Hidden Potrero Camp
Dan McCaslin

Name of hike: Hidden Potrero Camp loop-shuttle via Camuesa Connector Trail (uses short bike-shuttle)

Mileage: 8.1 mostly ascending miles, moderate; trail ends at Upper Oso Camp; this is a demanding longer hike for children. (You can reduce it to 6.1 miles if you take off the 2-mile extra road portion to Hidden Potrero Camp itself. )

Suggested time: 4 – 5 hours on the trail with lunch break at Nineteen Oaks Camp. Bring water, safety gear, and companions.

Map: Bryan Conant, Matilija & Dick Smith Wilderness Map Guide

While hiking throughout our enchanting backcountry over the past four decades, one finds one’s imagination challenged to find new places to visit, and to devise novel variations on familiar jaunts. Loop trips are particularly interesting since walkers get to see fresh territory during the entire venture instead of returning the way they came. I favor shuttles to make some of these forays into loops – ergo, the loop-shuttle.

Dan McCaslin

To be greener, and avoid using two motor-driven vehicles, I resort to bike-shuttling when possible.( I’ve described this technique in previous columns, about the Figueroa Mountain hike/bike loop and the La Cumbre Peak off-trail scramble.) In this column, we enjoy a short bike-ride along the scenic Santa Ynez River to complete the Hidden Potrero Camp loop-shuttle hike. (You can bring a second car to replace this bike portion.)

One of the great pleasures of this outing is the highly varied terrain along the route: riparian splendor (along creeks and several crossings of the Santa Ynez River); canyon-walking with even more outrageous wildflower displays; the vast potreros and long meadows angling northwest before one strikes the packed dirt of Camuesa Road.

When I got to Camuesa Road, I climbed on up into more dryness along the road until I found Hidden Potrero Camp and its dribbling spring. (This is the sidetrip you can leave out to shorten the loop.) Returning from there, again along Camuesa Road, I dropped west at a veiled and unnamed trail to our old friend Nineteen Oaks Camp. I ended by hiking 1.8 miles along tumbling Oso Creek to find my bicycle and some cold lemonade at Upper Oso Camp. Then I biked the 4.5 miles or so back to my truck.

Some local writers have labeled this a “Camuesa Connector Trail” hike, and we do hike the entire connector – but I’d never been to Hidden Potrero Camp, which lies up the road, and needed to check and see if the spring there flows in May. This loop-shuttle will minimize time on the relatively ugly dirt road, Camuesa Road, where ATVs and off-road motorcycles are wont to zoom.

But back to the beginning: My hiking partners Franko and Marcus get into my truck and we pass the time joking as we drive over San Marcos Pass from Santa Barbara’s Westside. We laugh while passing the cool Paradise Road Store, hoping the outdoor barbequed tri-tip will be ready when we drive back homeward in seven or eight hours. Once again, I am refusing to display an Adventure Pass on my dashboard – but we encounter a worse problem at the Santa Ynez River itself. On this day, May 4, the river has risen some and it’s strangely murky, so drivers can’t quite see the concrete pavement beneath it, upon which we need to keep our tires while fording the river.

Someone ahead has a wheel over the side, but with his four-wheel drive manages to get back onto the true path. We wait patiently, ready to offer assistance, and notice the single pink cone set up to keep motorists on the narrow concrete apron is floating around. It’s a good thing I’ve driven over this often and can remember the curve in the concrete path.

Exhaling, we quickly ascend the 1.5 mile road to lovely Upper Oso Camp and leave my bike, which was in the truckbed, locked to the fence there along with a small ice chest with fresh lemonade in it. Trust. Immediately driving back to the Santa Ynez River, we head left toward well-known Red Rock, and drive 3.1 miles to the easily seen sign reading “Camuesa Connector Trail (27W22).” (If you come to Live Oak Camp on the river, you’ve gone a bit too far.)

Parking just past the sign, we’re really excited by the mid-spring greenery, the early morning cool, the sounds of birds and the wide but apparently shallow river. We quickly tie up our boots and make sure our water bottles are full. I’m wearing my smallest fanny pack with two bananas, snake bite kit, meds, sunscreen, Clif bar, compass, and LED light along with water. Our map tells us it’s around three miles to Camuesa Road, and after we get wet crossing the river this sign confirms it. Assuming Hidden Potrero Camp is about one mile, or more, up the Camuesa Road, we decide we will road-hike that bit to check out the USFS Camp.

The three ascending miles after we get over the Santa Ynez River make for joyous hiking – shooting stars, masses of white ceanothus proving its nickname “mountain snow” has been earned, blue bells, lupine, paintbrush, and also a red flower I think is a type of gooseberry. We’re ascending in some canyons, with occasional meadows, and it is both relaxing and tiring if you keep at it without any breaks.

After a couple of miles we begin to enter larger potreros and meadows with waist-high grasses and other plants. Many of these “field” type plants are oat hay, and at one time these potreros were farmed in some way, likely growing feed for stock. As we near the signed Camuesa Road these slanting meadows become very large.

Among the high grasses Franko calls our attention to a black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) flying around, a medium-sized bird in the same family as the Northern cardinal. The black-headed grosbeak is a migratory bird, and mainly eats seeds, of which there are certainly a plethora in these glorious potreros.

