Opening Soon? Backcountry enthusiasts who were looking for signs that parts of the San Rafael and Dick Smith wildernesses will open soon were not encouraged by the words or images they saw on Monday night at the Trails Council annual meeting. Wilderness rangers Kerry Kellogg and Dave Weaver for the forest districts that cover most of the wilderness areas explained that the damage was just too severe to allow users into most of the burn area.
“We’ve had more than 300 miles of trails impacted by the Zaca and Day fires in the past two years,” Kellogg explained. “If our wildest expectations came true and we had several million dollars dropped in our laps, we might have a shot at getting them all fixed, but even then we’re talking 5-6-7 years, not the next year or two.”
Images of the burn areas shared by this writer and Lite Hiker’s Paul Cronshaw painted a picture that reinforced just how dangerous the trails have become. It appears the mid-slope trails have been damaged the most. “Trails like the Santa Cruz or Grapevine cut across steep hillsides and with everything burned out above them the loose rock and gravel keeps sliding down the hill,” Kellogg added. “We’ve got a few crews coming in this spring to deal with some of the most serious erosion issues but we’re talking about 15-20 miles of trails like this that need work.”
Forest Leadership Teams Meets Soon. Within the next two weeks, Los Padres Leadership Team will meet to discuss what areas might be opened soon. They will be looking closely at the reports such as those shared at the Monday evening meeting. It will be easy to take the conservative approach and keep as much closed as possible. While there are trails that are simply too dangerous to open up until the hillsides have stabilized a bit more, I would like to encourage a more liberal approach to the forest closures.
First, it is time to get the graders into the upper Santa Ynez Recreation area, open up the creek crossings and get the road open all the way back to Mono Debris Dam. This will open up the Indian, Mono and Agua Caliente areas for day use. Interestingly, though the mid-slope trails may have received a disproportionate amount of damage, the canyons themselves have silted in, making many of the crossings much easier. Along the Mono for instance, once the water level goes down a bit it may be fairly easy to walk the creek banks rather than the trail.
Second, get the trees in the Little Pine area that are still dangerous removed and re-open the front side of the Santa Cruz Trail. Crews will be in the area shortly to work on the trail and hopefully it will be opened again soon thereafter.
Third, open up the Buckhorn Road from Upper Oso to the Sierra Madres for biking and hiking as well as the entire Sierra Madre Road. The Forest Service may be hesitant to do this since the temptation to go off trail will be great but the road itself is safe for use and provides an excellent alternative while the trail issues are being worked out.
Fourth, get the lower Manzana Trail open as soon as possible to the Schoolhouse and upstream on the Sisquoc to Sycamore Camp. The route received little damage and provides both day opportunities as well as more extended backpack and horse packing possibilities.
Fifth, consider re-opening the road to McKinley Saddle and the trail to Mission Pine Springs. The Springs received little damage and is one of the premier high country destinations in the San Rafael Wilderness.
Sixth, clearly mark all trailheads off any of these routes with closures as well as information about the reasons for the closures to keep those who might be tempted from sneaking off onto them. Signs that simply say “Trail Closed” is not enough. Having been on both the Grapevine and Alamar trails since the fire I can appreciate both the dangers to hikers as well as the difficulties of getting through. Winter rains will have made them even more difficult to travel. Posting information and images online about the closed trails will also help reinforce the dangers as well.
Most of this can be done will little cost or time and most of all will show the public the Forest Service is serious about allowing the public back into the wilderness areas and not just keeping them closed as a convenience to themselves.