Leaders: Alan Coles, Charlie Knapke
Suffice it to say that everyone was warned in advance about the difficulties of this trip and the likely prospect that we wouldn't be able to reach the summit. It has been a few decades since the last HPS trip used the Last Chance Trail up the north fork of Santa Paula Creek to reach the summit of Hines Pk, the highest point in the Topatopa Mountains. Back then the Forest Service had trail crews that regularly maintained this precarious trail that winds its way up over sheer cliffs and along brushy slopes to the top of the crest.
Over the past years, budgets cuts and greater demands by non-hiking forest users for other recreational opportunities has put trail maintenance at the lower end of the priorities. Many of the trails in the Ojai Ranger District have become unusable with only the major ones still in passable condition. About 10 years ago Don Tidwell, Nami and I tried to hike the Last Chance Trail from Cross Camp. We gave up after going only a few hundred yards pushing and crawling our way around thick brush covered with ticks.
A major fire about 7 years ago burned much of the Santa Paula Creek watershed including the area where the Last Chance Trail was. The timing coincided with the rising popularity of Sespe backcountry by local residents who had hope of restoring many of the "lost" trails. Informal groups began to flag the trails and cut brush over areas that had not burned. Last year, the Forest Service finally started the preparations of Environmental Assessments (EA's) for rebuilding the Last Chance and Bald Hills (Mythology Wilderness) Trails. About the same time I began to get first hand reports of people who had recently traveled the trail. It was time to give it a try again.
On a cool, breezy and clear December morning, 4 participants showed up at 7 am at the parking lot outside Thomas Aquinas College which serves as the official trailhead for Santa Paula Creek. Besides the two leaders were Daniel Bleiberg and Spencer Berman. Spencer had been on several of my Sespe backpacks and had himself recently hiked the Last Chance Trail as far as Jackson Camp. We set a good pace through the college and up the old road to well named Big Cone Spruce camp reaching it in less than an hour. From here one has a good view of the falls where the two forks of Santa Paula Creek converge, flowing very strong even in late autumn. For Charlie and Daniel, this was a new sight and the majestic cliffs and water carved rocks were quite an inspiration. Unfortunately the popularity of the area is all too evident when one looks at the area around the falls.
We followed the trail down across the North Fork then up and around the falls over to Cross Camp. Spencer showed us the camp's namesake which is carved in a soft piece of sandstone near the end of the trail. We crossed the creek and climbed up to a small campsite on the north side where the old trail takes off in earnest.
The first thing we noticed was that the trail was in exceptionally good shape as it began switchbacking up over a massive sheet of uplifted sedimentary rock. Brush had been recently cleared and the old path cut out of the rock was still intact. At one switchback we were "surprised" when we saw the stream about 100' below in a deep narrow gouge that cuts directly across the rock. The gorge is nearly invisible until you are standing near the edge.
The sun had risen over the ridge and it was getting quite warm so we peeled down the layers as we climbed 600' to the top of the sedimentary formation. One has good views further up and down the canyon from this point as the trail begins to contour along the canyon side. The good tread we had been following ended and we soon began working our way though brush following occasional orange flags. Our pace slowed down but we had no problem staying on the trail. About 1-1/2 mile from Cross Camp we came to a big flat area where there is a hiker's path down to Jackson Camp. The valley is quite wide at this point and one can find many flat sites near the stream just as the early CCC crews did when they used this location as a "spike" camp during construction of the trail.
We stayed up on the flat and worked our way north although we didn't find flags or a discernible path. At the upper end of the valley the trail drops into the canyon above a waterfall. We had to work our way down and up around one gully before reaching the top of the falls where the ground was highly unstable. A considerable amount of work will need to be done to repair the trail at this location but it is not a major impediment for those with daypacks. The stream was dry above the falls while water gushed out from underneath a large slab of rock at the base. It was just another site that continuously fascinated us.
We followed the streambed which occasionally had water for about 1/2 mile. The impressive wall on the east side is a 1000' sheer cliff. At a major fork on the right (NE) side we climbed out of the canyon and quickly found the trail again which ascends a ridge between the two forks. Here again the trail seemed to be in good condition as we followed pink flags this time. There were more signs of brush clearing but not as much as the trail further down. We occasionally lost the trail but managed to pick it up again further up.
