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.

Tangerine Falls trail closure thomas fire cold spring trail montecito hike santa barbara Los Padres National Forest

Tangerine Falls

Above tangerine falls thomas fire cold spring trail canyon montecito santa barbara los padres national forest

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

Root Cellar thomas fire above tangerine falls cold spring canyon los padres national forest

The Root Cellar

Mild Maids cold spring canyon hike montecito trail los padres national forest

Milk Maids

purple nightshade buds cold spring canyon thomas fire regrowth montecito los padres national forest

Purple nightshade buds

chaparral pea thomas fire regrowth montecito hike los padres national forest

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.

Posted by: James Wapotich | April 11, 2019

Trail Quest: Wellhouse Falls

It’s been close to 40 years since my last visit to Wellhouse Falls in Lewis Canyon, near Knapp’s Castle, back when I was a Boy Scout.

My first introduction to the local backcountry was through Scout Troop 15, which met at Washington School. We were one of the few troops that regularly backpacked in Los Padres National Forest; and I was fortunate that the pack master of our troop, Donald Becker, Jr., had already been leading trips for 25 years when I joined. His knowledge of the backcountry was impressive; he had hiked many of the trails, and knew the different plants and lore of the places we visited.

Each spring, we would go on 5-, 10-, and 20-mile overnight backpacking trips, to build up stamina and get ready for our 5-day, 50-mile backpacking trip we did over spring break. By the time I joined, many of our 50-mile trips where to remote places in the Dick Smith Wilderness, and so my first treks were to some of the more hard to reach and seldom visited places, which only added to the appeal of being out there.

Almost every year we would visit Knapp’s Castle on our 5-mile backpacking trip. We would start from East Camino Cielo Road and hike the length of Snyder Trail down to Paradise Road, and from there continue to Fremont Campground, where we would spend the night.

At Knapp’s Castle, Mr. B., as we affectionately called him, would break out the topographic maps and teach us about orienteering, making use of the exceptional views of the Santa Ynez River Valley and San Rafael Mountains the site provides.

As part of the hike, we would make a side visit to Wellhouse Falls. The trail was in fair shape on my first visit, however, the subsequent year strong winter rains washed out a section of the trail, and we had to scramble across the slide to reach the falls. The next year additional rains washed away more of the trail, making the route impassable. After that, we stopped visiting the falls.

I would draw on those earlier experiences in the backcountry when I returned to backpacking years later, not only as a foundation for my own wilderness skills, but also as a rich resource of what our backcountry has to offer.

But every once in a while I would wonder about Wellhouse Falls. Was it still inaccessible? Over the years, I tried a couple times to reach the falls, but was always turned back by a wall of brush.

This time however, aided by technology, I was inspired to try a different approach. After studying old topographic maps online, I could see that there used to be an old road that went almost to the falls. Comparing those maps to Google satellite images, I could see that the first, short section of the route was still visible on the landscape, but died out just as it reached what looked like a small, overgrown side wash or ravine that led down into Lewis Canyon. If that side wash wasn’t too badly choked with brush, I thought, it might provide a way to reach the creek, and from there, hike up to the falls.

Inspired by the bounty of recent rain, I make my way to the top of Snyder Trail. The trail follows an unpaved access road down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains. At about the half-mile mark, the trail branches with a side road leading over to Knapp’s Castle, the ruins of George Owen Knapp’s mountain lodge.

The Chairman of Union Carbide and Carbon Company, Knapp took up residence in Santa Barbara in 1912. Four years later, he purchased the homestead of Thomas Lewis to build a mountain lodge, one of several he owned in our mountains. Knapp was also instrumental in moving forward the construction of East Camino Cielo Road, donating funds, so as to more easily access the site.

In 1940, he sold the property to Frances Holden, who lived there with her friend Lotte Lehman for just five weeks before the Paradise Canyon Fire burned through the area, leaving just the chimneys and stone work. The site remains on private property, but is open to the public at the discretion of the current owners. Please be respectful of private property.

After a brief visit to Knapp’s Castle taking in the sights and reminiscing about the backcountry, I return to Snyder Trail, which continues along the main unpaved access road. The road leads through a mix of toyon, ceanothus, holly-leaf cherry, and chamise.

As I reach where the power lines cross the trail, I pause in the nearby meadow to get some water from my pack. Sensing that someone is watching me, I turn and see a young bobcat looking at me. With plenty escape routes available to it, the bobcat seems content to just watch as I continue down the trail.

bobcat snyder trail knapp's castle hike santa ynez mountains los padres national forest


As the trail rounds another bend along the ridge, the access road ends and Snyder Trail continues as a single-track trail. From here, the access road used to continue down into Lewis Canyon.

What’s left now is an overgrown trail that sees very little use. I follow the old road cut as it quickly disappears into the brush, turning into more of a gully where the water has eroded it. The faint trace of the road ends right at the slide area, which is also near the top of the ravine I saw in the Google satellite images.

The side wash is steep and rocky, but I’m able to follow the dry watercourse, threading through the chaparral relatively easily, at least until I reach a dry waterfall. After carefully scrambling down its rocky face, I continue through the now more overgrown ravine, ducking under brush and overcoming several more obstacles, before arriving at the canyon floor.

Feeling some relief at being in the slightly more open creek bed, I continue upstream and quickly arrive at a waterfall, not Wellhouse Falls, but one of several cascades along the creek. The waterfall is too high and steep to easily scale and so I backtrack and find a route around it.

Further upstream, I arrive at the remains of what may have been the pump house that was used to bring water up to the lodge. It’s been said that Knapp, not content with the seasonal nature of the falls, would also release water over Wellhouse Falls to entertain guests; and that he also built a viewing platform, and even installed lights and speakers to illuminate the falls at night and pipe down organ music from the house.

Continuing up the creek, I arrive at another waterfall. This one I recall seeing before. From here, the trail used to continue up to the left to reach Wellhouse Falls. I remember the excitement we had as scouts racing to reach our destination, and my sense of discovery at seeing the falls for the first time.

