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Brian Sarvis: Navigating the Ups and Downs While Hiking the Condor Trail

The wildnerness is beautiful right now, with an abundance of water and flowers, but the terrain is not for the faint of heart

Brian Sarvis, a former superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, is enjoying hitting the hiking trails in retirement. Click to view larger
Brian Sarvis, a former superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, is enjoying hitting the hiking trails in retirement. (Brian Sarvis photo)

I just finished hiking 240 miles of the Condor Trail in our backcountry, with 160 miles yet to go, and am writing a book about it.

The Condor Trail is a wilderness route through the mountains in the Santa Barbara backcountry running more than 400 miles from Lake Piru in the south to Bottcher’s Gap in the mountains above Big Sur near Carmel. It goes through seven wilderness areas in the Los Padres National Forest.

It is not an easy trail — in parts, there is no trail.

Inspired by trails like the Appalachian Trail, the John Muir Trail and the PCT, the Condor Trail route was laid more than 20 years ago. The trail was not successfully hiked until just two years ago, by Brittany Nielsen in 37 days.

Finding a route through the wilderness is not like walking on a trail in a park. Nielsen said she saw only 20 other people on parts of the trail, including one whom she literally bumped into when they were fighting brush, coming from opposite directions.

Since then, two others have hiked the trail. I intend to be the fourth person to complete the route.

The Condor Trail is a wilderness route through the mountains in the Santa Barbara backcountry.
The Condor Trail is a wilderness route through the mountains in the Santa Barbara backcountry. (Brian Sarvis photo)

I have hiked big distances on trails, but I had no idea how tough this would be. When cartographer Bryan Conant showed me a route to bushwhack up over a ridge and get around all of the water coming out of Big Narrows after our February rains, we decided it would be best for me to just try hiking up though the waterfalls and directly into the Narrows.

On that day, I made only five miles in 10 hours of climbing through water, scrambling over rocks, and around or over huge debris piles left by the floods. It was a bit discouraging as it was only my second day.

On a mountain ridge, the snows were still heavy at 7,000 feet and I lost the trail a number of times. I just used the six-mile ridge line with all of the amazing rock formations as the trail.

The howling winds were throwing so much ice at me that I hiked hard just to stay warm and make it to the next water about 15 miles away. I ended up making big miles that day.

March was a great time to start the hike with water everywhere.
March was a great time to start the hike with water everywhere. (Brian Sarvis photo)

Everyday, there are wet river crossings, maybe 10 to more than 100 a day. You usually just wade across as the water is rarely deeper than your thigh, but it means hiking with wet feet all day.

I just came out of an area that had a number of canyons with no trail. It was often easiest to simply stay in the stream bed, scrambling over rocks and climbing through all the downed trees, rather than maneuver through the lush poison oak on the banks.

I hiked for eight days in wet shoes. When it started raining, the water didn’t really matter — I just added another layer to stay warm (not dry, just warm, if I kept moving).

Whether it is rain or sweat, you are just going to stay wet anyway.

I had a wild experience last week when the GPS failed to make satellite connections for 24 hours in a particularly tough section of pieced-together trails, cow paths and no-path-at-all bushwhacking. I just figured, "No big deal, I can read a topo map."

But in the rain, I missed a route change and was way up a ridge when I realized I had to make it 700 feet down into a narrow canyon, then scale a 400-foot rock cliff on the other side to make it to the water spring beyond the plateau.

I went down, beat my way through too much poison oak and scaled the agave-infested nose of the mountain. Hours later, near the top, I realized there was another, more gentle way up and actually found a trail.

Unlike the big, popular trails like the Appalachian Trail or the John Muir Trail, there are few people in the Los Padres wilderness areas. In fact, our backcountry is remarkably empty of people.

I usually didn’t see anyone for five or six days at a time, though on weekends, near popular trailheads, there are often dozens of people.

March was a great time to start this year with water everywhere, green grass and spring flowers (as well as a bumper crop of poison oak).

After May, it is almost impossible to hike the Condor Trail, as there are long sections without water. The first through-hiker went three days through one section without finding water.

The Condor Trail wilderness is beautiful. It is seductive, though it also can be a demon.

I have always been restless and wanted to see what is over the next mountain or around the next turn. I always want to see it all and am determined to finish the entire Condor Trail.

One immediate problem is the closure of Big Sur on Highway 1. Another is the closure of the Ventana Wilderness area after the Soberanes Fire. I may have to wait many months to finish the final section.

I am writing a trail guide as I go, as it would have been easier to have more direction.

There is great information on the Condor Trail website, including maps and distances. I think I can add important information by writing a trail guide.

But in the end, it is wilderness, and you get to rely on your own best skills and judgment to be successful.

— Brian Sarvis is a retired superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

The Condor Trail goes through seven wilderness areas in the Los Padres National Forest. In parts, there is no trail. Click to view larger
The Condor Trail goes through seven wilderness areas in the Los Padres National Forest. In parts, there is no trail. (Brian Sarvis photo)
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