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Summer 2017

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Soaring Under the Radar

BACK IN THE MID-1990s, while backpacking along the Sisquoc River, I had no idea I was actually trekking along the Condor Trail. My wife, Lori, dropped me off with my friend Leo Downey, a backcountry wilderness guide in New Cuyama, and we backpacked 80 miles southwest, finishing in Montecito in Santa Barbara, Calif. I can remember piledriving through nearly impenetrable chaparral along the scenic Sisquoc River, ticks showering down like rain in the dense, overgrown section of the 410-mile thru-hike in the heart of Los Padres National Forest.

The Condor Trail begins at its southern terminus at Lake Piru in Ventura County, ascending its way from sea level up 7,000 feet through the Sespe Wilderness and a portion of the Dick Smith Wilderness before it follows the gradual flow of the Sisquoc River in the heart of the San Raphael Wilderness and traverses its way up and over the Sierra Madre Mountains.

Hiking along Sespe Creek in the Sespe Wilderness.

From there it crosses over Highway 166, hugging the coastal route along Highway 1 from Morro Bay, Cayucos, Cambria and San Simeon before finishing at Botchers Gap at the north end of Big Sur, within the northern Monterey Ranger District.

“This is one of the most difficult portions of the Condor Trail,” said Bryan Conant, a cartographer who works for the non-profit Los Padres Forest Association, referring to the Sisquoc River section. “There’s a lot of work to be done. Our mission is to keep it off of dirt roads and in the wilderness as much as possible.”

VISION QUEST

The Condor Trail was originally hatched by a Los Padres National Forest Service historian and tireless trail-worker, Alan Coles. He had the vision of connecting the backend of Lake Piru to the Manzana Schoolhouse in the San Rafael Wilderness. According to Conant, Coles enlisted close friend Chris Danch. Danch was seduced by the possibilities of creating a route, and, eventually, he took the bull by the horns expanding on Cole’s original plan.

The Condor Trail, and its role as habitat for the California condor, is a work in progress — a labor of tough love — and, according to Conant, that might always be the case.

“Chris felt the trail should extend across the entire length of forest up to Monterey,” said Conant. “He took the reins on furthering the route.”

Danch ran the trail project for a decade and, according to Conant, made huge strides in the development of the Condor Trail. He introduced the concept to the public while garnering support from the U.S. Forest Service. However, as time rolled on and for unspecified reasons, Danch ran out of steam in the early 2000s, and with it the Condor Trail fell dormant, hibernating away in the dense, tick infested chaparral.

While Danch gathered support for the trail, Conant — who was in the throes of mapping the Los Padres National Forest — attended a lecture in the late-1990s delivered by Danch at the Santa Barbara Public Library. Conant fell in love with the project.

“Afterwards, I had some time and started poking around to see where the Condor Trail was,” continued Conant. “I found out that nothing was going on with it, and so I decided to resuscitate it and bring it back to life.”

From that point on, Conant dug in his heels, created a non-profit called the Condor Trail Association, created a website and developed a following of like-minded hikers and backpackers spanning the length of the Los Padres National Forest. Since then, Danch has rejoined the effort moving forward to enhance the route.

California Condors

Flowers along the Condor Trail

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The Condor Trail is actually a popular and vital flyway for populations of wild California condors congregating between Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Fillmore in the Sespe Wilderness and Ventana Wilderness up in Big Sur.

To say the endangered California condor and the Condor Trail parallel each other is an understatement, to say the least. The Condor Trail, and its 400-plus miles between Lake Piru and Big Sur, was the final stronghold of the last remaining wild condor population. Those 15 surviving condors were trapped in the Santa Barbara backcountry and brought into captive breeding in 1987. Since then several locations along or near the Condor Trail have been release sites for these captive-bred birds, which are North America’s largest flying landbird.

The trail and this Pleistocene remnant both need help to survive. The California condor still relies on human intervention for its survival — the constant fight against lead poisoning, consumption of trash, loss of critical habitat and these bird’s perpetual curiosity keep it on the brink of extinction. At the same time, these Old World raptors are attempting to reclaim historic territory.

The Condor Trail, and its role as habitat for the California condor, is a work in progress — a labor of tough love — and, according to Conant, that might always be the case.

“Following in the footsteps of other long-distance trails, I don’t ever see it being completed, so to speak,” said Conant. “The Pacific Crest Trail continues to change and improve. I see annual tweaks along the Condor Trail as well.”

In that sense the Condor Trail is like a child that needs to be nurtured one step at a time as it navigates through life. Funds need to be raised for trail crews to construct new routes and maintain established trails. There are large sections of trail that need to be reclaimed due to overgrown chaparral or a section of trail that was washed out in a storm.

View from the Condor Trail of the San Rafael Wilderness

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Conant is in this for the long haul. As a cartographer who has mapped vast swaths of the Los Padres National Forest and with his duties at the Los Padres Forest Association, there’s no race to the finish line as the Condor Trail evolves. He doesn’t spend as much time as he used to on the trail, but with his work with the Los Padres Forest Association, there’s not a lack of trail projects to pursue. In 2015 and 2016, Conant spent about 40 days on the trail.

“Most of the route is in place at least on paper,” explained Conant, who has explored most of the trail in the southern Los Padres. “There are still sections that are so overgrown that we are detouring hikers around them. The plan is to get those sections of trail ‘followable’ again so we can send hikers along those routes.”

Hiking the Condor Trail near Big Sur

There are some private property issues on the route once a hiker/backpacker leaves the Willow Spring Trail from the south and crosses over Highway 166 heading north. After walking approximately three miles west on the highway, the trail continues at the Adobe Trailhead.

“We have a vision to alter this intersection, but at the moment that is the current route,” said Conant. “Currently, we are sending hikers out of the way around the private property. Ultimately, we’d like to work a plan with the private property owners.”

One of the Condor Trail’s biggest challenges was met head-on in 2015. That spring the first thru-hiker navigated the entire route. San Diegan Brittany Nielsen took the train up to Ventura, and Conant dropped her off at the trailhead at Lake Piru. She finished her thru-hike in in 37 days.

Through many trials and tribulations, Nielsen stuck it out absorbing the many obstacles the forest could throw at her along the mountainous trail.

She endured lengthy bushwhacking sections and long searches for water. She encountered very few people along the way, 20 individuals during the entire route and temperatures fluctuated from below freezing to triple digits.

On the flip side of things, she hiked beneath towering redwood forests, experienced incredible wildlife — from desert bighorn sheep to arroyo toads — plus emerald green pools and perpetual solitude for which the forest is known.

“The biggest challenge for the trail was getting the first person to complete the trail,” Conant said of Nielsen’s success. “I think from now on more people will hike it knowing that it was successfully completed.”


Freelance writer and photographer Chuck Graham lives one mountain range away from the Condor Trail, where he’s spent much time photographing endangered California condors soaring overhead.

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