Recently, I visited with the parents of my sister’s best friend, Sonya Knapp (no relation to George Owen Knapp). Her parents, Walter and Ingeborg, immigrated from Germany after World War 2, meeting and marrying in the United States. Carrying on a family tradition from Germany, the Knapp family hiked every Sunday. Hearing Mr. Knapp’s fondness for our local trails and his appreciation for being able to revisit so many places through my writing was an inspiration to just keep hiking and enjoying the outdoors.

Afterwards something about the old world charm of their house and welcome reminded me of a dream I had many years ago about my grandfather who was from Slovenia. In the dream I was in my grandfather’s house, but what was unusual was that there were volumes and volumes of books about the mountains and scenery of Slovenia.

My grandfather immigrated to the United States after the first World War, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where he met and married my grandmother, who was from another small town in Slovenia. He was very active in the local Slovenian community and often went back to the old country to see relatives, but I have no recollection of him mentioning how beautiful the scenery was. Seeing the volumes of books in the dream made me wonder if what he missed most was the land itself.

My grandfather was a bit of a workaholic, so completely focused on building a better life for himself and his family that he sometimes forgot to just enjoy life. The thought of him perhaps longing for the mountains of Slovenia and not even knowing it, made me aware of my own tendency to become over-focused and even lose sight of what I’m working towards. Not taking time to relax and enjoy things until I’ve completed all of my tasks, which can seem like a never-ending list. That dream in part led me to take a more balanced approach to life; to spend more time in nature and enjoy life now, rather than waiting until I’ve achieved all of my goals.

Scrambling up the last bit of old trail, I arrive at the base of Wellhouse Falls, which is at the end of short, box canyon dotted with alder trees. Not seeming to recall any specific features from previous visits, my senses instead shift to soaking in the scenery and the timelessness of the moment.

Alone in the canyon, watching the water flow gracefully over the rock wall, the falls seem more golden and majestic to me now, and I’m reminded of the words of T. S. Elliot, “and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 4th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Wellhouse Falls Lewis Canyon Knapp's Castle Snyder Trail hike Santa Ynez Mountain Los Padres National Forest

Wellhouse Falls

Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2019

Trail Quest: Cardwell and Harris Points, San Miguel Island

Harris Point hike San Miguel Island Channel Island National Park

Harris Point

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the Northern Channel Islands, and in some ways the most remote.

There are three ranger or docent led hikes on San Miguel Island. The long hike out to Point Bennett, about 14 miles roundtrip, and two relatively shorter hikes to Cardwell and Harris Points, both about six miles each roundtrip.

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

The campground on the island features nine campsites, each with a picnic table, metal food storage box, and low wind break. Reservations are made through There is an outhouse, but no potable water and little shade. Visitors must bring all the water they’ll need for the duration of their stay. A half-mile trail from the harbor leads to the campground and continues up towards the ranger station.

The hike to Cardwell Point starts from the ranger station and heads southeast, passing through non-native grassland dotted with coyote brush, giant coreopsis, lupine, and dudleya. The views eastward extend out towards Santa Rosa Island. The trail then arrives at a bluff overlooking a remote beach. Here, crouching on the bluff, visitors can watch California sea lions and Northern elephant seals hauled out on the beach below. The spot offers some of the best viewing on the islands.

Northern elephant seals spend most of their time in the water. They migrate twice a year to forage for food, diving underwater. They can stay under for up to two hours and reach depths as much as a mile; and feed on squid, octopus, and a variety of fish. They spend just ten percent of their time on land, typically in large groups, either to molt, between April and August, or during the breeding season from December through March.

Northern elephants seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s for their blubber which was used to produce oil for lamps. Only a small population of 40-100 remained on Guadalupe Island off of Mexico. From this group, Northern elephant seals have since recovered to over 175,000. Their range extends along the Pacific Coast from Baja California to Alaska. Northern elephant seals can be found on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara Islands, where they benefit from the relative isolation these islands provide.

During the last ice age, when the sea level was 300-400 feet lower, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. Between 11,000-9,500 years ago, rising sea levels inundated the lowlands of Santarosae creating the four separate islands we see today.

The earliest evidence of man on the island dates back 13,000 years ago at Arlington Springs, on what is now Santa Rosa Island, when Santarosae was still a single island. The remains are some of the oldest found in North America.

There are two theories on how native people first reached North America from Asia. The one probably most familiar to many of us is that during the last ice age, people crossed the land bridge between Siberia and North America that was created by lower sea levels, following big game herds such as mammoths and mastodons. They continued south through an ice-free corridor as the glaciers began to retreat, dispersing out across the vast expanse of North America and into South America.

Another theory suggests that native people followed the coast around the North Pacific, that was also relatively free of ice, following what has been dubbed the “kelp highway” and utilizing the resources provided by kelp forests and found along the coast.

The early Chumash were likely drawn to Santarosae for these same resources. They journeyed to the island using boats made from tule reeds bundled together, traveling when the sea was calm. The might’ve left the mainland near what is now Point Mugu where the distance to the island was the shortest, arriving near what is now Anacapa Island.

Santarosae featured a broad coastal plain, plenty of marine sea life to hunt and fish, and shellfish to harvest, as well as reliable water in enough locations to make remaining on the island feasible. Over time villages arose. There are 21 recorded village sites on the northern Channel Islands.

Roughly 1,500 years ago, the Chumash developed their wooden-plank canoe or tomol, which dramatically increased both trade and social interactions between the islands and the mainland, and along the coast.

Chumash territory extended from Malibu to Morro Bay, out to the northern Channel Islands, and inland to the Carrizo Plain. Within that area were eight language groups, collectively referred to as Chumash by ethnographers. It’s estimated that prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there were roughly 22,000 Chumash and about 150 village sites.

