The Los Padres Crew
About four miles and 3,500 vertical feet uphill from the San Ysidro Trailhead, a Los Padres Forest Association (LPFA) work crew wearing hardhats printed in block letters with their names, are wielding hand hoes. They’re fixing a somewhat crumbling ridge dotted with small bushes and the scorched skeletons of small trees that burned in the canyon-hopping December 2017 Thomas Fire.
The LFPA crew is led by Jason Morris and Daniel Smith, and includes John Nagy, Brayson Ogan, Silas Kok, Tyler Chard, and Leo Herrera. They all hail from either Santa Barbara or Lompoc, and earlier that morning, they’d hiked about a mile south down the hill from the nearest road, El Camino Cielo. Many of them are backpackers with a decade or more experience camping out for days or week at a time.
Every 25 feet or so, the crew has carved out downhill drainage funnels. The steep, upper stretch of the trail is the last remaining obstacle to restoring Montecito’s entire network of trails, much of which was wiped out by the fire and subsequent 1/9/18 debris flow.The men are accompanied by a pair of friendly dogs that patrol the hillside. Sometimes, while restoring the San Yisdro Trail, they prefer to camp overnight for a couple of days at a time, either for the fun of it or because it’s too exhausting to hike out and make the long drive home.
“I love it out here,” Chard, an aspiring firefighter, tells me. “Sometimes I don’t really want to be around other people all that much,” he adds, grinning at the fog-covered green mountainsides all around us.
Going up the Mountain
To reach the LPFA crew, I meet Ashlee Mayfield, president of the Montecito Trails Foundation, at the San Ysidro Trailhead off Park Lane and just east of the San Ysidro Ranch. As we begin our hike at 10 am, Mayfield warns another pair of hikers about the dangerous trail conditions higher up. They thank her for the advice and take a different trail. At first, it’s an easy stride through an oak grove, then a gentle, tree-covered path takes us alongside a small creek which terminates in the gently sloping bowl of the San Ysidro debris basin.
It’s chilly, almost cold, with fog obscuring the sky, and peaceful, and at one point, we hear frogs down in the bubbling creek. Yet both sides of the canyon bear violent scars from where the base of the canyon began slipping southwards at a depth of 25 to 30 feet thanks to an unprecedented combination of fire and rain. “It used to be lush,” Mayfield tells me of the rock-strewn gulley that remains. “There was a good tree canopy, and creek crossings were mild. The debris flow ripped almost everything out.”
Higher up in the canyon, we pass by the first of a pair of Swiss-made steel debris nets that were installed in San Ysidro Canyon last year with funding from Montecito’s Project for Resilient Communities (TPRC). Both nets stretch across narrow reaches of the canyon, chokepoints for any rocks or debris flowing downhill.
Beyond the San Ysidro Falls – at this time of year just a trickle – Mayfield and I ascend a steep series of switchbacks. The views – of the Pacific Ocean to the south and Montecito Peak to the west – are stunning. Yet the climb is difficult, especially when the trail completely disappears. On several occasions, we have no choice but to scurry across slopes that had been eroded or overrun by sliding rock.
The difficult terrain underscores the efforts of the LPFA crew,” Mayfield tells me. “The crews working the trail are incredibly hard working, fit, nature-loving individuals that really care about our environment and access. It’s great to see people who love what they are doing and who are appreciated, especially by trail runners who have a great appreciation for what they do as trail builders.”
A Legacy of Fire
Long before the Spaniards explored the area a few centuries earlier and then finally founding the Santa Barbara Presidio in 1872, most of the trails that make up Montecito’s rugged front country were Chumash routes. “Before that, they were animal trails,” says Bryan Conant, a LPFA trail clearing supervisor. “Some of the trails were built by the U.S. Forestry Service in the 1920s, like the Franklin Trail. They took the path of least resistance, the quickest route to the top.”
