We love it when we discover a whole new area to explore and hike in our own backyard. Living in Southern California, there is so much to discover and sometimes you just need a friend to invite you to hike somewhere you haven’t visited before and just like that your world expands!
We’ve driven through Los Padres National Forest many times but have never stopped in long enough or did our research to learn about all the recreational opportunities that are offered there. Luckily, upon an invite from some very good friends of ours, our first hike of 2020 was in Los Padres NF and it was a great way to start the year! The trail we hiked that day wasn’t our original destination, however. Our friends had spotted some snowy hiking trails off the freeway while driving back to Los Angeles from northern California, near the infamous Grapevine area of Interstate 5. Our goal that day was to find a snow covered trail to explore where the kids could build a few snowmen, do some sledding and trudge through the snow and mud.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade
Well, we didn’t make it quite as far as originally planned. After we exited the interstate to take the highway road into the mountains, we quickly came upon a checkpoint that stopped us to inquire whether we had tire chains to deal with the icy roads ahead. Expecting that most of the snow would have been plowed or melted by this point – by the way it was 68* that day and SUNNY – we left our chains at home. They conveniently pointed us to the general store right there on the corner, where we could purchase a new set. We were a bit suspicious about the operation. It seemed all too convenient for the store owner to have a tire chain “checkpoint” right at the corner of the only store in town?!
After assessing our options and seeing VERY dry roads to our left, we chose to take a different route and see what alternate trails we could find nearby for hiking or sledding. Pretty quickly, we found ourselves out of cell range. We didn’t realize how tricky it would become to find an alternate route without a cell phone signal and no GPS, so we went “old school” and explored!. On longer road trips, we usually have a satellite GPS on-hand for those times where cell service isn’t available but we didn’t expect to be out of range just an hour outside of Los Angeles.
Along this alternate route, with no cell or GPS signal, we searched for any roads that might lead us to the snowy adventure we had our hearts set on. A spotty map to our original destination was still visible on our cell phone but from this alternate route, it led us to a dirt road that branched off from the paved road and then many many miles down a very rocky and muddy road. While that looked like a fun way to reach our destination, the higher than average ground clearance in our small SUV wouldn’t be enough. We didn’t have the four-wheel drive that was obviously necessary to safely navigate this terrain! Our friends’ vehicle was far better equipped but we were sure they’d be towing us out of the mud every fifty feet. (Note to self: trade-in current car for an off-road capable truck!)
Finding our way
Fortunately, we eventually came upon a dirt road that looked dry and manageable and had a “somewhat” clear destination, Lockwood Creek Trail. There were a few moments along this road where we encountered snow and mud and some VERY bumpy, rocky areas that tested our ground clearance and suspension but we were able to push through just fine. Halfway down the road, not certain where it was leading us, we paused and got out of our vehicles to talk about the best way to proceed.
Exhibiting perfect timing, a Kern County Sheriff approached in his truck and asked if we needed any assistance. “Yes!”, we said. We told the officer how we were looking for a good family hike, something that the kids could do that ideally still had snow on the trail. He kindly encouraged us to continue on and informed us that there is an open area where we could park and hike the Lockwood Creek OHV Trail which was closed to vehicles for the winter. An OHV if you’re not familiar is an “off-highway vehicle”, usually a four-wheel drive vehicle made for off-road adventuring, like a Jeep. With the trail closed to vehicles, it was safe to hike on-foot, and… we had it all to ourselves. There wasn’t another soul in sight!
Getting to the trail was half the adventure. The hike itself was easy, flat and an immense amount of fun which began the second we exited the vehicles. We won the “trophy”! Our daughter was the first one to slip and fall in the mud! The recent snow melt saturated the soil and left us with a trail that was part gooey quicksand-like mud and part snow-covered. It was perfect! By the way, by the end of the hike we had a total of 8 muddy falls! We tend to hike in trail running type shoes and didn’t have proper boots for the mud and snow. But we were fortunate that it was almost 70 degrees and wet shoes didn’t become an issue for anyone.
Watching our footing in the mud and snow was one thing but dodging the massive “cow-pies” was a far more treacherous undertaking. There were thousands of large “piles” in plain sight and many hidden beneath the snow but ironically, not one cow to be found! Snow, mud and “cow-pies”, Oh My! We knew we found the ideal trail each time we heard one the kids say, “this hike is so much fun!” They were constantly engaged in snowball fights and we were sure to make periodic stops so they could create several snowmen along the way.
Solitude, so close to home
It was hard to believe that we were just an hour outside of Los Angeles. Amid a beautiful and serene landscape with no cell signal, snow kissed mountains and walking among the brush and the occasional small dilapidated, abandoned building and RV. We love how being immersed in nature gives you moments to be still and quiet. To think about nothing and everything simultaneously. It’s so necessary yet most of us don’t get enough of these moments.
We reached a meadow of sorts and had difficulty finding the trail up the mountain to complete the final part of the hike. The snow obscured the trail and it was unclear how it continued once we crossed the small creek. After some exploration, it was determined that it would be best to turn back as it was getting a bit late in the afternoon but not before giving the kids time to play and the adults some time to chat and grab a little snack – a reward for having dodged all those “cow-pies”. Another lesson learned, yet we cannot tell you how often we forget, try to download your map and/or trail BEFORE you lose cell signal. While it’s nice to get lost sometimes, it’s nice to know where you are too.
While we didn’t have time to find a good spot for sledding, we’ve already made plans to come back for more hiking in Los Padres National Forest if more snowfall comes. It’s early January, there’s still a good chance. Any time Los Angeles gets rain, the mountains get snow! Regardless, this experience was a great introduction to the forest and we’re excited about mapping out some more trails and returning regularly to further explore this gem right in our own backyard.
Some background on the Los Padres National Forest
We were surprised and pleased to learn that the Los Padres NF is the second largest national forest in the country! Nearly 2,969 square miles, including Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Kern Counties. With historical and spiritual significance to the Chumash Native peoples and between the different ecosystems (coastal to forest), Los Padres NF truly has something special to offer every outdoors person. It’s also home to the endangered California Condor!
Los Padres NF has over 450 miles of off-road vehicle trails (OHV) and the US Forest Service is currently proposing the creation of more. One consideration when enjoying the park in OHVs is to make every effort to stay on the trails. A current issue is when vehicles seek their own path, they endanger sensitive areas and increase the pace of erosion which is a leading cause of water pollution in the forest.
How to support and advocate for the Forest
Let’s all work to protect our beautiful natural landscapes. As always, please remember to pack out what you bring in. Trash is a major problem and we don’t want our wildlife eating human food. When hiking Los Padres National Forest, please stay on posted trails as best you can!
If you enjoy all Los Padres NF provides and would like to support the organizations working on behalf of the Forest, please take a moment to learn more about the Los Padres Forest Watch and the Los Padres Forest Association. Both organizations welcome volunteers and donations to enable various projects and programming throughout the Forest.
Los Padres Forest Watch
Los Padres Forest Association