A pivotal moment in history for the Chumash and California was Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542, just 50 years after Columbus’ arrival in North America.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was commissioned by the Viceroy of New Spain to lead an expedition up the Pacific Coast to find new trade opportunities and search for the fabled Strait of Anian, or Northwest Passage, that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and provide a more direct route to China.

In June of 1542, Cabrillo left the Mexican port of Navidad with three ships, the flagship San Salvador, which he built, plus the smaller La Victoria and San Miguel. In September, the expedition arrived at what is now San Diego, marking the first European landfall in California.

Cabrillo, then visited Catalina and San Clemente Islands, as well as San Pedro and Santa Monica Bays, before arriving at the Northern Channel Islands, anchoring at San Miguel Island in Cuyler Harbor. They spent a week at the islands before continuing north to Point Conception. The expedition sailed as far north as Point Reyes, possibly reaching the Russian River before turning back, missing both times the entrance to San Francisco Bay, which wasn’t sighted by Europeans until Portola’s expedition in 1769.

There are differing accounts of Cabrillo’s journey as the expedition’s official report was lost and all that remains is a summary made later by investigators using the ship’s logs and charts. Cabrillo is said to have broken a limb, which became infected and developed gangrene. In one version Cabrillo fell and broke his arm, and died on San Miguel Island. In another, Cabrillo splintered his shin while going ashore on Catalina Island to save his men during an attack by Tongva Indians and died there.

After his passing in January of 1543, Cabrillo’s second in command, Bartolome Ferrer, led the expedition back to Mexico.

A monument to Cabrillo was erected on San Miguel Island in 1937, and is just below the campground; a short side trail leads to the stone cross which overlooks Cuyler Harbor.

While Cabrillo’s expedition was the first into the area, it wasn’t until Portola’s expedition 227 years later in 1769, that missionaries and settlers began to arrive in California.

Diseases brought by Europeans decimated the Chumash, and the introduction of the mission system, which sought to convert and assimilate them, slowly separated the Chumash from their traditional ways and culture.

During the 1820s, the last remaining Chumash living on the islands were removed.

In 1833, following the Mexican Revolution of 1821, the Mexican government secularized the missions. The Mission’s land holdings in Alta California, which accounted for about a sixth of the land area, were broken up and either sold off or given away by the Governors, often to friends and associates as reward for their service.

After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States agreed to honor these land grants in the new California Territory. Over the years, a number of these ranchos were purchased from the original Mexican families by businessmen and families from the United States, including the ranchos on both Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.

These ranching operations, along with leases on the other the islands, marked the beginning of the ranching era on the islands, with the islands experiencing and now recovering from the affects of overgrazing.

Today, the Northern islands are part of Channel Islands National Park, which includes, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and the eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Islands. For more information about the park, go to

The third hike on San Miguel Island is to Harris Point. The hike starts below the turnoff to the Cabrillo Monument, along the trail down to the harbor. Here, a side trail crosses Nidever Canyon and continues along the bluff, offering exceptional views out across Cuyler Harbor and towards Prince Island. The hike then continues out towards Harris Point, threading its way through predominantly lupine, interspersed with giant coreopsis, dudleya, and island poppy. The trail ends at Lester Point, which offers views of Simonton Cove and out towards Harris Point.

Gazing out at the point and listening to the wind and surf, while watching the waves roll in, it’s possible to imagine the features of Santarosae and the accomplishments of the first people to live there. And to imagine the forests and pristine coastline of this now submerged super island, and even marvel at the diversity of nature and its ever-changing landscapes.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 18th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

California Sea Lions Northern Elephant Seals Cardwell Point hike San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

California sea lions and Northern elephant seals


Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2019

Trail Quest: Point Bennett, San Miguel Island

Prince Island Cuyler Harbor Beach hiking camping San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Prak

Prince Island frames a view of Cuyler Harbor

20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, when the sea level was 300-400 feet lower than today, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were part of a larger, single island called Santarosae.

Santarosae featured a broad coastal plain, as well as rich offshore kelp forests. During the last ice age the climate was wetter and cooler, more akin to northern California today; and conifers such as Douglas fir, Gowan cypress, and Bishop pine grew on the island.

This super island was four times the size of the islands today, covering roughly 829 square miles. It was about 79 miles long and at its closest point was just 4-5 miles from the mainland.

An imagined traverse of the island might’ve started at the eastern end of Santarosae, and either followed the coastal plain or made its way over the relatively narrow ridge of what is now Anacapa Island, before reaching what is now Santa Cruz Island.

Santarosae’s highest peak would’ve likely been Mount Diablo, now part of Santa Cruz Island. From there, a traverse westward would’ve continued across the lowlands separating Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands, and then across Santa Rosa Island to reach the comparatively flat San Miguel Island.

Around 11,000 years ago the islands began to “break apart” as the sea level rose. Anacapa was the first to go, becoming a separate island roughly 10,300 to 10,900 years ago. Around 9,400 to 9,700 years ago, Santa Cruz Island separated from the still connected Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, which became separate roughly 300 years later.

The oldest human remains found on the islands at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island date back 13,000 years ago. The early Chumash would’ve potentially been able to make a traverse of Santarosae, and visited and lived on the island as it slowly separated into the four islands we know today.

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the Channel Islands, and in some ways the most remote. San Miguel, along with Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara Islands, are now part of Channel Islands National Park.

The easiest way to reach the island today is through Islands Packers out of Ventura,, which offers boat rides to all five of the islands within the national park. The boat ride is roughly 3-4 hours long.

Arriving at Cuyler Harbor just as the fog starts to clear, it’s hard to place exactly where I am. It’s a strange juxtaposition, imagining a traverse of Santarosae while traveling by car and boat in order to reach a remnant of this now submerged super island. Here, with its crystal clear waters and nearly white-looking beach, the pristine beauty of the island combined with the timelessness of nature, makes it easy to forget the modern world, and yet at the same time so much has happened since the last ice age.

With no pier at San Miguel Island, we are ferried ashore in rubber skiffs in groups of six. On the beach we are greeted by Susie, one of the volunteer docents, who provides an orientation for visitors to the island.

