Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 11:30 am | Fog/Mist 67º


Dan McCaslin: Escape to the Near-to-Town Lower Blue Canyon Camp

Strenuous six-mile day hike is a good fit for the experienced and adventurous, and rain-ravaged trails soon should be easier

The top of Cold Spring Trail. Click to view larger
The top of Cold Spring Trail. (Dan McCaslin photo)

While I’ve mentioned Blue Canyon before, there are several possible combinations of strenuous day hikes available in this pristine Los Padres National Forest canyon about four miles as the crow flies from Montecito’s Upper Village. So near to town, yet when tramping along down in the now well-watered canyon, one feels “far” from the hustle and bustle and urban responsibilities.

I made the six-mile trek from the Romero-Camuesa North Trail sign (see 4-1-1) on East Camino Cielo past Lower Blue, Cottam and Forbush Flats camps on two occasions in February.

On Feb. 16, it was fairly muddy down in the riparian corridor, but after our tremendous rains stormed in beginning Feb. 17, it became clear that Blue must be impassable, and even the dirt portion of East Camino Cielo as well as Gibraltar Road would be periodically closed.

With three teaching colleagues and admitted trepidation, I gave Blue Canyon another shot on Feb. 25, and the streams, foliage and riparian splendor made the trek a spectacular if difficult passage.

Two of my colleagues’ iPhones counted the map’s 6.2 miles as “8.0” miles, and for sure I was breathing hard and pressing the entire time after leaving lovely Cottam Camp. In terms of hiker safety, note that smartphones do not work down in the canyon, so you’re on your own.

We had two trucks, and we left one up at the concrete water tower at the top of the Cold Spring Trail, then the four of us drove in the other truck about 4 miles on east to where East Camino Cielo becomes dirt and drops down the backside of Divide Peak. While I knew the dirt road would be barred below the Romero-Camuesa sign, we had to park the truck about a mile above that point because there were boulders, sharp rocks and even sinkholes on the road!

Escondido Creek runs strong a week after big rains.
Escondido Creek runs strong a week after big rains. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Lower Blue Canyon Camp — often just called Blue Canyon Camp — is a very steep trudge down into the colorful riparian corridor with its spectacular blue-green serpentine rock formations. Heavy boots and hiking sticks are strongly recommended for this slippery section.

After about a mile, we hikers had the great fun of fording three different streams running off from the north: the photo of Escondido Creek shows how fast the water pace was about one week after the big rains. The trail is fairly rocky, so we did not think we were damaging it with our boots.

Before reaching Lower Blue we had to ford another run-off stream, and it was difficult — you can see me trying to get over a boulder at left in the photograph while one of my friends leaps out on the right. It’s best to have a hiking stick or poles, and be quite prepared just to step into the water rather than risking a heavy fall. This section would be daunting for all but experienced hikers who have buddy hikers along.

Traversing a run-off stream can be tricky.
Traversing a run-off stream can be tricky. (Dan McCaslin photo)

When you encounter the iron “BLUE CYN. TRAIL” trail sign after these fords you know you’re a half-mile from convenient Lower Blue Camp.

Although more than 80 years old, most of the sign information is still valid: If you chose to turn east (right) in one mile you would reach Upper Blue Canyon Camp but dead-end there. We heave a sigh of relief since we’re now down in the more level canyon, and we know Blue is close. (Lower) Blue Camp, built in 1936, has a clear sign and the spacious site may be the prettiest of the four in the canyon. Since the devastating 1964 Coyote Fire missed the area, it feels quite overgrown and pleasant.

When we sat at the sturdy table in the lovely glade we could hear the nearby gushing of the swollen creek — in our five-year drought it was often bone dry and thus overnight camping became impossible. Blue Camp entices one to relax, pour hot tea from the thermos, sip and chew raisins, wring out wet socks and look around.

There are three of the famous “ice can” stoves here (two visible in the photo) and a solid firepit. Around the corner to the left in the camp photo stands a fine monument to backcountry “art” – a metal privy.

