The term “oak” appears in the names of many camps I’ve roamed through in the Santa Barbara backcountry — Twin Oaks, Nineteen Oaks, Oak Camp (on Chorro Grande Trail), Liveoak Camp and more — and everyone enjoys the masses of canyon oaks lining local creeks such as Jesusita, Rattlesnake, Romero, Cold Spring and others.
What is it about the spread of the more than 500 types of oaks scattered on the five main continents of the Earth that so interests arborists?
North America alone boasts more than 90 species of oak trees that live across the continent, mostly red oaks and white oaks. Douglas Tallamy’s intriguing exploration of “The Nature of Oaks” takes a month-by-month approach, stressing that the rich acorn supplies dumped on the ground “support more forms of life and more fascinating interactions than any other tree genus in North America” (p. 12). I am neither an arborist nor a botanist, but Tallamy’s briskly-written tome held my interest, and at heart he’s an entomologist and friend of the Earth.
Oak trees are generally long-lived, “and members of the white oak group, as well as species in the red oak and canyon oak groups, can easily live many hundreds of years if their roots are given free rein” (Tallamy, p. 11). Most of our Santa Barbara frontcountry oaks are canyon oaks and coastal live oak trees, and I believe a few hoary monsters and survivors of chaparral wildfire can make it to at least 300 years.
With such a lengthy lifespan, a single oak like the one shown may drop up to 3 million acorns over its life, and these pellets of energy serve as a lifeline to bears, mule deer, raccoons, hundreds of moth species, rodents, several butterfly and dozens of bird species. Oak seedlings, in addition, form a favored meal for browsing white-tailed deer and mule deer.
At the same time I’m reading this information in Tallamy’s book, I’ve been admiring the oaks in and above our frontcountry streambeds while hiking around. During cataract surgery on the eyes (over weeks), I’ve stayed more to the ocean side of our Santa Ynez Mountains and noticed the difference with deciduous valley oaks over in the backcountry but canyon oaks here. I’ve also seen a big uptick in local hikers and runners pacing the frontcountry trails. While this isn’t exactly “news,” the situation has intensified, and even as Omicron cases ease, frontcountry trails usage continues to surge.
The idea of more humans using the hills and trails is thrilling for all of us extra-urban enthusiasts — get outta town and hike up into our chaparral-clad hills! Mental health almost demands this, yet more trail users present new issues, too.
Kudos to those brave adults who entice or drag (or bribe) their kids up into our local foothills for hiking, botanizing, plant and animal ID events, and leaping into cold pools. All adults and teachers know that they, too, will relocate a tad of juvenescence and relaxation by the same gurgling stream.
Falling down into the rabbit hole of this Anthropocene Age, I respect the perspicacity of the mind in adults who hike locally and camp out occasionally.
Oak trees reproduce through their acorns, and this irregular process is called masting. Some years, the mast (all the acorns lying on the ground) is tiny or even absent; other years, some mast appears, and occasionally a gigantic profusion of acorns litter the soil. This last is called “adaptive design” and is an evolutionary mechanism that shields some of the acorns from the zillions of acorn predators.
Tallamy avers that oak trees can “partition available energy — some years they allocate it to growth, other years they direct energy toward reproduction” (p. 20). This sounds like a kind of group intelligence, and I’ll never look at an oak grove the same way again. Oaks are ultimately a type of beech tree, and Peter Wohleben and others have shown that some of these arboreal beech elders show a sort of group mind and collective intelligence (4.1.1.).
Recently, I read that Dillon Osleger of the SAGE Trail Alliance determined that of the approximately 250,000 yearly riding/hiking/running trips, the big majority occur on these three main frontcountry routes — the Jesusita Trail, the Cold Spring Trail and the Romero Trail. While I would add Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Park Trail to his list of over-booked local trails, the truth is there are several alternative paths within reach.
The proviso stands that some of the various trailheads are a bit farther away, requiring a longer car drive/bike ride from town. Whether hiking or running the local trails, the white ceanothus — “mountain snow,” as it’s often termed — glows in full fragrant bloom on our chaparral-clad frontcountry hillsides. The local creeks run strongly down to the sea, and the rising blue dicks (brodiaea/shikh’o’n) wave as harbingers of early spring, but it’s only February.
I’m not quite sure how Dillon got the “250,000 per year” number, but he’s certainly correct to note the stunning overuse of the Jesusita, Cold Spring and Romero trails. It may explain why in my 50 years roaming around the Santa Barbara backcountry and frontcountry, I’ve come to avoid that beautiful bustling trio like the plague. At these sites, parking can be bad, trails are sadly often overcrowded on weekends, and the unhappy mix of humans, horses and mountain bikes (especially on Romero Trail) discourages the “forest bathing” and silent rejuvenation most of us seek when we forge up local trails.
Here are a few alternative trails that I have enjoyed. Most are fairly close to town, so give a couple a try (see links to my articles for most of them, including trailhead information).
I leave off Hot Springs Trail because of the very cramped parking conditions there and recommend avoiding Tunnel Trail during red flag windy days (parking also difficult there).
» Arroyo Burro Trail (branches off the Jesusita Trail)
» Blue Canyon (shuttle)
» Tunnel Connector Trail (begins at top of Rattlesnake Canyon Trail)
» Ellwood Bluffs — feels backcountry above the sea!
» Elings Park — to second hill and keep looping; try entering the back way at top of Valerio
» Bill Wallace Trail (inland from El Capitan State Beach)
» Douglas Tallamy, “The Nature of Oaks” — The rich ecology of our most essential native trees (Timber Press, 2021); SAGE Trail Alliance; Peter Wohlleben, “The Hidden Life of Trees” (2015); Timbrook’s “Chumash Ethnobotany for the Edible Blue Dicks” (Dichelostemma capitatum) (pp. 75-77); the frontcountry map I prefer is Raymond Ford’s “A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Front Country Map” (2011).
— 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.