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I unfold a topo map to scope out two clearly distinguished mountain ranges. To the southwest, the Caliente Range rises more than 5,000 feet, and to the east, the Temblor Range more than 4,000 feet. Between them is a broad, 50-mile swath of grasslands, the last of its kind in California’s Central Valley. No backcountry trails spiderweb through its interior, just one gravel road bisects the area, and those two ranges effectively block it off from, well, everyone. But in the bottom-left corner, on the edge of some old maps—not all—there’s a squiggly, dotted line that seems to lead into the Calientes before fizzling out just before the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
For years it’s intrigued me.
If that little, unnamed trail connects the Cuyama River valley to the Carrizo, then you could thru-hike from the coast to California’s Serengeti. It’d require a little road walking, but you could move from seaside bluffs through coastal mountains and across seldom-visited valleys and into grasslands—it’d be like an ecological tour of California.
I travel light and fast, so I set aside four days to tackle what I think will be an 80-mile trek. I arrange a drop-off at Nira Camp outside Santa Barbara and a pick-up north at Selby Campground, one of two designated overnight spots in the Carrizo Plain.
Day one is easy enough: I follow the Manzana Trail some 20 miles east, rock-hopping the creek and ascending the steep sandstone bluffs of the San Rafaels, before dropping down to the Wild and Scenic Sisquoc River. I soak my head in the frigid runnel, washing away the first day’s grit, and spend the night in the cozy Los Padres Forest Service cabin along the banks.
Day two, however, gets tricky. I take the Sweetwater Trail across a canyon into the Sierra Madres. These mountains are visited so infrequently that the “Jeep track” I follow north along their backbone is more like overgrown singletrack. I move slowly, but I savor the views of the Cuyama River’s brown veins splitting the badland-like Caliente Mountains. That’s where I’ll be tomorrow, I think to myself. I unfurl my bag and pad beneath an oak tree and watch endangered California condors float overhead until I drift asleep.
Next day, I hightail it down the open book of Aliso Canyon on an easy-to-find social path. It’s about 4 miles of cruise control to the flatlands of the Cuyama River, where I must link together a patchwork of dirt roads and a lonely California highway to reach the base of the Calientes. I’m so excited that I may find that little dotted line on the other side of the river that the road walking doesn’t even faze me. I want to look for it now, but another 20-mile day has me beat, so I throw down in the arid valley where tumbleweeds bounce by and coyotes yip and chase unlucky jackrabbits. Tomorrow, I’ll find the squiggly, dotted line.
Before sunup I cross CA 166 and locate the nondescript arroyo where I think that dotted line is supposed to start. It’s there. I’m at the doorstep of the Carrizo, at the foot of the only trail into the state’s last great grassland.
Unsurprisingly, it’s overgrown—since being established by the BLM in 1968, it hasn’t been maintained at all—but it carries me through the foothills, weaving between oak and juniper and ascending to the Caliente ridge. I look out and see the Carrizo Plain sweeping toward the Temblors, a color swatch of flora painting the slopes. A herd of tule elk traverses the ridgeline, while more than 30 pronghorn trot north, the grass wafting in their wake. I watch it all unfold and find myself reluctant to finish the journey. I don’t want this new route to end.
DO IT You need at least four days for the 80-mile traverse. Water won’t be an issue in 2017, but top off in the Sierra Madres; day four (into the Carrizo) may be dry. Trailhead Nira Camp (34.770145, -119.936897); 40 miles north of Santa Barbara on Happy Canyon Rd. Arrange a pick-up at Selby Campground (35.128070, -119.841120) off Soda Lake Rd. Season Year-round; spring is best for flora. Permit None