There is a great love for our local trails, particularly the front-country trails that are the easiest to access. Not only are these trails great for a weekend hike to get out into the mountains and explore nature, their proximity to town makes them convenient for a quick hike during the week.
When the 2017 Thomas Fire burned through the area, not only was the damage felt, but the closure order enacted on Dec. 10 of that year significantly reduced the number of available trails close to town.
The Thomas Fire at the time was the largest wildfire in recorded California history and burned more than 280,000 acres. The fire started near Thomas Aquinas College, near Santa Paula, and burned eastward. The fire burned on both the front and back sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and wasn’t contained on the front side until it reached the burn scar of the 2009 Jesusita Fire.
In addition to home and property damage, forest fires also damage local trails. With much of the plant cover burned away there’s little to hold rocks and dirt in place. Trails can become undermined; loose rock and ravel can slide down hillsides, burying trails; and downed trees and fallen brush can block trails.
But burn-related damage is just half the story, even in a normal year winter rains add to the impact by further moving loose material down the hillsides and washing out creek crossings.
However, the devastating debris flow and flooding on Jan. 9 of last year brought with it a much higher level of destruction. The catastrophic event claimed 23 lives, destroyed homes, and left a visible scar on the community.
The communitywide response has been inspiring, with people working together to overcome and rebuild from damage.
Between the fire and subsequent debris flow and flooding, it was thought by many that the front-country trails might remain closed for more than a year. But in a surprise move the Forest Service opened access to the burn area on May 24 of last year, to allow volunteer trail groups to legally enter the burn area and start assessing the damage and begin organizing trail projects.
At the time, both the city and county of Santa Barbara chose to hold off on opening the trails within the forest that are on city- and county-owned land, including Cold Spring Canyon.
By July of last year, both the city and county lifted their closure orders, with the exception of Cold Spring Canyon, although the uppermost portion of the trail on Forest Service land could be accessed from East Camino Cielo Road.
So while volunteers and professional trail crews began restoring our front-country trails, Cold Spring Trail remained closed due to additional damage. Where Cold Spring Creek crosses Mountain Drive the debris flow and flooding ripped out the cement crossing and lowered the creek course. A bridge across the creek will need to be installed before the road can be reopened.
Last July, Montecito Trails Foundation, working with the city and county of Santa Barbara, arrived at a solution to help restore access to Cold Spring Canyon. Although the trailhead on Mountain Drive would remain closed, trail users would be able to access the canyon from West Fork Cold Spring Trailhead along Gibraltar Road, and by hiking in from Hot Springs Trailhead to reach East Fork Cold Spring Trail.
The trail work was funded by two anonymous donors who regularly use the trails and wanted to see them reopened. After several months of trail work, the trail was officially reopened in December. In January, flooding from this year’s rain caused a slide along a section of West Fork Cold Spring Trail, again closing it; but after a reroute, the trail was reopened in March.
High on my own list of places to visit in the canyon was Tangerine Falls. And while winter rains have added to their appeal, the off-trail route to the falls is mostly gone and the base of the falls is now harder to reach.
The shortest route to the falls is from Gibraltar Road along West Fork Cold Spring Trail, and is about four miles round-trip.
Gibraltar Road starts from the foothills of Santa Barbara, near Sheffield Reservoir Open Space, and leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. About three miles from the beginning, Gibraltar Road arrives at a hairpin turn, and it’s here that the top of West Fork Cold Spring Trail begins.
From the trailhead, the trail drops down into West Fork Cold Spring Canyon. This area was damaged in the 2009 Jesusita Fire and provides a good sense of what 10 years of plant regrowth looks like. Along the trail are ceanothus, holly-leaf cherry, toyon, black sage, and other chaparral plants.
The reroute around the slide damage is well-marked, and just before the trail reaches the canyon floor it transitions into the Thomas Fire burn area. The trail then arrives at West Fork Cold Spring Creek, which is currently flowing. Across the creek is the old Cold Spring Tunnel.
The trail continues down along the creek, and here regrowth from the fire is being charged up by the rain and the coming of spring time. Already in bloom are chaparral pea, purple nightshade and white fiesta flower, and getting ready for their own potential show are canyon sunflower, elderberry and even some Humboldt lilies.
The trail then arrives at the turnoff for Tangerine Falls, located just above the confluence of West Fork Cold Spring Creek and Cold Spring Creek. Here, the off-trail route used to cross West Fork Cold Spring Creek and then continue up Cold Spring Creek. Now, however, the best route is to just rock hop up the creek.
The debris flow and flooding from last year has not only cleared the creek bed of plants, but in many places scoured the creek down to bedrock.
Nevertheless, there are some recognizable features. The first set of small cascades are still picturesque, although the metal pipes that crossed the creek here are now gone, and where the trail used to be on the other side is much higher now that the lower portion has been washed away.
Farther up, I arrive at the familiar rock outcrop that used to signal the beginning of the more serious part of the hike. Here, the reduced vegetation makes it easier to see Tangerine Falls, but the flood damage makes the hike to the base of the falls tougher.
The overall structure of Tangerine Falls remains unchanged, and seeing them now with all this great water flowing over them is a reminder of not only the beauty of nature, but a reassurance that not everything has changed.
Tangerine Falls can also be reached from Hot Springs Canyon, about nine miles round-trip. From Hot Springs Trailhead on Mountain Drive, follow Hot Springs Trail up the canyon to the Edison Access Road, and continue west along the unpaved road as it leads up toward what’s known as Montecito Overlook, where it meets Cold Spring Trail.
Here, to the right, Cold Spring Trail continues up toward Montecito Peak and the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and to the left Cold Spring Trail drops down into a side canyon, before arriving at East Fork Cold Spring Creek, where the trail crosses the creek.
A short way past this crossing, the trail arrives at the small waterfall and pools found along the creek that have in the past been a popular destination. Here, too, the debris flow and flooding have cleared the creek of brush and scoured it down to bedrock, but the same basic features are still recognizable and the small waterfall is actually easier to see.
Farther down, the trail arrives at the juncture of West and East Fork Cold Spring trails. The bench that once overlooked the confluence of West and East Fork Cold Spring creeks is gone, swept away by the debris flow and flooding, but the trail from here up to the turnoff to Tangerines Falls is in great shape.
The section of trail from where the bench used to be down to the trailhead on Mountain Drive is still closed, and will likely remain so until the road is repaired. Before the trailhead can be reopened a bridge will need to be installed across the washed-out section of Mountain Drive. Additional work will also need to be done on the road, along with hillside stabilization, and the first part of the trail will need to be repaired or rerouted.
The lower sections of the other front-country trails in the burn area are all in good shape, and portions of the upper sections of some trails have also been worked on.
It is still a work in progress, but there is a lot more access than there was a year ago, thanks in large part to local agencies and groups working together and all of the volunteers who have put in time working on the trails, as well as those who have donated funds to help pay for trail building.
Our love for these trails is what’s bringing them back.
James Wapotich is a volunteer wilderness ranger with the Los Padres National Forest and is working on a book about the Santa Barbara backcountry. If you have a favorite hike, a trail you’re curious about or questions about hiking, send them firstname.lastname@example.org.