Gathering my gear, plus the three and half gallons of water I’m carrying for the duration of my stay, I make my way to the campground, essentially backpacking there. The half-mile trail from the beach climbs up a large dune and then makes its way up the eastern side of Nidever Canyon, passing through a large stand of giant coreopsis before arriving at the campground. From the campground, the trail continues a short ways to the ranger station.

The campground features nine sites, each with a picnic table; a food storage box to keep items safe from foxes, ravens, and mice; and a low wooden wind break, which provides some shelter from the steady wind that blows across the island. No campfires are allowed, only cook stoves. There is an outhouse, but no potable water anywhere on the island and so visitors must bring what they’ll need. There is little shade on the island, which is only partially offset by the frequent fog.

Visitors are allowed to hike the trail from beach to the ranger station, as well as the roughly two-mile long beach at Cuyler Harbor unescorted, but the rest of hikes require a docent or ranger present.

There are three docent led hikes on San Miguel Island. Cardwell Point to the southeast and Harris Point to the north are both about six miles each roundtrip. And the big hike west to Point Bennett, which is about 14 miles roundtrip. All hikes start from the ranger station.

The hike to Point Bennett follows an old Navy road that has become overgrown, appearing now as mostly a single track trail. The trail passes through grassland dotted with lupine, coyote bush, dudleya, and loco weed.

At about the one-mile mark, the trail summits San Miguel Hill, the highest point on the island, rising just 831 feet above sea level. The site once served as a WWII lookout station and now features instruments for gathering weather data. From here, the trail descends down to what’s referred to as Sand Blast Pass, before arriving at the turnoff to the Caliche Forest.

A short side trail leads to the viewing area that looks out across a sandy field dotted with 2-3 foot tall casts of conifer trees that grew on the island during the last ice age. The casts are related to the white sandy beach and dunes at Cuyler Harbor.

While most of the beaches in California are composed of silicates such as quartz and feldspar and have that distinctive tan or light brown color, the beaches on the north shore of San Miguel Island are made from mostly carbonate material. Carbonate sands are formed from the broken up skeletal remains of marine invertebrates deposited offshore on the insular shelves of the islands. Carbonate, white sandy beaches are more common in tropical and subtropical waters.

In fact, the Channel Islands represent the northernmost place in North America where carbonate dunes occur. One contributing factor is there are no large rivers on the islands carrying enough silicate material to dilute the carbonate material being deposited, allowing it to build up over the millennia. During the last ice age, when the sea level was lower, the exposed material was carried inland by the wind where it formed dunes.

As trees on the island decomposed their trunks and root systems became filled with sand creating molds of the trees. When mixed with rain, the carbonate material dissolves, percolating down through the soil, cementing the particles and creating casts over the trunk and root molds that we see today.

Continuing past the Caliche Forest, the trail makes its way towards Green Hill, the second highest point on the island at 817 feet of elevation. The trail crests the side of the hill, before continuing out towards Point Bennett.

At about the 5-mile mark, the trail arrives at an airstrip, located in a dry lake bed, which is used to bring in supplies and personnel for the marine mammal research station. From here, the trail follows the road from the airstrip to the station.

At the research station, we pause, while Susie gathers binoculars and a field scope to more easily view the pinnipeds at Point Bennett, which we can already hear in the distance.

From the research station, we continue another mile as the trail threads its way down to an overlook that offers views out across the beach at Point Bennett. The point is essentially a large rock outcropping connected by a sandy spit. The adjoining and nearby beaches regularly see large numbers of elephant seals, northern fur seals, California sea lions, and harbor seals sunning themselves, as well as cavorting, mating, and in some cases sparring amongst themselves. Stellar’s sea lion and Guadalupe fur seals also occasionally visit the island, making Point Bennett one of the largest and most diverse pinniped rookeries in the world.

From here, Santarosae at its largest extended northwest roughly another 12 miles. During the last ice age, all eight of the Channel Islands were larger and covered more area, but only the four northern islands off our coast were connected together.

In addition to the islands and islets off Southern California that we know today, the lower sea level during the last ice age created additional islands that remain now as shallow seamounts or banks. These submerged islands include Osborn, Tanner, and Cortes Banks that are part of the southern Channel Islands.

In 1999, while looking at newly created topographic maps of the sea floor of the channel, local geologist and UCSB professor Ed Keller observed the features of what may have been an island located halfway between what is now Santa Cruz Island and Santa Barbara. Named Calafia, the island was roughly 1.25 miles long, comparable in size to eastern Anacapa Island today, but at most rose only 30 feet above the sea. The island became submerged roughly 16,000 years ago, but may have served as a stopover for animals such as the Columbian mammoth on their way out to Santarosae.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 4th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Cuyler Harbor Nediver Canyon hiking camping San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

Cuyler Harbor is seen from the trail leading up Nediver Canyon

Point Bennett hike San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

Point Bennett

California Sea Lions Point Bennett hike San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

California sea lions are seen at Point Bennett


Posted by: James Wapotich | February 7, 2019

Backpacking Made Easy

backpacking class santa barbara hike trails los padres national forest maps camping gear nature outdoors route finding


Backpacking class santa barbara hiking trails los padres national forest backcountry adventuring


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

This class is unique in that all classes take place out on our local trails and not in a classroom, as the best place to learn wilderness skills is outside in nature.

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

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

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

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

Nature connection is also a big part of our time out on the land. For many of us, the aliveness of the natural world is what makes it worthwhile to invest the time and energy to head out into the backcountry, not the exercise from carrying gear. Feeling a deeper sense of connection and immersion in the elements is often the real payoff for being outdoors.

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

Backpacking Made Easy
Saturdays, March 23 – April 6

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

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

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

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

Lay of the Land
March 23rd 9AM-3PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the local landscape, and begin learning the skills and awareness that will help you remove the word lost from your vocabulary. Become familiar with maps and creating your own mental maps and how to navigate without a compass or GPS. Learn about the different gear options and how to choose equipment that suits you.

