on Friday, after the first storm, and return on Sunday.

On Wednesday, I met with my friend who has property back by Lake Piru to borrow his keys and save ourselves about four miles of road walking both ways.

Currently, access to the Pothole Trailhead and points beyond is restricted by a series of gates and a parking fee. The area around Lake Piru is owned and managed by United Water Conservation District. This time of year one can drive in as far as the lower lot and park and then continue on foot to the trailhead.

The good news is all of that is changing, hopefully this year. The existing gates will be removed or kept open, with a new locked gate installed just past the trailhead. There will be a new parking area with no fees. The new gate past the trailhead will still require keys as before, but access to the Pothole Trail will be open, and the distance to Agua Blanca Trail, Ellis Apiary, and Piru Gorge will effectively become shorter. This is also great news for the Condor Trail, the 420-mile long through hike route which either begins or ends at Pothole Trail depending on how you hike it, will now be unburdened of 3-5 miles of tedious road walking.

Pothole Trail Lake Piru Los Padres National Forest


Anyway, yes, Friday morning, we are now on the trail. The sun is out and it’s good to be feeling its warmth after two days of rain. The hillsides are covered with wild grasses and dotted with yerba santa and purple sage. Lining the trail like diaphanous angels is something reminiscent of dove weed. Our last hike along this trail was in 2013, when I was section hiking the Condor Trail for a series of articles.

As we continue up the trail we start seeing bear scat loaded with hollyleaf cherry and begin to wonder if we’ll encounter a stand of cherry bushes somewhere along the trail. There’s something reassuring to me about bears using the trails, and the frequency of scat here reminds me of Santa Cruz Trail in the San Rafael Mountains. There’s a section of the 40-mile wall that’s a veritable cherry grove and during a particular hike I did one September there was an amazing amount of bear scat along the trail with nothing but hollyleaf cherry pits in it.

From the trailhead, Pothole Trail offers a hearty uphill gain of roughly 2,100 feet, more than enough it would seem to help burn off Thanksgiving dinner and associated holiday slothfulness.

As we crest the first rise, we arrive at a small stand of California black walnuts recovering from the 2007 Ranch Fire. The tree is more common in Ventura County and further south. In fact, the only place I’ve seen it so far in Santa Barbara County is along the access road to Gibraltar Dam.

Sugarbush Rhus ovata Pothole Trail Piru Creek Los Padres National Forest

Sugar Bush

The next plant to command our attention is Sugar Bush or is it Lemonade Berry? We both recall taco-shaped leaves being indicative of Sugar Bush, but after looking at the flower buds, we start to second guess ourselves. Both plants are in the genus Rhus, which is part of the Cashew or Sumac family, Anacardiaceae. The family includes Cashews and Pistachios, as well as Laurel Sumac and Poison Oak, which we’ll meet later on the trail.

Lemonade Berry, however has rounder, flatter, and more leathery leaves, while Sugar Bush, like the example here, has more curved-shaped leaves that end in a point. Lemonade Berry also prefers the coast, while Sugar Bush prefers being inland. Sugar Bush flowers between March and May.

Blue Point Piru Creek Pothole Trail Los Padres National Forest

Blue Point, in the foreground right

As we continue along the wide ridge, to the north Blue Point comes into view. The point is said to be named for its bands of bluish-grey rock. Near its base, to the east, is the now closed Blue Point Campground. The campground was closed in 2000 to help protect the Arroyo Toad and other endangered species. The mountain’s name calls to mind another Blue Point, this one at the top of Fir Canyon, in the San Rafael Mountains. In his journal, Ranger Edgar Davison referred to the prominent outcrop of Serpentine as Blue Point. He referred to the canyon as Blue Canyon, and later renamed it Fir Canyon, which is helpful since there is also a Blue Canyon on the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Blue Point Fir Canyon Davy Brown Trail Figueroa Mountain Serpentine Los Padres National Forest

“Blue Point” near the top of Fir Canyon in the San Rafael Mountains

After still more uphill, we arrive at the first lupine and the base of yet another climb. Here, to the left we can see the marked trail veering away from the ridgeline we’d been following. Thus far, we’d been avoiding the official trail, reluctant to follow its self-imposed trajectory through the weeds. The route, marked with flexible, brown carsonite signs, sort of parallels the use trail everyone seems to favor.

So I thought we should at least give the official route a try since it looks like it might break up some of the climb. Bad idea. The trail is brushier than the open ridge, the tread is torn up from horse traffic, and the real clincher for me is the bears don’t use it.

The trail then fortunately rejoins the more open ridge as we climb yet another hill. This one ablaze with buckwheat, its rust-colored dry flower heads radiant on the landscape. And then suddenly I notice a patch of snow on the ground, and then another, something I was not expecting at this low of an elevation.

Yerba Santa Buckwheat Pothole Trail Los Padres National Forest

Yerba Santa and Buckwheat

The trail then chugs up yet another hill. Here, yerba santa is growing amongst the buckwheat. Both plants cleansed of their dust by the recent rain are now beaming vibrant colors on the landscape, with the reds of the buckwheat offset by the pale greens of the yerba santa. Hiking through this grove of color I feel the elements beginning to work on me, peeling away layers of daily city life, while the scenery, with it patches of snow, becomes more magical and lucid, like something out of an Alphonse Mucha print

In the distance, Cobblestone Mountain comes into view, its snow-covered summit obscured in the clouds like some local version of Mount Everest. The mountain reaches 6,733 feet, and stands watch over Agua Blanca Creek. Along its top I can see pines covered in snow, like white-flocked Christmas trees.

Cobblestone Mountain snow Agua Blanca Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Cobblestone Mountain is seen in the distance

Bobcat tracks in snow Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Bobcat Tracks

We then reach the wilderness sign, which also marks the end of our uphill climb. The entire backside of the ridge is covered in snow. Along the trail, as if welcoming us into the Sespe Wilderness, is a set of fresh bobcat tracks coming up the trail.

The trail cuts across the backside of the ridge we’d been following and then heads down the ridgeline separating the Pothole drainage from the next creek over that also flows into the Agua Blanca. The trail has some brushy sections as it descends, but generally improves as it starts to level out; here we catch our first glimpse of the almost iconic Pothole.

Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

The Pothole

The trail then wraps around the ridge, doubling-back for its final descent into the canyon, offering views of Devil’s Gateway, Pothole Spring, Devil’s Potrero, and the Pothole. With the sun now breaking through the clouds, illuminating the basin in a glorious display of light, I start running down the trail to catch photos of the Pothole before the sun disappears.

Pothole Spring Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Pothole Spring is seen from the trail

cottonwoods pothole trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Cottonwoods in the Pothole seen from the trail

At some point in the not too distant past, there was by some accounts an earthquake and/or a large landslide that piled debris across the canyon helping to form the three separate basins was see today: The Pothole, Devil’s Potrero, and Pothole Spring. A similar phenomenon is said to have created Zaca Lake in the San Rafael Mountains, which was formed by a landslide that deposited debris across that canyon. Yes, another reference to the San Rafael Mountains.

Zaca Lake is seen from Zaca Ridge, the San Rafael Mountains

Zaca Lake is seen from Zaca Ridge in the San Rafael Mountains

Back when I first wrote about Pothole Trail a reader sent me a picture of the Pothole filled with water from the early 1990s; he said the water was around 15 feet deep and during one of his visits he found the remains of a rowboat. I’ve often wondered if the boat was still there.

The Pothole Lake filled will water sespe wilderness los padres national forest

The Pothole c. 1994 – image courtesy Hank Weishaar

The pothole lake sespe wilderness los padres national forest

The Pothole c. 1994 – image courtesy Hank Weishaar

Into the Pothole

Where the trail meets the canyon floor, at the edge of Devil’s Potrero, we pause for lunch under a large oak. Originally, I had thought of pushing all the way to Cove Camp on the first day, about 8.5 miles, but Sierra preferred we aim for Log Cabin Camp, about 6 miles, to break up the hike. This also meant we would have time to explore the Pothole. In my haste of changing up plans last minute I didn’t take the time to research if there was even a trail into the Pothole or check Google Earth to scout something out. On the hike in I didn’t see any obvious routes.

Instead I have to rely on my intuition, imagining if there wasn’t an informal route there would at least be a game trail as animals would likely want to access or traverse the basin. Feeling drawn to the oak woodland west of the main trail, I begin following an animal trail through the grove of oaks, which Sierra observes would also make an ideal place for a gathering of Druids.

