Wednesday, August 15 , 2018, 6:38 am | Fair 64º


Dan McCaslin: It’s a Tempting Time to Hike the Upper Santa Ynez River Via Blue, Cottam Camps

Closure of dirt portion of East Camino Cielo creates unique opportunity for a 10-mile day trek

Fog settles in Mono Creek drainage as seen from East Camino Cielo.
Fog settles in Mono Creek drainage as seen from East Camino Cielo. (Franko Hudson photo)

When most of us imagine the Santa Ynez River, we conjure up images of the wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley out past Lake Cachuma and around Los Olivos.

Or we visualize driving over Highway 154 to Red Rock for swimming on the “middle Santa Ynez” there, and indeed your drive across it at First Crossing on Paradise Road.

This suggested day hike is not about these better-known portions of the 92-mile-long Santa Ynez River, which ends at the Pacific Ocean in Surf, but about accessing the mysterious Upper Santa Ynez River drainage above both Bradbury and Gibraltar dams, away out east and about 5 miles north of Montecito Village.

In mid-January, when we learned the U.S. Forest Service had closed the dirt road continuation of East Camino Cielo — officially the Romero-Camuesa Road — due to rain and mud, backcountry guru Franko Hudson and I immediately saw an unusual day hiking opportunity into the Upper Santa Ynez, but below Jameson Lake.

Since the feds dropped the bar across the road at Divide Peak, this means the gorgeous upper Santa Ynez River region magically becomes much wild backcountry.

Car campers have been escorted out of Mono and P-Bar Flats Camps, and sent back home via East Camino Cielo heading west past Montecito Peak.

We fancy that we’re in search of the mythical upper Santa Ynez River, to learn if it flows; no one can drive there until after the road has been unbarred so solitude will thrive in this lack of plenitude.

After the 40-minute drive from Skofield Park in Santa Barbara, we arrived at the barely visible trailhead: it’s about a mile down the dirt portion (bar is lower at Divide Peak junction) of the East Camino Cielo continuation (see the 4-1-1).

There’s a small iron sign hidden amid an unusual stand of golden madrones telling you it’s the Romero Trail. On the downside of the dirt road you see the obvious and very steep northside Romero-Camuesa Trail.

Like ancient and medieval history, this hike has three well-demarcated parts, and they’re of almost similar distance (averaging about 1.6 miles each segment). Dropping down very steeply at first, I had to sidestep quite a distance and also relied heavily on my twin hiking poles against slippage.

A hiker and his dog make their way along Romero Creek. Click to view larger
A hiker and his dog make their way along Romero Creek. (Dan McCaslin photo)

It’s easy to flip onto your back; just get up and go slower.

Mid-January trekking after a rain means no dust, and the desert backcountry strives mightily to spring into its brief life of glory. There are already signs of a new spring in Blue Canyon.

You pick your way down 1.9 miles into Blue Canyon’s spectacular stone corridor (see Conant’s map). The deep blue-green color comes from the serpentine formations scattered around.

After crossing the dry Escondido Creek streambed, you arrive at unpretentious Blue Canyon Camp, sometimes called Lower Blue. Campers will appreciate the sturdy wooden table, the fire pit, and the old ice can stoves scattered all over.

No water at this camp, but it appears well-used. However, just before we entered Blue Camp we forded a small running rivulet of water, perhaps Romero Creek northside, I was not sure of the name (I would filter water from there if I needed it).

That’s guru Franko in blue in the photograph, and just below his white lab, Gina, you can detect the water and some serpentine formations.

The next, middle section is shorter at 1.3 easy miles, with only a bit of elevation gain. As you gaze west while trudging along happily, you can see gigantic towers festooned with high-energy power cables as well as rolling chaparral-clad hills of brown and muted green out toward Ogilvy Ranch.

One hundred and one years ago, in 1915, an enterprising settler named Albert Cottam built a cabin on the large potrero bordering the eponymous “Cottam Camp,” and the campsite itself is shady and flat, pitched beneath towering oaks. There’s another strong wooden table, a well-built fire pit, and again, no water in mid-January.

