When it finally rains in Santa Barbara, we appreciate the blessing and roam around outside in the wet with amazed gratitude. As I noted in the column about hiking Haskell’s to Naples Point, when we do have significant rain, the backcountry trails remain quite fragile and too muddy to use without wrecking them.
On Jan. 16, a couple of friends and I hiked the entire loop of the wonderful Bill Wallace Trail, which ends at the front of the private El Capitan Canyon Resort campground. This is where the Jan. 20 debris flow disaster happened.
The demanding mid-January, 12-mile hike came right after a few days of much-needed rain. Even the modest two-inch total had eliminated most backcountry hikes (several road closures were in effect), and as I looked around at my long list of poor-weather hikes, there was the Bill Wallace Trail.
Wallace is a former Santa Barbara County supervisor and environmental activist for whom this new trail was named when it finally opened in 2011. The trail basically circumnavigates the 2,500 acres of former ranch property in a gigantic oval, and is now part of El Capitan State Park.
We should recognize the combined efforts of The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, El Capitan Canyon Resort, Friends of Channel Coast State Parks, California State Parks and a host of individuals for making this vision reality.
When you begin hiking on the dirt fire road (former ranch road), you realize you will be ascending sharply, and that the Sherpa Fire damage was intense. That mid-June 2016 blaze burned 1,400 acres, and it felt like my friends and I circumnavigated most of the damage as well as hiked right through some of it.
Setting out from my parked truck, we ambled along the dirt road and shortly came to a trail sign (there are several along the obvious route), and my friend Peter, who has done this venture many times, said take the “easy” direction indicated on the sign since it would be a long, 12-mile day even without the additional ascent on the “hard” route.
There is a great deal of ascending, then descending, then hiking back up the road again, so this day hike is also a terrific workout.
The fire road’s undulations can wear the hiker out, yet he remains entranced by the amazing views and the extent of the Sherpa Fire damage even after seven months. Six miles in, at the halfway point of our trek, we saunter through what some have called “machine-gun mesa” — there’s a gigantic table there suitable for Paul Bunyan or a Cyclops.
After a lunch stop at the table (the equally huge wooden bench burned in the fire, but the table did not), the road heads steeply down and you enter a riparian area while crossing El Capitan Creek, which was flowing well on Jan. 16. We continue to see burn all around, and some rapid recovery as well with glorious green winter grasses.
The extent of the fire damage surprises us, and the amount of erosion concerns us, too, given it was only a two-inch rain and it spread over a few days.
We read in John McPhee’s now-classic 1989 book The Control of Nature that “in the course of a conflagration, chaparral soil, which is not much for soaking up water in the first place, experiences a chemical change and, a little below its surface, becomes waterproof” (p. 212).
You return several miles with wonderful vistas out to sea as well as back toward Dos Pueblos Ranch and Goleta. The wandering trail eventually drops steeply down to the entrance of the private El Capitan Resort.
Our observations made us wonder what might happen if another, more intense rainstorm came in. The bright green winter grass seen in the lead photo betrays burned hillsides barely holding together; in the same photo, you can see a few of the El Capitan Canyon Resort’s metal-roofed buildings.
I returned on Jan. 31 to see how the land was doing, to see the debris flow damage and to check on the parking — the dirt lot was dry enough and parking was easy (see 4.1.1.). Santa Barbara residents appreciate how spring can be happening in our climate during the middle of winter.
Over in Rattlesnake Canyon, the white ceanothus was already blooming in late January, and at the end of January, I saw exotic green growth happening at the start of the Bill Wallace Trail. The fragrances were overwhelming, and the contrast to mid-January was striking.
McPhee, in his chapter “Los Angeles against the mountains,” supplies an insight that explains how so many cars (22) were destroyed in the disastrous Jan. 20 El Capitan Canyon debris flow, but fortunately no lives were lost (there had been guests in a few of the buildings that floated downstream): “Debris flows generally are much less destructive of life than of property. People get out of the way” (p. 185). And humans can get out of the way because what happened there wasn’t a mudslide, a landslide, a rock avalanche or a flash flood.
When we hiked the long and strenuous Bill Wallace Trail, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday. When we get time to honor a fallen hero, one way to do so is to take a significant hike with family and especially children, bring plenty of snacks and find time along the way to talk about King, and also about the real Bill Wallace’s commitment to our local environment.
At the end of your hike, you find yourself at the entrance to the concession at El Capitan Canyon Resort — check out the elaborate map shown there and retrace your hike on the wooden board. You then walk about ¼-mile over to Oceanmesa RV Park and your car.
» Driving directions: Take Highway 101 18 miles north to the El Capitan State Beach offramp. At the bottom of the ramp, drive straight ahead on the continuing frontage road about a half-mile (do NOT go into El Cap Canyon private campground, do NOT get back on the freeway), and follow the signs for Oceanmesa RV Park. At the Ocean Mesa sign (1000 Terrace Lane), turn right and park in the rough dirt lot (13 huge boulders and a green field) for the Bill Wallace Trail. Begin hiking on the dirt fire road (and you will be on it about 85 percent of the trip).
— 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 email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.