Hike: Moderate day hike to Tequepis Falls and West Camino Cielo
Mileage: Nine-mile roundtrip; climbs to 3,600 feet
Time: Six hours on the trail, including an hour lunch break at the top
Maps: Map 2 in Craig Carey’s Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura, p. 38
Day-long pilgrimages for pure water, looking for water sources in an arid land — these forays for my final Hiking the Backcountry column become efforts to verify that a water source still flows or that a spring still drips. I’m enduring this horrid drought like everyone else in town, and in order to go far into the backcountry I have to search around for the remaining water sources over the San Marcos Pass and into the San Rafael Wilderness. The backside of 4,025-foot Broadcast Peak and the coastal range thereabouts are close to Santa Barbara, within Los Padres National Forest, and display their own overwhelming natural beauty. My ears perked up when I heard rumors of a still-flowing Tequepis Waterfall, I had never heard of before. With longtime hiking friend “guru Franko” leading the way, we set out in early March to locate tiny Tequepis Falls, and it was indeed flowing.
This moderate-to-strenuous day hike begins on the Tequepis Trail, at the St. Vincent de Paul Ranch log cabin camp off Highway 154, opposite the entrance to the Lake Cachuma Recreation Area. The large wooden sign at the end of the quaint dirt lot reads “Tequepis Trail." After a mile’s glorious hiking along Tequepis Creek ascending an old fire road, you leave the riparian forest of coast live oaks and bay saplings and see another wooden sign: “Camino Cielo Road 3.” Rather than continue left on the main trail — which goes for three challenging miles to the top at West Camino Cielo — take the unmarked, “right” (west) trail here, and scramble for a very tough quarter mile to the base of unmarked Tequepis Falls. Craig Carey’s trail book calls this the “Tequepis Creek Spur Trail,” but there is no trail sign with that name. There isn’t really much of a path here, but you stay in the rugged and dry creek bed and enjoy happy scrambling in the narrow ravine beneath tall alders intent on finding some sun. Hiking poles are very handy on this gnarly section.
After all the dry weather and years-long drought, we were sure this reputed “waterfall” would be dry —but it was flowing steadily, if feebly!
As the photo shows, you observe a decent small pool at the base of the sloping 20-foot green waterfall. Hail Tequepis Falls! We never saw water on the rest of the nine-mile roundtrip.
Returning the quarter mile to the main trail, there were still three tough ascending miles on a broad trail through the hard chaparral and alders. Commanding groves of bronze-bark madrone trees graced the woodland way, along with deciduous hardwoods, and since we were on the northern side (“backside”) of Broadcast Peak, the mountain itself kept us largely in shadow during the bright morning. Although it had sprinkled the night before, and there was a pleasant dampness to the soft trail, it remained easy to detect the desperate aridity beneath the dewy leaves.
The steep trail stretches out, and finally you enjoy long switchbacks that slowly bring you to a saddle below Broadcast Peak — when you come out at West Camino Cielo, you take in spectacular vistas spanning Goleta, UCSB, Santa Barbara, the Pacific, and the gleaming Channel Islands. Turning 180 degrees you see the panorama that will face you on most of your descent: the San Rafael Transverse Range, with the snow plastered on the face of 6,600-foot Mt. San Rafael, bits of the Sierra Madres, and, of course, Lake Cachuma’s glistening blue Rorschach patches and puffy white clouds.
Guru Franko and I chose to hunker down in the huge rocks at the top and devour our snack: raw almonds and Clif bars, along with copious water. March 3 atop the coastal range at noon was sunny and bright, but still cool with a chill breeze blowing. We’re on the northside of Broadcast Peak and above West Camino Cielo Road. The prospect of Lake Cachuma — so much smaller than three years ago — kept reminding me that the water I drink in town comes through the tunnel to my Westside house. The lake’s now about 25 percent full, or less.
I tried to locate the elusive tan bark oaks, and failed, but did enjoy the ferns, the bay trees, and the blooming ceanothus canopy. Occasionally we would see rare white alders mixed with the bronze-red madrones. On a few trail sections we trod on white carpets of fallen madrone blossoms, reflecting like snow on the darkened path. We avoided the banana slugs and masses of deadly poison oak along the lower reaches. If you bring your sturdy children along, and I hope you do, you might simply head straight to the top avoiding the Falls side trek — it's an opportune chance to show them what poison oak looks like and how to avoid it. Long sleeves and long trousers are recommended.
A motherlode of miner’s lettuce (Claytonia foliata) edged long banks of the lower trail, and it tasted wonderful. The Chumash ate this as well and especially liked the seeds; they called miner’s lettuce "shilik." Dropping down quickly we found ourselves back in the green and leafy riparian woodland on the shady fire road skirting dry Tequepis Creek. The eight-mile roundtrip day hike from the St. Vincent de Paul Camp to the top below Broadcast Peak is ideal in winter with cool temperatures. Adding the additional quarter-mile side excursion to Tequepis Falls makes this almost nine miles in total. The side trip felt like a half mile, and the pace is very slow, though amid intoxicating beauty, a fitting end to this series of Hiking the Backcountry columns. Happy trails, everyone!