Gene Marshall/Piedra Blanca
National Recreation Trail
November 8-10, 2014
The Sespe is a large wilderness area on the Los Padres National Forest, just one out of
the 10 it has. It’s a great destination when the higher mountains in California are already
cold and snowy. I hiked the Sespe River corridor to Willett Hot Springs in February and
liked what I saw, so I decided to return on another 3 day ~20 mile hike. But the trip I did
before had much less elevation gain and loss. This one would have 4077' gain, 5028' loss.
But no pain, no gain, so off I went with my friend Albert along for the journey.
The Gene Marshall/Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail – it’s a mouthful, and over its 20
miles the terrain is diverse and beautiful. When I was researching the area I emailed a guy,
who judging by his Flickr albums has hiked every trail in Southern California, and he said this
was one of his favorites. We hiked north to south, positioning a car at each end. In the north the
forest is thick and dark and deeply incised by flowing creeks. In the south the forest is open
and sunny and just as steep. It’s not a well-known area and not many people hike the whole trail –
we saw just a few people near Bear Trap and no one at all in the middle 15 miles of trail. The
trail is overgrown and badly eroded in some places, but we accepted the challenge and thrilled in
the treasures we found.
The first day we crossed over two steep ridges to find delightfully bubbly cold creeks flowing
between. That night we camped at Bear Trap Camp. The camp is aptly named – I have never seen
so much bear scat in my entire life! Everywhere in the camp and every 10 feet of trail for 2
miles beyond had bear scat brimming with manzanita and other berries. There must be a very
healthy bruin population in that canyon. But they didn’t come visiting and I was amazed at how
quiet the night was.
On day two we hiked up the creek and at times the trail was overgrown and hard to find but we
made good time having got an early start. At the head of the canyon the trail almost
disappeared up a very steep loose slope. I could see Albert hesitate in one section that was
barely wide enough for one foot print and I tried not to think about the drop- off as I
traversed this section. We persevered and were greeted with fantastic views at the top of
the canyon. Then the trail went just as steeply down into a scenic open Ponderosa forest
accented with yellow willow and cottonwood trees along the creek beds. We passed Haddock
Camp which had no water, but then crossed a few creeks in route to the next camp, Three Mile.
At Three Mile there is an old picnic table which I was thrilled to see, as we needed a place to
sit and rest and eat lunch. After Three Mile weonly had 1.8 miles to go to the next camp, but it
was up/down, up/down, up/down, and up/down many side canyons to get there. So by the time we
got to Pine Mountain Camp we were tired!
Near the camp is the site of an old cabin called Pine Mountain Lodge that was built in the
1890's by some hunters who would spend months up in this high country. The Lodge isn’t
there any more, but the site is breathtaking, set amongst huge Ponderosa Pine, granite
rocks, and with a year-round creek flowing nearby. And it not being an easy place to
hike to from any direction, you just get the feeling that you’re one of the lucky few to
The third day we hiked south about 1/4 mile to the edge of Pine Mountain – and got a
glimpse of the 3,000' elevation loss we’d have that day. The first mile of down is so
steep and with little shade I was so glad to be going down! Once down by Piedra Spring
the terrain leveled off a bit and we could see the huge white rock formation known as
Piedra Blanca to the southwest which would be near the end of our journey. Then the hike
down the creek was mostly pleasant save for the overgrown bits of poison oak. It sure is
beautiful in the fall, but at one point there was no option but to bushwack through it.
Fortunately we were both wearing long pants and shirts.
When we reached Three Forks Camp I knew it was the home stretch. We had lunch at in
the shade of giant oaks at Piedra Blanca Camp which is a place humans have been enjoying
for quite some time. Nearby there are Chumash Pictographs on the big white boulders.
Albert decided he wanted to climb up a big but short oak snag at the camp. Then the
trail continues following the creek but there is one more climb up and over the Piedra
Blanca. At the top we took a break and explored. I’ve seen photos of more pictographs
here, but their locations are not disclosed. I spotted a neat cave/arch and figured that
would be a good place to search, but didn’t see any. Someday I’d love to go back and
explore the area more.
From Piedra Blanca it is about a mile to the trailhead. We looked back up at Pine
Mountain where we started that morning and were amazed that in only 6 miles the trail
came all the way down. Yep, my feet and knees were a little sore! But it wasn’t that bad,
being that we had days 1 and 2 as the warm-up. And I told Albert that he’s one of my
favorite hiking partners because I’ve never heard him complain in all the treks we’ve
From the trailhead we headed north to the start of the trail to pick up my vehicle. Then
we headed east to Frazier Park where we had our traditional Mexican food post-hike
meal. Then we got on I-5 south and parted ways shortly thereafter.
Hope you enjoy the photos!