Nature Connection
March 30th 9AM-3PM

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

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

April 6th 9AM-3PM

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

Optional Free
Overnight Backpacking Trip
April 13-14

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

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


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

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

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

To sign up or for more information please contact:

James (805) 729-4250
Sierra (805) 708-4058

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 26, 2019

Hiking & Backpacking on the Channel Islands

Hiking & Backpacking Channel Islands National Park Anacapa Santa Cruz Santa Rosa San Miguel


Hiking & Backpacking on the Channel Islands

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

Thursday, February 21st, 6:30PM
Faulkner Gallery – Santa Barbara Public Library
40 East Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, CA

During the last ice age, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were all part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. This talk will highlight the hiking and backpacking opportunities on these four islands today, as well as describe an imagined traverse of the now submerged super island of Santarosae.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from hiking, backpacking, and camping on the four islands off our coast. James has hiked many of the trails on the islands and has visited all five islands within Channel Islands National Park. 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, March 21st, Ultralight Backpacking and Gear with Lite Hikers Rik Christensen and Paul Cronshaw.

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 26, 2019

5 Favorite hikes from 2018

I don’t normally do Top 10 lists, but felt inspired to name my five favorite hikes from 2018.

#5 Lion Canyon Trail [post Thomas Fire] – On Memorial Day, I hiked Lion Canyon Trail, behind Ojai in Rose Valley. The area was burned during the Thomas Fire and wasn’t reopened to public access until May 24. It was definitely a hot hike due to the lack of shade and time of year, but there was still water in the pools at East & West Fork Lion Falls to cool off in. 

While seeing the burn area and its impact, combined with the subsequent rains on the landscape was interesting, the real highlight of the hike was all the wildflowers, both fire-followers and the regular spring bloom all benefiting from the ash-enriched soil and lack of competition for sunlight and other resources. It was also cool to see all the bear tracks and other evidence of wildlife activity, including an in person encounter with a rattlesnake that had 11 rattles on its tail. See Trail Quest: East and West Fork Lion Falls.

East and West Fork Lion Canyon Falls trail hike backpacking Thomas Fire burn area regrowth Sespe Wilderness Ojai Los Padres National Forest

Lion Canyon

#4 Lopez Canyon Trail – Earlier in the year, with many of the trails in the Thomas Fire burn area still closed, I ventured north into San Luis Obispo County for two articles on the Santa Lucia Wilderness. In May, I made a loop hike visiting both Big and Little Falls for the first article, and then two weeks later, returned to hike Lopez Canyon Trail with my friend Casey for the second article.

Lopez Canyon is an amazingly lush canyon. Located just behind the mountains along the coast, it features a rich riparian corridor. The year round creek is lined with mostly dogwood, and growing along the canyon floor is lots of madrone, sycamore, willow, and maple. Higher up in the canyon, in addition to madrone, is sword fern and tanbark oak. And still higher up along the trail is Bishop pine.

In Santa Barbara County, dogwood, madrone, sword fern, tanbark oak, and bishop pine are all considered relic plants from a time when southern California was wetter and cooler and so it was great to see them all here as part of the landscape in San Luis Obispo Country.

In addition to all the great plants, the canyon features two trail camps and several picturesque cascades, and doesn’t seem to see that many visitors. See Trail Quest: Santa Lucia Wilderness, Part 2

Lopez Canyon Trail cascade Potrero Creek Santa Lucia Wilderness hike backpacking San Luis Obispo

Lopez Canyon Cascade near the confluence with Potrero Creek

#3 Fir Canyon – I never thought this would become one of my favorite hikes, but the first mile of Davy Brown Trail down from Figueroa Mountain Road is a rich, diverse world unto itself.

The canyon features a year round, intermittently flowing creek, lined with alder and maple, and shaded by big cone Douglas fir. In the autumn, the maple and alder leaves turn gold and orange adding to the scenery. The canyon also supports a rich array of wildlife, including bear, mountain lion, fox, and bobcat.

On one particular hike in the fall, after it had rained, Sierra and I counted more than two dozen banana slugs along the trail, including a group of four at one of the creek crossings. It was also on that same visit that I first noticed dogwood growing in the canyon. During the Thomas Fire, we made a hike there to escape all the smoke in Santa Barbara, and found a dead band-tail pigeon along the trail that became part of the inspiration for an article I later wrote about my own reflections on the fire. See Trail Quest: Through smoke and fire.

This past year I’ve made close to a dozen hikes there for various reasons including a two-part article on Ranger Edgar Davison. Part 1 covers the hike through Fir Canyon, see Trail Quest: The Trails of Edgar Davison, Part 1, and Part 2 covers the trails through Munch and White Rock Canyons. Davison was one of the first forest rangers in our local mountains and built the trail down through Fir Canyon, along with several other nearby trails.

great horned owl fir canyon hike davy brown trail figueroa mountain los padres national forest

Great horned owl in Fir Canyon

Cascade pool Fir Canyon Davy Brown Trail Los Padres National Forest

Cascade and pool along Davy Brown Creek

#2 Backcountry Beach Camping on Santa Rosa Island – In October, I did a 4-day solo trip on Santa Rosa Island as part of a series of articles on the islands. During the last Ice Age, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were all part of one single, larger island called Santarosae. The series highlights the hiking and backpacking opportunities on the islands as part of an imagined traverse across Santarosae. 

What impressed me the most about this particular hike was all the subtle ways it reminded me of backpacking in the backcountry, but on the islands. I’ve backpacked on both Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands before, but this time it had even more of that wilderness feel.

The first day I backpacked to Cow Canyon on the north shore, the second day I made a traverse across the island to La Jolla Vieja Canyon on the south shore, and the third day I backpacked from there to Water Canyon Campground. The second day was the toughest of the three and included a section following a largely non-existent trail and another section that was overgrown with wild grasses. Originally I was worried about hiking all day in the exposed sun, but instead mid-afternoon fog and wind had me soaked and leaning into the wind so as not to get knocked over. By the time I arrived at La Jolla Vieja Canyon it was after dark, and when I got there I discovered that elephants seals were hauled out on the beach where I’d intended to camp and had to improvise an alternative.

