The ear-splitting roar of a chainsaw throwing showers of splinters and dust up into a cloudless sky penetrates the serene mountain scene. The fresh air’s aroma of sage and wild mint gets overpowered by the reek of grease and oil. The uneven, hardly trampled soil gets unearthed and tamed by a pickax. Gnarled, ancient branches of oak scrub meet their immediate defeat in the jaws of loppers, their shredded remains tossed over steep cliffs. Helmets are worn, sweat pours down faces, hands get cut, eyes fill with dirt, ears ring, muscles grow sore.
This is far from the relaxed, leave-no-trace hiking we’ve all come to enjoy on Santa Barbara County’s vast network of front- and backcountry trails. But these are the ingredients required to enable such mellow hikes, the forgotten dirty work it takes to create-or in this case, re-create-a trail.
Specifically, this is what’s happening now to reopen Carpinteria’s historic Franklin Trail, a path from behind Carp High over the Santa Ynez Mountains and down to the Jameson Reservoir. That’s where generations of Carpinterians went to fish and hunt from as far back as the 1800s, before the trail was closed by private landowners in the late 1970s. And now, after 30 years of closure, the steep but stunning nine-plus-mile Franklin Trail may be opened to the public in the next couple of years.
The trail’s path to rebirth is a complicated one, both politically and practically, because it traverses three private ranches before entering Los Padres National Forest almost five miles above the Carp city limits. When one rancher closed the trail in the late 1970s due to concerns about his avocado crop, the county sued to keep it open, and won. But the judge simultaneously mandated the county build a long fence for the trail, and that task proved too cumbersome, especially because the other landowners were also happy with the trail being closed.
So the Montecito Trails Foundation became the watchdog and kept the Franklin Trail on its agenda for years. But hope dwindled. As Ray Ford, author of Santa Barbara Day Hikes and a legend for his dedication to our region’s trail system, explained, “I got tired of worrying or even thinking about it and let it slide. Only in the last two or three years was there a glimmer that something was really maybe going to happen.” That glimmer began to shine when the owners of the massive 3,150-acre Rancho Monte Alegre-which includes the upper portion of the nonpublic trail-granted an easement for the historic route to the county. The two lower landowners, who are the flower-farming Persoons and avocado-ranching Hortons, also agreed to a reopened trail, so long as the Rancho section is completed. The county expects community opposition when the Rancho’s owners submit development plans for 20-plus homes later this year, but the trail easement is a legally separate matter already set in stone. So, politically, as Ford said, “All the hard stuff is done.”
The practical problems, though, are substantial and have fallen squarely into the lap of Ford, the head of the nonprofit Los Padres Forest Association’s trail crew. Ford hiked the Franklin Trail before it was closed, and even wrote about it in the first edition of his Day Hikes. But in his memory, it was just a dirt road maintained by Edison to access power lines. When he learned more about its history, he was immediately excited about the possibility of bringing this dead trail back to life.
So at the end of April, he and six volunteers started to work on the top of the trail in Los Padres National Forest, a remote location that required hours of four-wheeling atop the Santa Ynez Mountain’s crest from the end of East Camino Cielo toward Carp. “It’s absolutely beautiful up there,” said Ford of the top of Franklin. “There’s not much of the coast that looks urban. There are incredible views to the east, but because it drops off to the west, too, there are absolutely spectacular views.”
The annual California Trail Days happen this weekend, so on Saturday, May 19, the Montecito Trails Foundation is hosting a volunteer day on the McMenemy Trail. Bring lunch, gloves, hiking boots, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants and meet at Lower Manning Park at 8:30 a.m. The day will also honor lifelong trail advocate and Independent Local Hero Vie Obern, who will bring apple pies for dessert.