Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to travel all the way to the Sierra Nevada to find wild country in southern California. In fact, there's wilderness aplenty hidden surprisingly close to Los Angeles.
Located just a long commute north of downtown L.A., the 38,150-acre Chumash Wilderness in Los Padres National Forest can restore a backpacker's spirit. The indigenous Chumash tribe still considers Mt. Pinos a sacred site. The 8,831-foot peak (Iwihinmu to the Chumash) is also a Condor Observation Point and Botanical Reserve. It's one of several places in the West where California condors, only recently brought back from the brink of extinction, soar over their native habitat, their 9-foot wingspans silhouetted against the sky.
From the top of Mt. Pinos, the Tumamait Trail winds westward across a high ridge forested with Jeffrey pine and white fir. Deep canyons cut the lower elevations into a maze of rugged, chaparral-
covered terrain, and the hillsides flower with lupine and Indian paintbrush. Creeks and springs support a menagerie of wildlife, including mountain lions, deer, and more than 300 species of birds.
Five miles from the Mt. Pinos trailhead, I hopped on the Nettle Springs Trail and descended to a backcountry campsite at Mesa Springs, where my only company was an ornery rattlesnake. I deferred (the snake was there first), and overnighted instead on a nearby rocky outcropping overlooking the pinon pine-forested San Emigdio Mesa. As coyotes yipped far below, I watched bats flutter across the orange-sunset sky until the only lights belonged to the stars above.
In the morning, I strode to the top of Sawmill Mountain. The 360-degree view offers a dramatic view north across the San Joaquin Valley and down the steep gorge of the Cuddy Valley, a place the Chumash call the "trembling land" (it's on the San Andreas Fault). It's a vision of still-wild California, in a wilderness not far from the off-ramp.
DRIVE TIME: The Chumash Wilderness is 90 miles (2 hours) north of downtown Los Angeles.
THE WAY: From Los Angeles, take I-5 north to Frazier Mountain Park Road, then go west 7 miles and bear right at the Y onto Cuddy Valley Road. Proceed 5 miles to Mt. Pinos Road (Forest Service Road 9N24) and turn left. If there's snow on Mt. Pinos, start at Nettle Springs trailhead. Use CA 33 and Forest Service Road 8N06 to Nettle Springs Campground.
TRAILS: Connect the Tumamait Trail and Nettle Springs Trail to cross the wilderness from east to west (26 miles round-trip). Another option is the North Fork Lockwood Creek Trail, which links Mt. Pinos and Three Falls Boy Scout Camp (19.2 miles round-trip). An Adventure Pass is required for all recreation in Los Padres National Forest (see Contact below).
ELEVATION: From a high of 8,831 feet atop
Mt. Pinos, the terrain drops steeply to just below 5,000 feet. The wilderness is generally snow-free until mid-December, after which you'll need snowshoes above 7,000 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Stream-laced San Emigdio Mesa, with views of the badlands below.
CROWD CONTROL: Human use is light all year. Hunting season is in October and early November.
GUIDES: USDA Forest Service Los Padres National Forest map for Mt. Pinos, Ojai, and Santa Barbara Ranger Districts ($6, contact below). USGS 7.5-minute quads Apache Canyon, Sawmill Mountain, and Cuddy Valley (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov;
WALK SOFTLY: Native American archaeological sites are protected by federal law. Some reintroduced condors have shown little fear of humans. Avoid contact with both.
CONTACT: Los Padres National Forest, Mt. Pinos Ranger District, (661) 245-3731; www.r5.fs.fed.us/lospadres/html/mprd.htm.