The combined experience of route finding, cross-country hiking, dealing with the elements, hiking in the dark, scrambling to find a place to camp, and hiking up different creeks to find water to filter was just a great adventure and reminiscent of the challenges of hiking in our local wilderness, all combined with the rich scenery of the islands. See Trail Quest: Black Mountain, Santa Rosa Island

Lobo Canyon Santa Rosa Island hike trail Channel Islands National Park

Lobo Canyon

#1 Birabent Canyon to Manzana Creek – The middle section of La Jolla Trail had been on my mind for some time and eventually grew into a great idea for a shuttle backpacking trip. In fact, I would count Birabent Canyon up there with Fir Canyon as one of my favorite places in the western San Rafael Mountains.

In 2012, I tried to find the middle section of La Jolla Trail between the canyon floor and the upper meadow, about a mile below the top of the mountains. I hiked the trail from both the bottom and the top, but couldn’t connect the two pieces and had to let it go at that. The trail was damaged in the 1993 Marre Fire and it seemed like the middle section was now lost to regrowth. See Trail Quest: The Search for the La Jolla Trail.

Then in 2016, on one of my subsequent visits, I noticed someone had worked a short segment of the first section coming up out of the canyon, which was enough to get me started. From there I was able to piece together and route-find the rest of the damaged trail and reach the upper meadow. See the description at the bottom of Trail Quest: Ballard Camp.

While I was out there I was struck by the inspiration to come back later and hike the trail as part of a backpacking trip. The idea was to follow the trail to the top of the mountains and then come down Zaca Springs Trail, which I hadn’t hiked since 2011; tie into Cedros Saddle Trail, a mile-long trail I’d yet to hike; and then take Sulphur Springs Trail and hike out along Manzana Creek.

In 2018, the idea solidified while I was reading Ranger Edgar Davison’s journal. In it he references what he called “Cascade Canyon”, a feature that isn’t shown on any map I could find. However, based on his description of it as “the narrow and precipitous outlet of two large canyons through the south wall of the Manzana” I was able to determine that it was likely just upstream from Coldwater Camp, and so with that last piece I felt called to head out and connect up these various destinations.

Curt Cragg proved to be the perfect partner in crime for the hike, not only was he interested in seeing the somewhat fabled middle section of La Jolla Trail, but as the founder of Santa Barbara County Outdoor Foundation he had also installed most of the trail signs in the Zaca Ridge/Zaca Lake area, including along Zaca Springs and Cedros Saddle Trails, and was curious to see how they were holding up.

In April, we hit the trail for the overnight trek that turned into a two-part article. See Trail Quest: La Jolla Trail to Manzana Creek, Part 1 for a description of the hike along La Jolla Trail, and Trail Quest: La Jolla Trail to Manzana Creek, Part 2 for Cascade Canyon and the hike along Manzana Creek.

La Jolla Springs Trail Birabent Canyon Zaca Ridge hike backpacking Los Padres National Forest

Curt hiking along the middle section of La Jolla Trail

waterfall cascade canyon San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres national forest Manzana Creek

Small waterfall in “Cascade Canyon”


Posted by: James Wapotich | January 25, 2019

Trail Quest: Ford Point, Santa Rosa Island

Backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa Island is one of the rare treats afforded in Channel Islands National Park. While Santa Cruz Island is the largest island off the coast of Southern California, only one-quarter of it is open to the public. Coming in second at 83 square miles, Santa Rosa Island offers the most amount of land on any of the islands to explore.

Backcountry beach camping is not for everyone, there are no designated sites outside of Water Canyon Campground, no picnic tables or restrooms. Shade is limited and reliable water can only be found in nine canyons. No campfires are allowed, only cookstoves. Nevertheless, for experienced backpackers, backpacking on the island can be just as rewarding as backpacking in the local backcountry.

Camping is permitted on the beaches above the high tide line. From August 15 to September 15 the beaches between East and South Points along the south shore are open to dispersed camping, and from September 16 to December 31 all the beaches are open except those along the eastern shore between Carrington and East Points, and around Sandy Point. For a complete list of rules and regulations go to

The closest beach for camping on the north shore is Cow Canyon, about 10 miles roundtrip; and the closest recommended beaches along the south shore are at San Augustin Canyon, Ford Point, and La Jolla Vieja Canyon, 16, 18, and 22, miles round trip respectively.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers,, which offers boat rides to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park. Santa Rosa Island can also be reached by air through Channel Islands Aviation,

For my own traverse of the island, I hiked to Cow Canyon the first day, and then crossed over the island to the south shore via Black Mountain and Soledad Peak, camping the second night near La Jolla Vieja Canyon.

In the morning, I make my way up La Jolla Vieja Canyon to look for a suitable place to filter enough water for the day. The meandering canyon is lined with cattails but there are several pools with flowing water. As with Cow Canyon from the day before, recent rains have improved both the flow and flavor of the water. Intermittent year-round water can also be found in Lobo, Soledad, Arlington, Wreck, San Augustin, Old Ranch House, and Water Canyons.

From La Jolla Vieja Canyon, I day hike west along the south shore towards Johnson’s Lee, where a U.S. Air Force station was once located. The hike is about 4.5 miles roundtrip along an unpaved access road that follows the coast.

About a mile from La Jolla Vieja Canyon, a short side road leads down to Officer’s Beach; the beach is completely empty. However, as I continue over the next rise, I hear elephant seals. They are hauled out on the next beach over sunning themselves, napping, sparring, and everything else elephants seals enjoy doing when not swimming and hunting in the ocean.

