The Live Oak Recreational Trails in the Santa Ynez Valley are opening to hikers and trail runners and others for the first time this weekend.
What this means is that 3,000 acres of the most beautiful part of the north side of Cachuma Lake will now be accessible for hiking, trail running, photography and other passive activities.
Lure of the Trail
Many equestrians will not be celebrating this weekend.
For them, Live Oak has been the one place they’ve been able to retreat, to reacquaint themselves with a part of the Old West and the camaraderie of riders side by side, chatting amiably.
A place where life is simple: horse, saddle and rider; the quiet of the open meadows; the calming grace of the lakeside vistas; the rhythm of the trail.
Over the years they’ve felt the sting of a shrinking number of places, areas and trails to ride. Live Oak has been the one sanctuary all their own.
Most equestrians, I think, understand that Live Oak should be shared; the imperative of dwindling open space and increasing use of the outdoors requires more shared use, not less.
It is important, I think, to appreciate what Live Oak means to the equestrian community and be sensitive to their worries.
They worry you won’t understand how to interact with horses, or how you may interact with them. The worry that the trails won’t be as safe.
They especially worry that like other places, eventually they will be forced out of Live Oak as well, especially if mountain biking is allowed in the future.
These fears are real. How we as the new kids on the block interact with equestrians will determine if shared use of Live oak is a success or not.
Most trail users have had little or no contact with equestrians locally. We don’t not know how horses think, how they react or what they will do. Most of us have little experience dealing with them on the trail.
A few simple points may help minimize negative interactions and maximize safe use: Assume an equestrian may be around the corner; as the riders approach stop, then quietly step to the side of the trail; ask the rider what they would like you to do.
The more we learn about each other, the more we will learn to be partners and not antagonists.
What is Live Oak?
From the parking lot near the edge of the Santa Ynez River, you may wonder what is so special about Live Oak. Nothing about the view suggests what lies beyond the looming cliffs across the river.
You might spot a road cutting across the face of one section. That’s known as Chalk Hill. But otherwise not much else to suggest what lies beyond. But that is deceptive.
Live Oak is composed of a long section of the northern coastline of Lake Cachuma, averaging a bit under a mile wide and six miles long. It cuts across the lower drainages of the Boot Canyon and Horse Canyon watersheds, and west to the east side of Santa Cruz Bay.
In between is a series of meadows, deeply incised ravines and canyons and chaparral-covered hillsides.
The meadows are immense and spectacular, the oaks majestic, and the views overwhelming. Much of what is there is hidden, ridges with surprises around each corner, lake views across to the coastal mountains and into the deep interior backcountry.
Once over that first ridge, everything changes. There are two ways to get to that point. The shortest route leads up that road cut to the top of Chalk Hill. Steep and dusty, but the quickest way into the interior.
The route most use — though much longer — meanders east into a small drainage and then back (ironically) to the Chalk Hill intersection. It may be a mile longer but the views are much more dramatic.
From this point, the real adventure begins.
The trail leads gently downhill for a bit over a half mile into one of the most impressive meadows anywhere in the backcountry: 600 acres or so of oak-filled countryside; rich green grasses; mountain vistas; and ceanothus in full bloom.
In the midst of this you’ll find plenty of social trails, dirt roads and places to wander that you’ll no doubt get lost if you aren’t careful. They are also not part of the recognized trail system, and as such are off limits anyway.
Thankfully, cell phones work in most parts of Live Oak. If not where you are, then not too far away.
Looping Back Via the Hill Trail
As the canyon widens and opens into oak-covered meadows, you’ll spot a fenced corral known as Bee Hollow. To the left, a side road provides a means to loop back to Chalk Hill.
Straight ahead leads into the meadow and a half mile of glorious open space. If you plan to loop back via Chalk Hill, an out-and-back for a half mile through the meadow is magic. On the north side of the trail you’ll spot several picnic tables that make for a nice turn around point.,
Created by the intersection of two major side canyons — Boot and Horse canyons — the area is indescribably beautiful. In the early morning and later evenings, you’ll spot deer and horses grazing on the edges and in the middle parts of the meadow.
