Los Padres Land May Be Renamed to Honor Chumash Indian Group


The Chumash were the largest tribal group in California at the time of explorer Juan Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542. Occupying the coastal and inland territory from Malibu to San Luis Obispo, the Chumash enjoyed the bounty of both land and sea. They had a complex village and religious life, as well as a practical and mystical astronomy.

A small portion of the Chumash’s ancestral land is currently proposed for designation as a wilderness area within Los Padres National Forest. Congress approved HR 1473, sponsored by Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), which would preserve about 36,000 acres of pine forest and juniper woodland, grasslands and badlands.

Two differing bills in the Senate--S-1625 (sponsored by Alan Cranston) and S-2784 (sponsored by Pete Wilson)--would also set aside a Chumash Wilderness of this or, in the case of Cranston’s bill, greater size.


As the bill makes its way through various legislative committees, the Chumash Wilderness boundaries are sure to be adjusted by the political process. If action is not taken by September, when legislators adjourn, the bill will die and likely be reintroduced in the next Congress.

One thing conservationists and politicos alike can agree upon: The name Chumash Wilderness will be an improvement over “Sawmill-Badlands Further Planning Area No. 134,” as the U.S. Forest Service calls this land.

It’s quite a land to hike, to behold. Although just 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles, it seems much, much farther from the metropolis. After a day of hiking across the broad shoulders of Mt. Pinos, highest peak in Los Padres National Forest, you start to get some inkling of why the mountain was so sacred to the Chumash.

“It’s time we honor the Chumash,” said Sally Reid, a Sierra Club activist who has been leading the charge for wilderness designation. “This land, highest in Los Padres National Forest, center of the Chumash universe, is very special.”

Reid is certain the land is of wilderness quality. “It has high mountains with clear-day views from the High Sierra to the Pacific, it has examples of ecosystems from alpine down to high desert, as well as remarkable badlands unlike any in Southern California.”

The proposed wilderness has much diversity. A cool pine-and-fir forest covers Mt. Pinos and a couple of its more than 8,000-foot neighbors. Mt. Pinos is a great place to cross-country ski during winter and to hike during the rest of the year.


Another highlight is Quatal Canyon, a kind of Bryce Canyon-in-miniature, complete with dramatic pinnacles and weird, eroded rock formations. Scientists are fascinated by the canyon because it is rich in vertebrate fossils, particularly from the Miocene Epoch (12 to 16 million years ago).

Quatal Canyon has been proposed as a Natural National Landmark, a federal designation by the Secretary of Interior that recognizes outstanding examples of ecology or geology and helps to preserve them.

Another area of interest to scientists is San Emigdio Mesa, a large, flat alluvial fan forested with pinyon pine and dwarf oak. The 1,200 acres of pinyon pine woodland is by far the most extensive of its kind in Southern California, and recalls some of the mesas of the Great Basin.

For the hiker, the new Chumash Wilderness offers two major trails. One is the popular six-mile, roller-coaster-like path between Mt. Pinos and Cerro Noroeste (Mt. Abel). This trail offers a fine trek over sub-alpine slopes, the highest in Los Padres National Forest.

Another possibility is a five- or six-mile round-trip hike from Quatal Canyon Road to Quatal Canyon for a close-up view of the badlands. This is a good hike in cooler months, when snow covers the nearby high peaks.

A more difficult trail, today’s hike begins in a high pine forest but passes through other ecosystems--pinyon-juniper woodland, chaparral and grassland--as it descends from Mt. Abel to Toad Spring Camp. It’s a great introduction to the lay of the land, a fine overview of the proposed Chumash Wilderness.

One word of warning: The second half of this hike uses Toad Spring Trail, which, much to the consternation of conservationists, the Forest Service designated in 1976 as a motorcycle route. Because of current drought and fire danger, the Forest Service has closed the Toad Spring Trail to motorcycles, but not to hikers.

Wilderness status for this area means that Toad Spring Trail would be closed to motorcycles and revived as the footpath it was prior to 1976. Though it’s not a particularly popular motorcycle trail, and it’s currently closed to such use, the concerned hiker may wish to contact the Mt. Pinos Ranger District for the latest trail update.

Directions to trailhead: This trip requires a car shuttle. Hikers will want to depart from the Mt. Abel trailhead and arrive at the Toad Spring Campground trailhead.

From Interstate 5 in Frazier Park, exit on Frazier Mountain Park Road and head west. The road, which becomes Cuddy Valley Road, continues to a Y-junction. The left fork leads to Mt. Pinos, but you stay right and join Mil Potrero Road.

Drive 8 1/2 miles to Cerro Noroeste Road and turn left. Proceed seven miles to the signed trailhead, half a mile below the summit of Mt. Cerro Noroeste (Mt. Abel). Parking is not plentiful right at the trailhead, so park in a safe manner along the road.

From the Cerro Noroeste Road/Mil Potrero Road junction, continue right (west) on the latter road, which, to make matters confusing, takes on the name Cerro Noroeste Road. Travel a mile to the signed turnoff for Toad Spring Campground, turning left on Forest Road 9N09, continuing three-tenths of a mile to the camp, then another four-tenths of a mile to the unsigned trailhead on the left (south) side of the road.

The hike: Leaving signed Mt. Abel trailhead, the path descends very steeply for half a mile down a draw into a forested hollow. Here there’s a signed junction, with (incorrect) mileages for the trail leading left (southeast) to Mt. Pinos.

Bear right on unsigned Mesa Spring Trail and descend past huge and widely spaced ponderosa pine. Scattered among the pines are silver fir, some of which are large enough and pretty enough to be the White House Christmas tree.

After a mile you’ll pass through a gate (the Forest Service allows some cattle grazing on this land). The path descends through a mixed transition forest of pine and oak. The area has unusual botany. Inhabitants of dry lands--coffee berry and manzanita and scrub oak--mingle with sub-alpine species: pine, fir and snow plant.

The path drops a couple more miles through pinyon pine country to Mesa Spring Camp, at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. It’s a simple trail camp with picnic tables and water. A hundred yards from camp is a huge watering trough used by bovine forest visitors.

Mesa Spring, Mesa Spring Camp and Mesa Spring Trail are named for San Emigdio Mesa, the pinyon pine-covered territory visible as the path leaves camp. Stay right at an unsigned trail junction just below camp and continue walking for a couple miles on a flatland between the mesa on your left and the tall shoulder of Mt. Cerro Noroeste on your right.

At a (poorly) signed trail junction, you’ll join Forest Service Trail 22W01, Toad Spring Trail, which leads northward 3 1/4 miles to Quatal Canyon Road.

The trail climbs and dips over pinyon pine- and juniper-dotted slopes. There are grand views west and south over the proposed Chumash Wilderness and of the Cuyama Badlands to the northwest. Best view of all is the view right below of Quatal Canyon. The pinnacle rock formations resemble those in southwest Utah.

Toad Spring Trail, seriously eroded by motorcycles in some places albeit passable, skirts the rim of Quatal Canyon. The last mile of the trail marches steeply up and down some minor hills before reaching its terminus (or trailhead, depending on how you look at it) at Quatal Canyon Road.