30 November 2011

Agua Caliente Trail

Los Padres National Forest

Locate the trailhead.

Agua Caliente Trail once provided a fairly direct route between ranger stations at Pendola and Potrero Seco (the later now just a campground) connecting to a couple other trails along the way. The route is likely to still be traversable, but actual trail finding may not be possible after about 4 miles. On the Potrero Seco side, a couple OHV routes follow increasingly close to the old route of the trail, but that isn't the side I hiked. On the Pendola side, the trail starts at a warm spring. The water is directed into a deep tub and the area is popular just for coming to soak in the naturally heated water. The trail heads out from the end of the road, past a debris dam, and generally follows the creek up. Access can be blocked by the closure of one of two gates on the dirt roads, usually due to weather. The roads are currently getting a little bad, but are kept up to be passable by passenger vehicles until a deep water ford just around the corner from the parking.

I expected the gate to be closed since the Los Padres National Forest site was telling me that it was closed in anticipation of a storm that had come through two weekends before with a good amount of water. In anticipation of it being closed, I actually had a plan to do a loop along Camino Cielo after the permanent gate and some of the nearby trails. Eventually the gate will be closed for the season, but it wasn't quite yet, so coming to the open gate I continued on. The road had quite a few rocks on the road, some of them far too large to drive over, and a few big puddles at the bottom which got the car nice and muddy. Getting to the deep water ford I decided to go for it because it didn't look particularly deep yet and I didn't know the parking was just around the corner anyway. When I got there, there were already four other cars, one of which had less clearance than mine. A guy in a bath robe was hanging around the main tub and it was otherwise empty. There are other tubs around, but I didn't poke around enough to find out where. Starting off, voices below the trail hinted to the location and that it was in use by a few more people.

trail starting at the end of the road
The trailhead at Big Caliente warm spring is at the end of the road, which is blocked by large boulders. The sign says it is 1 mile to Big Caliente debris dam (actually much less), 9 miles to La Carpa Potreros (a spring along the route), and 15 miles to Potrero Seco (if you can get there).

The trail started out well used as it proceeded upstream, crossed the creek, and then started climbing a finger of land that the creek makes a tight bend around. Getting to the top, the debris dam comes into sight with the water flowing over the top into a big pool at the bottom. First there's a half view of the waterfall, then a full view as the trail is about to pass by the side of the dam. A collapsed wooden structure, or maybe just leftover beams, is below the trail there. After the dam, the trail gets a bit smaller as it passes into a wide, flat, treed area above the dam.

old road well erroded
The road once came up a little further and crossed the creek in a completely different spot.

debris dam for flood control
Agua Caliente dam and its man made waterfall. It was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps for the city of Santa Barbara in 1936-1937, according to the sign over the no trespassing sign.

a pile of wood
Something was probably built here once, but not sure what.

faint trail after the dam and some of the nice layered rocks that are around
Just past the dam, the trail drops onto the filled area behind it and becomes much fainter.

Behind the dam, the canyon has filled with debris for a little while, of course. That's what happens with debris dams. This area is flat and easy to walk along. Trees grow all over with plenty of room between. The trail was just a dip full of leaves and leaves were dancing on the wind like butterflies. Green grasses were starting to come up, but were shorter on the trail. There was some poison oak about, but only one spot was very thick. At a stream crossing, a bright ribbon had been placed to catch the eye near the continuation of the trail. A cairn marked the route for the return trip, establishing an often repeated pattern. Unfortunately, those ribbons don't always stick around for very long.

a constriction in the valley and some nearly nude trees
Since it is late fall, the deciduous trees have lost most of their leaves. The trail is easier to see in the dry places.

wide, rocky stream bed with water flowing happily along and some trees
The creek was often a wide and rocky thing flowing leisurely along while the canyon walls were more like leisurely rolling hills.

As I continued on, the canyon seemed to open up. The sides are gently rolling hills and the vegetation isn't very thick anywhere. It's just open and expansive and quite pretty. I walked on, admiring the scenery, often not paying quite enough attention to the trail and having to move back to it, but the trail was still quite easy to follow.

some more rolling hills
It is hard to call this a canyon since it is so very open, but it has water going down the middle of it, so it must be a canyon.

red rock layers stickout out nearly vertical
The rock layers seem to have gone nearly vertical around here, so every step is a trip in time, in a sense. From time to time, these harder red layers were sticking out making constrictions.

looking back down the canyon
Wide, open space covered in spiny dried stuff with the creek digging in...

more of the canyon
Some more of the canyon.

As I was crossing one of the high spots in the trail, a couple fellows appeared from around a corner. They seemed quite happy to see me, confirming they were on the right route, even though the trail hadn't seemed all that hard to follow up to that point. Turned out that soon after that, there were some bad spots. I always found the trail again, and the vegetation isn't hard to get through without trail, so it wasn't so bad. It is covered with knee high, dried and spiny things which made me very happy to have pants on, but thinking that maybe they should have been denim, but it is still easy to push through.

a bit of creek that follows along the direction of the layers
Some pools forming as the creek follows along the direction of the layers for a little bit.

more rocks and light
Further and further up the trail winds along the side of the creek.

As I walked along, it became impossible to follow the trail over the various sections. There would be a cairn built, and the trail would become clear near it as people saw it and walked near it, but then they spread out again and there were many sort of trails to follow through the spiny stuff. Still, there was often trail to follow. Then it came up to a cliff as it climbed up a gentle slope that ended at a particular layer. I decided it was about time for me to turn around as it might be about where the trail climbs up out of the canyon for a bit. I could see trail following the edge of the cliff and then climbing some more but getting fainter. Below, a bit of trail was on the other side of the creek at a constriction. If I correctly located myself on my map, the one by the creek was correct, but it would only go a short way more along the creek before crossing back and climbing. Eventually it would come back to the ridge line the trail I was on was following. But since I sat down and snacked and drew, I don't actually know what happens beyond.

a cliff with many sections that follow the layer
Another way for the layers to form cliffs.

leisurly water in the leisurly hills
Another spot of peacefulness along the creek. And, well, me.

Turning back, I followed the trail back down. A few sections that I hand't felt I'd gone the good way through, I tried to find better ways and often did find another bit of trail there. There were a few spots where the tread I was on joined a stronger tread, and there I followed the stronger tread. Somewhere along the way, there is a campground that I didn't see in either direction, but there was a spot where some paths went upward that might have been where it was. Coming to the last crossing, I managed to lose the trail, probably due to looking downstream instead of upstream for the continuation, but there there are a few paths down to the stream, so there was a way back to the trail too. Getting back, the sun thinking of setting in another half hour, I found that there was no one left at the trailhead and had the whole pool to myself.

©2011 Valerie Norton
Posted 2 December 2011
Updated 3 December 2011

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