Following the most prominent game trail along the edge of the chaparral and trying different spur trails that look like they would cut north towards the Pothole, I eventually find a trail that climbs up a low rise and looks promising. The trail crests out of Devil’s Potrero, weaving through the chaparral, and then begins to descend, taking on more definition as it continues. We’re now clearly on some kind of use trail. The trail carries us to the edge of the Pothole, arriving at a dense stand of cottonwoods, golden with the colors of autumn. We continue on the use trail as it skirts east around the cottonwoods and out into the open part of the basin.

Cottonwoods Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Cottonwoods in the Pothole

Pothole Trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

In the Pothole

Sierra pauses here to take in the sights and sounds of the nearby cottonwoods, while I cut out across the open basin, soaking in the experience, and ostensibly scanning the edges for that boat.

Completing my circuit around the Pothole and not finding any boats, I return to where I left Sierra, only I can’t see her. It isn’t until I arrive where she was sitting I discover she is now lying down, lulled into a nap by the sound of the gentle breeze playing through the cottonwoods.

cottonwood pothole trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Cottonwoods growing in the Pothole

We return to our packs and resume our trek towards the Agua Blanca. The trail skirts the edge of Devil’s Potrero, and then continues down a small side canyon, passing a barbed wire fence and a sign that once said no trespassing. The trail then arrives at the edge of Pothole Spring, where there’s an open, marshy stand of water, framed by tules and willow. Overlooking the spring, on the top of a rise, is the old Whitaker homestead. William Whitaker homesteaded here in the late 1800s, receiving a patent on the land in 1891. On the west side of the cabin is a collection of farm implements that were packed in by mule.

Pothole Spring Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Pothole Spring

Whitaker Homestead Pothole Spring Sespe Wilderness Los Padres national forest

Whitaker Homestead

old farm equipment whitaker homestead pothole springs sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Farm equipment is seen outside the Whitaker Homestead

Continuing around to the back side of the cabin, I trace the western edge of Pothole Spring and spot a bear trail cutting through the reeds, heading off to wherever it is a bear might want to go. I think of following it, but opt instead to press onto Log Cabin Camp.

Continuing past the homestead, Pothole Trail descends through oak woodland before transitioning down into a creek. The flowing creek, lush with alder trees and ferns, now saturated from the recent rains feels almost like a Pacific Northwest rain forest. Lion’s mane is seen growing on one of the downed oaks and I keep looking to see if there are any banana slugs along the trail.

The trail then arrives at Agua Blanca Creek, just upstream from the Devil’s Gateway. The Agua Blanca is flowing with just a hint of tannin from the recent rain. Across the creek is a trail sign which points the way to Log Cabin Camp. We then pass a second trail sign, which marks where Agua Blanca Trail bypasses Devil’s Gateway.

We arrive at Log Cabin Camp, just as we had done six years ago. The camp seems like it’s seen more use since our last visit. We set up camp, gather water, and settle into a hearty meal of backcountry tacos, with tri-tip, rice, and beans, garnished with cheese, cilantro, and onions.

After dinner, with impressively clear skies, we take in some stargazing, accompanied by the call of a Great Horned Owl, before settling in for the night.

Onward to Cove

In the morning, we opt for a simple breakfast so we can get on the trail early. Our plan is to get to Cove and set up camp before the predicted afternoon rain starts so we’ll have a dry place to work with. However, as I head down to the creek to filter some water, something tells me it would be better to stay put; we already have a tent here that’s dry. If we instead day hike to Cove we will be far less anxious about beating the rain and also have less miles to cover on the hike out, which would support a more leisurely trip overall. The downside in my mind is Cove Camp is a much nicer site than Log Cabin Camp, and we also run the risk of not getting to visit the Big Narrows. After a reasonable amount of hand wringing and internal debate, I decide to go with the day hike plan.

As we hit the trial, we are greeted by a hawk, sounding somewhat distressed, only to then see and hear a second hawk. The two continue up the canyon, leading the way. The trail is overgrown in places, and it looks like the bears are the ones using the trail the most.

We quickly arrive at Hollister. The site is shown on some maps as a camp, but in reality it’s a benchmark. However, instead of just a metal something, it’s a large almost cube-shaped stone with the letters “B” and “M” carved into it. On top is the benchmark.

Hollister bench mark Agua Blanca Trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest


From here, the trail becomes more overgrown, requiring more route-finding and deciphering the mish-mash of flagging, which is a little like listening to several different people debate where they think the trail ought to go, or worse still the route they so proudly took.

Eventually the trail returns down to the creek and more or less disappears. It’s here that the rain starts and any regrets I had about camping at Log Cabin Camp a second night begin to leave me.

The trail then picks up again, and as it continues it becomes what could be described as a true wilderness adventure — overgrown, brushy, downed trees, bear sign and scat, and plenty of poison oak crowding in. In addition to keeping one’s trail skills fresh, it also puts to test one’s ability to differentiate between poison oak and basketry bush aka skunk brush, both of which grow in abundance along the trail and can have a similar appearance

About halfway between Hollister and Cove we pause for a snack to bring up our energy and stave off the cold from the increasingly steady rain. Getting up from our snack we spot a hollyleaf cherry bush laden with ripe fruit, which we sample. Then looking around we realize we are surrounded by cherry bushes and the myriad of side trails I’d been seeing earlier are actually from the bears gorging themselves on this veritable grove of cherries. Perhaps this was the larder of cherries the bears had been eating and later depositing along the trail. A little further up we even find fresh bear tracks in the creek bed.

Hollyleaf Cherry Agua Blanca Creek Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Hollyleaf Cherry

Bear tracks agua blanca creek sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Bear tracks Agua Blanca Creek

Agua Blanca Creek Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Agua Blanca Creek

The canyon then starts to narrow, becoming even more scenic. And in spite of the rain, it seems like we’re having a generally good time taking in the scenery and feeling the immersiveness of a trail that not many people seem to visit.

As the canyon opens back up, trail conditions begin to improve. But at one point, as I watch Sierra ninja her way around yet another patch of poison oak, she just loses it. After hiking in the rain, pushing through brush, route finding, and dealing with poison oak she’s had enough. “I’m so tired of freaking poison oak” or words to that effect, she shouts as she has a mini meltdown.

Being way more sensitive than me to the effects of poison oak I’m sympathetic to her plight, and at the same time I have a strong suspicion we’re almost at Cove Camp. I’ve noticed sometimes in the backcountry just as we near our destination our mind begins to play tricks on us, our fatigue tells us it’s pointless to go on, when in reality we’re almost there.

I share with her a story about a trip I did once looking for some cave paintings with a friend along another overgrown creek in the Sespe Wilderness. It had been a workout making our way up the creek, scrambling over fallen trees and pushing through brambly regrowth from the Day Fire, when my friend decided we had either gone too far or had faulty information, and either way was turning back. And while I felt his fatigue, I had a funny suspicion, based on the intel we had, the site was still up ahead and so I pressed on alone. Ten minutes later I arrived at the site, found the cave paintings, and then raced back down the creek to catch him so he wouldn’t miss out.

With Sierra now less upset and busy pondering the merit of my story, we continue up the trail, which now uncharacteristically pulls away from the creek, riding above it, which suggests to me we are in fact nearing Cove Camp. The trail then rounds a corner and stretched out beneath us, under the oaks and sycamore, is Cove Camp. A northern flicker calls out to us as we descend down to the site.

Cove Camp Agua Blanca Trail creek sespe wilderness ice can stove los padres national forest

Cove Camp

The camp features a double wide ice can stove and a fire ring; nearby is a sign for the camp wedged between two trees. The camp is situated in a large flat and up canyon, near the camp, is a regular ice can stove, and then past that another double wide one. I’d forgotten the Agua Blanca was a storehouse of relic ice can stoves, so far this day I’ve seen seven. (Log Cabin Camp has four ice can stoves, two near the stone fire ring and pedestal stove at the main camp, a third one just east of the camp under the canopy of oaks, and the fourth in the relatively open area overlooking the creek.)

Taking shelter under an overhanging ledge we have lunch gazing out across the camp, which was more inviting six years ago when it wasn’t raining. We opt to let go of hiking the Big Narrows, which would add another two miles roundtrip in the rain, and content ourselves with having reached Cove and reminiscing about past hikes.

