McMenemy Trail: Don’t Switch the Switchbacks
On April 26th, 1965, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed Resolution #24671, accepting a trail easement from Logan and Elizabeth McMenemy. This easement solidified a new trail route for a historic trail that crossed the McMenemy lands, and a few years later a second easement was deeded by the San Ysidro Ranch, completing the McMenemy Trail where it still runs to this day. It was the brainchild of the Montecito Riding and Hiking Trails Association (MRHTA; now the Montecito Trails Foundation) working with the County of Santa Barbara and took over a year to complete. The reason behind moving this trail to the location where it now sits:
In order to build a trail that would stand the test of time and not lose usability due to changes in land ownership, according to MRHTA founding member and president Peter Bakewell.
It was during this era the County of Santa Barbara and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) along with trail organizations fought hard to preserve trail access for future generations – knowing that development would soon encroach around the trails – therefore, easements were essential for ensuring their preservation. The trail’s name prior to 1965 was the Old Pueblo Trail; yes, an extension of that trail with the same name on the other side of the creek – it was once one continuous trail. After the easement was granted, the County of S.B. agreed to rename this portion of trail the “Colonel McMenemy Trail,” thus a new chapter in trail history began. The inception of this trail was like so many others of this era. First built in 1918 in the name of fire protection, its strategic location provided a defensive barrier between the last ridge of the mountains and the foothills, which it continues to do.
Lately I have found myself wondering, “What would Mr. Bakewell think if he knew the trail he helped build was being moved for the exact opposite reason he placed it where it is today?” The irony of it, the Montecito Trails Foundation is now leading the relocation of the McMenemy Trail, due in part to a neighbor requesting it be moved away from their property, and from what is listed on the agenda the County Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee (CRAHTAC) is set to approve. I can only imagine if Mr. Bakewell was here today, he would be deeply disappointed, especially since his generation spent so much time and effort ensuring future trail users would have access to public trails – regardless of how many new homes were
The movement to realign the McMenemy Trail over the proposed new route began on January 12th, 2021. This proposal is addressed to the owner of a nearby home and the manager of the San Ysidro Ranch. The objectives clearly state its purpose, amongst them are: Prevent cutting of switchbacks, safety, and to “provide relief to the two property owners through which the trail passes from encroachment into their parcels.” This clearly demonstrates that moving this trail is in part to appease the needs of nearby neighbors, whose properties the trail crosses with deeded easements. The current realignment project differs from any previous versions as it deviates from the current trail much further than the others have attempted in years past. (It should be noted that the current project manager for McMenemy Realignment has changed and is now the Montecito Trails Foundation.)
Probably the most frequent question I have been asked throughout this realignment process is, “Which came first, the house or the trail?” McMenemy Trail has been in its current location, along those famous switchbacks which ascend the grassy hillside, since 1965. Before that, it still ascended the same grassy hillside but in a more direct path on what is known as the “fall line” trail, as would often be built in the early 1900s. The nearby home was built in the early ‘90s, long after McMenemy Trail had been established. Before this home was built, a vacant lot occupied that location. The parcel, which is owned by the San Ysidro Ranch and is the easternmost portion of trail, has always been vacant but will soon become a botanical garden for hotel guests to enjoy, hence all the work on this parcel in recent months.
I have met or spoken to representatives of the Montecito Trails Foundation, Los Padres Forest Association, and local agencies about the realignment, stating how I was opposed to it and the reasoning behind my decision. I explained how damaging to our fragile trail system it could be, moving a trail at least in part due to a neighbor’s request. It places the neighbors’ needs before trail users and will almost certainly open the doors to the many other residents not wanting trails near their residences to expect the same accommodation in the future. I believe that if this realignment is approved, the fallout to our entire trail system could be catastrophic.
Another piece of important information which can be gained by reading the Realignment Proposal – it was written by an active member of CRAHTAC. This is ironic since the topic of realigning McMenemy Trail never appeared on any CRAHTAC agendas or minutes until mid-2022. It was known by County staff that this realignment project was in progress and a P-Line Trail had already been built by this CRAHTAC member. It should also be noted that the former project manager was set to benefit financially from this project, a project being funded by neighbors whose land the trail crosses. If nothing else, this raises the issue of conflict of interest. I plan on following up this topic in future correspondences with the County of Santa Barbara in much greater detail regarding policy for realigning County Trails and if what occurred in 2021 was done to CRAHTAC/County of SB standards.