The road then meets the only paved road on the island, and arrives where Santa Rosa Island Air Force Station P-15 was once located. In 1950, the Air Force leased land from Vail & Vickers Ranch. The Air Force built radar, receiving, and transmitting facilities on the highest point of the island. A base was built along the coast with more than a dozen different buildings. A paved road led from the landing pier to the base and up to the summit of Radar Mountain.

At one time there were more 300 personnel at the station. The base however proved too costly to maintain due to its island location. It was closed in 1963, and operations were relocated to a facility near Point Conception. The abandoned buildings and material left behind were utilized and repurposed by the ranch over the years. National Parks Service later utilized several remaining buildings. Today, just the auto maintenance building from the station remains.

From the maintenance building it’s less than a quarter of a mile down the road to where the landing pier was located.

Returning to La Jolla Vieja Canyon, I gather my gear. From here, the unpaved road continues eastward, moving away from the coast and wrapping its way into an unnamed canyon before working its way over to Wreck Canyon.

On a previous visit five years ago, the creek crossing in Wreck Canyon was the best source of water on the south shore I found close to Ford Point, now however it is choked with cattails. A good reminder to check with the rangers beforehand to learn about current conditions.

The road then climbs out of the canyon and arrives at the signed turnoff to Ford Point, about two miles from La Jolla Vieja Canyon.

The trail down to Ford Point follows an old jeep road. Near the point, the views extend east out along the coast towards East Point and western Santa Cruz Island. From here, a single-track trail turns inland, before following a small ravine down to the beach.

The long, pristine beach at Ford Point is broken into two halves by a large rock outcropping; a route along the bluff connects the two segments. Both sections can sometimes have places to camp above the high tide line.

From the easternmost beach, an off-trail route continues up along the bluff, tracing the top of essentially a giant sand dune and leading over towards San Augustin Canyon.

As the trail arrives overlooking what could be called San Augustin Point, the trail branches. The trail to the right leads down to the cobblestone beach, where there can sometimes be a level place to camp above the high tide line.

The trail to the right, continues along the western side of San Augustin Canyon, passing through grassy hillsides dotted with lupine, black sage, coastal sagebrush, and coyote brush.

The trail then crosses the creek. Just downstream from the crossing is a trickle of water flowing into a sandstone pool.

From the crossing, the trail becomes more serious about climbing out of the canyon, tracing now the eastern side of the canyon and making its way along the ridge that separates San Augustin from the next canyon over.

The ridgeline then levels out briefly, passing the wreck of a small airplane. According to, the plane was flown by two hunters intent on poaching non-native elk found on the island at the time. Their plane crashed as they tried to land and they hiked out to the main ranch building claiming engine failure. When they returned to recover the plane, they discovered that cattle from the ranch had eaten the fabric covering much of the plane’s frame, leaving it unusable.

The trail then makes the final push up the ridge, veering west around what could be described as San Augustin Peak, and arriving at San Pablo Road. Here, the views open up to the north across the channel towards the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains.

Essentially a single-track trail, San Pablo Road traces the top of the summits overlooking the south shore. About a mile from the top of San Augustin Trail, the road arrives at a large cement trough fed with water from Clapp Spring. Water from the spring but must be filtered.

From here, it’s less than a mile to Wreck Road, which leads toward Water Canyon Campground. The road traces the edge of Water Canyon and as it reaches the coast offers views out across Bechers Bay towards Santa Cruz Island.

Wreck Road arrives at the coast just south of Water Canyon and joins Coastal Road. To reach the campground turn left; Coastal Road crosses Water Canyon Cree and then meets the side road that leads up to the campground.

The campground has 15 sites available through Each site has a two-sided, covered windbreak, a picnic table, and a metal food storage box to keep items safe from inquisitive foxes, mice, and ravens. The campground features potable water and restrooms, and can make a nice base camp for exploring the island. The campground is about 1.5 miles from the landing pier.

A satisfying day hike from the campground is to visit the Torrey pines, about 4.5 miles roundtrip. To reach the grove, follow Coastal Road south towards Skunk Point, and look for Torrey Pines Trail on your right, which leads up into the grove.

During the last ice age when the climate was cooler and wetter, Torrey pines could be found along coast of California. Today, they are the rarest pines in the United States, found in just two locations, near San Diego at Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve and here on Santa Rosa Island, where island fog helps keeps temperatures cooler and provides additional moisture for the trees.

The grove also provides a chance to sit back in the shade and experience the timelessness of the islands. To hear the sound of the wind through the trees and watch birds flit amongst the branches, framed by views of western Santa Cruz Island.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 21st, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. The next article will cover the hike out to Point Bennett on San Miguel Island.

Ford Point San Augustin Canyon Backcountry beach camping hiking backpacking Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

Ford Point

Torrey pines grove hike Santa Rosa Island Channel Island National Park rarest pine relic plant

Torrey Pines

Bechers Bay Water Canyon Beach hike Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

The beach near the mouth of Water Canyon

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 25, 2019

Trail Quest: Black Mountain, Santa Rosa Island

It was after dark when the trail finally arrived at the coast, near the mouth of La Jolla Vieja Canyon. As I near the beach, I can hear the sound of elephants seals, and suddenly realize they are hauled out near where I’d planned to sleep. No worry, I would simply cross to the other side of the creek and camp there. However, on the other side my headlamp catches the glowing eyes of more elephant seals, who are just quietly resting there.

Rather than trekking in the dark to another beach, I find a small patch a safe distance from both groups, careful to make sure there is no evidence of elephant seals using the spot. With the wind now nearly constant and blowing uncharacteristically from the east, I gather four large boulders and put them inside my tent, placing one in each corner and settle in for the night, it had been a long day.

On previous visits to Santa Rosa Island I had backpacked to Ford Point on the south shore and day hiked to Lobo and Cow Canyons on the north shore, but was curious what it would be like to traverse the island north to south and visit its highest peak, Radar Mountain.