“Back then, the objective of the trail was to get to the top as quickly as possible,” Conant continues. “A lot of the users were on horseback and in the last fifty years it’s turned from transportation to recreation. So now when you look at the trails, you get mountain bikers, trail runners, back packers, and folks just trying to get some exercise.”
Conant grew up in L.A. but moved to Santa Barbara in the 1990s to attend college at UCSB. “I didn’t look at the mountains for three years,” he marvels. “I was focused on surfing and the beach, and I assumed these mountains were just like the ones in Santa Monica, but I realized it was much more expansive. I started hiking and exploring and doing backpacking trips and started volunteering with the Forest Service doing trail work.”
In the early 2000s, Conant, a professional cartographer, began working for the US Forest Service, and recalls trails manager Kerry Kellogg as a “natural born leader” who inspired him to dedicate his life to the great outdoors. “I worked on a map of the back country in 2003, which is available at REI and different places,” Conant notes. “I became somewhat known.”
Throughout the past few decades, Conant says, the increasing frequency and destructive power of fires had become apparent, as the mountains above Santa Barbara and Ventura seemed to catch fire nearly every year. In 2006, the Day Fire destroyed 11 structures in Ventura. The 2007 Zaca Fire burned most of the backcountry over a period of several months and became the second biggest fire in California history at the time. Then, in November 2008, the Tea Fire destroyed 210 homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara.
None compared to the Thomas Fire of December 2017, the largest inferno in California history, which turned to ash 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. At the time, Conant was assigned to an LFPA trail crew that was supposed to work the San Ysidro Trail, clearing bushes above the waterfall where the trail begins to get steep along a seemingly endless series of switchbacks.
But after checking out the dry and windy weather conditions, Conant called off the work. He knew that just one errant spark from a weedwhacker could cause a conflagration. “We cancelled it, and a week later, the whole canyon burned out,” Conant says. “There have been a lot of people in charge of the trail over the years. Now it’s people like me and Ashlee.”
Saving the Trails
During the disaster, Mayfield and her family, who’d moved to Montecito a decade earlier, lived in a hotel room for 70 days. After she was able to move back into her house in March 2018, she wanted to volunteer. An avid hiker and trail runner, she had already been exploring the trails, even running weekly hikes up the canyons. “A friend of mine on Montecito Association knew there was an opening on the Montecito Trail Foundation (MTF) board,” she says. “The pieces fell into place naturally.”
Within a few months after the disaster, Mayfield and other MTF members began organizing meetings. “The Forestry Department hadn’t had time to scout the area yet,” she recalls. “We went to them and guaranteed we’d get after the repairs and restoration and show them there was a network of safe places to hike around.”
The group also held a successful meeting at the county’s Office of Emergency Management, and, two days later, the forest reopened to the public. After surveying the trails, it was agreed that the first one on LPFA’s and MTF’s restoration schedule would be Romero Jeepway. “That was actually a project we did in partnership with Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Volunteers, which has since become Sage Trails Alliance,” Mayfield tells me. “That was critical to opening up Romero Canyon Trail. It was five miles of fire road restoration, just a month clearing debris.”
With help from a local family who provided a generous grant, the MTF’s next project was to restore the Cold Springs Trail, which had remained closed because unlike the other trails in the Los Padres Forest, it was subject to both city and county jurisdiction. “We knew we needed a machine operator, so we hired a company in Auburn called Trailscape Inc.,” Mayfield recalls. “They spent four months in Cold Springs working one end to the other.”
“The work Ashlee and the Montecito Trails Foundation and others have done helps facilitate our response,” says Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor. “It’s really inspiring to see a community group just go do something for the benefit of everyone. That and the work that TPRC has done has brought us to a return to normal. It’s the very definition of resiliency. It’s inspiring.”