The Proposed McMenemy Trail realignment trail has been reported to solve many problems, here is a list of several of them and discussion:
Grassy hillside switchback “short cutting” instead of using the trail – The majority of trail users stay on the designated path and erosion impact from McMenemy Trail cutting is minimal. Cutting of switchbacks is a common issue on nearly every trail across Santa Barbara’s Front Country and beyond. Although prevalent, no other trail has been suggested to relocate due to short cutting and some trails have far worse erosion impact issues from it. Solution: Efforts have begun to prevent shorting these switchbacks and once completed these measures should all but eliminate this issue. Conservative efforts should always be made before more drastic actions are taken.
Fence complaints – As found on letters set to go to the USFS and County, the fence along the border of San Ysidro Ranch Property is listed as a reason for realigning this trail. This fence went up approximately two years ago, in some places encroaching on the trail’s 10-foot easement. Recent trail work has widened the area next to the fence, giving more space between the fence and outside edge of the trail, but areas are still encroached beyond the 10-foot mark. (It should be noted that all nearby trails have fencing on one side or both, including: Lower San Ysidro, Wiman Trail, Old Pueblo Trail, and Hot Springs Trail. Will they be realigned as well?)
Furthermore, the Realignment Proposal states, “In site visits with Bart and Ian, I think there is an understanding that some level of fencing will be required at the east and west ends of the proposed trail realignment to prevent public access.
“This is especially true on the west end where the hillside is relatively open, and users may still attempt to use the older trail. As noted above, part of the project should include a restoration component whose goal will be to return the tread and denuded hillsides to as natural a condition as possible. This should help discourage access but realistically fencing will be needed, especially as trail users get used to the new alignment.”
If this is accurate, the realigned trail would actually have more fencing than the current trail!
McMenemy Trail current conditions and safety – McMenemy overall has one of the most gentle grades of any nearby trails. It is severely lacking in basic maintenance needs, which have led to erosion and current conditions. The agency-sponsored National Public Lands Day was held on this trail in September of 2022 in which volunteers and staff began the long overdue restoration process of this trail. Volunteer efforts are ongoing on McMenemy Trail and many of the areas deemed unrepairable have been restored, making the trail more sustainable. By the end of winter, this trail should be fully restored and in better shape than prior to the Thomas Fire and debris flow, with new erosion prevention features that will facilitate maintenance and lessen the need for future repairs.
McMenemy Trail location and geology – Recently an agency geologist was invited to look at the current and proposed realignment of McMenemy Trail. I accompanied the geologist along with a representative from the Los Padres Forest Association. The Geologist’s first comment when he arrived on site was to the effect of, “The current trail’s location is geologically perfect, why do you want to move it?” His concerns were with regards to the proposed trail’s stability over an undercut 20-to-25-foot section during and after heavy rains, and the slide potential overall when a wet winter saturates the steep hillsides. Normal rule of thumb, always move a trail away from an area with these potential problems, not the reverse. Decreased user safety, decreased satisfaction, and increased trail upkeep will certainly be the new norm if the trail is realigned
We are so lucky to have the system of trails we have. Countless individuals and organizations have contributed to the formation of our interconnected system of trails over the decades. The history of who these people were and how the trails came to be – each one falling into place with its own individual story – together, makes Santa Barbara’s Trail System a special place unlike any other. We are part of a pivotal moment in history today and this decision will affect generations to come. As trail advocates it is our duty to protect and take the best care possible of these precious assets before handing them off to the next generation. The only logical decision is rejecting the realignment of McMenemy Trail.
Additionally, I believe we need to reestablish an ongoing Front Country Trails Task Force, as was active in years past, which is needed to better deal with issues such as this. During the realignment planning process, significant confusion occurred related to the existence of easement documents and which agency should oversee the project. Providing community outreach regarding changes to the trail system has been severely lacking on the County’s part and more efforts should have been made in this area. These are public trails, and the trail users at large need to be involved every step of the way. On that note, being that the USFS holds one easement for this trail and it will likely be necessary for them to complete NEPA-related public outreach, which at last check had not yet begun.
We are at a pivotal moment in trail management history, and it is not too late to make the only reasonable choice with regards to McMenemy Trail – leave it as is and see how good it can become with modern trail-building techniques.
Editor’s Note: The received letter was submitted before the deciding CRAHTAC meeting last month.