The last couple hundred yards are a struggle to reach the 6,500-foot top of San Rafael Peak, but Paul, Roy, and I eventually reach the crest. It is Christmas, and we’re deep in the heart of the wilderness, the air clear and cold, the views absolutely stupendous. The route up isn’t technical or tough, much of it following a dirt jeep road that skirts the edge of the San Rafael Wilderness. But it does gain 2,500 feet over nine miles to reach where we’re standing, far and steep enough that not too many make it this far.
“I can see the Sierras!” exclaims Paul, pointing northward. Indeed, shimmering on the horizon is a thin stripe of snow, visible only when the air is this clear. Roy then points out another snow-covered peak, this one Mount Pinos, and, even closer, the rounded hump of Big Pine Mountain and the sheer cliffs of the West Big Pine area. We’re heading in that direction, to another magical spot, Mission Pine Basin, where, rumor has it, the Chumash cut and hauled the beams for the Santa Barbara Mission back in the 1780s.
“What an incredible place for the condors to have lived,” I think, remembering back to my backpacking trips of the 1980s, when I was fortunate enough to spot the pair of condors that lived in this high country. They were known simply as AC2 and AC3, which stand simply for “Adult Condor” 2 and 3. By that point, I’d already been hiking the backcountry of Santa Barbara for more than a decade, during which time this pair had mated in the winters, fledged their chicks in the springs, and soared the ridges every day in search of food, repeating patterns developed by countless other condors during many thousands of years.
But in early 1986, AC3 died suddenly, a victim of lead poisoning, and on December 13, 1986, the decision was made to capture AC2, one the last of the free-flying, wild-born condors left alive. By 1987, there were no more of the native-born condors left to soar the skies, leaving the backcountry canyons and mountaintops without their age-old sentries.
It seems that the ghost of this graceful bird inspired the idea of creating a backbone trail that would trace its historic path, because soon after the last one was captured, Chris Danch began dreaming of such a route through the Los Padres National Forest. “There is a reason the condors chose to live in our backcountry,” said Danch recently, explaining that the mountainous terrain stretching from Ventura to San Luis Obispo — which is broken down officially into the Chumash, Sespe, Matilija, Dick Smith, San Rafael, Santa Lucia, Garcia, and Machesna wildernesses — makes up one of the largest roadless areas in the country. “What a perfect place to live — isolated, high, protected cliffs to nest, mountain ridges they could use to soar hundreds of miles, and a huge range from which to gather food.”
Topo maps in hand, Danch began to plot a route by combining existing trails with new paths to piece together a 300-mile corridor that ultimately included both the southern stretches of the Los Padres and the northern reaches into Monterey County, specifically the Silver Peak and Ventana wildernesses. As head of the Los Padres Forest Association, Danch continued advocating for the Condor Trail into the 1990s, but a change of jobs and need to build his home in the mountains above Ojai sapped the energy needed for such an ambitious project. Without Danch’s lead, the effort to create the Condor Trail began to falter.
Just about the same time, however, another backcountry fanatic appeared on the scene. Bryan Conant didn’t know it then, when he graduated from UCSB, but he would soon take on the role Danch had relinquished not too long before. During a weekend in college, Conant was invited by some friends to check out the swimming holes at Red Rock. “I’d been in Santa Barbara almost three years before I’d even gone over the mountains, and I was amazed what was out there,” he remembered. “For some reason, the mountains called to me that day, and the love affair began.”
After exploring more and more of the backcountry, Conant became interested in cartography and then personally researched and published maps of the San Rafael Wilderness in 2003 and the Dick Smith Wilderness in 2008. As those must-have maps infiltrated the Santa Barbara hiking scene, Conant was convinced by some of the original Condor Trail visionaries to take the lead on revitalizing the project. After two years of putting together a Web site, applying for nonprofit status, and facilitating numerous heated discussions on the best official route, Conant is now ready to go public.
“We’re close to having all of the pieces in place we need to seek Forest Service approval for the trail,” said Conant last week. “We just need a few others to help us get over the hump, and that means people to help with the planning, building the Web site, establishing a volunteer program, and exploring new routes.”
Though the dream of the Condor Trail is still pretty far from being a reality, there is finally more than a glimmer of hope for its actual completion. Meanwhile, California condors are once again populating the skies over the Los Padres, so my experiences from the 1980s may once again be enjoyed by all.