Trying to upkeep any trail in a wilderness area has always been quite a chore, to say the least. But it is also part of helping to preserve and manage wilderness areas as required by the Wilderness Act. So for now, forget about building new trails, because here in the wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest it is a matter of plain survival — a constant struggle just to keep fire-affected lands and sheer hillsides from sliding into waterways while trying to protect the remaining trails that we have not yet lost.
Consequently, it is a never-ending give-and-take with the very forces of nature that help define the unique wilderness character of the Los Padres here in our Santa Barbara backcountry, including steep remote canyons, high rates of re-occurring annual plant growth (think 8-foot-high wild mustard on steroids), dense chaparral that can always use an annual trim, and a variety of geological features that are highly unstable and erosive in any weather event.
Compounding these issues are the declining fiscal resources of the U.S. Forest Service and how they allocate their budgets, both of which have been slowly taking their inevitable bite out of wilderness management. Add in bureaucratic paperwork coupled with re-direction of Forest Service monies to address a constant barrage of legal challenges, and the public may be facing fewer and fewer opportunities to recreate and enjoy their wilderness.
For some folks that might be fine, though thinking like that has more to do with personal opinions and values and ignores the totality of the law. The Wilderness Act was adopted in 1964 to create a legal definition of wilderness so that future wilderness was protected and preserved and to provide a foundational law that serves as the basis for wilderness management. The act established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which also stipulates that a wilderness area must be “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.”
So using and enjoying the already 10 designated wilderness areas of the Los Padres National Forest (roughly half the forest is designated wilderness) should allow one to be able to recreate by hiking, backpacking or horseback riding. That requires accessible trails that must be annually maintained on a consistent basis. It also requires maintained roads to allow access for users just to get to the wilderness trailheads for parking and venturing beyond.
Obviously, this has been an ongoing challenge for the Forest Service, but this spring season we are seeing some hopeful projects take place in longtime favorite areas of the Santa Barbara backcountry.
The Los Padres Forest Association’s VWRs (Volunteer Wilderness Rangers) are conducting their annual “Working Vacation” project out of the Santa Cruz Guard Station near the Santa Cruz River, back behind Little Pine Mountain. They are doing routine trail maintenance up toward Flores Flat and beyond, which is part of the greater Santa Cruz trail system that connects up to the beautiful high country of Mission Pine Basin.
Meanwhile, other VWRs had previously done a little work coming the other way from Cachuma Saddle to the west, but this area still needs lots of help, especially going east toward West Big Pine. It would be nice to get a professional California Conservation Corps crew on this trail system to really make a difference.
A small handful of hardy, light-hiking VWRs have been working on opening up limited access to the eastern end of Hurricane Deck, such that some great loop trips are beginning to be re-established. Out of Nira, it is now a bit easier to head up the Lost Valley Trail to the deck and head east to eventually connect up with the Manzana River Trail via White Ledge and Happy Hunting Ground (or over to the Sisquoc) and then back out to Nira via Manzana Narrows (or vice versa). Note: This is a strenuous backpacking route for experienced users only.
Using grant money obtained from Proposition 84 funds, the Santa Lucia Ranger District out of Santa Maria (the Los Padres Forest consists of five districts) is using the California Conservation Corps trail crews to also work back in the San Rafael Wilderness on the Sisquoc River drainage on some erosion-control efforts. The watershed is still suffering from the effects of the 2007 Zaca Fire, so two trail crews have been stationed back at Cottonwood and South Fork campgrounds during the last month. They have been making slow but steady progress and expect that after 12 crew tours (six in each location), a total of 12 trail miles are expected to have maintenance done on them.
Twelve miles doesn’t sound like much, especially when compared with the entire Sisquoc River trail system of roughly 48 miles. But everything has to be done completely by hand and without the use of mechanized tools. It is slow, hard labor in a hot environment with no comfortable bed to come home to, no doubt about it.
Visiting a recent CCC trail crew while they were working up toward Heath Camp reminded me that some practices from the Old West are still alive and well as all food, supplies and tools must be packed in by horseback and mule to their base camp. This was accomplished by contracting the commercial services of experienced packers via locally owned Los Padres Outfitters. Watching packer/guide Sarah Moore heft heavy gear onto the backs of the pack stock, balance it, strap it down, contend with fussy mules and then lead a string of five animals down the 6-mile-long Juddell Trail to the base camp at Cottonwood took me back to a simpler time. And as I passed packer/guide Mike Vaughan on the trail, he called out the potent reminder, “Don’t forget to watch out for rattlers, ‘cause you’re a long way from nowhere.”
Yep, it was a long way from anything, and my craving for being out in the wilderness was satisfied once again while my gratitude for having the trails to get me there was more than appreciated. Thank you to all involved for your hard efforts to make it as such, and I hope we can continue for generations to come.
As usual, there are a variety of websites where one can obtain updated trail information. Be aware that a trail that may be passable via hiking and backpacking may not be passable for horseback riding. Always call the various Los Padres Ranger Districts (during working hours in the middle of the week) for more specific information.
It’s going to be a long, hot summer season because of the lack of rainfall, so if you can’t venture out before summer, you can always wait until fall after the first rain. And if you pick your weather right, wilderness adventures in our Santa Barbara backcountry can be available year-around — as long as you can get there or find the trails.
— Lori Rafferty is a frequent contributor to Noozhawk and enjoys all things outdoors, between the Channel Islands to the backcountry and beyond.