Cove Camp Agua Blanca Trail sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Cove Camp

Under still leaden skies, as the rain increases, we retrace our route back to our camp, trying some alternate sections, re-route-refinding in places, and criss-crossing the creek back downstream to Log Cabin Camp. At one point, while crossing the creek yet another time, looking for our route in reverse, I reach my limit and wonder just how much more of this we still have left. Feeling as if we’re going in circles, in these now grey woods, I start to think I might just find a tobacco pouch on the ground left by dwarves from the Blue Mountains. And then just like that, past this last crossing, the trail climbs away from the creek and we arrive at the outskirts of camp.

Agua Blanca Creek sespe wilderness los padres national forest

Agua Blanca Creek

Still raining, Sierra dries out the interior of our tent from some leaks, while I make dinner in the rain. In anticipation of the inclement weather I’ve selected something that would be easy to make and clean up in the rain, Mac and Cheese.

Instead of bringing my lightweight Big Agnes tent, which comes in around three pounds, I deliberately brought my roomier Big 5 World Famous Sports tent, which weighs 4.5 pounds. Although heavier, the tent is large enough that we can stow all our gear inside, instead of having to leave most of it outside, under the vestibule, with the narrower Big Agnes tent.

After dinner we settle in early for a cozy night of reading while the rain continues, content in the knowledge that all of our gear is dry with us inside the tent.

In the morning we are awakened in the predawn hours by a Great Horned Owl, followed a little later by a dawn chorus of mostly woodpeckers and stellar jays that goes on for some time, a strong indication to me the rain is indeed over.

We spend part of the morning drying out from the day before, while enjoying a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with rice and beans.

As we hit the trail, the sun is still struggling to break through the clouds. We drop our packs at the juncture with Pothole Trail and make our way down to Devil’s Gateway for a quick visit just as the sun breaks out of the clouds, illuminating the entrance to the gateway and the nearby golden leaves of the Cottonwoods and California Black Walnut.

Devil's Gateway Agua Blanca Creek Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Devil’s Gateway

On the hike back out we again savor the great scenery. The snow that was on the trail on our hike in is now completely gone, and the pines on Cobblestone Mountain are now once again dark green, while the mountain remains shrouded in a blanket of white. Nearing the end of our climb out, we pause at a large manzanita bush that is laden with ripe fruit and enjoy a quick snack before making the long descent back down to the trailhead. We arrive at our car just as the sun is setting, feeling like we’ve maximized our time outdoors to the fullest.

Manzanita Pothole Trail Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest


Posted by: James Wapotich | September 7, 2019

Navigating Wilderness

navigating wilderness animal tracks and tracking mike kresky edible and medicinal plants lanny kaufer herb walk routefinding map reading trails hiking backpacking nature skills awareness santa barbara los padres national forest


navigating wilderness animal tracks and tracking mike kresky edible and medicinal plants lanny kaufer herb walk routefinding map reading trails hiking backpacking nature skills awareness santa barbara los padres national forest


Navigating Wilderness
Saturdays, Oct. 26-Nov. 16

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 26th, 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.

Animal Tracks and Tracking
November 2nd, 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.

Edible and Medicinal Plants
November 9th, 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.

November 16th, 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 | August 30, 2019

Exploring the Sky Islands of the Santa Barbara & Ojai Mountains

Sky Islands Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Mountains Big Pine Pine Mountain Ridge Reyes Peak Mount Pinos conifers


Exploring the Sky Islands of the Santa Barbara & Ojai Mountains

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

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

Sky Islands are found at higher elevations in our local mountains, where relatively cooler and wetter conditions create microclimates that help preserve rich stands of conifers and related habitat, that are surrounded by a sea of either chaparral or pinyon-juniper woodland.

This talk will highlight the hiking and backpacking opportunities in the San Rafael Mountains, along Pine Mountain Ridge, and at Mount Pinos and the Chumash Wilderness.

Join local author James Wapotich as shares images and stories from his treks through these scenic mountains. James has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry. He is an experienced backpacker, trail guide, and 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.

The next talk in the series is Thursday, October 17th, Riding the Old Spanish Trail, a movie featuring several local backcountry horsemen,

Posted by: James Wapotich | August 30, 2019

Trail Quest: Indian Canyon Falls

People often ask me what’s my favorite hike. This is actually a tough question to answer given that we have so many great trails to choose from.

There are more than two hundred trails within two hours of Santa Barbara. Extend that range to three hours, and you can reach all of southern Los Padres National Forest and even the Carrizo Plain.

To simplify this question, I’ll often narrow the range to just within Santa Barbara County, or add in some qualifiers, such as getting to see a waterfall or other unique feature. But my short list usually includes Fir Canyon, Forbush Flats, the Upper Sisquoc River, and Indian Canyon.

Indian Canyon is located within the Dick Smith Wilderness area and is one of those rarely visited places that for me embodies the timelessness and vitality of the backcountry; it also has the added attraction of a scenic double waterfall.

Indian Canyon Falls Maiden Pools Indian Creek hiking backpacking Dick Smith Wilderness waterfall Los Padres National Forest

Indian Canyon Falls

The trailhead is about a half-mile past Mono Campground, however, with the current road closures, the trailhead can no longer be reached by car. The shortest route now is along North Cold Spring Trail from East Camino Cielo Road, which adds about six miles to hike.

From the Indian-Mono Trailhead, it’s about 8.5 miles to Indian Canyon Camp, and from there another mile and a half to the falls.

For company, I decide to join Volunteer Wilderness Rangers Paul Cronshaw and Shad Springer on a trail survey of the area.

The hike down North Cold Spring Trail proves to be an enjoyable warm up for the day. The trail is slightly overgrown, but still easy to follow. In bloom along the trail are yarrow, Indian paintbrush, woolly blue curls, larkspur, buckwheat, farewell to spring, and both yellow and sticky monkey flowers. At Forbush Flats there is still clear, flowing water in the creek near the two campsites.

Past the camp, North Cold Spring Trail climbs a low rise and then descends down towards the Santa Ynez River, where the trail becomes more challenging. Recent flooding has made the trail downstream even less distinct and more jumbled. Hiking largely by memory, we’re able to locate where the trail crosses the river.

Here, the trail becomes a little more apparent as we head towards what’s affectionately known as the Mono Jungle.

With the construction of Gibraltar Dam, lower Mono Creek basin became filled with water, and then later silt, which gave rise to a forest of cottonwoods and willow. Over the years, much of the original trail has become washed out, and during the spring, parts of the basin can become boggy and difficult to traverse.

About halfway to Mono Campground from the Santa Ynez River, the trail arrives at a small side drainage, climbs over a small rise, and then largely disappears. Here, we opt for the path of least resistance and follow the broad floodplain of Mono Creek upstream to Mono Campground.

The campground is currently closed, buried under several feet of silt from winter storms following the 2016 Rey Fire.

From Mono Campground, we tie into Romero-Camuesa Road and continue to the trailhead. The road has been closed since 2017, when winter rains undermined a crib wall supporting the road near North Romero Trail. The road is closed at Romero Saddle, where there is now a locked gate, but it is still open to hikers and mountain bikes. Unfortunately, this year’s winter rains washed away part of East Camino Cielo Road, closing the road east of San Ysidro Trail.

From the Indian-Mono Trailhead, we continue along Romero-Camuesa Road. The unpaved access road crosses Mono Creek and then follows Indian Creek upstream to Indian Canyon Trail, which continues further up the canyon.

Indian Creek Canyon hiking backpacking Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Indian Creek

With the road closures, the trail hasn’t seen much use and wild grasses are now growing in the tread. The trail is indistinct at times, but still generally followable, until we enter the burn area for 2016 Rey Fire.

The fire started near White Rock Picnic Area along the Santa Ynez River on August 18, burning north and east, until it reached the burn scars from the 2007 Zaca Fire and 1998 Ogilvy Fire. The fire was contained on September 16, and burned over 30,000 acres.

In the burn area, where Indian Canyon Trail follows the creek, the trail has become a bramble of regrowth with wild roses and other plants recovering from the fire. This forces us to alternate between hiking up the middle of the creek and following remnants of the trail that are away from the creek until we reach Pie Canyon Jeepway.

Here, the trail follows an old road cut towards Lower Buckhorn Camp as it leaves Indian Creek. Thinking this will be the easier section, we soon discover the route is choked with thick regrowth from the fire.

Little remains at lower Buckhorn Camp, just a grated stove. The dilapidated picnic table is gone, and the oaks that shaded the camp are only starting to come back.

From Lower Buckhorn, we follow the overgrown trail that leads over the hill to Indian Creek and Meadow Camp, where we camp for the first night. The large, open potrero has recovered well from the fire, but the picnic table at the camp is gone, with just the metal camp sign and an old ice can stove remaining.

