The Rugged Joys of Santa Barbara Backcountry

Quaker botanist and Southern California outdoors writer Charles Francis Saunders was one of the first to recognize the primordial joys of hiking the rugged chains of mountains in back of Santa Barbara. This land of great gorges, sandstone cliffs and wide blue sky was--and is--very special.

Wrote Saunders in 1913 in "Under the Sky in California":

"That anybody should undertake a jaunt of 150 miles or so on foot for the pleasure of walking was unthinkable by the conventional Western mind; but I was already familiar with the strong points of tripping afoot and the lure of that splendid chain of mountains back of Santa Barbara. . . . To motor there seemed out of key with such a land, though thousands do it; and besides, motoring is expensive. No, for me 'the footpath way' with Kodak over my shoulder, a pocketful of dried figs, and freedom from care."

A great introduction to the Santa Barbara backcountry is Aliso Canyon Nature Trail in the Santa Ynez Recreation Area of Los Padres National Forest.

The 3-mile loop trail follows Aliso Creek and climbs to a ridge-top viewpoint. A brochure describing the natural attractions along the trail is available at the trailhead and at a nearby ranger station. Because of its importance, the nature trail earned the federal National Recreation Trail designation.

In a relatively short distance, Aliso Canyon Nature Trail explores a variety of plant communities--oak woodland, grassland and chaparral. The canyon takes its name from white and gray-barked sycamores ( alisos ) that grow in the canyon.

Considering the sad state of the bone-dry Santa Ynez River and the drought plaguing Santa Barbara and its backcountry, Aliso Canyon is surprisingly green. The spring wildflower display, while far from spectacular, isn't half bad. Purple lupine, golden California poppies and red Indian paintbrush color the canyon.

But one word of warning about Aliso Canyon Trail: The Sage Hill area surrounding the canyon and Aliso Canyon itself may be set afire any day. The U.S. Forest Service figures that by periodically conducting "controlled burns" of the native chaparral, it will prevent dense brush from accumulating and thereby prevent a major conflagration.

Depending on the air pollution index, weather and bureaucratic whim, you could find either wildflowers or ashes in Aliso Canyon. Be sure to call Los Prietos Ranger Station, (805) 967-3481, or Los Padres National Forest headquarters, (805) 683-6711, for the latest update about Aliso Canyon and other trails in the Santa Ynez Recreation Area.

Directions to trail head: From Highway 101 in Santa Barbara, take the Lake Cachuma/Highway 154 exit. Follow 154 as it ascends into the Santa Ynez Mountains. At San Marcos Pass, the road crests. A short distance over the pass, just past a Vista Point (about 10 miles from Santa Barbara if you're watching your odometer), turn right on Paradise Road and drive 4 miles to the signed turnoff on your left for Los Prietos Ranger Station and Sage Hill Campground. (You can pick up a brochure keyed to Aliso Canyon Nature Trail, as well as books and maps at the ranger station). Follow the winding road a short distance across the Santa Ynez River and through Sage Hill Campground to the signed trail head.

The Hike: The trail heads north along the bottom of Aliso Canyon, which is filled with coast live oak and sycamore. You'll soon pass the signed junction with Upper Oso Trail, which comes in from the right; this will be your return route.

After a mile, the path leaves Aliso Canyon, zigzags east up a steep shale slope, then skirts a lovely meadow. Blue-eyed grass, popcorn flower and California poppies dot the meadow. In the meadowland, you'll find a signed junction. One trail heads straight ahead (east) to Upper Oso Camp and a junction with Santa Cruz Trail.

This trail presents a great opportunity to extend your hike. A mile and a half of travel along Santa Cruz Trail brings you to Nineteen Oaks Camp and 4 miles of trekking to Little Pine Mountain.

Aliso Canyon Trail turns right (south) at the junction and switchbacks up a hill to the high point of the nature trail. You'll enjoy good views of the the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south, the San Rafael Mountains to the north.

The trail descends a morning glory- and sage-covered slope to the lip of Santa Ynez Canyon, sculpted long ago by the erosive action of the Santa Ynez River. The river doesn't look like much these days of drought--just a few shallow pools--but it's actually the longest stretch of free-flowing river in Southern California.

The Forest Service's recent "pre-burn" (not to be confused with a "prescribed burn" or a "controlled burn") of the area burned right up to the top of the canyon but stopped short of the trail. The trail travels along a blackened precipice for a short distance, then switchbacks down to the bottom of Aliso Canyon. Near the canyon mouth, you'll intersect the path where you started, head left, and soon return to the trail head.

John McKinney is going on vacation. Upon his return in June, his hiking column will resume in the Sunday Travel Section. ALISO CANYON NATURE TRAIL: Three-mile loop; 500-foot elevation gain.

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