The Figueroa Mountain area is rightfully one of our region’s most popular recreation destinations, but total solitude is easily found in a shaded canyon beneath its flowered slopes. The steep La Jolla Spring Trail to Ballard Camp, which descends beneath Zaca Peak and Lookout Mountain to a lush canyon stream, is probably a Figueroa hiker’s best bet for finding alone time this side of the San Rafael Wilderness boundary.
The hike begins across from Tunnell Road on a grassy oaken hill and goes one direction: down. In its 1,040-foot descent over 1.8 miles, the serpentine-speckled terrain passes from golden grass to a festival of wildflowers, which even in late season is still vibrant with yellows, reds, and purples. Between the corridors of clarkia, poppy, and Indian paintbrush dance checkerspot butterflies, as hawks screech between the pines above. One is afforded a view of Birabent Canyon, a stark desert-like environment striated with streaks of red rocks. Though not quite as dramatic as other regional riparian canyons, the slanting stripes of sandstone give it the same sense of sacred geometry rippling across our Transverse Ranges.
The trail bottoms out at Birabent Creek, where one is transported to a world completely different than the barren one above. The temperature drops, the sycamores and willows slow the pulse. A deer and her two fawns cautiously greet before traveling uphill. Wildlife is far more common down here than people. Along the creek appear gopher snakes and fence lizards, jays and sparrows, sooty dancers and serpent ringtails, carpet beetles and boxelder bugs, even elusive bobcats. A pair of turkey vultures take turns to roost and hunt in tandem overhead.
There is a pair of camps here, the first of which is barely anything but an old stove — the rest has vanished beneath a fallen tree. The second camp is more inviting, with a nice view of Figueroa Mountain above. The best water flow is available slightly downstream, where a northern fork intersects with the creek. Continue down and admire the many little waterfalls and strange, sheltering rocks that frame the creek, as there are several more nice places to picnic or rest beneath the huge and ancient sycamores.
One can keep going on the trail until it peters out on a dreamy protrero, silent save for the music of oak leaves in the breeze. The wildflower colors earlier along the way are repeated in the red of the rock, the blue of the serpentine, the gold of the grass. But there’s little else: The creek has run dry at this point, and though there’s supposedly a trail up to Zaca Peak, it seems to have vanished over time.
Choose to linger long along Birabent, because the hike up is steep and completely without shade. Though not a killer — it’s comparable in height and mileage to the rise out of Forbush and Blue Canyons to East Camino Cielo — it is still a big climb, and the weaker-legged would hate it. Take your time going up and enjoy the views, savoring the mystery and magic of the creek as it follows you back to the valleys and beaches below.