West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

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Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Through the meadow on the West Mesa Loop Trail

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

Stonewall Peak as seen from Airplane Ridge

West Mesa Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

  • Location: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, inland San Diego County.  From San Diego, take I-8 east to Highway 79.  Head north for 2.7 miles, turn left and continue another 7.3 miles on Highway 79 to the West Mesa Parking Area, on the right side of the road.  From Julian, head south on Highway 79 for 13 miles.  The parking area will be on the left side of the road.
  • Agency: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
  • Distance: 6.7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, elevation gain)
  • Suggested time: 3.5 hours
  • Best season: September – June
  • USGS topo maps: Cuyamaca Peak
  • Recommended gear: sun hat; sunblock
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; Everytrail report here; Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trail head on the west side of Highway 79 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This loop explores some of the middle country on the western side of 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  In addition to some excellent mountain and valley views, the hike also showcases the recovery of the area following the fires of 2003 and 2007.  There’s also an airplane engine, but we’ll get to that later.

0:16 - Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

0:16 – Junction; start of the loop (times are approximate)

From the parking area, cross Highway 79 and begin a steady ascent on a fire road.  You climb 350 feet in 0.6 miles before reaching a junction: the start of the loop.  You can hike it in either direction, but by going counter-clockwise, as described here, you get the majority of the climbing out of the way sooner.

0:33 - Head left on the single-track

0:33 – Head left on the single-track

Turn right and head northwest, continuing your ascent through skeleton-like oaks and pines burned in the fires.  Stonewall Peak’s distinctive triangular shape is prominent to the right.  At 1.4 miles, you leave the fire road and take a left on a single-track trail, ascending to another junction at 2.1 miles.  A tall oak provides shade, making this a nice resting spot (by this point, you’ve done about 3/4 of all of the climbing in the entire route.)

1:00 - Junction beneath the tall oak

1:00 – Junction beneath the tall oak (stay straight)

Continuing straight on the West Mesa Trail, your efforts are rewarded with some excellent views to the south and east, including the lower country of the Cuyamacas and the neighboring Laguna range.  You also start getting a little bit of shade from some tall pines and oaks that have survived the fires thus far.

1:20 - Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

1:20 – Junction with the Burnt Pine Fire Road in the field (stay straight)

At 2.9 miles, in an open alpine field, you come to another junction.  Stay straight, heading south and then southeast, passing a junction with the Arroyo Seco Trail.  You get some excellent views of Viejas Mountain and El Capitan to the south.

The trail follows the so-called Airplane Ridge, cutting very close to the edge in places, providing more dramatic views, before meeting a junction at 4.2 miles.  Take a sharp left (despite what you might think, the signed Monument Trail doesn’t lead toward the airplane monument; you are still on the West Mesa Trail.)  Bear left on a signed trail leading toward the airplane monument: an engine of a plane that crashed on this hillside in 1922.

1:33 - Following Airplane Ridge

1:33 – Following Airplane Ridge

Past the monument, the trail continues its descent.  Another tall oak makes for a good resting spot.  The trail descends into a meadow, meeting the Japacha Fire Road (5.5 miles.)  A slight ascent over the next 0.6 miles brings you back to the start of the loop.  Retrace your steps back down to the car, enjoying some last views of Stonewall Peak along the way.

1:50 - Airplane monument

1:50 – Airplane monument

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities.  By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail.  Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

2:24 - Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

2:24 – Junction with the Japacha Fire Road (stay left for the last leg of the loop)

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Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

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View of the geology above the Sinks

View of the geology above the Sinks

Oaks above Box Springs

Oaks above Box Springs

Agua Chinon to the Sinks and Box Springs

  • Location: Northeast Irvine in the Santa Ana foothills.  The Portola Staging Area is located at the eastern end of the Irvine portion of the Portola Parkway.  From I-405 or I-5, take the Sand Canyon exit and head north east (2.5 miles from I-5, 4.5 miles from I-405) to Portola Parkway.  Turn right and follow Portola to its ending just beyond the 241 Toll Road.  Turn left and drive a short distance to the Portola Staging Area, where signs will direct you to parking.  If you are taking the 241 Toll Road, use the Portola Parkway exit in Irvine (not the Portola Parkway exit farther south in Foothill Ranch).  Head east into the park and follow the signs to the staging area.
  • Agency: Irvine Ranch Conservancy/Limestone Canyon Wilderness Park
  • Distance: 6.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 950 feet
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
  • Best season: Year round but hot during the summer; accessible only on scheduled days through the Irvine Ranch Conservancy (see link above for dates)
  • USGS topo map: El Toro
  • Recommended gear: sunblock; sun hat
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; description of upcoming hike on 9/4/14 here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7
0:00 - Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike at the Portola Staging Area (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

