Wednesday, April 25 , 2018, 10:55 pm | Fair 54º


Dan McCaslin: Going Solo in Charming Blue Canyon

It's better with a companion, but the backpack/bike/shuttle outing provided much-needed one-on-one time with nature

Orange sycamore trees dot the Cottam Camp meadow. Click to view larger
Orange sycamore trees dot the Cottam Camp meadow. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Editor's Note: This column was written shortly before the Thomas Fire broke out on Dec. 4, so the decision was made to hold off publishing it.

Three of Santa Barbara’s prettiest “backcountry” campsites are less than five air miles from Upper Montecito Village: Blue Canyon Camp, Cottam Camp and Forbush Flat Camp.

If this seems unbelievable, take a ruler like I did and measure the distance on Ray Ford’s helpful Santa Barbara frontcountry map — 4.8 miles.

All three sites have tables and fire rings, but only seasonal water (dry in November), and all three are usually free of any other humans or machine impedimenta. (See 4.1.1 for driving directions and shuttle.)

I’ve often day-hiked, and described, the steep one-mile descent along the Northside Romero Trail to charming Blue Canyon Camp in picturesque Blue Canyon. After another one-mile trek to glorious Cottam Camp farther up the riparian canyon, you can detour over to the upper Santa Ynez River and Pendola Station, or do as I did on Nov. 30 and trudge on up Blue Canyon to Forbush Flat Camp.

If you're lugging a backpack like I was, you’ll be sweating heavily and loving the workout following the 1.6-mile, 800-foot climb from Cottam to Forbush (no water at Forbush this time).

Cottam Camp in Blue Canyon.
Cottam Camp in Blue Canyon. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

When you pack the final 1.4 miles up another 1,100 feet and reach East Camino Cielo Road, you realize that the last three joyful miles — only three miles! — have reinvigorated your inner spirit as well as jacked-up your physical metabolism.

Both developments are important since on this complicated two-day backpacking trip, you now pull your old bike out of the brush, stash the backpack right there beside the road and pedal on for 3.5 miles to your pre-parked vehicle near Divide Peak.

Unless you're willing to do this alone (it’s a very short backpacking hike for two days) and use the bike shuttle described below, two vehicles are necessary for the short drive east along the fantastic East Camino Cielo Road to the second car below the brightly painted concrete water tower near Divide Peak.

Park at the second water tower near Divide Peak.
Park at the second water tower near Divide Peak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Very few backpackers use Blue Canyon, and I’m not exactly sure why this is the case. Perhaps it’s too close to town, not really “backcountry” but forms some strange middle zone between Jameson Reservoir, Gibraltar Dam and the Ogilvie Ranch property.

I chose two days in midweek for backpacking through Blue Canyon with an overnight at Cottam. Particularly at the end of November, it seemed most probable there wouldn’t be anyone else present in this cold bit of near-wilderness.

I don’t recommend solo backpacking, but I just had to go and not let any Nanny State or existential fears foil my urgent need to escape from the Anthropocene and away from town, the early Christmas shopping deals and Highway 101’s incessant whine permeating my Westside.

Mottled serpentine deposits create bluish rock formations.
Mottled serpentine deposits create bluish rock formations. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Since no companions were available, the Blue Canyon backpacking trip morphed into a solo backpack/bike/shuttle trip.

On Nov. 29, I drove my 18-year-old Ford Ranger truck along East Camino Cielo Road to the second water tower near Divide Peak, after first stashing my equally aged Schwinn bike in the weeds near Montecito Peak.

Blazing orange sycamores stand out at Cottam Camp.
Blazing orange sycamores stand out at Cottam Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The Forest Service has barred the road at Divide Peak, and this is where I left my old truck, hoisted up the 35-pound backpack and began slowly hiking down the now-dirt and closed Camino Cielo.

At the “Romero TR” iron sign (“Blue Cyn TR” on the second line) located near a honey-colored stand of madrone trees, I stepped left off the boring road and cautiously enjoyed the very steep trail leading down into glorious Blue Canyon and namesake creek and camp.

The bluish rock formations come from mottled serpentine deposits, and while this “soapstone” usually weathers to a green, here we get a fascinating blue color. Two hiking poles were very useful on the steeply descending trail.

