A weathered picnic bench along the Live Oak Recreation Trail near Lake Cachuma.
A weathered picnic bench sits along the Live Oak Recreation Trail near Lake Cachuma. The previously equestrian-only trail has been opened to hikers and runners, to the consternation of the horse community. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The previously horses-only trail at Live Oak Camp near Lake Cachuma opened to hikers and walkers last week, much to the dismay of the equestrian community.

For the last 30 years, the Live Oak Camp trail was restricted to equestrians and was the sole equestrian-only trail in Santa Barbara County.

However, a federal Bureau of Reclamation plan expanded the variety of recreation activities in the Lake Cachuma area, according to Jeff Lindgren, superintendent of the Santa Barbara County Parks Department.

He said the plan, covering 2008 through 2010, is the basis for the agreement that the county would manage the lake, which the Board of Supervisors adopted in 2012.

Part of the plan, “alternative two,” included allowing kayaking on the lake, building cabins and yurts, general campground improvements, and the transition of the Live Oak trail into a multiuse route, Lindgren said. Turning the trail into a multiuse trail would allow hikers and bikers on the trail in addition to the traditional equestrian users.

On Thursday, the Live Oak Camp Trail pilot program began and the first four hikers were thrilled to see the “spectacular views of Lake Cachuma from a different perspective,” Lindgren told Noozhawk.

However, the equestrian community is not so ecstatic about sharing the trail with other users, particularly with bikes, said Kathy Rosenthal, president of the Santa Ynez Valley Riders.

Rosenthal told Noozhawk she was surprised to learn about the repurposing of the trail, and said the public was not informed of the change.

“We had a kiosk out at the trailhead that disappeared in the 2019/2020 time frame, so I contacted county parks staff in December to see if we could replace it,” she said. “That’s when they told me there would be a pilot project to allow hikers, and six months later bikers, to the trail.

“I was rather shocked, we had not been notified about it. The public wasn’t notified about it.”

On behalf of the Santa Ynez Valley Riders, Rosenthal said she worked with county parks staff over the past four months to gain any information about the trail and deliberate alternatives that could please both sides.

“We’ve talked with all of our representatives, we’ve talked with the Third District supervisor’s (Joan Hartmann) office,” she said. “The discussions with them have broken down somewhat because we have been given no answers.”

However, Hartmann and Lindgren both said that they have been more than accommodating to the wishes of the equestrian community.

At last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, around 10 members of the equestrian community called in during general public comment in hopes of convincing the board to reconsider the pilot program.

“The proposal for what is billed as a pilot project to change the area into a heavily impacted, high traffic, unattended by rangers, unrestricted in the number of daily users, multiuse trail erroneously defines the area as a multiuse trail when it’s not,” Jessica Schley told the board.

“The Parks Department has, perhaps unintentionally, overreached their authority in attempting to claim this area for their expansion of recreational activities open to the public.”

Some of the other underlying issues that the equestrian community voiced concern over were the safety of horses and horseback riders when dogs and bikes would be allowed on the trail and the environmental damage that could come from allowing other users.

“A lot of us ride out of Live Oak because it is the safest space for equestrian riders,” Rosenthal said. “Indeed it is the only equestrian trail left.

“We as riders are very concerned about reckless mountain bikers speeding down and using the trail.”

Hartmann acknowledged the public interest.

“The equestrian community has really mobilized, and we’ve had a number of meetings with the Parks Department and they have clarified that there will be no dogs allowed,” Hartmann said at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting in response to the public comments.

“Also, that bikes are tabled for a period of time.”

Community members also complained about the lack of monitoring how many hikers are out on the trail at once.

“What (county parks) has done, they have gone on April 15 to open the trail to hikers without controlled numbers on them,” Rosenthal said. “There’s an unlimited number of people and uncontrolled access.”

However, the trail requires registration at the gate and a $10 fee that can be paid at the Lake Cachuma campground or at the trailhead gate, Lindgren said. There are “iron ranger” boxes at the trailhead where users take an envelope, fill out their information, put the money in the envelope, and tear off the registration tab to place it on their parked vehicle’s dashboard, he explained.

“Registration and day-use fee is a way to limit the number of people coming in,” he added.

However, Rosenthal said she believes this method will be ineffective at monitoring trail usage.

“That’s the procedure they’re proposing and I think it’s going to be rather a losing battle for them because it’s an honor system,” she said.

Some of the other concerns voiced by the equestrian community have already been accommodated, Lindgren said. The riders asked to delay allowing bikers on the trail for at least six months, and county parks expanded that delay to 18 months, according to Lindgren.

Additionally, no dogs will be allowed on the trail at any point.

Lindgren said county parks has received many questions over the years about why the trail isn’t open to hikers, so the department looked into the resource management plan and decided that that is something it could allow.

There is signage posted at the trailhead that includes hiker-equestrian etiquette, and Lindgren said he encourages all trail users to be respectful of others.

“We’ve learned in the era of COVID how important being outdoors is to people’s health and well being, and so I think it’s appropriate that we have a pilot program to have hikers at Live Oak,” Hartmann said.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.