The open area is sufficiently big enough for viewing from the trail and hiking along it without seeming to disturb the wildlife. Please resist the temptation to get closer.
On the Way Back
If you noted the trail leading south as you came to the Bee Hollow corral, this spur road follows the east side of Horse Canyon towards the Santa Ynez River. You’ll find the Hill Trail route at the point where the spur road begins to descend down towards the lake. This leads up (very steeply) to an overlook point, then just as deeply back down to Chalk Hill.
In all, depending on which of the ways you‘ve taken, the loop is just under 4 miles for the longest; and 3 miles via the Chalk Hill entry in. A caution. That hill is really steep.
Add a bit of meandering and an out and back through Boot Meadow, and plan on 8 miles for the trip..
What’s a Trail?
You should know what I normally would call a jeep road out here is considered a “trail” per the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2010 Recreation Area Management Plan. In reality the trails are reasonably well-maintained jeep roads averaging 12-14 feet in width.
As shown on the map,only the routes in red are considered official trails. This means use is restricted to the ranch trail’s only and not any of the social trails or unmapped jeep roads.
Please keep this in mind when your mind wants you to meander. My intuition leads me to believe that additional trails will be made available in the future as routes can be identified and reviewed for inclusion.
Be patient. In the meantime, stay on the “trails”.
Long-distance hikers and trail runners will want to continue further. West of the Boot Meadow complex, the road follows a long side drainage over another saddle and down into the Santa Cruz drainage.
Not too far west of the meadows, a side trail enters from the left. You’ll note the rustic sign marking the “#5 Loop Trail.”
Continuing ahead leads directly over and down into the Santa Cruz drainage. Making a left loops you back clockwise.
The distance is 5.6 miles either way and the commitment is real. These are 5.6 hard miles, with plenty of short, steep uphills and an equal number of downhills. The route is absolutely spectacular, and from my perspective counterclockwise best, especially in the later afternoons.
Plan on having lots of water, a cell phone if things go wrong, and lots of time. You’ll be doing several thousand feet of elevation gain and a minimum of 12 miles of jeep roads, some of them chopped up from horse and cattle grazing.
What You Should Know
Prepping for a hike at Live Oak isn’t too much different from other hikes, but there are a few things you should know.
» Heat. Late spring, summer and early fall can be extremely hot in the valley. Heat will kill. Water is essential.
» Grazing. There are both horses and cows being grazed at Live Oak, and they are often seen in the Boot Meadow area. The horses can be curious and may approach, but be aware they may charge and have been known to bite. Enjoy their beauty but maintain distance.
» Dogs. Dogs are absolutely NOT permitted at Live Oak. They are completely incompatible with the grazing operations. Please leave your dog at home.
» Going in Groups. Going solo here is not recommended. Bears and mountain lions frequent the area. The grazing operation loses several horses a year to lion predation.
» Wildlife, The magic of Live Oak is the abundance of wildlife, including deer, skunk, turkeys, and others. Enjoy the wildlife quietly and at a distance.
» Equestrians. This has been equestrian country for decades, and sharing it with others is a hard pill to swallow. Make friends, not critics. Learn how to hike, run or use the Live Oak trails in a safe and respectful way that puts a smile rather than a scowl on the face of every rider you meet along the way.
» Trespass. Live Oak shares most of its norther boundary with Rancho San Fernando Rey. You may be arrested should you trespass onto the ranch property. Please stay out.
Getting There: Take Highway 154 westbound over San Marcos Pass — or eastbound from Solvang/Buellton — and take the marked turnoff for Live Oak on the north side of the highway, east of Lake Cachuma.
Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset daily
Entry Fee: $10 per vehicle
Iron Ranger: Pay envelopes
Fee Receipt: Display in vehicle window
Mountain Biking: Not allowed