With my last completely free weekend for a while looming upon me, I decided a quick solo overnighter was in order. I wanted to try something different from my usual jaunts in the San Rafael or Sespe Wildernesses, so I planned a loop starting at the San Ysidro Trailhead in Montecito and ending back at my home in Toro Canyon.
It was a great excuse to also try out some new gear, including a NeoAir inflatable sleeping pad and a ULA Circuit pack. I packed everything up Friday night, with a fairly light (for me) load of about 22 lbs (including food and 2L of water) and went to bed excited about my impending adventure.
I was dropped off at the San Ysidro trailhead early Saturday morning.
While it was nice and cool, I made quick progress up the canyon. I stopped for a brief moment at an 80 ft waterfall, snapped off a couple of photos since it's running pretty well at the moment and then hit the switchbacks to the top.
The trailhead started at an elevation of 431 feet and over the course of about 4.3 miles, rises to an elevation of 3,460 feet. Wildflowers have started to pop up along the trail, helping to add a little color to the otherwise gray/green chaparral. Once at the top, it was clear and windy and the views of the Channel Islands from Camino Cielo Road were awesome but a little chilly so I couldn't linger that long.
I traversed west about a quarter mile towards the top of the Cold Springs Trail where I’d pick up my next section of trail. As I came around the final corner and the parking turnout came into view, I was in shock. There must have been 15 cars parked there… I figured, oh well, so much for my peaceful solo trip!
Before continuing on into the now presumed-to-be hordes of campers awaiting me below, I scrambled up the loose soil to the peak next to a brush fire water tank, ate a quick snack under the pine trees, put on my windshirt, snapped a photo or two of the vistas and then headed down the Cold Springs Trail to Forbush Flat.
On the way down, I passed a group of hikers stopped at a spring box enjoying the wildflowers that were blooming on the shaded north-facing slopes. That group accounted for the source of at least some of the cars. Continuing along, I could hear voices rising up from below as I descended the canyon. Upon reaching the campsite at Forbush Flat, I encountered a group of children and their parents packing up and getting ready to hike out from their first overnight backpacking trip. Everyone seemed in good spirits. Pretty cool… I wish I had started backpacking as early in life as these kids. With this group on their way out, I was again by myself.
The camp at Forbush Flat is a nice retreat, only 1.7 miles away from the turnout on Camino Cielo, making it an easy option for a short overnighter. There was plenty of water in the nearby seasonal creek and everything was green and lush. There’s a couple of old apple and pear trees in the meadow dating back to when Forbush Flat was an old homesteaders site but it’s the wrong season for fruit at the moment. The main campsite is under an oak canopy, next to a small redwood grove near the creek. The site was tidy and inviting, but I needed to cover more distance so that Sunday’s walk wouldn’t be too much. After another quick snack and a peak at the map, it was off to the east, towards Blue Canyon. This stretch of trail follows along the side of a little valley that’s halfway down the backside of the mountains running parallel the Santa Ynez River. If I remember correctly, the valley was formed by an earthquake fault, which follows the same general line. The typical sandstone rock of the Santa Ynez mountains is mixed up with examples of conglomerate and igneous rocks, some look like varieties of quartz, others like serpentine. The trail connects the dots, from meadow to meadow and follows a small creek. It’s a pleasant walk following Escondido Creek upstream along the narrow, generally flat, single track.
At Cottam Camp, having never been farther east on this trail, I had reached the end of my familiar terrain. I followed what I thought was the continuation of the trail towards Blue Canyon but it quickly petered out into thick brush, which after bashing through a section or two didn’t appear to lead anywhere promising. Last year the Sheriffs and Forest Service discovered a large illegal pot farm in the area, so continuing along questionable “trails” like this seemed like a risky endeavor. Re-tracing my steps to the campsite at Cottam, I saw another trail that cut through the meadow in my desired direction. In my head, I thought, “Duh, this is the trail I wanted…how could I have missed this?”
I had a vague plan to stay at either Blue Canyon or Upper Blue Canyon Camps farther to the east and closer to my exit trail for Sunday. I was feeling pretty good and blazed along the trail. Before I knew it, I ended up at the intersection of the Blue Canyon Trail and the backside Romero Trail (my exit trail). I never even saw Blue Canyon Camp; I must’ve walked right by it! The sign at the intersection noted it was about 0.3 miles behind me (the map said 0.6), but I figured at this point I’d just continue on and check out Upper Blue Canyon instead (1 mile father according to the sign and 1.6 miles according to the map).
