Los Padres National Forest Overview
Los Padres National Forest encompasses nearly two million acres in the beautiful coastal mountains of central California. Stretching almost 220 miles from the Carmel Valley area to the western edge of Los Angeles County, it provides the scenic backdrop for many communities including Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ojai. It's a great place to escape winter snowfall. In the dead of winter, you'll find the climate here to be temperate and benign. Don't let yourself get too annoyed by the flocks of tourists you're likely to encounter—for the most part, they stick to the roads and developed recreation areas. There are plenty of great trails, so you can hike far from the maddening crowd. Trust us, it'll be worth it.
The Forest contains five districts: Monterey, Santa Lucia, Ojai, Mount Pinos, and Santa Barbara. Wilderness areas within the forest include Garcia, Machesna, Santa Lucia, San Rafael, Ventana, and Dick Smith. Points of interest include Big Sur, the Lost Valley Trail, and the Marble Peak Trail. Expect a Mediterranean climate in this peaceful area. The lower part of the Forest is just 50 miles north of Los Angeles, and right on top of the city of Santa Barbara. The upper part of the Forest is 25 miles south of Monterey, Pebble Beach, and Carmel, and about 100 miles south of San Fransisco.
There are 1,200 miles of trails, including two designated National Recreation Trails: the Piedra Blanca trail and the Santo Cruz/Aliso trail. Most of the mountainous land along the central coast of California is within Los Padres National Forest. From sea level along the Monterey coast to the crest of Mt. Pinos at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet—this is some of the most rugged land in the state. It makes for some challenging terrain, steep hikes that really pay off once you gain altitude, with some beautiful rock formations, displays of wildflowers, and fantastic views.
There are plenty of trails to choose from. Here are a few to get you started.
Cuesta Ridge is a narrow, eight-mile-long strip of National Forest land between Cuesta Pass on Highway 101 and the Cerro Alto area adjacent to Highway 41. You can reach the ridge by trail from Cerro Alto Campground or by vehicle from Highway 101. With an average elevation of 2,000 feet above sea level, the ridge offers impressive views of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Morro Rock, the Atascadero hills, and the Santa Lucia of Los Padres National Forest along the scenic Monterey County coastline. There are public beaches, campgrounds, and picnic areas along this 18-mile stretch. To drive the entire length of Highway 1 along the coast from San Simeon to Carmel requires a commitment of several hours. The trip, with its road hazards and frequent bad weather, can prove to be a real challenge to your driving skills, especially if you are operating a large recreation vehicle or pulling a trailer. There are no alternate routes along the coast and there are very few places to turn around safely. Be prepared.
Winding through scenic canyons and along chaparral oak-dotted hillsides, State Highway 33 climbs to 7,500 feet at Pine Mountain in the Ventura County backcountry, 40 miles beyond Ojai. The views from the highway include the central coast and Channel Islands, the striking Sespe Gorge, and several wilderness areas. Lush riparian areas contrast with striking sandstone bluffs and unusual rock formations. Rose Valley is one of the most popular recreation destinations in the Los Padres National Forest. Two campgrounds are located near the banks of Sespe Creek, while another is near beautiful Rose Valley Falls. Fishing, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding are popular activities. The Rose Valley Lakes are a pleasant place for fishing and watching waterfowl.
Approximately 500 miles of streams crisscross the Forest. Some of these streams have native trout, and some are additionally stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game. Many of the streams carry water only in the wet season. Spring, fall, and winter are the best seasons for fishing. There are plenty of places to fish in this area; the South Fork Kern River is the best place to start.
Sorry, not too much in the way of good climbing in this forest, but if you're in the upper part of the forest, you're not more than an hour from Pinnacles National Monument, right outside of Soledad, just Northeast of the Santa Lucia Range. Only experienced, well-equipped climbers should attempt this craggy ancient volcano.
Tread lightly, and you can expect to see deer in this area. Black bear are uncommon but not unheard of. Wild turkeys and pigs also inhabit the Forest and band-tailed pigeons are plentiful during years of ample feed. Vegetation ranges from vast expanses of chaparral and grass to oak woodlands and, at higher elevations, forests of coniferous trees. Tree species in the Forest include pinyon, Jeffrey, ponderosa, Coulter, limber, sugar, and knobcone, coast liveoak (encinas), coastal redwood, big cone Douglas-fir, white fir, Sargent cypress, and Santa Lucia fir. The Santa Lucia or bristlecone fir is the rarest and most unusual fir in North America.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication