Running on Empty

Posted on Jun 11 by SEASONS Magazine

Tickseed Coreopsis in bloom on the Carrizo Plain. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Tickseed Coreopsis in bloom on the Carrizo Plain. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Story and Photos by Chuck Graham.

The Sisquoc River was in my rear view mirror and the sweeping Salisbury Potrero beckoned; its rolling meadows and sandstone pinnacles were a dreamscape amongst the living. I was in the midst of connecting the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County to the last of California’s grasslands on the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County. I had two mountain ranges down and one to go. I desperately needed water and the available springs weren’t proving fruitful. Fortunately it had snowed the week before my trip, and while walking west toward the Montgomery Potrero, I found some shade along the Sierra Madre Ridge with patches of frozen, crunchy snow.

Chuck Graham hikes. Photo by Chuck Graham.

A NO-NAME TRAIL

For a long time I was curious about the squiggly, nondescript line on the visitor’s map available at the Goodwin Education Center in the Carrizo Plain. It barely marked a trail off Highway 166, heading northeast, but it quickly vanished, maybe only a mile off the east side of that busy highway toward the Caliente Mountains. I tried the Forest Service but came up empty. I finally tracked someone down at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) office. “It’s an old BLM trail built in 1968,” says Ryan Cooper,
outdoor recreation planner for the BLM in Bakersfield. “It hasn’t been maintained for a long time.” The name of the trail is the Caliente Mountain Access Trail. It’s part of the Chimineas-Carrizo Plain Ecological Reserve. During the year seasonal permitted hunting of dove, quail, wild pigs and rabbits is allowed. “The trailhead is difficult to see. It’s not next to the highway,” explains Cooper. “It’s tucked back in a draw.” He was right. Anyone driving along Highway 166 at 50 mph or faster—which most people do traveling back and forth between Bakersfield and Santa Maria—would miss it.

Writer/Photographer Chuck Graham at Camp South Fork. Photo by Chuck Graham.

SANTA BARBARA TO CARRIZO PLAIN

It was February, and after getting dropped off at Nira Camp in the Los Padres National Forest, I was ready to trek to the Carrizo Plain and its breathtaking grasslands. With a bounce in my stride and four days of food stuffed in my backpack, I would eventually be picked up at the Selby Campground in the Caliente Mountains gazing across the plain to the daunting Temblor Mountains. As I followed the sounds of cool water spilling over cobbled rock along the Manzana Creek, it wasn’t long before I was up and over the San Rafael Mountains, where towering sandstone monoliths, pinnacles and sheer cliffs dominated the arid, rugged landscape. By nightfall I converged with the South Fork of the wild and scenic Sisquoc River, where the empty Forest Service cabin welcomed me inside. A wood-burning stove quelled the icy air. It was a rewarding pit stop to rest and warm up, eat, sleep and recharge with the rush of the steady runnel lulling me to sleep beneath sturdy, swaying oaks.

Carrizo Plain in all its vastness. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Before the sun beamed on the craggy ridge-tops, I was awake, nested and closing up the cozy cabin. After filling water bottles and rock hopping across the Sisquoc, I took the Sweetwater Trail, ascending the Sierra Madre Mountains. However, the trail was anything but sweet. It was a long haul before I reached the first of the potreros. It felt even longer when I couldn’t locate any water, so when I rounded the backside of the Montgomery Potrero, the snow proved to be a pleasant surprise. The east side of the potrero never sees any sun and fortunately kept those remnant patches of snow frozen for more than a week. The snow rejuvenated me. I scraped as much as I could into whatever I could and hauled it over near the Rocky Ridge Trail. It felt way too hot for February. During the day it was at least 70 degrees atop the Sierra Madre and I needed more water. I went over to the Montgomery Spring, which has always been a trickle, yet is a reliable water source. I discovered a plastic jug full of water, drank it down, and positioned the jug to catch more spring-fed water by morning. When I returned the next morning I discovered an animal had knocked the jug over. No water. I quickly packed up my gear and descended past Lion Canyon, the Rocky Ridge Trail my gateway to New Cuyama and sustenance.

Herd of tule elk. Photo by Chuck Graham.

AMONGST TUMBLEWEEDS

After a long slog down the cattle-rutted Rocky Ridge Trail, it felt good to walk along the flat, lonely road leading to New Cuyama. I bought plenty of water at the local corner market. As sunset approached, I dodged several tumbleweeds while searching for a concealed place to pitch my tent. Conveniently, I placed it in a small, circular, ready-made tumbleweed corral on the southwest side of Highway 166.

There I slept fitfully for the night. I had a long, 13-mile walk on Highway 166 to the Caliente Access Trail. Walking west along the narrow shoulder I came to the conclusion that this was the toughest part of the trip; walking along a highway frenetic with speeding big rigs and their accompanying wind shear constantly played on my mind. After about eight miles I’d had enough and hitchhiked the remaining five miles to the trailhead. The Caliente Access Trail meanders through low-lying brush before vanishing from the highway after about a mile and a half. Route finding wasn’t an issue, though—there’s no denying the Caliente Mountains. I located a route that led to the rolling ridgeline, and by sunset I stared across the grasslands where shadows crept across the stunning Carrizo Plain to the desolate Temblor Mountains. That view was my reward following four days in the Los Padres National Forest. That and a huge herd of tule elk grazing on new-growth grasses that swept across the east side of the snow-dusted Calientes. Watching one of the fastest growing tule elk herds in California was the opportune time for me to drop my pack and simply soak in all the natural wonders unfolding before me.

This story was originally published in the 2018 summer issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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