People often ask me what’s my favorite hike. This is actually a tough question to answer given that we have so many great trails to choose from.
There are more than 200 trails within two hours of Santa Barbara. Extend that range to three hours, and you can reach all of southern Los Padres National Forest and even the Carrizo Plain.
To simplify this question, I’ll often narrow the range to just within Santa Barbara County, or add in some qualifiers, such as getting to see a waterfall or other unique feature. But my short list usually includes Fir Canyon, Forbush Flats, the Upper Sisquoc River, and Indian Canyon.
Indian Canyon is located within the Dick Smith Wilderness area and is one of those rarely visited places that for me embodies the timelessness and vitality of the backcountry; it also has the added attraction of a scenic double waterfall.
The trailhead is about a half-mile past Mono Campground, however, with the current road closures, the trailhead can no longer be reached by car. The shortest route now is along North Cold Spring Trail from East Camino Cielo Road, which adds about six miles to the hike.
From the Indian-Mono Trailhead, it’s about 8.5 miles to Indian Canyon Camp, and from there another mile and a half to the falls.
For company, I decide to join Volunteer Wilderness Rangers Paul Cronshaw and Shad Springer on a trail survey of the area.
The hike down North Cold Spring Trail proves to be an enjoyable warm-up for the day. The trail is slightly overgrown but still easy to follow. In bloom along the trail are yarrow, Indian paintbrush, woolly blue curls, larkspur, buckwheat, farewell to spring, and both yellow and sticky monkey flowers. At Forbush Flats there is still clear, flowing water in the creek near the two campsites.
Past the camp, North Cold Spring Trail climbs a low rise and then descends toward the Santa Ynez River, where the trail becomes more challenging. Recent flooding has made the trail downstream even less distinct and more jumbled. Hiking largely by memory, we’re able to locate where the trail crosses the river.
Here, the trail becomes a little more apparent as we head toward what’s affectionately known as the Mono Jungle.
With the construction of Gibraltar Dam, lower Mono Creek basin became filled with water, and then later silt, which gave rise to a forest of cottonwoods and willow. Over the years, much of the original trail has become washed out, and during the spring, parts of the basin can become boggy and difficult to traverse.
About halfway to Mono Campground from the Santa Ynez River, the trail arrives at a small side drainage, climbs over a small rise, and then largely disappears. Here, we opt for the path of least resistance and follow the broad floodplain of Mono Creek upstream to Mono Campground.
The campground is currently closed, buried under several feet of silt from winter storms following the 2016 Rey Fire.
From Mono Campground, we tie into Romero-Camuesa Road and continue to the trailhead. The road has been closed since 2017, when winter rains undermined a crib wall supporting the road near North Romero Trail. The road is closed at Romero Saddle, where there is now a locked gate, but it is still open to hikers and mountain bikes. Unfortunately, this year’s winter rains washed away part of East Camino Cielo Road, closing the road east of San Ysidro Trail.
From the Indian-Mono Trailhead we continue along Romero-Camuesa Road. The unpaved access road crosses Mono Creek and then follows Indian Creek upstream to Indian Canyon Trail, which continues further up the canyon.
With the road closures the trail hasn’t seen much use and wild grasses are now growing in the tread. The trail is indistinct at times but still generally followable until we enter the burn area for 2016 Rey Fire.
The fire started near White Rock Picnic Area along the Santa Ynez River on Aug. 18, burning north and east until it reached the burn scars from the 2007 Zaca Fire and 1998 Ogilvy Fire. The fire was contained on Sept. 16 and burned more than 30,000 acres.
In the burn area, where Indian Canyon Trail follows the creek, the trail has become a bramble of regrowth with wild roses and other plants recovering from the fire. This forces us to alternate between hiking up the middle of the creek and following remnants of the trail that are away from the creek until we reach Pie Canyon Jeepway.
Here, the trail follows an old road cut toward Lower Buckhorn Camp as it leaves Indian Creek. Thinking this will be the easier section, we soon discover the route is choked with thick regrowth from the fire.
Little remains at lower Buckhorn Camp – just a grated stove. The dilapidated picnic table is gone, and the oaks that shaded the camp are only starting to come back.
From Lower Buckhorn, we follow the overgrown trail that leads over the hill to Indian Creek and Meadow Camp, where we camp for the first night. The large, open potrero has recovered well from the fire, but the picnic table at the camp is gone, with just the metal camp sign and an old ice can stove remaining.
In the morning, we cross the meadow and enter the Dick Smith Wilderness. Here, the trail makes its way through chaparral growing back from the 2016 Rey Fire. Already a challenging section to follow, regrowth from the fire has altered the appearance of the landscape, making it even harder to call on one’s memory of the route. It isn’t until we leave the burn area that the still overgrown trail becomes easier to follow.
By mid-morning we arrive at Indian Canyon Camp. The camp has two sites, one with a picnic table and grated stove under a large oak overlooking the creek, and another a little ways up under a stand of oaks with just a grated stove.
Here, the official trail ends, although an old use trail continues toward the falls. Over the years, the trail has become overgrown and filled with poison oak, which makes hiking up the creek the better route to take.
The first view of the two-tiered waterfall is up a narrow slot canyon filled with water that leads to the first cascade. Here, we clamber over the exposed sandstone on the east side of the creek, passing up our packs, in order to reach the base of the first cascade. This first waterfall is shaped like a step pyramid, and counter-intuitively the easiest route over the falls is to climb up its face; this brings us up to a magnificent hanging pool at the base of the second waterfall.
These creeks and their pools are like oases in a sea of chaparral, and their remoteness only adds to their splendor, particularly on a hot day.
The second waterfall is easier to climb over as we make our way upstream. There is also a faint trail that bypasses the falls on the west side of the canyon that starts about an eight of a mile below the falls.
Above the falls, there is no trail along Indian Creek until Pens Camp, about two miles away. We continue upstream, rock-hopping and following the path of least resistance. At one point the canyon narrows dramatically, arriving at another series of cascades. Paul and Shad pass their packs up to each other, while I follow an old bear trail I first followed 40 years ago with the Boy Scouts, that bypasses the cascades.
As we continue up the creek, we start to see big cone Douglas firs in the mix and soon arrive at an impressive backcountry pool. Here, the creek has carved its way through an outcrop of conglomerate rock, creating a picturesque waterfall that drops into a large oval-shaped pool. On his map of the Dick Smith Wilderness, in very small text, Bryan Conant has labeled the site “Perfect 10.”
From here, it’s roughly another quarter of a mile of rock-hopping to Indian Narrows, where the creek cuts through a large outcrop of Sierra Blanca limestone. Although, it’s still one more mile to Indian-Poplar Trail from here, we know we’ll be out of the creek soon enough.
Once on Indian-Poplar Trail, we make relatively good time, arriving at Bluff Camp before sunset.
In the morning, I walk up to the spring that feeds into Indian Creek, just as I did on one of my first boy scout trips, when I learned that the spring generally flows year-round.
Even then, there was something compelling about the idea of the canyon continuously receiving water that gave it, in my mind, an eternal quality. I could imagine in the absence of man, this canyon and all the plants and animals living there going about their lives uninterrupted, on their own schedule, at their own pace, and completely at home in the world.
Being connected to this natural flow of life is one of the touchstones of being in relationship with nature. Even though we don’t necessarily know where life is ultimately taking us, nature reminds us that we can still move forward with it, and find a path that will lead us home.
On that note, I’ll be taking a break from the hiking column to work on my book about the Santa Barbara backcountry. I hope to see you out on the trails.