Our punishing drought continues to pummel the backcountry despite the recent much-appreciated light rainfall. On this challenging 1,900-foot, uphill beast of a hike in colorful Blue Canyon, we noticed how even the chapparal choked back, hammered by thirst, but amazingly there were sprinklings of deep green “winter grass” below old fruit trees at Forbush Flat Camp.
In the 1980s, I overnighted at shady Forbush, next to flowing Gidney Creek, and most of my Crane School adolescent students appreciated the solitude. Yet we were but five miles from Montecito’s Upper Village.
The trails we trod in order to complete this 5.6-mile, uphill push seem a bit complicated, with several signs and some misdirection; thus I direct hiking readers to the 4.1.1. where some details appear.
A look at M.L. Soini’s map of this Blue Canyon beast reveals that this is a shuttle hike requiring two cars parked separately along East Camino Cielo Road. If going solo, which I also enjoy, one needs to conceal a bike at the first water tower and then drive on to the second.
Per Soini’s map, my three friends and I walked down the dirt road toward Pendola Station and the Santa Ynez River, but after a half-mile we spotted this partially obscured iron trail sign: “ROMERO TR. BLUE CYN TR.”
The left-side trail turnoff is actually for the “Northside Romero Trail” (26W14), which drops sharply right into sinuous Blue Canyon itself. The “blue” description arises from the azure and blue-green hues of the peculiar serpentine rocks and ridges lining the watercourse of Escondido Creek.
Once we had delved into Blue Canyon itself, we encountered another more elaborate trail sign dating from the 1930s, and this iron artifact informs us that to reach spacious Blue Canyon Camp requires another half-mile of delicious riparian hiking and scrambling.
Do not take the right turn and head back up the creek (east) to Upper Blue Canyon Camp.
If I chose to bring my 9-year-old grandsons into some easy almost-backcountry camping, then lovely Blue Canyon Camp with its rickety wooden table, ice can stoves and flat tentspots might top my list.
In November, the tiny nearby rivulets were dry, but one could see small pools. Tote your own water in, and remember no fires allowed — midspring overnight camping here is best, and it’s only a mile down into Blue Camp (sometimes confusingly labeled Lower Blue Camp).
From there, it will be another punishing half-mile through dense foliage, including many oak trees, stands of sycamores and many types of soft chaparral.
Plenty of red-leaved poison oak lurks beside the obvious footpath, and we were all completely covered with long trousers, long-sleeved shirts, wide-brim hats and even gloves.
The canyon narrows, and some flies and gnats hassled us as we began to sweat in the unseasonal heat. On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, while we hiked the temperature in Santa Barbara was hotter than 85 F, and we reckoned that by 11 a.m. it had topped that back in gnarly Blue Canyon.
A few humans have freely chosen to live for decades “back here,” but not far from urban civilization and Montecito.
The 1,600-foot Cottam Camp — in austere but captivating Cottam Meadow — was where Albert Cottam lived when he built a wooden cabin there during World War I, in 1915. There are a few remnants at his site, but they are difficult to locate.
On up our wending way in November, we also knew that an earlier homesteader and anglo pioneer had erected his cabin and established a surprising orchard with olive, pear and apple trees at a higher spring site in 1910.
The U.S. Forest Service named the area Forbush Flat in memory of Fred Washington Forbush, and it became a good resting spot for the three of us as we had labored mightily on the very steep, 1.5-mile section rising from Cottam Camp to the aforesaid Forbush Flat Camp.
What would early Anthropocene, early 20th century living have been like in Blue Canyon for the Cottam and Forbush families? I think it might have been an ideal combination of rusticity and silence along intermittent creeks — and Gidney Spring at Forbush seems mostly reliable as a water source.
We, too, often imagine that the pre-industrial civilization living styles had to be awful, and so limited in terms of energy sources and the so-called mod-cons.
Likely these families, and the Hiram Wheat clan over on the Sisquoc in the 1880s, enjoyed living very close to nature, bagged plenty of mule deer and managed to make some trade with the nearby Montecito townlet.
Anthropologist James Scott agrees with N. Hariri and others when he summarizes that:
Life outside the state [central government] — life as a “barbarian” — may
often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for
the non-elites inside civilization. [p. xii]
In short, the agricultural revolution, domestication of animals and creation of government with its taxes and coercions don’t automatically create a better lifestyle for humans.
Many postmodern Americans subconsciously agree, based on how many have freely chosen to move away from city centers and congestion because of the COVID-19 pandemic and irritating restrictions. These people, freed from the office tyranny, claim that rural living is much better than remaining in New York City, congested Chicago or smog-ridden Los Angeles.
Summarizing this demanding hike: It’s a steep downhill to the second iron sign shown in the photographs and another easy half-mile to seductive Blue Canyon Camp. All the rest of this trek ascends, first gradually and wending into glorious Cottam Camp — take a nice break here and water up — then it’s almost 2,000 feet up to Forbush Flat (1.5 miles) and a rest there, then a final terrible push from the rare madrones at Forbush Camp 1.4 tough miles to the water tower on East Camino Cielo Road. This water tower, marked in blue on the Soini map, should be where you dropped the first car on the way in.
Since I spent six weeks in Germany during August and September, despite urban hiking there, these septuagenarian legs had weakened and the Cottam to Forbush stretch torched my muscles even while inspiring the heart and mind.
If we imagine the physical brain as a sort of carburetor, the intense uphill hiking effort in 90 degrees-plus conditions constituted a ferocious brain-flush, and I felt near to having a few interesting visions as I struggled and fell far behind my pals.
Yes, I had more than three liters of water, all the right gear and good trail buddies, so I felt little anxiety but rather a humongous happiness as the sky seemed bluer, spirits peaked, endorphins exploded, and I remembered that I have to bring my German grandsons here soon to overnight in the Blue!
» Hiking: Half-mile to the East Camino Cielo Road dirt extension to Romero Northside Trail (iron sign) that leads into Blue Canyon on Romero Northside Trail to Blue Canyon Camp (1,680 feet; joins Blue Canyon Trail here). 1.2 miles on to Cottam Camp on the Blue Canyon Trail. 1.5 miles to Forbush Flat Camp. 1.4 miles back up to East Camino Cielo Road at the first water tower (3,500 feet). 5.6-mile total hike with 1,900-foot elevation gain from Blue Canyon Camp to East Camino Cielo Road. I drank water frequently and did mix in electrolyte power to avoid cramping.
» Driving: Take Gibraltar Road to East Camino Cielo Road, turn right and drive to the end (barred entry to the dirt road section) and park near the second concrete water tower. Drop the first car at the “blue” painted first water tower (Soini map). The most readable map is Raymond Ford’s “Santa Barbara Frontcountry Map”; see also Craig Carey’s “Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura” (Wilderness Press, 2021 color edition), his Route 20 (pp. 117ff.) but note he starts his hike at Upper Blue Canyon Camp, currently unreachable from the East Camino Road dirt extension (road closure has lasted years now).
» Reading: James C. Scott, “Against the Grain” (Yale, 2017), especially the Introduction and Chapter 7. N. Hariri, “Sapiens.”
— 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.