It was pretty warm when we got to Camuesa Road. We turned right (north) and hiked steadily and swiftly uphill for at least a sweaty mile until we found scraggly Hidden Potrero Camp, with its concealed meadow, lying on the north side of the road. We found the spring barely dribbling, and the old 1978 storage tanks inoperable. There is a rickety but useful wooden table, an iron fire ring, not much shade. A lot of bees were enjoying the damp pipe, however.

Very hot, so we turned it and went back down the road looking for the unnamed turnoff leading down to Nineteen Oaks Camp. The views of Little Pine Mountain and Old Man Mountain are spectacular from this section of Camuesa Road.

After about a half-mile we spotted a typically nondescript iron sign on the right which simply reads “NO MOTORVEHICLES.” There is some incomplete fencing there. With a bit of imagination we discern the true path down, which was evidently an old road-cut to Oso Creek at the bottom of Little Pine Mountain, near Nineteen Oaks. In the Franciscan formations here are valuable mercury deposits, sometimes called cinnabar or quicksilver, and about a mile up from Nineteen Oaks Camp there is an old 19th Century mine. This road-cut most likely leads there, but it’s horribly overgrown above Nineteen Oaks so we know we’ll have to break on down on another side trail to the camp.

We hike down happily along sloping hillsides replete with hard chaparral, chamise, yuccas, and so on. We can see Nineteen Oaks below, the mountains above and north; the great openness is inspiring somehow. We know we’ll soon be in the shade of the oaks, enjoying a light lunch and watering-up at the copious spring.

However, before we got there I suffer a bit of a tragedy, one requiring an explanation: I actually did this adventure twice in three days, once on May 4 and then again on May 6, a Sunday, when the trail was much more crowded. I wanted to check some details for this column, and I also wanted to compare weekday use with weekend utilization. The Camuesa Connector Trail is a heavily used mountain biking route, and it’s quite legal since we’re here in Los Padres National Forest but not in an officially designated wilderness area – such as the San Rafael or Matilija Wildernesses – within Los Padres. I admit I dislike meeting bikers on the trail (I bike only on roads), and horses, but I also have to admit that the bikers do some helpful maintenance.

We’d met three young men mountain-biking up from the river when we were ascending on the Sunday. I noticed they were also taking the hidden turn-off from the Camuesa Road to Nineteen Oaks as we went on to Hidden Potrero Camp. After we returned from Hidden Potrero, and were closing in on Nineteen Oaks ourselves on the Sunday, I saw a beautiful yucca plant decapitated — but on the preceding Friday this especially showy individual with its amazing pink plumage had stood fully erect and undamaged.

Oh, it may not be “tragic,” but the utter thoughtlessness of the act of just whacking off the top of the pink yucca feels all-too-typical in our nature-hating times. Philosopher Charles Taylor has written about our living in a “disenchanted world” where “the replacement of a cosmos of spirits and forces by a mechanistic universe” divides us from nature. We literally cannot see the beauty of a common plant (over 40 types of yucca), we cannot receive enchanting loveliness in a floral form, and eventually we end up in a condition of “acedia.” Acedia is that inexplicable loss of motivation or joy in one’s activities — think of Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or perhaps some of Jack Kerouac’s dharma bums.

Richard Louv spoke in town on May 15 about perils of nature-deficit syndrome, and out on this eternal trail I’m around some “mechanical” humans, possibly the three cyclists, full of acedia, who ‘enjoy’ casually lopping off beauty and life. Their nature-deficit illness led to this wanton destruction. I found the yucca’s top lying in a ditch nearby. Someone told me, comfortingly, that the deer love to come and eat the white meat in the yucca’s pink phallus. And indeed the violence was fresh, as we could touch the moisture in the gleaming white center.

After our shock at this senselessness, bowing our heads in universal human shame, we walk mindfully on down to Nineteen Oaks Camp — you can see how the Forest Service has come in and carefully sawed off the dead oak while saving the living portions (compare the recent photo to the lead photo of these oaks in the February 25 Little Pine Mountain column) and the USFS stacked the already-dried oak logs right there, in case you are going to make camp.

After lunch, we return to riparian splendor, hiking 1.8 wonderful miles along racing Oso Creek, at one point noticing an ancient turtle sunning in a pool far below. When we finish at Upper Oso Camp (via Camuesa Road, again, for about .7 mile) we chug lemonade amid whoops of joy, and then I hop on my bicycle to ride back to the truck at the Camuesa Connector trailhead. You do cross the Santa Ynez a couple of times, which is a strange feeling when you’re on a bike in about two feet of flowing water.

This varied trail hike — involving the Camuesa Connector, the Camuesa Road, Santa Cruz Trail, and the unnamed trail — is great for strong children, and again, if it’s hot you can always omit the trek up Camuesa Road to Hidden Potrero Camp and back.

Richard Louv discusses the ways in which “nature has become an abstraction” and our kids unknowingly face “the extinction of experience” (in Robert Michael Pyle’s elegant phrase). This loss is extremely harmful to adults, but especially to children. The late Edith Cobb, in her Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, contends that geniuses share one trait: transcendent experience in nature in their early years. If you missed out on these peak experiences in nature as a child, make sure your child has them.

Hoping to see you out in nature, on the true trails.


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