Upper Blue Canyon is on a small rise, surrounded on three sides by creeks and by a steep hillside on the remaining side. There’s one table, one fire ring (which needed some TLC) and a small area for one or maybe two tents side by side. I made it to camp a lot faster than planned, so I did a little more hiking farther east towards Juncal Camp and the Santa Ynez River just to explore and then came back, took a nap on top of the table and then set up camp. The small size of the camp made it difficult to set up my tarptent (Squall 2) in line with the wind, which was forecast to blow 20-25 mph all night but I managed to find a suitable layout after a couple of trials and some rearranging of the picnic table and my firewood pile. The wind was forecast to keep up all night, so I made a small fire, cooked dinner on the ti-tri inferno, put out the fire and turned in early. My 32 degree Mountain Hardwear Phantom bag (really more like a 40 degree bag if you ask me) kept me warm ‘til about midnight at which point it seemed like the outside temperature had dropped below the bag’s comfort range. By 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, the temp had dropped more and the thermometer on my watch read 28 degrees, a full 10 degrees colder than forecast. Brrrrr… I cinched up the hood on my bag as much as I could and tried to think warm thoughts for another hour or so until the sun could begin to peak into the canyon and warm things up. Interestingly, the NeoAir pad seemed plenty warm enough throughout the night and whichever part of me was resting on the pad was always warm. I even let a bit of air out of the pad at some point during the night to try to soften it up without any noticeable change in the amount of insulation from the ground.
The wind had calmed down towards sunrise on Sunday, leaving me with a condensation-free tent. Yes! Small wins… Anyway, I cooked a quick breakfast on the ti-tri inferno and packed up camp. The ULA Circuit turned out to be a really comfortable pack and carried the weight on my hips perfectly. I enjoyed easy access to the side pockets and hipbelt pockets while walking but realized it was kind of a pain to get in and out of the roll top for the main compartment during the day. I gave packing for the walk home a little extra thought and put things I might want during the hike in the outside pockets and everything else inside. This was a much better solution and ultimately made for fewer stops on the hike out.
All packed up, I set off for home. The hike back to the intersection with the Romero Trail was uneventful other than picking up about 6 ticks in the short 1.6 miles. I was feeling pretty good after this warm-up hike and hit the Romero Trail, ready to blaze my way back up to Camino Cielo Road. Boy, was I wrong… whoever cut this trail obviously has a sense of humor. The trail gains 1,063 vertical feet over a distance of 1.6 miles without the use of ANY switchbacks. Instead, the trail steadily climbs steeply, unrelentingly, uphill through shoulder-high shadeless brush until it intersects with Camuesa Road. I was drenched in sweat by the time I was done with this section of trail and I think I’d like to avoid doing it again for a while. From here I had to follow Camuesa Road uphill for a bit; it’s a dirt road that during dry weather allows vehicle access to the upper Santa Ynez Recreation Area in the Los Padres National Forest. Because the dirt road turns muddy after rains and the at-grade river crossing can get too high, the road can be seasonally closed to cars. Needless to say I was a little taken by surprise when I had to jump to the side of the road to avoid being run over by a dirt biker speeding his way down to the river.
Eventually, Camuesa Road tops out, where it joins with East Camino Cielo along the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains (elevation 3,072 feet). This same point is where the front country portion of the Romero Canyon Trail picks up. Romero Canyon is popular with the mountain biking crowd since you can make a big loop by going up the fire road and riding down the trail or vice versa. After consulting the map, I opted to head east along the Ocean View Trail which follows the ridge line and drops down into Romero Canyon from the east side of the “loop.” This way appeared to be a little shorter and followed single track rather than a dirt fire road, plus it allowed for views of the mountains to the east which I haven’t had a chance to explore. The views from the Ocean View trail are just as the name implies… I enjoyed the panoramic views of the Channel Islands National Park, about 20 miles offshore before starting in on the narrow switchbacks down into the canyon.
I kept meaning to stop at some point during the descent and have a little lunch, but I was making good time down the trails and never really came upon a nice little creekside pool inviting me to stop for a bit. Before I knew it, I had made it to the bottom of the trailhead onto Bella Vista Drive (elevation 987 feet). From this point, I had two options, I could take the shorter, more direct route which required walking mostly on roads the rest of the way home or I could gamble on the longer route, which allegedly offered a series of lateral trails running east-west through the foothills to connect back to my home. Considering I have never walked the entire network of foothill trails and given that these trails don’t show up on any topo maps (they are largely privately created and privately maintained), I opted for the road walk this time.
About 3.5 miles later following mostly pleasant, downhill walking along semi-rural country roads, I made it to the final short trail section, which follows the creek behind my house. I walked along the margin of the neighbor’s horse ranch through a nice meadow, made one final crossing of a small stream and was back at my house, approximately 21 miles and 28 hours later…happy to be done and ready for a dip in the nearby ocean to cool off.