In the morning, we cross the meadow and enter the Dick Smith Wilderness. Here, the trail makes its way through chaparral growing back from the 2016 Rey Fire. Already a challenging section to follow, regrowth from the fire has altered the appearance of the landscape, making it even harder to call on one’s memory of the route. It isn’t until we leave the burn area, that the still overgrown trail becomes easier to follow.

By mid-morning we arrive at Indian Canyon Camp. The camp has two sites, one with a picnic table and grated stove under a large oak overlooking the creek, and another a little ways up under a stand of oaks with just a grated stove.

Here, the official trail ends, although an old use trail continues towards the falls. Over the years, the trail has become overgrown and filled with poison oak, which makes hiking up the creek the better route to take.

The first view of the two-tiered waterfall is up a narrow slot canyon filled with water that leads to the first cascade. Here, we clamber over the exposed sandstone on the east side of the creek, passing up our packs, in order to reach the base of the first cascade. This first waterfall is shaped like a step pyramid, and counter-intuitively the easiest route over the falls is to climb up its face; this brings us up to a magnificent hanging pool at the base of the second waterfall.

These creeks and their pools are like oases in a sea of chaparral, and their remoteness only adds to their splendor, particularly on a hot day.

The second waterfall is easier to climb over as we make our way upstream. There is also a faint trail that bypasses the falls on the west side of the canyon that starts about an eighth of a mile below the falls.

Above the falls, there is no trail along Indian Creek until Pens Camp, about two miles away. We continue upstream, rock-hopping and following the path of least resistance. At one point the canyon narrows dramatically arriving at another series of cascades. Paul and Shad pass their packs up to each other, while I follow an old bear trail I first followed forty years ago with the boy scouts that bypasses the cascades.

As we continue up the creek, we start to see big cone Douglas firs in the mix and soon arrive at an impressive backcountry pool. Here, the creek has carved its way through an outcrop of conglomerate rock, creating a picturesque waterfall that drops into a large oval-shaped pool. On his map of the Dick Smith Wilderness, in very small text, Bryan Conant has labeled the site “Perfect 10”.

Perfect 10 Indian Creek Canyon waterfall hiking backpacking Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Remote pool and cascade, Indian Creek

From here, it’s roughly another quarter of a mile of rock-hopping to Indian Narrows, where the creek cuts through a large outcrop of Sierra Blanca limestone. Although, it’s still one more mile to Indian-Poplar Trail from here, we know we’ll be out of the creek soon enough.

Once on Indian-Poplar Trail, we make relatively good time, arriving at Bluff Camp before sunset.

In the morning, I walk up to the spring that feeds into Indian Creek, just as I did on one of my first boy scout trips, when I learned that the spring generally flows year-round.

Even then, there was something compelling about the idea of the canyon continuously receiving water that gave it, in my mind, an eternal quality. I could imagine in the absence of man, this canyon and all the plants and animals living there going about their lives uninterrupted, on their own schedule, at their own pace, and completely at home in the world.

Being connected to this natural flow of life is one of the touchstones of being in relationship with nature. Even though we don’t necessarily know where life is ultimately taking us, nature reminds us that we can still move forward with it, and find a path that will lead us home.

On that note, I’ll be taking a break from the hiking column to work on my book about the Santa Barbara backcountry. I hope to see you out on the trails.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 8th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Indian Meadow hiking backpacking Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres Natioanl Forest

Indian Meadow

Posted by: James Wapotich | July 27, 2019

Trail Quest: Camp Conestoga

Forbush Flats is a trail camp located along North Cold Spring Trail on the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The camp has two sites tucked in under the oaks and conifers, next to a seasonal creek. Nearby, is a horseshoe-shaped meadow that’s framed by a small ridge.

When I first wrote about the camp in an article, a reader informed me that the cedar trees at one of the campsites were actually planted by students from Camp Conestoga.

On a subsequent visit to the camp, I took some extra time to appreciate the cedars and was encouraged to see a number of smaller trees growing there, descendants of those planted by the students.

Close by, underneath an oak tree, I noticed several stones peaking out from beneath the leaves that seemed a little too linear in their arrangement; curious I bent down and began brushing away the leaves and discovered the cement foundation for an ice can stove. The stove had long since been removed, but the foundation was still intact and written in the concrete were the words Camp Conestoga.

camp conestoga frank van schaik wilson wildcats forbush flats cold spring trail santa ynez mountains hiking backpacking los padres national forest

Cement stove foundation with the words Camp Conestoga

When I got home I began researching the name and eventually discovered Camp Conestoga was started by Frank Van Schaik, a schoolteacher at Wilson Elementary School, who also wrote a column for the News-Press back in the early 1960s. In fact, the best resource describing the program is Van Schaik’s book, Home of the Wilson Wildcats – Life and Death of an American Elementary School.

The oldest of four brothers, Frank Van Schaik graduated from Stanford University and, in 1936, moved to Santa Barbara where he began teaching fifth and sixth grade at Wilson Elementary School. The neighborhood school was located along Castillo Street, between Victoria and Anapamu Streets, where the Westside Community Center is now.

Wilson School is also where Van Schaik met his wife Lois, who taught second grade. Together they built a house in Rattlesnake Canyon using redwood from his parents’ property in Marin County, and sandstone from their own property.

During the summers, he would take some of the students to his parents’ property and camp amongst the redwoods. That first group of kids called themselves the Dusty Oysters, a whimsical name that likely came from the works of Lewis Carrol. It was through these campouts that he saw the benefits of what we would now call outdoor education.

During the war years, with gas rationing and higher fuel costs, Van Schaik needed a place to offer outdoor programs that was closer to home. In 1944, he reached out to the City Recreation Department and started a summer day camp program at Anapamu Park, located where Bohnett Park is now, at the corner of Anapamu and San Pascual Streets, that became Camp Conestoga.

Back then, the westside was less developed and the park covered close to two city blocks. Before Highway 101 was built, and the course of Mission Creek was shifted to follow the freeway, Mission Creek flowed through the park, creating a rustic setting ideal for outdoor learning. Although now smaller, Bohnett Park still retains some of these scenic features.

At Camp Conestoga, kids participated in a variety of outdoor activities, made real bows and arrows, tanned animal hides, took care of pack animals that had been donated to the cause, practiced knot tying, and learned what might be described today as homesteading or ranching skills combined with outdoor skills. As the program grew there was a craft shop and chuck wagon kitchen that students participated in.

Early on, Frank Van Schaik was helped by his brother Bill, who was a student at UCSB, and later became at teacher at Franklin Elementary School. Bill was to Franklin School, what Frank was to Wilson School, in terms of the lasting impact he had on the students there. As the program continued and grew, several former students from Wilson and Camp Conestoga became part of the staff.

In 1947, the Junior League of Santa Barbara began sponsoring the program, and through their generous funding the camp was able to buy camping gear and supplies, as well as purchase a truck. They also now had a budget for food and gas, which allowed the program to expand where they could take kids on outings, both locally and to the Sierras.

The valuing of outdoor education was all just part of Van Schaik’s approach to learning. Without any specific theory on education, he just understood that kids learn best through experience, and that engaging the senses and doing hands on work can build lasting knowledge and confidence.

This same approach held true in the classroom. Students were involved in a wide variety of activities that gave them hands on experience.

Van Schaik’s other true passion beside teaching and the outdoors, was Democracy. Each year his students would craft a class constitution and live by it. He saw to it that there were ample opportunities for students to take on leadership roles and learn how to work together. To learn how to manage their own affairs and respect one another.

He believed that it was the responsibility of a democratic society, through its schools, to give children the skills, knowledge, and character, to govern themselves and to vote wisely, in order for democracy to succeed.

Writing was also an important part of the classroom. Students would practice writing everyday, not as a rote activity, but as something rooted in observation and self reflection.

He had students write about what they felt, the things they strongly liked or disliked, to learn how to express what mattered most to them. They wrote about their outdoor experiences, and also kept a daily journal. In class, they wrote stories and poetry that were collected into pamphlets produced by the students.

Almost every activity was an enriching experience the kids could learn and grow from. Each day, time was set aside for lively discussions on current events. The students produced a class newspaper. They hosted nature fairs in their classroom, crafting exhibits and sharing them with the other classes. Elaborate masks were made for Halloween. Ceramics and woodworking were part of their activities. Students were even in charge of how the classroom was decorated.