Three individuals played critical roles in helping to restore Montecito’s front country trail system: Aaron Songer, Abby Brown, and Doug Hulett, who has been building trails for 30 years, the last four for Trailscape. “Ashlee got my contact and I ended up in Montecito,” Hulett says. His first job, in late summer 2018, was to restore the Cold Springs Trail by heading north from Gibraltar Road. “The whole project was scary,” he recalls. “We had a mini-excavator that we had to collapse down to just three feet wide.”
San Ysidro Trail, which required Hulett to operate a 2,500-pound machine down a steep, narrow path, was “really hair raising,” he remembers. “In a few places the edge of my tracks were hanging in space. You can’t go back.” The whole experience lasted 77 days, Hulett recalls. “It was a whole lot of nail biting. Gravity is trying to suck you out of your seat, and when you pull on the ground with the bucket, you are sliding out of your seat.”
Hulett credits Mayfield and other volunteers he’s encountered on the trail with cheering him up and motivating him to finish the job. “There are now twenty bikers or hikers I know as friends, people just walking on the trail, really tender people who had endured the fires and debris flow and really appreciated the work we were doing.”
Meanwhile, other mini-ex operators worked with LPFA and MTF to restore Buena Vista Canyon and MTF and Bucket Brigade sponsored volunteer days in which dozens of people worked on the trails in conjunction with both the city and county.
“The first time seventy-five people showed up,” Mayfield says. Gradually work also began on several community trails lower down in Montecito. “A different crew was helping out in the Ennisbrook Open Space and we partnered with the Bucket Brigade and Peter Bakewell Open Space and broke ground on a new trail, the North Jameson walking path.”
According to Mayfield, San Ysidro was the last trail in the network to be restored because it’s the most difficult to access. “It is not an easy place to get your crew in,” she says. “We had to have enough opinions weigh in and decided whether to try to helicopter an extra machine in there or restore it by hand. We let it sit there over the winter and have some growth.”
Fortunately a wet winter last year helped regrow much of the vegetation. “We had an incredible winter,” Mayfield says. “Now when you go up there it is a whole different place.”
The Psycho Slide
About half a mile above where Mayfield and I encountered the LPFA work crew is a patch of missing trail at least ten yards wide stretching above a certifiably steep, boulder-strewn slope. All along the trail, there had been intermittent spots where it had eroded beyond recognition, but usually the missing section was only a few yards wide. Conant isn’t 100 percent sure but believes he came up with the popular name for this spot on the San Ysidro Trail: the “Psycho Slide.”
“The Psycho Slide is a real problem,” says Conant. “It is scary, just incredibly steep. If someone falls there it’s bad.” His first visit to the Psycho Slide was on behalf of the Forest Service’s Burn Area Emergency Response, or BEAR team. “I came out and looked at it. MTF brought in three or four people and we considered whether to attempt a reroute or a repair.”
In the end, the experts decided to let the 2019 winter weather take its course before attempting a repair job in the spring. One of those experts is Yonni Schwartz, a U.S. Forest Service geologist. “First of all, this whole area is very unstable,” Schwartz tells me. “This mountain range has some of the steepest mountains in North America – they are uplifting faster than they are eroding. The geology leads to unstable slopes. You add a fire to it that undermines all the support to this soil, and you are adding an additional factor to this natural instability.”
A year and a half after the debris flow, Schwartz hiked up and down every drainage from Carpinteria to Montecito, as well as the backcountry near Ojai, including San Ysidro Canyon. He says the so-called Psycho Slide isn’t so much a deep slide as it is a steep one. “It’s actually a pretty shallow slide but is on a steep slope and the conditions around that slope, with alternating shale and sandstone makes fixing it very difficult. And because the slide is taking place at a deep gully, it is going to get deeper and larger over time.”
Fortunately, Mayfield says, since the 1/9 debris flow, MTF has raised a $750,000 endowment to help maintain Montecito’s trails, money that will continue to grow for years to come. Meanwhile, the San Ysidro Trail is scheduled to open this June. “It’s all been done by hand,” Mayfield says. “To be standing here two years later on our last full trail restoration project is beyond our wildest dreams.”