You already know how to reach the Sinks, the “Grand Canyon of Orange County” from the north, so in this post, we’ll look at the route from the south.  Unlike the north approach, which can be done on the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Wilderness Access Days, this route can only be done as a docent-led group hike.  The exact route described here is usually offered once per month; longer or shorter variations are also offered.  Because this area sees very little human traffic, the chance of a wildlife sighting is greater.

0:48 - Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

0:48 – Start of the steep ascent (times are approximate)

From the parking area, the route heads briefly southeast, passing through a gate and paralleling the 241 Toll Road.  At about 0.4 miles, you bear left and begin heading up into Agua Chinon (“Wavy Water”) Canyon.  The trail ascends at a gentle pace for the next mile and a half before becoming steep.  As you grind up the hill, your efforts are rewarded with an excellent view of the Sinks; you may also see Modjeska and Santiago Peaks poking above the ridges to the east.

1:08 - View of the Sinks

1:08 – View of the Sinks

The trail makes an S-curve and finally levels out at about 2.7 miles from the start, where you reach a junction by a watering trough.  Head straight for a short distance where you reach an observation platform, from which you can get an aerial perspective on the Sinks.  The 150-foot high formations were created by the erosion of soft sedimentary rock, creating layers of pink, brown, orange and purple.

1:17 - Oaks on the East Loma Trail

1:17 – Oaks on the East Loma Trail

After enjoying the panorama, return to the junction and follow the East Loma Trail northwest through an attractive grove of live oaks.  At a T-junction in a meadow, turn left and descend to another junction where you turn left a second time and re enter the woods.  Here is Box Springs, a seasonal spring pleasantly located beneath several towering oak trees.  Especially on hot days, this is a peaceful spot to sit and relax before heading back.  There’s a little elevation that has to be made up on the return trip, but most of it is downhill and views of the Orange County coastal plains from the hill provide a finishing touch to this hike.

1:30  - Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

1:30 – Oaks at Box Springs (turnaround point)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Big Sky Loop (Simi Valley)

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Looking southeast from the Big Sky Trail toward the Simi Hills

Looking southeast from the Big Sky Trail toward the Simi Hills

BSL Southwest

Southwest view from the Big Sky Trail

Big Sky Loop (Simi Valley)

  • Location: Simi Valley.  From the 118 Freeway, take the Erringer Road exit and head north (turn right if you’re coming from the east; left if from the east).  Go 0.6 miles and park in a small lot on the right side of the street, just before the intersection with Falcon St.  If the lot is full, you can park in another small lot on the northwest corner of Falcon and Erringer, diagonally opposite.
  • Agency: Rancho Simi Recreation and Parks Department
  • Distance: 4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 650 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: October – June
  • USGS topo maps: Moorpark
  • Recommended gear: sun hathiking poles
  • More information: Description here; video of a mountain biker riding the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 5
0:00 - Start of the hike on Erringer Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike on Erringer Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

This hike offers a good workout with several ascents and descents and if visibility is good, the views are quite panoramic.  The trail winds through some residential neighborhoods of Simi Valley and while the sights of civilization are never far away, it’s far enough from any major roads that traffic noise is not likely to be too loud.  The Big Sky Loop is a short drive from the San Fernando Valley and even L.A. and West Side residents might find it to be worth the drive, especially on cool, clear winter days.  Movie and TV buffs may be disappointed, however, to learn that this trail bears no relation to the nearby Big Sky Movie Ranch.

0:07 - Start of the loop (times are approximate)

0:07 – Start of the loop (times are approximate)

The trail may sound a little convoluted, but navigation is easy; the various segments are well signed and the correct route should be obvious.  From the parking lot, walk north on Erringer Road for a few yards and turn right on the signed Big Sky Trail, which curls around the backs of some houses.  After a quarter mile, you reach a split; the start of the loop.  By hiking clockwise, as described here, you can save the more scenic portion of the trip for the return.