Similarly, Camp Conestoga not only gave them hands on experiences, but also took them on many memorable trips, camping and backpacking in the Sierras, and even a trip to the Grand Canyon. Locally, they visited places along the coast and in the Santa Barbara backcountry, including trips to Figueroa Mountain, Manzana Creek, and the Sisquoc River.

On one particular trip to Forbush Flats, shortly after the group arrived and set up their bedrolls in the meadow, a bear that had been startled by all the activity dashed through the bedrolls and charged up the creek to the delight and amazement of the students. From then on the place was referred to as Bear Meadow.

Bear Meadow Forbush Flats Camp Conestoga Frank Van Schaik Wilson Wildcats North Cold Spring Trail hiking backpacking Los Padres National Forest

“Bear Meadow” Forbush Flats

In 1951, Dick Smith, who wrote for the Santa Barbara News-Press, joined them on a camping trip to P-Bar Flat along the upper Santa Ynez River and wrote a feature that appeared in the Sunday paper.

Smith later encouraged Van Schaik to write a column for the News-Press. From 1960-1962, Van Schaik wrote Nature Walks; the column featured articles about the natural history of the Santa Barbara region. He also co-authored two books with Smith about our local area, Santa Barbara Backcountry and Beach Walker’s Guide.

In 1962, Van Schaik became the principal at Wilson, which is probably what ended the column. As principal, he strove to bring in the best teachers he could find who brought with them a similar passion for teaching. He had each class elect a student representative, that collectively wrote a constitution for the school.

In 1970, Frank Van Schaik retired as principal of Wilson Elementary School, after 44 years of being actively involved with the school. Several years later Camp Conestoga came to a close.

In 1992, his former students and Camp Conestoga alumni organized a reunion for his birthday at Skofield Park. As part of the gathering, the meadow on the north side of creek was dedicated as Van’s Meadow. A sandstone boulder with a metal plaque commemorates the occasion. Nearby, is a bench honoring his wife who passed away in 2001. Frank Van Schaik passed away in 2006.

The meadow dedicated in his honor, is located across the creek from the main part of the park, and used to be reached by a set of stairs that lead down to the creek. The lower portion of the stairs were washed out during a storm and the route is now closed. However, the meadow can still be reached from Las Canoas Road, along an unpaved access road that starts near the driveway that used to lead to St. Mary’s Seminary.

In some ways it’s now a hidden meadow, just as the oak leaves keep covering up the stone foundation for the stove at Forbush Flats, waiting to be rediscovered by someone curious enough to look for it.

But Frank Van Schaik’s legacy lives on in the lives of those he worked with, the students he taught, and the difference he made in his local community. A gift of presence that is far more lasting.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 24th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Posted by: James Wapotich | June 1, 2019

Trail Quest: Sycamore Canyon Falls

Boney Mountain Ridge Satwiwa Natural Area Rancho Sierra Vista Open Space Point Mugu State Park hike trail Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Boney Mountain is seen from the trail

Part of the Transverse Ranges, the Santa Monica Mountains stretch from Point Mugu to the Hollywood Hills. The western end of the mountains overlook the Conejo Valley, and although this section of the mountains was burned in the 2013 Springs Fire, it was also consequently spared during the 2018 Woolsey Fire.

The hike to Sycamore Canyon Falls, on the northern side of the mountains, is about three miles roundtrip. The hike can be extended by continuing up to an old cabin site and the Danielson Monument, about six miles roundtrip. The hike leads through parts of both Rancho Sierra Vista and Point Mugu State Park.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south, past Camarillo. Continue over the Conejo Grade and exit at Wendy Drive. Head south on Wendy Drive to Lynn Road. Turn right onto Lynn Road and continue towards Via Goleta, and left to enter the park. The trailhead is about an hour from Santa Barbara.

From the Rancho Sierra Vista parking area, follow the unpaved access road that leads over to the Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center. The road leads through an open area dotted with coyote brush and coastal sagebrush, before following a side wash lined with willows. Growing on the low hills next to the wash is laurel sumac and sticky monkey flower in bloom.

At about the quarter of a mile mark, the road the arrives at the intersection with Big Sycamore Canyon Trail. To the left is Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center, and to the right, Big Sycamore Canyon Trail continues toward Point Mugu State Park.

Dominating the view to the south is Boney Mountain. The striking mountain ridge with its volcanic rock summits, peaking out from the chaparral, rises close to 3,000 feet. The mountain overlooks the large open plain where the Chumash village of Satwiwa was located. Satwiwa mean bluffs in Chumash and is a reference to the mountain’s appearance.

The village was located near a trade route that connected the interior area where Newbury Park and Thousand Oaks are now located with the coast. The route followed Sycamore Creek down to the Pacific Ocean. Big Sycamore Canyon Trail follows a similar route and is about 16 miles round trip.

For the shorter hike to the waterfall, continue to the left towards Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center. Outside the main building is a replica of a Chumash ‘Ap, or house. The domed-shaped structure is traditionally built using willow and tule. The Chumash would gather willow, and, after preparing it, plant the base of the poles in the ground forming a circle. The tops of the poles were bent over and lashed to the ones on the opposite side of the circle. Horizontal crosspieces were added to the outside and also lashed in place with willow bark. The frame was then covered with tule or other plants.

The Cultural Center is open Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is staffed by Native American guest hosts or park rangers, and includes an interpretive center and bookstore with resources related to park and its natural history. The center also hosts Native American workshops, presentations, and art shows throughout the year.

From the Cultural Center, I continue along the trail that passes to the east of the pond and leads through Satwiwa Natural Area. Among the plants growing around the pond are tule and mule fat. Already on the hike I’ve seen a variety other plants used by the Chumash.

For example, the fruits from laurel sumac can be pounded and dried in the sun and eaten. Coastal sagebrush was used to cure headaches and also had a number of ceremonial uses. Mule fat can be used as a spindle in conjunction with a hearth board to make friction by fire. Many of these plants are readily available in the environment and it’s a testament to the Chumash’s connection to the natural world that they made use of so many of these plants.

Continuing past the pond, I soon arrive at a four-way intersection, and turn right, knowing that it will connect up with Danielson Road, which leads towards the waterfall.

Just past the intersection, I arrive at a wooden post with a small shelf just large enough for a camera. The post is part of a program that allows park visitors to become citizen scientists and help track and monitor post-fire recovery on the landscape.

In May 2013, the Springs Fire burned over 24,000 acres in just four days before being contained. The fire started near Highway 101 and quickly made its way south towards the ocean before turning east, burning through much of Point Mugu State Park and parts of Rancho Sierra Vista.

Along the trails are 10 of these camera stands, each with instructions inviting visitors to place their camera there and take a picture of the landscape; and then post it on Twitter or Flickr using the hashtag designating which site the picture was taken at, for example #SpringsFire02. The images are gathered by National Parks Service to create a time-lapse view of the landscape’s recovery. For a map of the different locations and more information go to

Continuing up the trail, I arrive at Danielson Road, which also connects back over to Big Sycamore Canyon Trail. From here, Danielson Road continues eastward along the ridge overlooking Sycamore Canyon.

At about the one-mile mark, the road enters Point Mugu State Park and Boney Mountains State Wilderness Area, and starts to descend towards the creek, passing through mostly chaparral, dotted with deer weed, along with some golden yarrow and penstemon.

Point Mugu State Park was created in 1967, with the acquisition of the 6,700-acre Broome Ranch. In 1972, Richard Danielson sold 5,800 acres of Rancho Sierra Vista at one-half its appraised value, effectively doubling the size of the park. In 1981, Boney Mountain State Wilderness Area was created within the park to help preserve the natural features of the area. The wilderness area covers over 6,000 acres.

Both Rancho Sierra Vista and Point Mugu State Park are part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which encompasses more than 150,000-acres and is a mix of parklands and open space preserves. The recreation area was established in 1978, and is administered by National Parks Service.

In 1980, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area purchased the remaining 850 acres of Danielson’s land adjacent to Point Mugu State Park, creating Rancho Sierra Vista Open Space Park.

A map of the trails within Rancho Sierra Vista and Point Mugu State Park can be found online at National Geographic makes a trail map of the Santa Monica Mountains, and there is also a Tom Harrison map of Point Mugu State Park.

Continuing down along Danielson Road into Sycamore Canyon, the trail arrives at the intersection with Upper Sycamore Canyon Trail, which follows the creek downstream and connects back over to Big Sycamore Canyon Trail.

Past the intersection, Danielson Road quickly crosses Sycamore Creek, and continues up the canyon. The trail then branches at an unsigned intersection. Here, a side trail leads up to Sycamore Canyon Falls, while Danielson Road starts to climb out of the canyon on its way to the old cabin site.

