After a month in Bavaria and then a bedridden week in my Westside Santa Barbara crib overcoming COVID-19, I shouted joyfully as my colleagues and I drove into Reyes Peak Campground in late August and found favored site No. 3 shady and unoccupied.
At 7,000 feet and anchored amid thickly scattered conifers, the six U.S. Forest Service campsites beckon those of us craving lower temperatures, relative solitude and the aroma of fragrant conifers. The deep shade and elevation combined to hold the midsummer temperatures down to an acceptable maximum of 75 degrees.
A lovely salubrious breeze most of the day cooled us after some easy hiking down to Chorro Grande Springs.
Hearing about the many rescues that Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue has had to make so far this summer, and even after the Jake Parks tragedy, it seems like every week a Santa Barbaran or two decides to defy summer’s heat and just charge up to some inspiring viewpoint on our frontside.
Perhaps they’ll head to Tin Shack Meadow up Rattlesnake Canyon, or Inspiration Point, or along the upper Romero Canyon Trail.
Even when 98% of the hikers follow hot-weather common-sense rules, a tiny minority will give Search and Rescue plenty of work. In addition to the common-sense rules, my 50 years of hiking locally in the summertime have led me to these four key essentials: Start hiking very early in the day (I often start Rattlesnake Canyon at 6 a.m.), carry ample water, have a seasoned buddy-hiker along, and have a map.
(A cellphone is a good idea, but don’t count on complete coverage.)
In order to avoid sending anyone into heat stroke or worse, I’m focusing the next few columns on higher-elevation camping sites that will draw us into cooler worlds away from the broiling backcountry itself (my usual haunts). Driving through Ojai on Aug. 23, I recorded the temperature at 101 degrees.
We knew three fairly easy day hikes from lofty Reyes Peak Campground to check water levels at local mountainside springs and could annotate the drought we now experience. We encourage hikers to roam these old-growth conifer regions.
From any site at Reyes Peak Campground, walk to the end of the paved section until you reach the large sign for trail 23W05 near site No. 6, but avoid the “Reyes Peak Trail” direction and instead drop down sharply on the Chorro Grande Springs Trail (23W05).
You descend steeply for just 0.9 mile through mixed conifers and oaks and along willow-laden dry streambeds. At the top — 7,150 feet — the Jeffrey and ponderosa pines dominate, but as you drop the 800 feet, you encounter more oaks and chaparral amid the huge boulders above the springs site (6,450 feet).
Along the trail, hikers inhale spectacular views toward the sea, including the local coastal range, and on clear days one can pick out the dark silhouette of the Conejo Mountains and Point Mugu.
There were no hikers around when we began to walk at a fairly late 8 a.m., and we accepted the late start since we would not be walking the additional four miles descending all the way to Highway 33, but would halt to check out Chorro Grande Springs (also a tent-camping site).
We found the spring site completely dry, with no moisture at all dripping out of the pipe (see photo). Craig Carey’s authoritative Los Padres south book in its second edition terms this water source a “typically reliable spring bubbling” beneath the massive boulder — not true in our current drought (4.1.1.).
While there had been some flies and a few yellowjackets up top at the Reyes Peak Campground, the lack of any water at all meant few flying insects at Chorro Grande Springs.
I’ve been there many times, and this occasion revealed the least moisture (none) and consequent lack of biting insects and yellowjackets. After exploring around, in increasing heat, we slowly trudged back up, taking frequent pulls on our water bottles and seeking as much cover as possible.
During an overnight at Reyes Peak Camp, we did have to contend with some persistent yellowjackets and even a few mosquitoes, voracious for moisture or blood.
Despite my best efforts at shooing them away, one spoonful of barley soup had captured a drowning yellowjacket, and it promptly stung the inside of my left cheek while chewing — it is barely visible in the photograph but felt huge to my tongue.
Later, it was hard to chew without biting the swollen cheek. I failed to carry the Benadryl I usually have in my medical kit, but also know I’m not allergic since this has happened before.
The residual effect was like a moderate toothache all night, adding to my “pleasure” while gazing at the twinkling stars.
Parks Management Co. is the concessionaire at Reyes Peak Campground, but no one seems to come up to collect fees Tuesdays through Thursdays, or to maintain the only restroom.
Parks Management has been delinquent in keeping the single antiquated pit toilet at Reyes Peak Campground sanitary or free of swarming yellowjackets. An entire hive has moved into the ancient structure, and I assure you that no human would sit on the “throne” there without getting stung (or bitten) in sensitive posterior areas.
We did not check the water levels at nearby Raspberry Spring (a hike down the other side) or at Maguire Spring, but we imagine they are either dry or barely trickling. The drought is in earnest, so the main consideration if you plan to car camp at Reyes is to bring ample water, at least a gallon a day per person.
The coniferous glades here at Reyes Peak (on Pine Mountain) possess the stunning beauty of old-growth pines, although the two-hour drive discourages many. Assemble your supplies and children, drive through Ojai to Reyes Peak Campground, stay for free midweek, and enjoy the cooler temperatures at 7,000 feet.
» Bring water!
» Directions: Drive south on Highway 101 to the Highway 33 turnoff at Ventura. Motor through Ojai and continue on the lonely Highway 33 to the Pine Mountain Road turnoff (right) and drive to the end of the paved section to reach Reyes Peak Campground.
» Books: Craig Carey, “Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura” (Wilderness Press, 2nd edition, 2021), p. 267 for “reliable.”
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.