Name of hike: Nineteen Oaks Camp Dayhike (with optional nine-mile extension to Little Pine Mountain)
Mileage: 3.6 easy miles: a very pleasant half-day of hiking with the kids
Suggested time: half a day (includes drive to Upper Oso; all day if you add Little Pine)
As a teacher in Crane School’s outdoor program, I’ve led several groups of adolescent students along the beautiful trail to Nineteen Oaks Camp, which sits on a steep hillside above gurgling Oso Creek. Pitched on slanting arid ground, the remaining cluster of giant oak trees casts redeeming shade over the two wooden tables at the main camp. When you clamber up the last precipitous 200 yards to the camp, you realize you’re in the middle of fascinating geology and brilliant examples of the well-known “Franciscan assemblage” formation.
The roadhead for this easy dayhike is at Upper Oso Campground in the Santa Ynez Recreation Area, just 22 miles from town. Setting off from Santa Barbara’s Westside, I take the 101 just a few miles north, exit at the Highway 154, drive over San Marcos Pass, and turn right on Paradise Road. Driving through the various U.S. Forest Service camps like Fremont and Sage Hill, I finally encounter the Santa Ynez River at Los Prietos Boys Club and have to reckon with the official in the kiosk at the river. I purposely have just two one-dollar bills in my wallet, so I tell him I don’t have the $5 for the supposedly required Adventure Pass. He’s a good guy and warns me that my truck could be ticketed when parked at Upper Oso — but I know better since after earning over 35 of their unconstitutional “noncompliance” warnings, it’s clear the Department of Agriculture will not pursue anything.
Since the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled that recreational fees cannot be charged to national forest visitors who don’t use the amenities, those of us who have refused to pay stand vindicated. The main problem with the illegal Adventure Pass is that it discourages casual visitors and families from simply heading out into Los Padres and pulling off the road somewhere to hike for half a day. While the the Ninth Court’s decision was only published recently, I have never paid for an Adventure Pass, a system that got its ugly start back in 1997.
Getting this matter straight, and thanking Judge Robert Gettleman of the Ninth Court for his strong opinion, I drive across the shallow river and then go straight ahead, following the sign to Upper Oso (don’t go right to the more popular Red Rock area, opened February 17). Park at the top of Upper Oso Campground, do not display your recommended Adventure Pass, and begin the hike on the well-marked wide dirt road. The large sign at the road’s gate has “Romero Camuesa Road,” but Bryan Conant’s 2009 map has “Buckhorn Camuesa Road.” I call it the Camuesa Road.
Sadly for us humble hikers, the first 0.7 miles is on the road that allows OHVs (or off-highway vehicles) including ATVs and motorcycles. Happily for this hiker, there were no vehicles or their putrid exhaust smells at all during the road portion so I could enjoy the deep gorge on my left with tumbling Oso Creek chanting merrily at the bottom. In some areas you can easily scramble down into the spectacular canyon — there are pools you can splash around in with children on a hot day. Be advised that on weekends there will be dirt bikes and ATVs on this section, and stay out of the middle.
After 0.7 of a mile you see the large sign for the continuation of the “Santa Cruz Trail” as an actual trail, and here the greater joy awaits you. For 1.1 miles you wander along meandering Oso Creek which is low but was running fine on February 17, 2012. There are a few wildflowers, masses of shining red berries on the big toyon bushes, and scattered clumps of maroon manzanita giants, but winter’s hold is still strong here in the backcountry.
The entire trail hike, usually high above the right side going in, has great geological interest due to the strange, even chaotic, mix of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, the so-called “Franciscan complex” or “assemblage,” which appears in all the Pacific coastal ranges. The big cobblestone boulders catch your attention. This formation includes altered volcanic rocks (greenstones), deep-sea radiolarian cherts and marine fossils, sandstones, limestones, serpentinites, shales, and high-pressure metamorphic rocks, all of them faulted and mixed in a wildly chaotic manner. On some of the rocks you see vividly colored lichens growing in red-orange and lime-green.
At the 1.1 mile mark another sign points you straight up the slope to enter shady Nineteen Oaks Camp. There are no longer 19 big oaks at the friendly camp, but I counted 13 monsters shading the two wooden tables and large fire circle. If you scout around there is a third hard-scrabble camp some distance away with another table, and below camp you discover a concrete “tub” into which the unnamed spring flows from an iron pipe. I filled my water bottle directly from the dripping iron pipe and quaffed Mother Gaia’s pure liquid (please use filter). There were some mounds of dried horse feces around, so this tub is for the stock.
The wooden 1.1-mile sign also indicates that if you cross spring-fed Oso Creek here and continue on the Santa Cruz Trail you ascend 4.0 rugged miles to Little Pine Mountain, and then another 5.6 miles down to Santa Cruz Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness. Gazing north from Nineteen Oaks the silhouette of Little Pine Mountain fills the skyline and beckons you on. However, this would make a mighty addendum to our 3.6 mile round trip, partly because the stated “4.0 miles” is only to Alexander Saddle (3960 ft.) and to reach Little Pine Mountain (4460 ft.) itself you turn east and stride up another very steep half-mile of trail to the ridge. The total with the Little Pine Mountain extension is about 12.5 miles, but it is a very demanding ascent when you continue from Nineteen Oaks.
Both Alexander Saddle and Little Pine are very attractive “mountains” for us urban denizens, splendid in conifers and cedars, however the 2007 Zaca Fire burned fiercely in this area and incinerated most of these noble trees — it still feels like a natural holocaust swept through. Conant’s 2009 map shows the fire perimeter clearly, and much of the verdant area around the Santa Cruz Camp Forest Service cabin has also suffered a conflagration. There is no water at the top of Little Pine, although you can sometimes find the horse trough and spring about three miles up from Nineteen Oaks (use filter). Be advised that mountain bikes seem to be permitted on the Santa Cruz Trail to Nineteen Oaks, and I saw plenty of bike tracks heading up to Alexander Saddle and Little Pine.
Richard Louv reports on a number of scientific studies supporting the thesis that nature stimulates the human mind, especially in the young. Danish studies from 2006 show how outdoor kindergartens were better than indoor schools in stimulating children’s creativity. I have seen this in practice in German public kindergartens.
We know that Albert Einstein and Kurt Goedel, two incredible minds, famously took a walk in the woods on the Princeton campus — every day. The Nineteen Oaks dayhike will not turn you or your kid into Jane Goodall or Albert Einstein, but it will stimulate your creativity and thinking as well as your body. This is a great family hike, and you can enjoy a leisurely repast at a wooden table beneath the 13 oaks near Oso Creek.