0:21 - Crossing Legends Drive

0:21 – Crossing Legends Drive

You ascend gradually for about half a mile before dipping into a pocket of oaks (don’t get used to it; there’s minimal shade on the trail.)  You then cross Legacy Drive and continue threading your way between the residential streets.  At one mile, you cross Legends Drive and at 1.3 miles, you reach Young Wolf Drive.  Pick up the trail, now fenced in like a bridle path, on the opposite side.  A short but steep ascent brings you to a junction where you head left (the right fork is an option if you want to shorten the loop) and follow the trail around the curve of the ridge.  By now you get some good views of Whiteface, a tall, cliff-like hill to the north.

0:32 - Stay left at the junction (Whiteface in the distance)

0:32 – Stay left at the junction (Whiteface in the distance)

Another ascent brings you to a junction (1.8 miles.)  Make a hairpin right turn and head south, following a bumpy ridge to the high point of the loop (2.1 miles.)  Your view can extend as far as Oat Mountain to the east, the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and Mt. Clef to the west if the air quality is good.  You also get a panoramic view of Simi Valley–and intrepid hikers can peer over the edge of the trail, which drops off nearly vertically.

0:48 - Looking off the cliff from the top of the ridge

0:48 – Looking off the cliff from the top of the ridge

Descending from this ridge, you reach a junction where the shortcut trail mentioned above rejoins the loop.  Take a hard left and follow the trail to the end of Swift Fox Court, where (as of this writing) new residences are being built.

The trail picks up again on the opposite side of Swift Fox and makes one final ascent (3.1 miles) where you can enjoy another panoramic view before completing the last leg of the hike.  Follow the ridge downhill, closing the loop, and retrace your steps to the parking lot on Erringer.

1:05 - Left turn; descent toward Swift Fox Court (note the continuation of the trail in the distance)

1:05 – Left turn; descent toward Swift Fox Court (note the continuation of the trail in the distance)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:28 - Heading down hill to complete the loop

1:28 – Heading down hill to complete the loop

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

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Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Descending the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Geology on the canyon wall as seen from the Stair Steps Trail

Stair Steps Trail (Laguna Beach)

  • Location: Laguna Beach. As of this writing, parking is available in a vacant lot on the south side of the Canyon Animal Hospital, 20732 Laguna Canyon Road.  The hospital is 5.2 miles south of the 405 Freeway on the left side of the road (just past the main entrance to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.)  It is 3 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway.  Note: The city plans on developing an artist residence on the site of the lot, which may influence whether parking is available.  For more information about the project, click here.  The Stair Steps Trail can also be done in reverse (down then up) starting from the West Ridge Trail of Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.  This requires a longer hike starting from the northern entrances to the park (Hollyleaf or Canyon View Park) or from the south, via Alta Laguna Park.
  • Agency: Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park; City of Laguna Beach
  • Distance: 1.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 600 feet
  • Suggested time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: PG
  • Best season: All year (Hot during the summer)
  • USGS topo map: Laguna Beach
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat
  • More information: Writeup on a mountain biking site here; video of mountain biking down the trail here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 6
0:00 - Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike, Laguna Canyon Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Popular with mountain bikers – at least in the downhill direction – the Stair Steps Trail climbs the east side of Laguna Canyon, linking Highway 133 to the West Ridge Trail in Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

0:03 - Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

0:03 – Right turn on Phillips St (times are approximate)

Assuming you park in the lot next to Canyon Animal Hospital, follow Laguna Canyon Road north for a short distance (there’s no sidewalk but a reasonably wide shoulder).  After less than 0.1 miles, turn right on an unsigned street, marked as a private way.  Google Maps lists it as Phillips St.  The paved road ascends steeply, passing by some private homes before reaching a gate by a water tank, about 0.4 miles from the start.

0:12 - Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

0:12 – Sandstone cave on the Stair Steps Trail

This is the “official” beginning of the Stair Steps Trail, which branches to the left.  The steep ascent continues.  You pass a large boulder with a cave cut inside; this can be a good place to stop and rest, enjoying panoramic views of the canyon below.  After this landmark, the grade lessens slightly.  At about 0.6 miles from the start, you reach a junction.  The Stair Steps Trail continues steeply uphill; an alternate trail branches off to the right, ascending at a more moderate grade.  Though still fairly steep, this trail can be a more enjoyable route to the top.  While this trail isn’t listed on park literature, it is smooth and easy to follow and has clearly been in regular use by mountain bikers and hikers.  Follow it for about a quarter mile to the West Ridge Trail.