The side trail leads a short distance to the base of the falls, which is a series of a half-dozen cascades and pools. The falls are currently flowing, but are perhaps more impressive after a good rain. However, as an added bonus, the creek is home to California newts and watching these rust-colored amphibians make their way along the creek and swimming in the pools can bring a smile.

Although the area was burned in the fire, the creek is still shaded by oaks and sycamores, and growing along the creek, are wild blackberry, scarlet monkey flower, Humboldt lily, ferns, and yes, poison oak.

Returning back to Danielson Road, I start the climb toward the cabin site as the old road cut follows a series of switchbacks. Growing on the hillsides is a profusion of canyon sunflower. Other wildflowers also in bloom along the trail include lupine, morning glory, white and golden yarrow, chaparral pink, and more sticky monkey flower.

The trail then arrives at the intersection with Old Boney Trail. To the reach the cabin site, continue to the left along Danielson Road as returns into upper Sycamore Canyon. Here, the views stretch up the canyon towards Boney Mountain.

The trail crosses the creek, now dry, and then continues up towards an unsigned juncture where the trail splits. To the left is Danielson Monument, and to the right is the chimney from the old cabin.

Danielson Monument features a metal archway and stone patio surrounded by a low stone wall that honors Danielson for his generosity in helping to expand Point Mugu State Park.

The nearby cabin was used by Danielson’s Rancho Sierra Vista as part of its cattle and sheep ranching operation and was also used as a hunting lodge. The cabin was destroyed during the 1956 Hume Fire and wasn’t rebuilt.

From here, an off-trail route continues past the cabin. The rutted and at times steep trail leads to the top of Boney Mountain, for a longer hike of about nine miles roundtrip.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 27th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Rancho Sierra Vista Danielson Monument old cabin site trail Point Mugu State Park Boney Mountain Wilderness Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

A chimney remains from the old cabin in Sycamore Canyon


Posted by: James Wapotich | May 12, 2019

Trail Quest: Deal Junction, Rancho Nuevo Canyon

Deal Junction Camp is located at the confluence of Deal and Rancho Nuevo Creeks and can make for a good overnight backpacking destination that can serve as a base camp for exploring more of the area. The area features some great scenery and represents a transitional zone in some ways. 

The mountain ridge that defines the southern edge of the Rancho Nuevo drainage basin lies between Pine Mountain Ridge and the San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains. The ridge runs west from Pine Mountain Summit and fades out just north of Madulce Camp, which is near Madulce Peak and the San Rafael Mountains, as well as in the same neighborhood as the eastern Sierra Madre Mountains.

The area also marks a transition from the relatively cooler and wetter mountains down into the drier Cuyama Valley. Along the trails are plants from both regions mixed together. In the different canyons are big cone Douglas fir and canyon live oak, as well as pinyon pine and juniper.

The camp is reached by both Deal and Rancho Nuevo Trails. The hike along Deal Trail from State Route 33, is roughly six miles, and from there it’s another 3.5 miles upstream to Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp, as well as roughly two miles downstream to Rancho Nuevo Trailhead. The road to Rancho Nuevo Trailhead is currently closed, which adds another mile and a half to the parking area along State Route 33. A shuttle trip can also be made utilizing the two different trailheads.

To reach the trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north towards the Cuyama Valley. As the route crests Pine Mountain Summit, it makes its way down towards the Cuyama Valley. The Deal Trailhead is about a mile before Ozena Fire Station and the intersection with Lockwood Valley Road; the turnoff for Rancho Nuevo is three miles further along State Route 33.

Joining me for the hike is naturalist Mike Kresky. From the trailhead we make our way up Bear Canyon along Deal Trail. Winter rains have added to the modest flow of water normally found in the creek this time of year.

Along the trail is Great Basin sagebrush, coffeeberry, willow, yerba santa, and ceanothus, plus wildflowers enjoying their own local super bloom. Growing in patches on some of the hillsides are Bigelow’s coreopsis with its yellow flowers, and along the trail are yellow violets and Coulter’s jewel flower.

Most of this area west of the Cuyama River was burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire; and while the chaparral is growing back strong, many of the conifers have not recovered.

At about the mile and a half mark, we arrive at Deal Connector Trail. The trail leads back up to State Route 33. We drop our packs here and follow the connector trail a quarter of a mile to Mine Spur Trail, which leads over to Mine Camp.

Along the connector trail is a vibrant patch of tidy tips in bloom; also in the sunflower family along with Bigelow’s coreopsis.

Arriving at Mine Spur Trail, the old road cut leading to the camp is still evident, although appearing now as more of a single track trail. The route continues up the canyon, transitioning from predominantly chaparral into a mix of big cone Douglas fir and canyon live oak, before arriving at Mine Camp.

The shaded camp features a weathered picnic table and stone fire ring. Nearby is the collapsed cement foundation from a stove likely installed when the camp could be reached by vehicle. An informal trail continues up the creek through the relatively forested canyon. The creek is currently flowing.

The site was used as a base camp by Mr. Deal, who prospected the area searching for uranium. He didn’t find any, but both the trail and nearby canyon were named after him.

Returning back to the main trail, we continue along Deal Trail as it begins its climb up out of the canyon, gaining elevation as it arrives at the saddle overlooking Deal Canyon. Here, the trail enters the Dick Smith Wilderness.

As the trail drops down into Deal Canyon, we start to see more pinyon pines and juniper mixed in with the chaparral. Both plants are more common in the Cuyama Badlands to the northeast.

Reaching the canyon floor, the trail threads its way through chaparral and willow as it continues downstream. The trail through the canyon is in great shape all the way down to the where the canyon narrows thanks to the work of volunteers from Los Padres Forest Association. The somewhat overgrown section through the narrows will likely be cleared within the next year.

Continuing downstream, the trail then arrives at Deal Junction Camp. The camp features a grated stove set in a stone fire ring, and is on a relatively broad flat dotted with yerba santa that rests above the confluence of Deal and Rancho Nuevo Creeks. Here, Deal Trail meets Rancho Nuevo Trail.

From Deal Junction, I continue upstream and day hike towards Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp. The trail is overgrown in places, but generally easy to follow. Winter storms have lowered the creek course since my last visit and the banks at a couple of the crossing are higher than before. Along the creek is willow, wild rose, and the occasional cottonwood, and I again find myself marveling at the absence of poison oak. In bloom along the hillsides are more Bigelow’s coreopsis.

The trail follows the scenic canyon upstream, crossing the creek a number of times. The canyon then visibly narrows and opens up just before arriving at Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp.

The small campsite is tucked in amongst a stand of willows, and features a grated stove and the remnants of an old ice can stove. Currently the creek is flowing near the camp and along the length of the trail.

The last time I visited the canyon I camped at Upper Rancho Nuevo with a friend. It had been a windy night, and hiking back out down the canyon there was still a steady wind blowing up canyon. Just as we were reaching Deal Junction we spotted a black bear grazing on the wild grasses near the camp. It was truly enjoying itself and so engrossed that it didn’t notice us.

While I was busy taking pictures, I thought it’d be great if the bear looked up so I could get a picture of its face and just at the moment the bear paused. Our eyes met and in that moment I came to appreciate just how large the bear was and how it could easily charge towards me. But instead the bear’s expression immediately shifted to utter disappointment, as if its entire day had just been ruined. No longer able to quietly enjoy its buffet of wild grasses, the bear turned and scampered downstream.

Arriving back at camp, Mike and I decide to set up one of the trail cameras I brought. Even though we would only be there one night, it seems worthwhile to see what we might “catch”. An accomplished tracker, Mike selects a spot right along the trail that’s used by both foxes and bobcats.

In the morning, after breakfast, we check the camera and discover that a bobcat passed by in the predawn hours on its way up the canyon.

From Deal Junction, Mike and I make our down through Rancho Nuevo Canyon towards the trailhead. The trail follows the canyon downstream as it starts to narrow into a dramatic gorge. Here, the trail passes through sections of unburned big cone Douglas fir. Along the trail are woodland stars in bloom with their slender stems and white flowers.

As the trail wraps its way through the gorge, riding above the creek, it offers some rich views of the canyon, which is one of the highlights of the hike. Further down along the trail we pass patches of western wallflowers in bloom, most with orange flowers, but a couple with yellow flowers; and then to our surprise we pass a small patch of a half-dozen fire poppies in bloom.

