Upper Sisquoc Backpack
San Rafael Wilderness
February 11-13, 2011
I met Toejam (Steve) last year at Carrizo Plain and recently bugged him for info about the San Rafael Wilderness.  When I worked on the La Brea Fire in 2009 I learned about the wilderness but found little to no information about hiking there.  Toejam offered, after some prompting from me, to lead a trip and so off we went on a 3 day semi-loop.  This trip would take most folks 5 days, but we hooked up with some volunteer wilderness rangers with access to a key gate that allowed us to drive up a road right to the trailheads we would depart from and end up at.  Otherwise it would take a day to get to the trailhead from the gate and a day to get back.

On Thursday night I drove west on the 210, picked up Serpicorabbit (Nick) on the way, and we drove out to Cuyama.  By the time we reached this remote hamlet it was pitch black dark and so we had a little bit of trouble finding the right road to head south on.  But we eventually found it and headed to the Santa Barbara Canyon Trailhead where we car camped.

I awoke right before Toejam showed up.  I had meant to wake up earlier, but was sleeping too well all bundled up in down since it was a cold night.  I started packing up then the rest of the bunch arrived - Lead volunteer wilderness ranger Mike Smith, his cute dog Casey and 5 pack goats, and 2 sets of father/sons who are all volunteers - Kevin and Shane, and Dan and Danny.  Serpicorabbit and I finished packing in a hurry then followed the gang up through the gate and several miles later up onto the ridge.  Tremendous views unfolded all the way across the San Joaquin Valley to the Sierra Nevada. 

We dropped off Toejam's vehicle at the Judell Canyon Trailhead and then met the others at the Sweetwater Trailhead.  The Sweetwater Trail undulates up and down a series of dry high ridgelines in route to the Sisquoc River.   We hiked about 8 miles the first day with 3,500' of gain and loss.  It was a long tiring day, but the views were great.  We also were treated to some early spring wildflowers and cool rock formations.

Once down along the river we hiked east to South Fork Station.  This is a historic guard station that is being restored by volunteers, headed up by Rik Christensen.  Rik is also an ultralight enthusiast and Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador.  We met him and Dan down at the cabin that night.  In the morning we helped them dismantle an old shed and use the metal siding to skirt the bottom of the cabin to keep the critters out.

Saturday we hiked up the Sisquoc River to Cottonwood Camp.  This section of trail is in need of work and the guys did a little bit around Skunk Camp.  Two massive wildfires have burned through this wilderness area in recent years but there is still plenty of lush vegetation along the river.  There are also some beautiful waterfalls and we scrambled up to one - Rattlesnake Falls.  We thought about scrambling up to Sisquoc Falls but we were all tired - this is part of a California Condor Sanctuary.  Toejam also led us off trail to a Chumash rock art panel - it was very cool

That night we realized the real worth of the pack goats - they not only packed down Mike's gear and trail tools - but also beer for the guys and tri-tip steak for all.  Mike and Dan cooked it over an open fire and it was delicious, the best meal I've ever eaten in the backcountry! 

The night was peaceful along the river.  A bird of some sort called all night long, one clear note that was repeated over and over.  Not sure what kind of bird but it was cool.

Sunday we hiked up the river a mile further then headed up the Judell Canyon Trail.  This was a much easier trail than the Sweetwater as it gently but steadily climbed up out of the Sisquoc River Canyon.  In this canyon you can see the vegetation that got burned in the Zaca Fire returning, but there are also many shaded stretches of oak and big cone Douglas fir that weren't burned.  We also saw tons of hibernating lady bugs along this stretch of trail.

When we reached the end of the trail I was thankful the fast hikers had already shuttled the vehicles back, and so all we had to do was pack up the cars and head down the road into Cuyama.  We then went west to New Cuyama, which is an actual town, and we all ate at the Burger Barn.  I had a blue cheese burger - yum!  Then we said goodbye and headed home. 

I had a great time - thanks to Toejam for planning the trip, Mike and the goats for the great food, and Serpicorabbit for carpooling out there with me :)

More photos here :)


Back to Backpacking
Back to Tarol's Homepage

The Sierra Nevada as seen across the San Joaquin Valley

Pack goats at the trailhead
California Bay Laurel - it smells like watermelon :)
Mossy Falls
Rattlesnake Falls