0:17 - "Split" (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

0:17 – “Split” (Main trail heads steeply uphill to the left; alternative trail heads right)

Here you can enjoy an excellent view of both Laguna Canyon and Wood Canyon; you can also see most of inland Orange County up to the Saddleback.  Given time and energy, you can extend your trip on the West Ridge Trail in either direction, providing access to Aliso & Wood Canyon Wilderness Park’s interior.  However, if you want to call it a day, return either via the more moderately graded route you climbed or by the signed Stair Steps Trail.  Keep in mind that while it’s only about 0.1 miles back to the junction from on the Stair Steps Trail, the grade is very steep and rocky; exercise caution, especially since your legs may be tired from the rigorous climb before.

0:24 - Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

0:24 – Old Saddleback as seen from the West Ridge Trail, top of the Stair Steps Trail

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

William Heise County Park (Julian)

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Vista from Glen's View, William Heise County Park

Vista from Glen’s View, William Heise County Park

Dusk on the Nature Trail, William Heise County Park

Dusk on the Nature Trail, William Heise County Park

William Heise County Park

  • Location: Eastern San Diego County, near Julian.  On Highway 78, about 35 miles east of Escondido and a mile west of Julian, at the town of Wynola, head south on Pine Hills Road, signed for the park. After a mile, turn left on Deer Park Road, go 2.1 miles to Frisius Drive and turn left.  Follow Frisius Drive to the park.  Day use parking is $3.  From the main entrance, follow the road about half a mile to the Canyon Oak day use area, shortly before Group Camp 2 and Camping Area 3.
  • Agency: William Heise County Park (San Diego County Parks and Recreation)
  • Distance: 3.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 700 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: Year-round but hot during the summer and possible snow during the winter; plan accordingly
  • USGS topo map: Julian
  • Recommended gear: hiking polessun hat
  • Recommended guidebook: Easy Hiking in Southern California
  • More information: Trip descriptions here and here (Canyon Oak trail only); Yelp page here
  • Rating: 8
0:00 - Canyon Oak Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Canyon Oak Trail Head (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Located on the outskirts of Julian at nearly a mile above sea level, William Heise County Park offers dramatic mountain and desert views as well as secluded woodlands.  Despite damage from the 2003 Cedar Fire, the park is still home to an impressive collection of trees including black oaks, pines and incense cedars.  William Heise is perhaps best known as a camping destination, featuring both camp sites and log cabins, but it also features 10 miles of hiking trails.  The 3.5-mile loop described here uses the Canyon Oak, Desert View and Nature Trails, sampling the best of the park’s scenery.

0:03 - Interpretive plaque in the woods (times are approximate)

0:03 – Interpretive plaque in the woods (times are approximate)

From the day use area, the Canyon Oak Trail ascends a natural staircase through a grove of oaks  and pines where an interpretive plaque describes the history and effects of the area’s wildfires.  From here you enter an open area where you briefly descend, taking in views of North Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to the south.  After passing by Group Camp 1 (half a mile from the start), stay left as another trail merges in from the right.  The trail then climbs through a fire-ravaged landscape on a westward facing slope, reaching a vista point with a bench where you can catch your breath while enjoying a panoramic view.

0:15 - Junction on the Canyon Oak Trail

0:15 – Junction on the Canyon Oak Trail

At about 1.3 miles from the start, you reach a junction with the Desert View Trail.  Turn left and begin a steep climb up a manzanita-covered hill side.  The good news is that the views are even better than from below.  You follow a ridge, briefly descend and then climb again to a junction where a spur leads to Glen’s View (elevation 4,940).  Here you get the best view of the hike, including the desert to the east, the Palomar Mountains to the north, the Cuyamacas to the south and if the air is clear, the ocean to the west.  A view-finder points out some of the spots of note, including Toro Peak and Rabbit Peak in the Santa Rosa Mountains, the Salton Sea and more.

0:30 - Start of the Desert View Trail

0:30 – Start of the Desert View Trail

After taking in the vista, head back to the Desert View Trail which begins a steep descent, sometimes over rather rough terrain.  At a T-junction (about 2.7 miles from the start) you can extend the hike by heading left on the Nature Trail, which drops into an attractive woodland.  A few interpretive plaques describe the plant life, which includes incense cedars and sagebrush.  The Nature Trail ends at a paved road near Group Camp 2.  Follow the road a short distance back to the day use area.