The trail then drops down to the canyon floor, and essentially exits the gorge, and arrives at Rancho Nuevo Campground. The campground features three sites, each with a metal fire ring and grate. From here, the unpaved road leads towards the Cuyama River and State Route 33.

In bloom along the road, interspersed amongst the patches of chaparral are gold fields, also in the sunflower family. At the juncture of Tinta and Rancho Nuevo Roads is a large patch of gold fields dotted with purple owl’s clover adding to the scenery.

The hike along Deal Trail and Rancho Nuevo Trail down to Rancho Nuevo Campground are both part of Condor Trail. The 420-mile long route starts from Lake Piru and traverses the southern Los Padres National Forest utilizing existing trails and roads, before joining California Coastal Trail to connect with the northern Los Padres National Forest, and then completing the traverse through the northern section, ending at Bottchers Gap.

The trail is included in the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act reintroduced by Representative Salud Carbajal and Senator Kamala Harris. The act would designate close to 250,000 acres of land within Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain as protected wilderness and make Condor Trail a National Recreation Trail.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 6th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Cuyama Los Padres National Forest backpacking

Rancho Nuevo Canyon

Deal Junction Camp Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Scenery near Deal Junction Camp

Rancho Nuevo Canyon trail hike dick smith wilderness los padres national forest

Rancho Nuevo Canyon upstream from Deal Juction

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Rancho Nuevo Canyon nearing Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp

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Bobcat making a pre-dawn stroll near Deal Junction

Rancho Nuevo Creek Trail Rancho Nuevo Campground Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Rancho Nuevo Creek nearing Rancho Nuevo Campground

goldfields in bloom rancho nuevo campground cuyama valley los padres national forest

Goldfields in bloom along the road to Rancho Nuevo Campground

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 12, 2019

Trail Quest: Matias Potrero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden 25′ waterfall near Camuesa Connector Trail

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Garter snake

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

Santa Ynez River near Camuesa Connector Trail

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Scenery along the Santa Ynez River near Camuesa Connector Trail

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Pasture and corral near Matias Potrero Camp

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A sea of miner’s lettuce along Paradise Road


Posted by: James Wapotich | April 21, 2019

Trail Quest: Cold Spring Canyon

There is a great love for our local trails, particularly the front country trails which are the easiest to access. Not only are these trails great for a weekend hike to get out into the mountains and explore nature, their proximity to town also makes them convenient for a a quick hike during the week.

When the 2017 Thomas Fire burned through the area, not only was the damage felt, but the closure order enacted on December 10 of that year significantly reduced the number of available trails close to town.

The Thomas Fire at the time was the largest wildfire in recorded California history and burned more than 280,000 acres. The fire started near Thomas Aquinas College, located near Santa Paula, and burned eastward. The fire burned on both the front and back sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and wasn’t contained on the front side until it reached the burn scar of the 2009 Jesusita Fire.

In addition to home and property damage, forest fires also damage local trails. With much of the plant cover burned away there’s little to hold rocks and dirt in place. Trails can become undermined; loose rock and ravel can slide down hillsides burying trails; and downed trees and fallen brush can block trails.

But burn related damage is just half the story, even in a normal year winter rains add to the impact by further moving loose material down the hillsides and washing out creek crossings. However, the devastating debris flow and flooding on January 9 of last year, brought with it a much higher level of destruction. The catastrophic event claimed 23 lives, destroyed homes, and left a visible scar on the community.

The community-wide response has been inspiring, with people working together to overcome and rebuild from damage.

Between the fire and subsequent debris flow and flooding, it was thought by many that the front country trails might remain closed for more than a year. But in a surprise move the Forest Service opened access to the burn area on May 24 of last year, to allow volunteer trail groups to legally enter the burn area and start assessing the damage and begin organizing trail projects.

At the time, both the City and County of Santa Barbara choose to hold off on opening the trails within the forest that are on City and County owned land, including Cold Spring Canyon. By July of last year, both the City and County lifted their closure orders, with the exception of Cold Spring Canyon, although the uppermost portion of the trail on Forest Service land could be accessed from East Camino Cielo Road.

So while volunteers and professional trail crews began restoring our front country trails, Cold Spring Trail remained closed due to additional damage. Where Cold Spring Creek crosses Mountain Drive the debris flow and flooding ripped out the cement crossing and lowered the creek course. A bridge across the creek will need to be installed before the road can be reopened.

Last July, Montecito Trails Foundation, working with the City and County of Santa Barbara arrived at a solution to help restore access to Cold Spring Canyon. Although, the trailhead on Mountain Drive would remain closed, trail users would be able to access the canyon from West Fork Cold Spring Trailhead along Gibraltar Road, and by hiking in from Hot Springs Trailhead to reach East Fork Cold Spring Trail.

The trail work was funded by two anonymous donors, who regularly use the trails and wanted to see them reopened. After several months of trail work, the trail was officially reopened in December. In January, flooding from this year’s rain caused a slide along a section of West Fork Cold Spring Trail, again closing it; but after a reroute, the trail was reopened in March.

High on my own list of places to visit in the canyon was Tangerine Falls. And while winter rains have added to their appeal, the off-trail route to the falls is mostly gone and the base of the falls are now harder to reach.

The shortest route to the falls is from Gibraltar Road, along West Fork Cold Spring Trail, and is about four miles roundtrip. Gibraltar Road starts from the foothills of Santa Barbara, near Sheffield Reservoir Open Space, and leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. About three miles from the beginning, Gibraltar Road arrives at a hairpin turn, and it’s here that the top of West Fork Cold Spring Trail begins.

From the trailhead, the trail drops down into West Fork Cold Spring Canyon. This area was damaged in the 2009 Jesusita Fire and provides a good sense of what 10 years of plant regrowth looks like. Along the trail are ceanothus, holly-leaf cherry, toyon, black sage, and other chaparral plants.

The reroute around the slide damage is well-marked, and just before the trail reaches the canyon floor it transitions into the Thomas Fire burn area. The trail then arrives at West Fork Cold Spring Creek, which is currently flowing. Across the creek is the old Cold Spring Tunnel.

The trail continues down along the creek, and here regrowth from the fire is being charged up by the rain and the coming of spring time. Already in bloom is chaparral pea, purple nightshade, and white fiesta flower, and getting ready for their own potential show is canyon sunflower, elderberry, and even some Humboldt lilies.

The trail then arrives at the turnoff for Tangerine Falls, located just above the confluence of West Fork Cold Spring Creek and Cold Spring Creek. Here, the off-trail route used to cross West Fork Cold Spring Creek and then continue up Cold Spring Creek. Now, however, the best route is to just rock hop up the creek.

The debris flow and flooding from last year, has not only cleared the creek bed of plants, but in many places scoured the creek down to bedrock.

Nevertheless, there are some recognizable features. The first set of small cascades are still picturesque, although the metal pipes that crossed the creek here are now gone, and where the trail used to be on the other side is much higher now that the lower portion has been washed away.

Further up, I arrive at the familiar rock outcrop that used to signal the beginning of the more serious part of the hike. Here, the reduced vegetation makes it easier to see Tangerine Falls, but the flood damage makes the hike the to base of the falls tougher. Approximating the old route along the west side of the creek, additional care is now required to scramble over the boulders and loose dirt.

The overall structure of Tangerine Falls remains unchanged, and seeing them now with all this great water flowing over them is a reminder of not only the beauty of nature, but a reassurance that not everything has changed.

Tangerine Falls can also be reached from Hot Springs Canyon, about nine miles roundtrip. From Hot Springs Trailhead on Mountain Drive, follow Hot Springs Trail up the canyon to the Edison Access Road, and continue west along the unpaved road as it leads up towards what’s known as Montecito Overlook where it meets Cold Spring Trail.

Here, to the right Cold Spring Trail continues up towards Montecito Peak and the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and to the left Cold Spring Trail drops down into a side canyon, before arriving at East Fork Cold Spring Creek, where the trail crosses the creek.

A short ways past this crossing, the trail arrives at the small waterfall and pools found along the creek that have in the past been a popular destination. Here too, the debris flow and flooding have cleared the creek of brush and scoured it down to bedrock, but the same basic features are still recognizable and the small waterfall is actually easier to see.

Further down, the trail arrives at the juncture of West and East Fork Cold Spring Trails. The bench that once overlooked the confluence of West and East Fork Cold Spring Creeks is gone, swept away by the debris flow and flooding, but the trail from here up to the turnoff to Tangerines Falls is in great shape.