This iron trail sign marks a half-mile from Lower Blue Camp.
This iron trail sign marks a half-mile from Lower Blue Camp. (Dan McCaslin photo)

While somewhat ridiculous-looking, it’s best policy to utilize the pit toilet and thus avoid soiling the whole area (Blue is a popular backpacking stop). If Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture of a urinal — called “Fountain” — can be labeled “art,” then this privy with my hiking sticks also might strike the eye of the beholder as art, too.

We amble easily about one mile to attractive Cottam Camp in its large potrero, and we enjoy the table there as well. The Blue Canyon Trails ends here, and the Forbush Trail starts.

We begin the difficult ascent to Forbush Flat from Cottam, ascending almost 900 feet in 1.6 miles. However, based on the Feb. 16 jaunt through here and after torrential rainfall, I did expect trail destruction and hiking difficulties at the top near Forbush Camp — and was not disappointed.

There are three famous “ice can” stoves at Lower Blue Camp.
There are three famous “ice can” stoves at Lower Blue Camp. (Dan McCaslin photo)

There were three places we had to scramble across after mulling our options. The mud was well-dried, and we did not muck it up too much. There was a fourth place where some very short and steep switchbacks had collapsed onto the trail below, so this scramble was dicier. We contemplated a complete return, meaning a 10- to 12-mile day.

While taking our time and mulling our choices, a very fit guy with a broken-down mountain bike suddenly appeared and simply powered up through the drops. If he could do it, so could we — and we scrambled hard and managed to get on up the trail. I do not advise anyone except seasoned hikers who work well together to attempt this final contortion.

A metal privy — hiking sticks added — stands as a monument to backcountry “art.”
A metal privy — hiking sticks added — stands as a monument to backcountry “art.” (Dan McCaslin photo)

We noticed when we got to the top and near the Mono Trail sign that the cyclist had managed to coast his bike and his tread made really deep gouges in the soft mud on parts of the path. Too bad, and we kept checking how much damage we were making: minimal.

Forbush Camp was also unoccupied — the biker was the only other person we saw all day on this Saturday — and we had our final break there amid the olive trees and dead orchard trees. Fred Washington Forbush settled here in 1910, and while there are no traces of his cabin, there are these remnant orchard trees.

It’s another steep ascent back to East Camino Cielo and the concrete tower where our first truck stands — the iron sign shown in the lead photo states it is 4 miles down to “Mountain Drive.” The views toward the backcountry and to the sea are breathtaking and quite a contrast to the narrow “down and in” feeling while hiking in Blue.

The hike to Lower Blue Canyon Camp and beyond works because we knew that if we hit an impassable trail situation we could always go back and return the way we came. By mid-March, the roads will be better and Blue Canyon Trail, if not cleared, will be easier.

Slides have caused trail destruction and hiking difficulties at the top near Forbush Camp.
Slides have caused trail destruction and hiking difficulties at the top near Forbush Camp. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Heavy boots, hiking poles and experienced buddy hikers are all crucial for this strenuous hike. I can imagine any sturdy kid over 10 having a blast on this hike with his family.


» Distance: 6.2 miles hiking and car shuttle between; suitable for adventurous children age 10 or older

» Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive to Gibraltar Road and motor slowly to the top and turn right on East Camino Cielo (east), continuing until you strike the dirt road section (officially this becomes the Romero-Camuesa Road here). Drive on slowly another mile to the small iron “Romero Camuesa” iron sign opposite the stand of madrone trees; if you need to park sooner because of rocks, hike down the road. Park here, and head down the rocky trail Romero-Camuesa Trail leading into Blue Canyon to Lower Blue, Cottam and Forbush camps.

» Map: Bryan Conant’s Matilija and Dick Smith Wilderness Trail Map Guide

— 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.

The views toward the backcountry and to the sea are breathtaking. Click to view larger
The views toward the backcountry and to the sea are breathtaking. (Dan McCaslin photo)

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