0:55 - Looking east toward Granite Mountain and the Anza-Borrego Desert from Glen's View

0:55 – Looking east toward Granite Mountain and the Anza-Borrego Desert from Glen’s View

In case you were wondering, William Heise was a local businessman who donated the land for this park back in the 1960s.

1:20 - Junction with the Nature Trail (turn left)

1:20 – Junction with the Nature Trail (turn left)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

1:38 - Paved road at the end of the nature trail leading back to the day use area

1:38 – Paved road at the end of the nature trail leading back to the day use area

Butler Peak Lookout

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Looking west from Butler Peak

Looking west from Butler Peak

Looking south from Butler Peak

Looking south from Butler Peak

Butler Peak Lookout

        • Location: Northwest of Big Bear Lake.  From Highway 38, head north on Rim of the World Drive (3.4 miles east of the junction with Highway 18 at the west end of the lake; 2.9 miles west of the discovery center at Fawnskin).  The road becomes dirt after 0.5 miles; it should be passable for all vehicles but it is rough in spots so exercise caution.  At 1.3 miles, park at the junction with forest road 2N13, which may be blocked off by a metal gate.  There is an information board and room for a few cars to park.
        • Agency: San Bernardino National Forest/Big Bear Discovery Center
        • Distance: 9.8 miles
        • Elevation gain: 1,550 feet
        • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain, altitude)
        • Suggested time: 4.5 hours
        • Best season: May – October
        • USGS topo map: Fawnskin; Butler Peak
        • More information: Trip description here; Summitpost page here; lookout information page here; Everytrail report here
        • Rating: 8
0:00 - Start of the hike at the gate on 2N13 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Start of the hike at the gate on 2N13 (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Rising 8,535 feet above sea level, Butler Peak is home of one of seven fire lookouts in the San Bernardino National Forest.  Though the lookout’s hours of operation are limited, guests can still climb to the balcony and enjoy the view.  Butler Peak is the third most prominent summit in the San Bernardino Mountains, behind San Gorgonio and Sugarloaf; to the west, the nearest higher mountain is Cucamonga Peak in the San Gabriels.

0:08 - Stay left at the first junction (times are approximate)

0:08 – Stay left at the first junction (times are approximate)

If the gates along forest road 2N13 and the Butler Peak Fire Road are open, it is possible to drive almost all the way up with an off road-capable vehicle.  However, the distance and elevation gain listed here assume that you are starting from the junction of Rim of the World Drive and 2N13.  This point can be reached fairly easily by almost any car and according to a sign posted at the beginning of 2N13, parking is free.  If the gate is locked which it is as of this writing, this is as far as you can go.

0:55 - Hard left on the Butler Fire Road at the junction

0:55 – Hard left on the Butler Fire Road at the junction

Follow 2N13 southwest through a pine forest.  At about 0.3 miles, stay left as another road branches off.  The trail heads downhill briefly, reaching a junction with a single-track at about 0.9 miles.  Continue following the trail for a pleasant if not terribly memorable 1.3 miles, arriving at a T-junction.  This makes a good resting spot; almost half of the distance is behind you although most of the elevation gain is still to come.

1:20 - View of Hanna Rocks from the Butler Fire Road

1:20 – View of Hanna Rocks from the Butler Fire Road

Take a hard left on the Butler Peak Fire Road and begin climbing at a more steady pace.  The scenery becomes more interesting; as you ascend, you’ll get views of Big Bear Lake, Delamar Mountain, Bertha Peak and a jumble of boulders known as Hanna Rocks.  At about 4 miles, the fire road curves around the south side of a ridge, providing an excellent aerial view of Highway 18.  You’ll also see the distinctive cone-like shape of Butler Peak ahead of you–with the lookout precariously situated atop.

1:50 - View of the lookout from about half a mile away

1:50 – View of the lookout from about half a mile away

At 4.8 miles, you reach the end of the road.  Follow a signed single-track trail up a steep and somewhat rocky incline to the base of the tower.  Two metal staircases bring you to the lookout, which was constructed in 1936.

2:05 - The trail leading up to the lookout

2:05 – The trail leading up to the lookout

Unlike some other lookouts, this one occupies the entire summit.  This proves to be a double-edged sword: you can enjoy great aerial views without having to worry about falling, but it also makes the experience seem less wild and natural.  Nevertheless, the views are outstanding in all directions.  If the weather is clear expect to see Old Saddleback, the San Gabriels, the high desert, Big Bear Lake, Sugarloaf and more.  After enjoying the view, return by the same route, taking extra care when descending the steep steps leading down from the lookout.

