This spring the dream of hiking from town to the top of the mountains behind Carpinteria will come alive again, 40 years after lower parts of the Franklin Trail were closed to the public by avocado and other ranch owners.
Within a few years, the brush grew in so thickly that it become impossible to find the trail, let along hike it all the way to the crest.
A year ago, a preliminary trail line was opened, thanks to the work of two twin towers, brothers Andy and Nicky Culbertson, who worked with me and a host of volunteers to chainsaw through some of the toughest brush anywhere so that we could discover what condition the trail was in.
Though it took another year to get permission to begin restoring the trail to its former glory, in the next few months, crews from Los Padres Forest Association (LPFA) and the Santa Barbara County Trails Council (SBCTC) will be completing the final work on the trail to make it safe for multi-use and as sustainable as possible.
Ten Years in the Works
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, cheap or quick.
In April 2007, I joined a friend, Kalon Kelley, in an effort to discover the trail. The rough dirt road now designated as the Divide Peak OHV route took us to a saddle along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains where we believed it crossed over and dropped down into the upper Santa Ynez watershed.
Kalon had preprogrammed a few GPS coordinates into a tiny wrist-watch style Garmin receiver and began exploring the crest. Countless dozers and road graders had pretty much chopped up the road, leaving no trace of where the trail might cut down the front side of the mountain.
An hour later, I heard a shout. “I found the trail!” Kalon yelled out.
He’d more or less gone to a high point and then busted his way through the brush straight downhill to a point where the trail cut across the hill right below him.
A few weeks later we organized the first work day from the top of the trail we’d found that day, cutting through heavy brush down a series of switchbacks that seemed to be endless, winding their way down an incredible steep sandstone wall that was so vertical that we couldn’t see the hillside immediately below us.
By the end of the day, we’d cut through at least a half-mile of brush, but it was clear that the drive was way too long to tackle the trail from the top. We agreed our next step ought to be find the point where the trail started up the mountain wall on the lower side and work our way up from there.
Access From Below
The big issue then was the large chunk of private land we’d need to get through to reach that point. Thankfully, the owners of Rancho Monte Alegre (RMA) were cooperative and the ranch manager, Stewart Welch, agreed to guide us up through the maze of jeep and Edison roads to a point where he thought the trail might be.
When Stewart left us at the bottom of one of the many Edison towers that cut across the canyons, I didn’t think either Kalon or I thought we had a chance of finding our way back down. But right then, who cared?
It turned out that finding the trail was even more difficult that it had been from up on top. Decades of grading had cut the lower part of the trail off, leaving it hanging about 25 feet above the jeep road on a thin slice of ridge top.
This time, I spotted what looked like the trail, a thin line cutting across the hill. Kalon rushed up the road, and once he’d spotted the slight horizontal cut I’d seen, he agreed we needed to explore it further.
The problem was that the road cut was almost vertical and neither of us could make it up without sliding back down. I headed back to my truck for a Pulaski, which is a fancy name for a tool that works both as an ax and a cutting and grubbing tool.
Within minutes we’d cut a series of toe holds in the cliff, and after a few tries worked our way up to a point where we could grab onto a ceanothus bush and haul ourselves onto flatter ground. A few minutes of exploration convinced both of us we’d found the lower trailhead.
Not So Fast
It would have been a nice culmination to our adventures to be able to say that we’d finally helped turn a corner in getting the Franklin Trail re-opened after so many years, but “things happened.”
The first of these was that the Zaca Fire began just two months after we’d found the lower trailhead, and the Forest Service had no time for anything else. The economy also was slowing and would basically crash not too long later.
As a result, the RMA development project was put on hold and along with it the easement through their land.
Meanwhile, progress on two other easements through several lower properties, including the Persoon nurseries and Horton Ranch, were also being slow walked while Santa Barbara County Parks and the owners talked, talked and talked more. County Parks was also having issues getting the needed grants through a California recreational grants program.
But just at the time when Kalon and I were both having “not in our lifetimes” kind of thoughts, things began to turn.
Land Trusts Get Involved.
A glimmer of hope that the trail might be opened in the near future appeared when negotiations began for the development of conservation easements on several of the properties.
In 2004, the RMA Partners approached the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to discuss a conservation easement that would help protect the natural and agricultural resources and provide the long sought trail easement that could re-open the Franklin Trail.
With support from the TPL, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County became an active partner, both in securing easements and eventually took the lead in managing the project.
Was it possible agreements could be hammered out that would allow the county to secure the needed easements? All that was remained at this point was to find the money it would take to reopen the trail, and lots of it.