The section of trail from where the bench used be down to the trailhead on Mountain Drive is still closed, and will likely remain so until the road is repaired. Before the trailhead can be reopened a bridge will need to be installed across the washed out section of Mountain Drive. Additional work will also need to be done on the road, along with hillside stabilization, and the first part of the trail will need to be repaired or rerouted.

The lower sections of the other front country trails in the burn area are all in good shape, and portions of the upper sections of some trails have also been worked on. It is still a work in progress, but there is a lot more access than there was a year ago; thanks in large part to local agencies and groups working together, and all of the volunteers who have put in time working on the trails, as well as those who have donated funds to help pay for trail building. Our love for these trail is what’s bringing them back.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 1st, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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Tangerine Falls

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Tangerine Falls is seen from the trail that leads above the falls

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The Root Cellar

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Milk Maids

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Purple nightshade buds

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Chaparral pea

Cascades and pools East Fork Cold Spring Creek montecito hike trail thomas fire los padres national forest

Cascades and pools East Fork Cold Spring Creek


Posted by: James Wapotich | April 15, 2019

Trail Quest: Backcountry Gourmet

Backcountry gourmet menu ideas backpacking los padres national forest trail hacks campfire


Although people have been drying meat and fruit since probably before recorded history, the process of dehydrating food didn’t start to see its full application until the second World War when reducing the weight and bulk of food for transportation became important.

In the 1960’s, as interest in backpacking become more popular, campers turned to dehydrated fare for their trips. These meals have several advantages, they’re lightweight, easy to make, take less time to cook, which reduces the amount of fuel one has to carry, and come in a wide variety of flavors.

And yet for all of its functionality and convenience, dehydrated food can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Several years ago, after a dozen different backpacking trips over the course of six months in our local mountains, my taste buds were ready for a change. With more trips coming up later that fall, I was re-inspired to find some satisfying alternatives to dehydrated backpacking food.

In spite of the extra weight, I’ve found that packing in treats can improve morale. Having something that feels more like a home-cooked meal can not only offset the long miles, but help alleviate the mindset that camping is somehow about suffering.

Nevertheless, there’s a balance to be struck; backpacking does require effort, and there are limitations to the scope of one’s kitchen at camp and the types of items that can be easily carried. Over the years, rather than developing recipes, I’ve sought out items that are pre-made or instant and relatively easy to make. I’ve also favored items that don’t have a lot of heavy or bulky packaging that I have to pack out.

A while back a friend shared with me a couple menu ideas from his own trick bag that helped break me out of the perception that the only place to find backpacking food is at a store that sells sporting goods or camping gear. That set me on the path of occasionally wandering the aisles of different grocery stores, searching out and exploring alternative menu ideas for backpacking.

His most versatile idea is to take polenta and instant black bean soup, found in the bulk section of local health food stores, and combine it with chunks of salami, cheese, and sun-dried tomato. While these may sound like mismatched items, the resulting meal is a tasty blend of flavors reminiscent of both pizza and burritos. It’s simple to make adding the polenta and then seasoned, instant black bean flakes to boiling water until it’s cooked, and then adding in the other ingredients to heat them up. Since I often bring salami and cheese to go with crackers for lunches, it’s relatively easy to bring extra for the dinner meal.

His other idea is pre-made Indian food in a foil pouch. Tasty Bites makes a wide range of flavors and Trader Joe’s also has a similar private label selection. Some personal favorites include Bombay potato and Madras lentil. These items pair well with grains such as instant rice or couscous.

Another trick I’ve learned is that Madras lentils is almost like Indian chili, and that combining it with pre-cooked tri-tip can make for a hardy meal in the backcountry. As an alternative to salami, I’ll often bring tri-tip to go with my cheese and crackers for lunch. Pre-cooked tri-tip can be found at a number of stores in Santa Barbara, and will keep well for a couple of days if kept unsliced as a single piece wrapped in tin foil and stored in a resealable bag to keep the juices from leaking out.

One of my favorite backpacking meals is spaghetti and meatballs. The challenge with this item in the past had been how to carry it. Do you pack it in a glass jar or plastic container and hope it doesn’t break or leak? Or do you pour it into a water bottle and hope that the smell and flavor doesn’t permanently effect it?

During one of my many wanders through the grocery store I stumbled across a marvel of modern packaging, marinara sauce in an aseptic tetra pak box. I’ve only found one brand packaged this way and now can only find it at Tino’s Italian Grocery Store or online, but Pomì’s marinara sauce is worth the effort.

The sealed container serves two people and when empty is easy to pack out. The sauce comes fully flavored and only needs to be heated up, and when combined with pasta and pre-cooked meatballs is an amazing backcountry treat. A checkered table cloth is optional, but other items worth bringing along are French bread, parmesan cheese, and red wine. Again, thanks to the wonders of modern packaging it’s easy to find single serving wine in small plastic containers or double servings in similar aseptic boxes.

I’ve also found that bringing gourmet treats with me when my girlfriend joins me on a backpacking trip improves the likelihood of her going on subsequent trips into the backcountry. Whatever long miles I just made her hike will more easily be forgotten with a great meal.

Another item I rediscovered at the grocery store was macaroni and cheese. While this is close in spirit to dehydrated food, it still feels more like a home-cooked meal. This was also staple item from my Boy Scout days when we’d often have macaroni and cheese on the first night of our five-day backpacking trips. For protein we added in a large can of tuna. Today, tuna also comes in an easy to pack foil pouch.

A favorite pastime around the campfire for both my sister and my girlfriend is expressing their dismay around the very notion of adding tuna to macaroni and cheese. This prompts me to remind them that the recipe for tuna casserole, which dates back to at least the 1950s, is essentially noodles and tuna. For added effect, I’ll mention that some recipes even include sprinkling crumbled potato chips on top; this usually establishes who has the better sense of taste and allows us to move on to a different topic.

A recent addition to my trick bag is backcountry tacos. These are surprisingly easy to make. I use instant rice and black bean soup or dehydrated bean flakes, which give the tacos more substance, and then add tri-tip I’ve heated up. My favorite tortillas are a blend of corn and flour, which are easier to heat up and more pliable than corn tortillas. For garnishes I use cheese, along with fresh onion and cilantro. Instead of bringing a bottle of hot sauce or small packets from fast food restaurants, I’ve found that several stores now carry salsa in small, plastic single-use containers.

Sometimes I’ll bring fresh eggs, which is an easy way to take any leftovers from the tacos the night before and repurpose them into breakfast burritos. Eggs can be tricky to carry, but they will stay fresh if unopened. Powdered eggs are easy to find anywhere dehydrated backpacking food is sold, but in terms of flavor and consistency, for me they’re nowhere near the same.

The closet thing I’ve found to real eggs, and by closest I mean halfway between powdered eggs and real eggs, is Ova Easy egg crystals, which can be found at REI and online. For the best results mix the egg crystals and water the night before, this allows the eggs to rehydrate more thoroughly and cook up fluffier. Pre-cooked sausage pairs well with scrambled eggs and will keep for a couple of days.

I remember when Starbucks first introduced their own instant coffee, I wished I was an avid coffee drinker just so I could write a review. But I do enjoy a good mocha, and their single-serving packets make for an easy way to have backcountry mochas. There are several tricks to making a good mocha, first and foremost is milk, which I discovered after trying to mix instant coffee with just instant hot chocolate.

The second and equally important is deciding what type of mocha drinker you are. Do you prefer coffee with some hot chocolate or hot chocolate with some coffee? If it’s the latter, then the trick is to start with chocolate milk and add to it some powdered hot chocolate to make it extra chocolatey. Again, thanks to modern packaging, single-serving milk can be found in aseptic tetra pak boxes that don’t require refrigeration.

Whipped cream still has a way to go before it’ll be easy to carry into the backcountry. Trader Joe’s makes whipping cream in aseptic tetra pak boxes, but it takes a lot of work to whip it to the right consistency without a mixer.

As an alternative, my girlfriend will just add marshmallows to her mocha, which to me just seems wrong, but I’ve noticed that out in the wild there’s a certain lawlessness that can take hold of some people.

But the real key to creating good backpacking fare is to remember that it’s about finding ways to bring along what you enjoy and deciding when the weight tradeoff makes sense.

Article appears in section A of the March 18th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

This article draws on in part from a blog post I made in 2014, which can be seen here, plus three other food related posts I drafted but never got around to posting. I may add those other three at some point since they include addition menu ideas that I didn’t have room for in the article.

Bonus points if you can name the camp featured in the photo at the top of this post.

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