The archaic iron sign at Cottam is very helpful since you have important trail choices to make at this junction.

An iron sign marks the location of Cottam Camp. Click to view larger
An iron sign marks the location of Cottam Camp. (Dan McCaslin photo)

I’ve gone up the Forbush Trail many times, and it’s a steep ascent to Forbush Camp on Gidney Creek, and then an even steeper haul right up to East Camino Cielo at the water tower near Montecito Peak (bad idea: your vehicle is miles away). And of course we don’t want to go back yet on the signed “Blue Canyon Trail”; that’s for our return trip after we find the sacred Santa Ynez River.

This has been billed as an (upper) Santa Ynez River Quest, with a chance at soaking in Big Caliente Hot Springs.

Thus, we head generally north onto the signed Camuesa Road Trail, our final and third section with 1.6 easy miles of generally level hiking.

Here we’re in hard chaparral part of the time — long pants, long-sleeved shirt and gloves are necessary.

There were ticks on Gina the dog. The drought has punished the flora here, and even the recent rains have not obviously revived most of the plants so far.

The sycamores are holding on, but often appear in small circles as if bunching together for protection, and note all the dry underbrush.

The area is now like deeper backcountry with the lack of cars and therefore other humans. Aside from Franko and his dog, there seemed to be no humans around at all (except the ranger at Pendola Station).

Thus, no hunters, no fishermen, no mountain bikers — and bless them all, it’s great to be in the simple walking fraternity.

As we neared the Romero-Camuesa Road and could see it in the distance, we hit our goal, the Santa Ynez River. We ended up crossing the still-dry riverbed several times, and there was evidence of recent mini-flooding or spates of runoff, but it was nonetheless dry.

Barren sycamores make their stand amid dry underbrush near the Santa Ynez River. Click to view larger
Barren sycamores make their stand amid dry underbrush near the Santa Ynez River. (Dan McCaslin photo)

If you choose to clamber up onto the Romero-Camuesa Road, it’s then a tedious road walk east a half-mile to P-Bar Flat Camp, then another mile to Pendola Ranger Station, and then another two miles to Big Caliente Hot Springs, if that becomes your goal.

However, you’re now involved with a 15-mile round-trip day hike; I chose to save that one for another time!

Return to shady Cottam Camp and have a delicious lunch, keep drinking your hoarded water, roam the area, then hike the last 2.2 miles back to your vehicle.

However, the final segment up from Blue Creek really demands fitness and focus. The tired hiker, who has already walked almost 8 miles, faces an 1,100-foot elevation gain in the 1½ miles to the dirt road.

The worst, naturally, is when you near the top and your boots grind away and slip in the crumbly scree. Round, marble-sized balls of conglomerate rock reduce your horsepower and make you lurch around on the final very steep ascent.

Since this works out to 9.6 miles if you stop near the road close to P-Bar Flat as we did, if you have children with you consider halting at Blue Canyon Camp (a 3.8 miles round trip) or at shady Cottam Camp (a 6.4 mile round trip).

See how the kids are doing and don’t over-walk them in your own enthusiasm. Bring along plenty of water and healthy snacks as well as a nutritious high-protein lunch.

Our quest led us to the wide and dry upper reaches of the Santa Ynez River, and we chose wisdom over valor and “saved” the further trek to Big Caliente Hot Springs for another day.

4-1-1: Blue Canyon to Cottam Camp to Upper Santa Ynez River

Distance: 9.6 miles round trip.

Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive to Gibraltar Road near Skofield Park, drive slowly to the top watching for hurtling cyclists, turn right (east) on East Camino Cielo and drive until you strike the dirt road section (officially this becomes the Romero-Camuesa Road here leading to Juncal), drive on slowly another mile to the small iron sign at the stand of madrones. Park here, and the rocky trail leading DOWN is marked.

Map: Bryan Conant’s Matilija & 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 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 Santa Ynez River is mostly dry in the upper reaches. Click to view larger
The Santa Ynez River is mostly dry in the upper reaches. (Dan McCaslin photo)

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