There’s a warm breeze as I hike up through the tall stands of mustard near Gaviota State Park. It’s not native, and it can be a real pain to walk through, but today, the mustard coats the hillside with a bright yellow that perfectly contrasts the earth tones of the sandstone outcrops near the top of the ridge. Higher still, the native wildflowers prevail: goldfields, poppies, Indian paintbrush, and lupine. The ridge turns spiny and the trail ends near a small outbuilding that sits almost directly above Highway 101. Though thousands pass by every day, it still amazes me how few know of this hike, aptly named by the park some time ago as the Beach-to-Backcountry Trail. (For more Gaviota hikes, see independent.com/gaviotahikes.)
Springtime is the perfect season to explore places such as this, and others scattered throughout our county. Whether for an extended beach walk, a canyon hike, a stroll through town, a bicycle ride, or just places where you can kick back and enjoy an afternoon picnic by the river, we’ve collected a sampling of great places to get out and have fun, divided into those with lots of water and those with less. For more outdoors coverage, see independent.com/outdoors.
Figueroa Mountain: High Country Wildflowers
In the high country north of Los Olivos, the flowers are out in abundance. The smells seem to lead you by the nose up onto the flanks of Figueroa Mountain. There is a car campground for overnight stays, wilderness views from the peak, and plenty of places to picnic. Near the crest there are a handful of hikes, but the best takes you down the Davy Brown Trail into Fir Canyon. The creek runs all year and, in the winter, ladybugs hibernate here. With a shuttle, you can continue the hike all the way down to Davy Brown Camp, but most will want to loop back up and around the neighboring high top called Ranger Peak via the Munch Connector and East Pinery Trails. For a map and more descriptions, see independent.com/figueroamtn.
Manzana Creek: A Taste of Wilderness
If you think a trip into the San Rafael Wilderness requires an overnight stay, you’re wrong. While you’ll need a backpack to venture very far into the 200,000-plus acres of wild country, a great day hike awaits you either up or downstream from Nira Camp on Manzana Creek. Even better, the creek walks offer a perfect way to introduce kids to the wilderness. Up the creek it is three miles to Fish Creek. There are indeed fish and, if you explore a bit, you’ll find several pools just right for a quick dip. Downstream it is a mile to Potrero Camp and, if you’re adventurous, you can head toward Hurricane Deck on the Potrero Trail. For more on the San Rafael Wilderness, see independent.com/sanrafael.
Pine Mountain: Ojai’s High Country
Those who live in Ventura County think they’ve got the best backcountry in Southern California. While I’m partial to our own outback, they do have one thing on us: Their highest peaks are accessible by auto. The best of these to visit is Pine Mountain. Getting there takes a bit since the turnoff from Highway 33 will take about an hour and a half, but once you’re on your way up the ridge to the summit you’ll understand why Venturans love it up there. The trailhead is at 7,000 feet, which means loads of views and plenty of huge Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines. The roundtrip out and back to Reyes Peak is seven miles and will take about four hours to complete, but you needn’t go all the way as there are plenty of places to sit back and enjoy the best views in the county-Ventura County, that is. For more Ojai adventures, go to independent.com/ojaioutdoors.
Elings Park: Mountain and Ocean Views
Where’s the best place in town to view the sunset? Elings Park. Surprised? Neighbors and dog lovers who stroll the park’s peaks almost every night know it’s true-and surely would love to keep the secret to themselves. You can enter from Las Positas Road into the main park area and follow the Sierra Club Trail up onto what was known as the Jesuit Property. Or from Cliff Drive, take one of the many routes to the top from the south parking lot. Though the trails are numerous with lots of turnoffs, they all lead to the best views in town. For more outdoor walks in town, see independent.com/townwalks.
El Capitan: The Perfect Beach Walk
I’d describe the perfect beach walk as having loads of smooth sand, rocky outcrops to give the cliffs character, and plenty of tide pools to explore. There would be long stretches with hardly anyone else in sight and lots of birds. The six-mile hike along the beach from El Capitan State Park to the Bacara fits this description to a T. You’ll need to do the hike on a low-tide day and it will take about 4-6 hours, depending on how much time spent in the tide pools. Bring a plastic table cloth for the picnic, a favorite bottle of wine, and a loaf of bread and you’ll be all set. For more beach walks, see independent.com/beachwalks.
Santa Ynez River: Beyond Red Rock
This year, the pools along the Santa Ynez River seem better than ever-deeper and wider and ever so inviting that it’s hard to know exactly where to pull over for an afternoon of frolicking by the river. Simply put, you can’t go wrong no matter where you stop. But for those who’d like to get a bit farther back to some of the really big pools, you’ll want to get beyond Red Rock. This year, the route back is easy to follow because most of the trail to Gibraltar Dam was bulldozed during the Zaca Fire, but the pools are still as refreshing as ever. It is three miles up to the dam, but well worth the added hike. It’s spilling as you read this, and should be for another month or so. For more on this region, see independent.com/lowersantaynez.
Food: Backpacker’s Gourmet Chocolate
What packs both pleasure and power in one fell swoop? Chocolate, of course, yet the spoil-able foodstuff had never been well-suited for outdoor fun in the sunshine. Now, however, thanks to a couple of brainiac hikers who opened their bag of sweet treats only to find melted goo one day in New Mexico, there’s a brand of chocolate suited for all adventures. Coated in weatherproof, heat-deflecting, and colorful wax, Backpacker’s Gourmet Chocolate is these guys’ organic offering to the rest of us. It comes in many enhanced flavors, from dark and raspberry to orange chili and peanut butter, and in both an individual and party size. Pick it up for yourself at Santa Barbara Outfitters (1200 State St.; 564-1007, sboutfitters.com). -Matt Kettmann