Follow in the Footsteps of Bears on the Gene Marshall National Recreation Trail

In the Los Padres National Forest, some of America's most impressive mammals roam alongside you.
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bear trail

Pine Mountain Ridge from the southwest.

I guess they named this place for a reason, I think when I see a set of fresh bear tracks in the dirt just before Beartrap Trail Camp. We’re in the former range of some of California’s last grizzlies, and their heirs—black bears—are plentiful around here. But as I set my pack down beneath a centuries-old incense cedar, there’s no sign of the tracks’ owner; the gurgle of the creek is the only sound in the canyon. Despite the proximity to LA.’s urban crowds, today this wilderness is left to just me and the bears. 

Turn by Turn from Reyes Creek Trailhead

1) From the parking lot, hike through chaparral and piñon stands for three miles.

2) Head up and over a low ridge and into another valley to reach your campsite, Beartrap Trail Camp, at mile 4.8.

3) The trail climbs to a 6,260-foot saddle at mile 7.6, then winds across the Pine Mountain massif, seesawing up and over several low ridgelines.

4) Stay straight at the junction with the Reyes Peak Trail at mile 8.4.

5) Continue southeast through rolling hills to the junction with the Cedar Creek Trail, then head south.

6) Soak up views of creek valleys and peaks in the Sespe watershed before your route drops through chaparral and into the next drainage. This section of trail has fossils from the Eocene era (6 to 23 million years ago) scattered in the rocks to either side.

7) Reach Piedra Blanca Trail Camp (mile 15.6) and follow Piedra Blanca Creek’s west bank to scale the actual Piedra Blanca, a massive sandstone formation, at mile 17.

8) At mile 17.7 turn left (east) at the junction with the Middle Sespe Trail.

9) When you reach the Sespe River Trail (mile 18.1), head south and cross the Sespe to the Piedra Blanca trailhead (mile 18.5). The river can be impassable during periods of heavy rainfall, so keep an eye on the forecast.

Campsite: Beartrap Trail Camp (Mile 4.8)

Tucked beneath cedars in a narrow canyon, Beartrap has plenty of space along the creek (there are five established campsites). Fires are allowed in designated fire rings unless the Forest Service announces restrictions, but this is drought-prone California, so use good judgement. Water is available from the creek.

See Fossils

The Piedra Blanca fossils are set in preserved sand dunes, remnants of an ocean shore that vanished 20 million years ago. Many of the fossils will be familiar to beachcombers; barnacle fragments, bits of clamshell, and sand dollars are the most common. If you look closely you can see sand layers deposited by breaking waves. For more fossils check out this month’s Done In a Day hikes (page 23).

Do It Trailhead Reyes Creek 34.6778, -119.3091 Season Year-round; bring snowshoes in winter. Shuttle Car Leave a shuttle vehicle at the Piedra Blanca Trailhead (34.5604, -119.1653) Permit California Campfire Permit (free)  and a National Forest Adventure Pass ($5/day) required for parking at Piedra Blanca trailhead; purchase at USFS office