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Backpacker Magazine – January 2009

Best Damn Weekend Ever: See California Condors in the San Rafael Wilderness

We'll show you how to see these majestic birds in the wild.

by: Chuck Graham

A Lone Oak in the San Rafael Wilderness (Randall Levensaler)
A Lone Oak in the San Rafael Wilderness (Randall Levensaler)
Chumas Rock Art in Sapaski Cave (Randall Levensaler)
Chumas Rock Art in Sapaski Cave (Randall Levensaler)
California Condor Above Mcpherson Peak (Chuck Graham)
California Condor Above Mcpherson Peak (Chuck Graham)


Los Padres National Forest, Mt. Pinos, Ojai and Santa Barbara Ranger District maps ($10,
The Way
From Santa Barbara, take US 101 north. Turn right on CA 166 (east) in Santa Maria. Make a right onto Aliso Park Rd. From Santa Barbara, it's 2.5 hours and 125 miles.
You'll need an "adventure pass" ($5/person/day) to camp overnight in the wilderness.
Los Padres National Forest Headquarters: (805) 968-6640;

Talk about the best of both worlds: Just five miles from Santa Barbara's arcing coast of blue water and powder sand is an equally inviting (and comparatively people-free) backcountry of 2 million acres. The Los Padres National Forest is a picturesque mix of sandstone canyons and poppy meadows–and one of the last strongholds of the endangered California condor. Eighty-one of them inhabit the 197,380-acre San Rafael Wilderness, in the center of Los Padres; the wilderness area's massive, isolated canyons and rock outcroppings are ideal for roosting and nesting birds. This sandstone was also once a canvas for the rock art of native Chumash Indians, who revered the condor and painted its silhouette on canyon walls. Late fall through early spring is primetime: Backcountry temps are pleasant, bugs are long gone, and the condors are cruising for mates. Hike it on this 31-mile loop linking Aliso Park and the Sisquoc River.

From the Aliso Park trailhead, two hours east of Santa Barbara, set out on the switchbacking three miles to the base of 5,599-foot McPherson Peak, atop the Sierra Madre Ridge. Just beyond is an old but easily spotted cattle trail; turn left and follow it for five miles across open meadows to a dreamy campsite at Painted Rock. Look for a large, solitary oak tree with a broad sandstone outcropping next to it. Peek inside a large cave with a sundial on its ceiling–the Chumash used hematite, an oxidized ore, to paint it. Find fresh water at Montgomery Spring, an eighth of a mile west of camp–while there, listen for the sing-song call of the western meadowlark. A quarter-mile east of camp, explore the sandstone fortress of Lion Canyon, a favorite perch for condors and an ideal platform for viewing these surprisingly playful raptors soaring above in the thermal updrafts, socializing on the rocks, or grooming their loose feathers.

Continue following the winding cattle trail three miles east through manzanita groves and towerlike sandstone spires to the Sweetwater Trail. Pick a good sandstone perch (there are tons) and be patient for the wildlife–coyotes, mule deer, and mountain lions thrive here. No luck with animals? You'll still see detailed Chumash paintings, from ticks to mystical figures. Along the next five miles you'll descend 3,000 feet on the Sweetwater Trail, on a ramp of tricky switchbacks shrouded in dense, fragrant chaparral. Sweetwater Canyon Spring, to the left of the trail, drains into the designated Wild and Scenic Sisquoc River. Follow the emerald green waters honeycombed with swimming holes for 3.5 miles to the Sycamore Camp and Jackson Trail junction at just over 2,000 feet. The camp is a stone's throw from the river and shaded by cottonwood and sycamore trees.

Take the Jackson Trail and ascend 3.5 miles back to Painted Rock. Look westward as you climb: The daunting cliffs of Hurricane Deck come into better and better view with every foot of elevation gained. And just off either side of the trail are more sandstone formations, these smothered in green, yellow, red, and orange lichens–a good place to rest and grub. Retrace your steps on the old cattle trail back toward McPherson Peak, then down to your car at Aliso Park.

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Star Star
Apr 22, 2013

April 20, 2013 update: The springs at Painted Rock Camp are all dry! Also it should be noted that the trail to McPherson Peak is pretty sketchy and will take some trail finding skills and bushwhacking. If you like reptiles however, you will enjoy this trip as there were many rattlesnakes, gopher snakes and more horn toads then we could count. Mileage based upon my GPS was about eleven (11) miles and 3,300 feet of ascent so be prepared for a hot, stiff hike and bring lots of water. The Hog Springs (also dry) trail was much better and was the route we took out. This area is probably best in winter and I would not chance beyond April.
Crowds however, are not an issue on this trip unless you count deer, squirrels and rabbits.

