In an unexpected twist, just as Los Padres National Forest officially ended its Thomas Fire burn area closure, Santa Barbara city and county officials indicated their agencies would not be reopening their sections of the popular front country trails any time soon.
“Until County Parks receives more information regarding conditions on trails within their jurisdiction, and specifically those relating to public safety issues, the trails will remain closed,” said Brian Yanez, deputy director of the Santa Barbara County Parks Division.
Rich Hanna, assistant director of the Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation Department, echoed the position.
“We intend to keep our portions of the trails within Cold Spring Canyon closed for safety reasons,” he said. “These trails are still unstable. They are not safe at this time.”
Caught Off Guard
City and county officials I’ve talked with were caught off guard when Los Padres National Forest lifted the closure order May 24. By the next day, however, it was clear they were not in favor of the decision.
To emphasize their positions, new trail closure signs have been posted at many of the popular front country trailheads, including those in Cold Spring, Hot Springs, San Ysidro and Buena Vista canyons. It is unclear when these closures might be lifted but that will not likely be soon.
A number of other things remain unclear. With the national forest closure order lifted, it will be up to city and county officials to monitor their trail closures. Whether citations will be issued or what the potential penalties will be for those who violate the orders is unknown at this time.
Nor is it clear if the closures will also include portions of city property or county jurisdiction that have legal U.S. Forest Service easements across them. Many of the front country trails, including the Cold Springs, McMenemy and San Ysidro trails have easements that date back to the 1960s and as such are managed by the Forest Service.
Both the city and county closures are also trail rather than area closures, meaning that they apply only to the trails and not the surrounding land. Using Cold Spring as an example, most of those who’ve been entering the closed potions of the burn area have been doing so by making their way straight up the canyon rather than by the trail.
For those who do want to get back out on the front country trails but are now totally confused by where to go, here is a rundown of the trails within the burn area and what you should know:
Cold Spring Canyon
All of the Cold Spring trails within the canyon are currently closed. All of the West Fork Trail is either on city-owned land or under county jurisdiction. The East Fork Trail to the power lines is entirely on city land. The Ridge Trail crosses through city and private lands but was constructed illegally and may require environmental review and acquisition of easements before any improvements can be made.
In terms of parking, for those who’d like to walk to the trailhead, the eastern portion of Mountain Drive is within the disaster exclusion zone, is posted with “Road Closed” signs west of Hot Springs Road, and is not accessible by vehicle.
The west part of Mountain Drive from the Cold Spring Road intersection down to the trailhead is also closed, but there is parking along Mountain Drive west of the intersection.
Hot Springs Canyon
The Hot Springs Trail is closed from the trailhead along East Mountain Drive and the turnoff to the McMenemy Trail. Currently, there is no access to the upper part of Hot Springs Canyon except from San Ysidro Canyon via the McMenemy Trail or jeepways.
San Ysidro Canyon
The lower San Ysidro trailhead is closed by county order, and due to construction work in the area, security guards are preventing access to the trailhead. The indication is that the trailhead will not be open to the public for quite a few months.
Thanks to quick work by the Montecito Trails Foundation, county parks has reopened the Wiman and Old Pueblo trails. These trails provide a connection to San Ysidro Canyon, the McMenemy Trail and the upper part of San Ysidro Canyon.
Parking is limited near the Wiman trailhead. Users should park well off the road to keep it open so that heavy equipment can get through.
Buena Vista Canyon
The lower part of Buena Vista Canyon for the first .3 miles is closed. Beyond that, the trail is technically open but completely washed out in many places. Access to the upper canyon is either via jeepways in San Ysidro or Romero canyons.
There is also no easement on the upper part of the trail, which may complicate restoration efforts in the future. For hikers who might want to use the upper part of the Buena Vista Trail as a through way from San Ysidro to Romero canyons, the west connector to San Ysidro is completely overgrown and difficult to hike without poles. Use extreme caution if you plan on checking out this trail.
Romero Canyon is open to all users. However, Bella Vista Lane is closed for 50 yards on either side of the creek crossing to repair damage. There is some parking on the west side farther away from the crossing but it is limited.
All of the jeep roads maintained by Southern California Edison have been cleared out and are in the best shape they’ve been in years. To the west, the jeep road leading to the upper part of Buena Vista Canyon is open (but steep!). However, the single trail down into Buena Vista has not been repaired and caution should be used if descending it.
To the east, the jeepway is in great shape to the end of the Edison-maintained portion. Beyond that, the historic Romero jeepway to the crest is passable but has a great deal of rock and other debris on it that requires a fair amount of scrambling. Mountain bikers will carry their bikes in a lot of places.
Work to reopen the damaged parts of the jeepway is underway and, hopefully, will be completed in the next few weeks.
Both the lower and upper parts of the Franklin Trail are open to the crest. The lower portion has been restored and provides an excellent one mile walk up to the power lines. Beyond that, the next four miles of jeep road is open and safe for multiuse.
The last portion of the trail to the crest is open but has not been restored. It is passable with extreme care for hikers only.