Friends of the Franklin Trail Emerge.
Enter long time trail supporters Jane Murray and Bud Girard, both members of the Montecito Trails Foundation and long time Carpinteria residents, who stepped up and took the lead.
With Bud working with the county and land trust on the technical issues and Jane helping to spearhead the fundraising side, a group known as the Friends of the Franklin Trail was born in 2010.
Working with the Horton Ranch and beginning discussions with Johannes Persoon on the easement through his nursery, by early 2013 it was clear the trail could become a reality.
Thanks to Bud and Jane, as well as a fortuitous grant from the state’s recreational trails program, enough funds had been collected to construct the trail, bridge and other amenities. By late spring 2013, the first phase of the effort to reopen the Franklin Trail was ready to begin.
The First Two Phases Open
Though barely making a dent in completing the entire trail — just a bit more than a mile of the 7.9 miles of the full front country portion of the trail — when the first phase was opened to the public, the cheer could be heard throughout the Carpinteria Valley.
Two years later, when the Phase 2 section of the Franklin Trail through Rancho Monte Alegre was opened as well, all that remained was the to open the trail to the crest — the last section through Forest Service land.
While no easements were needed for opening up the forest part of the trail, it turned out that securing the needed environmental approvals and doing the initial brushing to open the trail enough took far longer than any of us had imagined.
But thanks to the support from a local company by the name of Leidos, which donated a lot of time for the surveys and reports, Santa Barbara District Ranger Pancho Sanchez signed off on the work on Dec. 9, 2016.
Finally, actual construction of the historic trail began in late January! With the LPFA taking the lead in providing volunteers for a number of trail work days and a three-person trail crew that I led, we began widening the trail in places where the drop-offs were extremely dangerous, making repairs to a series of slides that blocked the trail, and brushing out the corridor to make it accessible for multi-use.
Franklin Trail Blazers
Much of this effort was made possible by a second round of fundraising led primarily by the Santa Barbara County Trails Council and a number of Carpinteria women who’d begun to hike the trail regularly and dubbed themselves the Franklin Trail Blazers.
Using a Facebook page they created, the women began to post blog entries about their hikes and challenging others to join them.
Given the popularity of their Facebook page, one of the women, Beth Cox, who was hiking the trail almost every day, mentioned to a few of her friends that it might be a great idea if they could turn the exercise into a challenge of sorts and raise funds for the trail at the same time.
Using the Blazers Facebook page, she floated the idea of challenging the Franklin hikers to see who could do the trail the most times in November, and to contribute a dollar for every trip they made.
Turkey Trot Tango
As it turned out, everyone loved the idea. Nicknamed the Turkey Trot, the event was a great success and raised several thousand dollars. Another Carpinteria tradition had been born.
Encouraged by Beth’s efforts and the success of the initial event, two other Carpinteria women who had been hiking the trail regularly, Kim Fly and Patricia Albert, joined with Beth to make the Turkey Trot an even bigger event in 2016 as a way of helping raise funds for the restoration on the forest section of the trail.
“We renamed the Turkey Trot to the ‘Turkey Trot and Tread’ to include mountain bike riders,” Kim remembers. “Then we invited everyone we knew who participated in the 2015 fundraiser and all our friends to raise even more money by turning it into a jog-a-thon style effort
“To encourage participation, we offered prizes for the top three people in each category for: the most trips on the trail; most money raised; and most creative pictures on our Facebook page. The event took place over a 40-day period from November 1 through December 9.”
The response was amazing.
“The event not only raised over $13,000,” Kim added, “but it brought the Franklin trail user community together. People would stop on the trail to support us and cheer each other on.”
Trail Restoration in Progress
It is now late April, and the progress in opening up the last remaining section of the Franklin Trail is nearing completion. All that remains is to clear out is a last half-mile series of switchbacks that climb 700 feet to the crest.
Our high point is not too far from the spot that Kalon and I were able to make our way down to a decade ago, when we first explored for and discovered the top end of the trail in April 2007.
If the weather cooperates and fire season does not keep us from completing our work, for the first time in a century, the historic Franklin Trail will be fully open again.
[Noozhawk’s note: The author is past president of the LPFA and past executive director of the SBCTC. He has been actively involved both as a volunteer and paid crew leader for both organizations. He has contributed over 80 days of volunteer time helping to reopen the Franklin Trail over the past 10 years. Ray also served as the lead for the construction of the Phase 1 part of the single track trail and is managing the restoration of the Forest Service section of the Franklin Trail.]
— Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.