Cottam Camp potreros from above Forbush Flat.
Cottam Camp potreros from above Forbush Flat. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

It was clear from earlier dayhikes here that there most likely would be no water available in any of the several creeks, thus I lugged four liters of water for the single overnight at Cottam Camp.

Blue Canyon Camp has a creaky wooden table, and even its own proud “throne-style” pit toilet, but it’s too close to the road, and I passed through quickly.

Cottam Camp sits beneath tall trees at the southern end of a large meadow (potrero) next to dry Blue Canyon Creek. A settler named Albert Cottam built a cabin in this favorable spot in 1915, and after 1930 the Forest Service took it over and maintained a plant nursery for a time.

Later, there also was a “Camp Santa Ynez” on these wide fields, with a barn made of sheet metal. A few of the sheets are in today’s campsite and are almost the only remnants of civilization beyond the dilapidated wooden table and iron fire ring.

To make this overnight camping experience more ascetic and fun, not only is there no water, but fires also are specifically disallowed. Ready for this situation, I planned a long night in the tiny tent and actually stayed in from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. the second day — a crazy 10½ hours down.

Parts of the steep sections between Cottam and Forbush Flat have eroded away.
Parts of the steep sections between Cottam and Forbush Flat have eroded away. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Again, I was mentally ready for this, just as I was prepared for no water, no fire, no people.

Using a headlamp in the tent, I read a W. S. Merwin poem from his Garden Time, turned the LED lamp off and mulled over the meaning. Since the temperature dropped to 27 degrees, most of my water froze in the bottles I left on the table overnight.

Clambering out of the two-pound Big Agnes tent, hot tea was the first order of business, and draping my sleeping bag around my legs under the table also helped. Once the sun rose about 6:45 a.m., light flooded quickly onto the potrero, and the native sycamores’ blazing orange enveloped the entire meadow.

Cottam Camp feels decidedly rustic and like the true wilderness — but it is not, and has three deceptive aspects that reflect the inescapable “Anthropocene” era in which we perforce dwell.

When looking out to the wide potrero, one realizes the preternatural flatness comes from human smoothing and cultivation during the Albert Cottam farming and Camp Santa Ynez days; it is not natural at all.

Second, while ghostly quiet at Cottam, this alluring white noise absence is occasionally interrupted by airplanes flying low overhead as well as several government helicopters buzzing around.

Finally, if you look straight up, there are power lines sagging between enormous towers, and then you get a Philip K. Dick science fiction effect.

The first day of the backpacking trip is easy; the second day is fairly demanding even though it is just over 3 miles back up to East Camino Cielo Road (see beginning). Not only do you climb 1,900 feet in these 3 miles, parts of the very steep sections between Cottam and Forbush Flat have eroded away and require a bit of scrambling.

Once back up on East Camino Cielo Road near Montecito Peak, hide the pack, retrieve the bike, jump on and bike almost 4 miles down to the parked Ranger truck. There wasn’t a single car moving up there anywhere around 1 p.m. on Nov. 30, so it was easy to careen around and even do some asphalt slalom moves.

En route there were awe-inducing views with Gibraltar Dam and coastal mountains on the left (north) and inspiring seascapes on the right (south).

I carefully emphasized the truck’s age above. There certainly have been car break-ins up on isolated East Camino Cielo, so leaving a shiny expensive vehicle is asking for a problem. For the same reasons, I never wash my truck, and I don’t lock up the bed with its fiberglass shell.

Age is an interesting proposition whether about cars or humans, and Merwin writes ("No Believer" from Garden Time):

Still not believing in age I wake

to find myself older than I can understand

with most of my life in a fragment

that only I remember.


» Directions: Drive to Skofield Park and locate the beginning of Gibraltar Road. Drive carefully to the top, about 6.5 miles, and when you reach East Camino Cielo Road, turn right toward Divide Peak (signed) and drive to the second concrete water tower (see photo). Park on the dirt near the barred gate. Stash the bike somewhere convenient in the brush near the first concrete water tower near Montecito Peak; this also is the top of the Forbush Flat Trail.

» I purchased W. S. Merwin’s splendid Garden Time (2016) and Ray Ford’s helpful A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Frontcountry at Chaucer’s Bookstore.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

A view of Santa Rosa Island from East Camino Cielo. Click to view larger
A view of Santa Rosa Island from East Camino Cielo. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)
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