Mar 17, 2011

This area is my backyard for thitry years. I fought fire here for the Forest Service, been a Site Steward for the rock art, and have backpacked all over it. There are a few things you should know about this region:
Do not underestimate the terrain. It is not high altitude but many of the trails are very steep and not always maintained.
Spring weather is iffy. I have been caught in snow and rain a few times during Easter Break. If it rains the access roads can become un-drivable due to mud and slides. Walking a muddy fire road will add about six inches to your height and ten pounds to your boots.
Water can be scarce away from the Sisquoc or Manzana rivers. Many of the springs have been muddied up by cattle. Jackson creek should be good
Chumash Rock art is fragile, please do not touch it or camp too close to where smoke or fire could damage it. It is illegal to remove any artifacts from any of the sites.
Wild animals. This is an active area for mountain lions, black bear, rattlesnakes, and of course, condors. The bears are pretty timid unlike Yosemite bears, the buzz tails and mountain lions can be a bit cranky. The brush can also be loaded with ticks.
If you go in through New Cuyama Make sure you have plenty of gas. It is in the middle of nowhere and Im not sure if the gas station is still open or not. Also 166 is a dangerous two lane highway drive carefully.
Nov 08, 2010

I got the elevation just shy of 11,000 vertical. This does not include the route the author suggested that goes over McPherson Peak, more of a lollipop up and down from Hog Pen Spring. Total distance comes in at 40 miles.

Oct 24, 2010

Really?? 15,000 feet of vertical?!!
Any body else verify this?

Oct 24, 2010

Really?? 15,000 feet of vertical?!!
Any body else verify this?

Oct 24, 2010

Scott Luedke
Jul 06, 2009

I'm going to hike this soon...does anyone have a route that is still the loop without the 17 mile on day 3?

Apr 28, 2009

Just like the comment by "hiker" April 2009 beware that the mileage is way off and he is correct, 17 mile last day! Chuck Graham is an idiot for writing the article for a weekend, unless you are very well seasoned hiker this hike is over your head especially if you have to drive home on Sunday after a 17 mile day. Grab the Byran Conant Map before - it has all the CORRECT mileage so you can plan accordingly. Finally, there is a lot of service road hiking which is not very fun unless you like it since it isn't very techincal. Once you get to Painted rock it is very scenic with rolling green hills.

Apr 06, 2009

Watch out, the mileage is off in this description. I was just up on this hike this last weekend.

First day is closer to 12 miles total. The spring is 1/4 mile west, near a big metal container (spring is piped out of the mtn). Day 2 is as described. On the last day is 7 miles from Sycamore Camp up the Jackson trail to Painted Rock. This is double the mileage that was listed in the magazine. Day 3 is killer its, more like 17 miles total . There is also about 15000' of vertical distance covered. (all 3 days)

Great hike, but know what you are getting into.

Mar 15, 2009

This is one ridge away from the Carrizo Plain, another spectacular California place. One of my first backpacking trips was up here and it was superb.

Feb 17, 2009

Years ago Tom Condor, and I where about to get eaten from these bird-condors! No lie. Hovering above us 10 off the ground, 98,5,3 where the tag numbers. Pretty awsome! To this day best sighting of wildlife that close. All near the Painted Cave area. Explored all this area for yrs, and stll find it to be the best.

Feb 16, 2009

I'm planning on doing the loop recommended by the Magazine in late March. Is Hog Pen Spring a road? Trail? What road is it off? you say Hog Pen Spring takes you to a road. What road do you mean?
Feb 16, 2009

This is a great route that Backpacker recommends, but be aware that the trail from Aliso up to McPherson Peak is really not much of a trail anymore. My advise is to go up Hog Pen Spring to the road, do the rest of the loop, then come back the way you came back to Aliso. There are some good resources that Backpacker did not consult prior to releasing this hike: - this has local posts on all the trails around the Southern Los Padres. - local site for purchasing maps of the area, check the San Rafael Map.

The route is really beautiful, you'll see Chumash paitings, get a nice view of the Zaca Fire zone, explore great trails along the Sisquoc, but condors are rare in this section of the Los Padres - although they can be seen. Enjoy!

Richard Davidian
Feb 11, 2009

Thanks for the directions. My efforts focused on seeing Condors up until now have not been rewarded.

Feb 09, 2009

This is one area of the country that I have never spent much time in. My husband is from Southern California and we are planning a trip to CA soon. I have bookmarked this trip; we may want to check this out. :)


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