Originally I had thought of following Smith Highway arcing over to Soledad Road. However, in talking with one of the rangers prior to my trip, I learned of an old jeep road that traces the ridgeline between Lobo and Cow Canyons and leads to the top of Black Mountain. From there it was a simple matter to tie into Soledad Road. This alternate route would save me a welcome mile and a half, and have the added bonus of visiting the cloud forest on Black Mountain.

Backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa Island is available to experienced, well-conditioned backpackers during the later part of the year, and provides a unique way to explore the island. For a complete list of all the rules and regulations, seasonal closures, and other helpful information go to

After spending my first night camped at Cow Canyon, I retrace my route through Lobo Canyon back up to Smith Highway. With no water and little shade along my intended route, I’ve loaded up on water in Cow Canyon, carrying enough for the entire 14.5-mile day.

Continuing west along Smith Highway, I soon pass on the uphill side something that looks vaguely like an old jeep road before arriving at a more evident track coming up along the ridgeline from the coast. I double back to the faint track I saw. The route is not as obvious as I’d hoped, but as I continue I find pieces of the old jeep road, which starts to become more evident as it climbs up the ridgeline between Lobo and Cow Canyons. As I continue, it becomes apparent that the foxes are the ones that use the trail the most and are keeping it alive. In the distance I can see the forested summit of Black Mountain.

The route then rounds the top of Lobo Canyon, joining the ridgeline that defines the backbone of the island. Here, the old jeep road turns east and continues along the top of the ridge towards Black Mountain.

As I continue, I pass the small forest of island oaks that draw part of their water from the fog and hug the north side of the ridge.

From the top of Black Mountain, the views extend out across Cherry Canyon, Bechers Bay, and Skunk Point towards Santa Cruz Island.

During the last ice age, roughly 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 300-400 feet lower. The four islands of our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel were all part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. As the sea level began to rise, it covered the lower portions of Santarosae. Around 10,500 years ago Anacapa Island became separate, followed by Santa Cruz Island roughly 1,000 years later, with Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands separating several hundred years after that.

From Black Mountain, a half-mile trail leads down to Soledad Road. Black Mountain can also be reached from the landing pier or Water Canyon Campground as part of an eight-mile roundtrip day hike following an old jeep road, referred to as Telephone Road.

Continuing west along Soledad Road, about a mile and a half further, the remnants of an old army camp can be seen from the road in the canyon below. A side road leads down to the site, with the most distinctive feature being a large cement star where the flagpole was located. The camp was built in 1943, and turned over to the ranching operation after the war.

About a mile later, Soledad Road arrives at the signed turnoff for Quinn Knobs Trail. The trail does not appear on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of Channel Islands National Park, but is a useful connector trail. The 1.25-mile trail follows a ridgeline and leads over to Wreck Road, providing an alternate, shorter way to reach the south shore.

As I continue along Soledad Road towards Soledad Peak it starts to fog up along the top of the island and a steady wind starts to blow, until I eventually have to start leaning slightly into the wind to offset its force. My concerns of hiking most of the day in exposed sunlight and not having enough water are starting to fade.

Soledad Road then intersects Signal Road; just west of the intersection is Soledad Peak, 1,574 feet of elevation. From there the road continues another half-mile before arriving at a surprisingly paved road. The road connects from Johnsons Lee, where there used to be an Air Force base to the top of Radar Mountain, the highest point on the island, at 1,589 feet.

Both Soledad Peak and Radar Mountain overlook Arlington Canyon, where in 1959, the oldest human remains found so far in North America were discovered. The remains date back 13,000 years. At that time, Santarosae was still a single island, and roughly four to five miles from the mainland at its closet point.

Santarosae was most likely reached with a boat made from tule reeds. Tule is readily available on the mainland, and such a boat is relatively easy to make in as little as three days. Tule can also be found on the islands.

The Chumash would harvest tule, allow it to partially dry, and then tie the material together into cigar-shaped bundles with a willow pole in the middle to help strengthen the boat’s structure. Several bundles were tied together, with the largest one serving as the bottom of the 10-15 foot canoe. The boat was then coated with melted asphaltum to make it more water resistant. While these boats were more commonly used in estuaries and nearshore along the coast, given calm conditions in the channel they could be used to cross to the islands. Tule boats could carry two to three people or a total of several hundred pounds.

The Chumash also made dugout canoes, which were used primarily in estuaries and were not seaworthy enough to cross the channel.

Around 500 A.D., the Chumash began developing wooden plank canoes or tomols. The tomol was a dramatic improvement over both the tule boat and dugout.

Tomols were primarily made from redwood driftwood that had washed ashore along the coast and on the islands.

Using nothing more than tools made from chert, bones, and large clam shells, the Chumash were able to hew and shape the redwood planks and drill holes in them. The planks were then sewn together with string made from red milkweed. In between the planks, the pithy core of tule was used for caulk. A mixture of melted asphaltum and pine pitch was then used to seal the seams, drill holes, and lashings. The entire project would take from two to six months.

Tomols ranged in size from 12 to 24 feet in length, and could carry up to 20 people or 4,000 pounds in cargo. The tomol not only facilitated increased trade amongst the Chumash, but helped deepen social connections by making travel between the islands and mainland, and along the coast easier.

From Radar Mountain, I follow the paved road down to the turnoff to the trail that traces the ridgeline between La Jolla Vieja Canyon and the coast. The trail is essentially an overgrown jeep road, and I was fortunate to have day-hiked the route during the daytime on a previous trip, especially now that I was hiking it in the dark through a thick, wet fog.

The trail ends at the ranch road along the south shore, arriving just west of La Vieja Canyon, where I make camp for the night, a safe distance from the elephants seals.

In the morning, after breakfast, I filter water from La Jolla Vieja Canyon, and then day hike west along the south shore to Johnsons Lee, before backpacking out via Ford Point and San Augustine Canyon, and camping the last night in Water Canyon Campground.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 7th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Off-trail route between Lobo and Cow Canyons Black Mountain hiking backpacking Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

Black Mountain is seen from the off-trail route between Lobo and Cow Canyons

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