The trail switchbacks up about 1000' then begins to contour along the side of the eastern tributary. We took a break and enjoyed the impressive views of the cliffs and the ocean just past the Oxnard Plain. As the slope leveled out, the brush got much worse and we began to really bushwhack our way along. The flags were there but we began to tire as we worked our way around mature chamise, ceanothus and manzanita (apparently not burned by the fire).
Just as we began to wonder if it was worth going any further, we entered a clearing just above a cliff overlooking the tributary. We took another needed break and began our assessment. It was 11:00 and there was no real chance of reaching the summit and returning before dark (we had to get out before dark because we would never be able to find the trail). We set a modest goal of reaching Last Chance Trail Camp, about another mile. If we didn't reach it in 1 hour, we would turn back.
After the clearing, the trail was in much better shape. The flags were yellow, so we postulated that the "yellow" person might be working from the top down and the "pink" person from the bottom up. The "yellow" person apparently had been hard at work and we once again were making good time. We entered another large clearing with a post but no sign. Daniel was not doing well and decided to go back to the lower clearing and wait for us there. We continued an and finally reached the top of the ridge where we finally saw Hines Peak lurking ominously several miles and 2500'above.
The trail switches back to the main canyon and contours through an eerie, sparse terrain with occasional yucca and juniper. The "yellow" person had it easy here as there was absolutely nothing that had to be fixed on this portion of the trail. We glided along enjoying the spectacular views down into the canyon where the stream drops over an awesome 200' cliff (too bad the falls are not visible from the trail). After crossing a few meadows in a surreal landscape we came to the junction of 2 forks where the camp lies. We descended and crossed the still frozen water to the small flat shadeless site. There is an old box camp stove here and a piece of pipe that is the only remnant of a cabin once built on this site many years ago. We took off our packs and had lunch.
The trail continues up the main streambed past the camp and looks to be in decent shape. About a mile and a half past the camp there used to be a 4 way junction with trails leading over to Topatopa Bluff (west), the Red Reef Trail (north) and Topatopa Mtn. (east). Topatopa Mt. is in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and that 8 mile stretch of (former) trail is all but gone now. Before the road along the ridge was built, the trail to Topatopa Bluff connected with the Sisar Canyon and Lion Canyon Trails (one can see remnants of it on the ascent to Topatopa Bluff from the west side). It is about 3 miles from this location to the precarious ridge that leads up to Hines although one can avoid the knife-edge by going up directly from the west side which would have been our route if we had enough time.
Half an hour later we picked up our packs, took pictures of Hines Peak and retraced our steps back down. At the clearing, we met Daniel who was feeling much better. We made good progress on our way down although the leaders would occasionally get off route. Each time one missed the trail, the group reversed and the rear leader took over. We must have changed leaders at least a dozen times before descending back into the canyon.
Our legs were weary and a few of us made some clumsy moves but fortunately no one was badly hurt. We worked our way along the flats and down the trail reaching Cross Camp just after 4. From there we strolled back to our cars reaching them a little after dark around 5:15.
Although we didn't reach our objective, no one was disappointed in the trip. Even if the trail is rebuilt, it will still be a grueling 9 mi., 5700' gain march to the summit. However, it is possible to make a loop with Topatopa Ridge with a route that descends down the face of Topatopa Bluff and meets with a dirt road that connects with Koeningsten Rd. Someday we'll lead that one. Thanks for everyone surviving this one!
About Topa Topa Ridge
(Added by the Lookout Editor)
A Chumash legend relates that the Ojai Valley once suffered a severe drought, so the Indians danced and prayed for rain.
One day at the height of the drought, two snow white gophers appeared in the center of the village, hand-in-hand, some say, and immediately the rains came.
The grateful Chumash took special care of these harbingers of good fortune for the rest of their days, and buried them together on top of the ridge which is called Topa Topa ("gopher gopher" in Chumash) to this day.
Topa Topa is a mile high horizontal rocky escarpment which dominates the eastern end of Ojai Valley. Its multicolored strata are the result of a unique geological history. Eons ago, these layers were ocean floor deposits, which were uplifted by tectonic forces and pushed eastward. Opposing pressures pushed the massive rock formation back on itself, inverting the strata. What we see today above the valley floor is the former ocean floor turned upside down.
The Chumash considered Topa Topa to be a sacred place. Even today, for one of the local schools, it is a challenge to be mastered, as the student body begins each school year by hiking over the crest by moonlight.