2:10 - Looking southwest from the Butler Peak Lookout

2:10 – Looking southwest from the Butler Peak Lookout

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Rattlesnake Canyon (Santa Barbara)

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Hills above Rattlesnake Canyon as seen from just below Gibraltar Road

Hills above Rattlesnake Canyon as seen from just below Gibraltar Road

Greenery in lower Rattlesnake Canyon

Greenery in lower Rattlesnake Canyon

Rattlesnake Canyon

    • Location: Santa Barbara.  From the south, take Highway 101 to Salinas St.  Follow Salinas 0.8 miles to a rotary.  Take the second exit on the rotary, signed as Highway 144 and Sycamore Canyon.  Go 1.1 miles and merge onto Foothill Road/Highway 192.  Go 1.1 miles and turn right onto El Cielito.  Follow El Cielito for a mile to Las Canoas Road.  Turn right and follow Las Canoas for 0.4 miles to a small bridge, just past Skofield Park.  The trail starts on the right side of the road, but parking is not permitted right in front of the trail.  Park where available on the left side of the road.  From the north and west, take Highway 154 to Highway 192.  Head east on Highway 192 for 3.2 miles.  Turn left on Mission Canyon and follow it 0.5 miles.  Turn right on Las Canoas and follow it 1.2 miles to the trail head.  Park on the right side of the street and pick up the trail across the way, by either end of the bridge.
    • Agency: City of Santa Barbara
    • Distance: 4.8 miles
    • Elevation gain: 1,600 feet
    • Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, steepness, terrain)
    • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
    • Best season:  All year but hot during the summer
    • USGS topo map: Santa Barbara
    • Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat; sunblock
    • Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes Around Santa Barbara
    • More information: Trip descriptions here and here; detailed trail guide here; Yelp page here; Eveytrail report here
    • Rating: 8
0:00 - Trailhead on Las Canoas Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

0:00 – Trailhead on Las Canoas Road (click thumbnails to see the full sized versions)

Rattlesnake Canyon is one of the more popular hikes in the Santa Barbara foothills among both humans and canines.  With ocean and mountain views, thick woodlands and a seasonal stream, it’s one of the most scenically varied and with the extension to Gibraltar Road as described here, it’s quite challenging.  About half of the hike is shaded; with an early start it can be done during the summer.

0:15 - Bear left at the junction about half a mile from the start (times are approximate)

0:15 – Bear left at the junction about half a mile from the start (times are approximate)

From the trail heads on either side of the bridge, head up into the canyon, making a few switchbacks to ascend a ridge.  You climb steadily, reaching a junction at 0.5 miles.  Bear left and stay left again at another junction, descending into a wooded area.  You cross a stream bed and on the opposite side the trail splits.  Both routes soon merge so you can take either.  More climbing brings you to an area dotted with thin pines, resembling landscapes usually found at higher altitudes.

0:36 - Creek crossing

0:36 – Creek crossing

Continuing along, you enter another woodland at about 1.2 miles and cross the creek twice.  Another climb brings you to an attractive meadow with a somewhat unattractive name (Tin Can) where peaks tower above.  On the opposite side of the meadow in a grove of oaks you reach a T-junction, 1.7 miles from the start.  This can be a good turnaround point if you’re out of gas or if the day is hot.  If you want more, head right on the trail signed for Gibraltar Road.

0:51 - Tin Can Meadow, shortly before the junction with the spur trail to Gibraltar Road

0:51 – Tin Can Meadow, shortly before the junction with the spur trail to Gibraltar Road

The trail is flat for a short distance before beginning a morale-testing climb.  The views, however, are worth the effort and there’s a little bit of shade to help out.  When you make a few final switchbacks and get excellent views of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Island and the greater Santa Barbara area, you’ll be glad you went the extra mile (or 0.7 miles, to be exact.)  At 2.4 miles, the trail reaches Gibraltar Road.  At a small turnout, you can sit and admire the panorama before heading back.  Make sure you give yourself time not just to enjoy the view but to rest your legs for the steep descent.

1:15 - Panoramic ocean view from Gibraltar Road (turnaround point)

1:15 – Panoramic ocean view from Gibraltar Road (turnaround point)

Text and photography copyright 2014 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.