One word describes our Los Padres National Forest backcountry right now: dry. Actually, it would be better to describe it like this: dry, dry and getting drier. So if you plan to get out and enjoy some backpacking, hiking, horse packing, trail running, etc., it would be better do it sooner rather than later.

Ironically, after several seasons of low annual rainfall and mild winters, a scattering of our more remote wilderness trails are in a bit better shape due to a few volunteer projects occurring last fall through this spring. Trail maintenance volunteers from the Los Padres Forest Association have been trimming brush and removing downed trees across portions of trails in both the San Rafael and Dick Smith wildernesses, including the Lost Valley Trail out of Nira, the Mission Pine Trail eastward to Mission Pine Basin, and the Santa Cruz, Grapevine, upper Sisqouc, Popular and Madulce trails*.

I say ironic because mild winters tend to cause less damage and erosion, so in theory there should be fewer trail problems. But with all the high winds we had this winter and spring, and trails still suffering from the 2007 Zaca Fire, hundreds of fire-damaged trees continue to tumble down and add to the hazard list.

Unfortunately, our forest’s trail systems are already far behind in maintenance and now we’re in for a very dry, hazardous fire season. Factor in summer heat, and those wishing to venture deep into wilderness areas will have to plan accordingly. Be safe and enjoy the trails, but there may be no water to drink in some areas!

Speaking of the backlog of trail maintenance, the LPFA has been trying to tackle that long list. This past April, the LPFA’s annual working vacation focused on continuing the work started by last year’s California Conservation Corps on the upper portion of the Sisquoc River trail. All said and done, that portion of the trail from Alamar Saddle on down past Lower Bear Camp toward Heath has been cleared for now. And as stated earlier, portions of the Grapevine, Maldulce and Popular were also worked on.

But as LPFA President Jasonn Beckstrand recently said, “Trail work in this forest is a never-ending process, and we will always be playing catch up.”

There is good news for a huge favorite that is a non-wilderness trail not so deep in the backcountry. Right now, the Santa Barbara Ranger District has a CCC trail crew working down behind Little Pine Mountain on the northern section of the Santa Cruz trail. According to district Ranger Pancho Smith, “The first hitch is working on the more dangerous portions of the 40 mile wall.” This is the infamous part of the Santa Cruz trail that traverses a steep canyon notorious for slides and vegetation overgrowth, often making it a nerve-wracking adventure of “find the trail.”

Enjoying the reward — cleared trail between Middle Bear and Lower Bear. (Lori Rafferty / Noozhawk photo)

Enjoying the reward — cleared trail between Middle Bear and Lower Bear. (Lori Rafferty / Noozhawk photo)

Ranger Smith adds that another CCC hitch in July will address the upper portion of the trail as it drops off from Alexander Saddle to the north.

The Santa Cruz trail system is a typical Los Padres trail: It always needs work, no matter the time of year or severity of environmental conditions wrought each season. Besides the routine lush growth of annual plants such as mustard and perennial chaparral species (that grow like they’re on a constant high dose of steroids), the natural force of gravity is king. On the steep sections, which practically include most of this very popular trail favored by hikers and mountain cyclists, rock debris and slides are a given. Fortunately, the joint forces of the LPFA and the Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers organize several trail maintenance projects a year.

While the best way to enjoy our Los Padres trail systems is to get out there and use them all year around, take extra caution during the summer and note the Level III fire restrictions issued by the U.S. Forest Service (see its website, and this could change due to the recent White Fire).

And remember, there will continue to be worsening low water issues (both quality and quantity) coupled with summer heat and high fire conditions. Be safe and be smart, and staying cool on the coast this summer is always another option. Lastly, don’t forget to thank the volunteers.

Currently, Paradise Road and all campgrounds and day use areas are closed to all vehicular access, including the Camuesa/Buckhorn OHV Route.

*This is just a partial list of trails worked on. More info can be obtained by calling the main Forest Service office out in Goleta at 805.968.6640, consulting the Los Padres website by clicking here or by checking the following useful sites and info for trail updates:

» Santa Barbara Hikes website

» Hike Los Padres (under construction)

» Ventana Wilderness Alliance

» Condor Trail Facebook page

Don’t forget the latest maps from Bryan Conant’s series and the newest one from the Forest Service. And check out Craig Carey’s new book, Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura, recently published by Wilderness Press.

— Lori Rafferty is a frequent Noozhawk contributor and enjoys all things outdoors, from the Channel Islands to the backcountry and beyond.