I thought it strange that a trail camp would be outfitted with a sprinkler system, so when the first shout of “Snake!” came up the line, I hadn’t paid much attention. I was still looking for the sprinklers I could so clearly hear making a racket down around my ankles.
“SNAKE!” another of my fellow Scouts yelled, and then I saw it: a fat rattler coiled in the partial sun of a fallen pine, its eyes fixed on me and its rattle thrashing madly.
The legend, as it has been told in years since, is that I executed a backward broadjump of impressive distance, only to end the move by bouncing off an adjacent tree and nearly impaling myself on nearby deadfall.
I was 12 that trip, and it was my first visit to Sheep Camp. The highest trail camp in the Los Padres National Forest at 8200’, it was used by Basque shepherds as an off-season grazing area for what John Muir called “hoofed locusts,” and has long been a favorite destination among a bevy of favorites dotting the Chumash Wilderness.
Named for the native people who once occupied this land and crowned by the mountains they believed were the center of the universe, the Chumash Wilderness was officially established in 1992 as part of the Los Padres Condor Range and River Protection Act. There are three main trails within its boundaries, which — along with some minor spurs — cross the wilderness in a roughly ?-shaped pattern for barely 25 miles.
Sheep Camp is somewhat centrally located along this small network of trails, but certainly does not suffer from over-use. Water here is available year-round from a small spring seeping through the porous, decomposed granite of Sawmill Mountain’s southwest slopes. At its edge the camp offers sweeping westward views of the San Emigdio Mesa.
I grew up wandering what we now call the Chumash Wilderness (even before my infamous snake-induced gymnastics display) … following my mother across the badlands in search of Chumash rock art, following my brothers and Scout leaders along the north fork of Lockwood Creek, and snowshoeing between single-leaf pinons doubled over under heavy snows. We didn’t need an act of Congress to tell us this was wilderness (then again … maybe we did).
A few years after my trial by reptile – as a teen – my friends and I would drive my 1963 Rambler American wagon up the rutted Forest Service road, the poor angle of departure dragging the low-slung chrome bumper (and fuel tank) across the granite and ice as we climbed. We’d sit on the tailgate at the old condor lookout, and whenever the notion finally took us, would mosey the see-sawing 2+ miles into Sheep. It’s remained my and my family’s favorite easy overnighter. The general public can’t drive that road any longer, so the round-trip mileage has doubled to a still very manageable 8 miles.
The easiest access to Sheep is via the old condor observatory area atop Mt Pinos (8,831’) after a two-mile walk along a Forest Service maintenance road. The Vincent Tumamait Trail (21W03) descends westward through exposed granite-strewn terrain, threading its way through Jeffrey pine, white fir, and Indian paintbrush into a short saddle before climbing back onto the wide, undulating spine of Sawmill Mountain (8819’). In the next saddle, between Sawmill and Grouse Mountains, is the junction for the North Fork Trail (22W02) after just over 3.5 miles. It’s an easy half-mile down to Sheep Camp.
Unlike other sections of the Los Padres (or, for that matter, huge tracts of Southern California forests), this stretch of the Los Padres hasn’t burned for nearly a century. Add to that the fact the hillsides are much more navigable than the bloodletting and impassable chaparral for which the Los Padres is better know, and you have a wanderer’s paradise. And it’s those rugged cross-country opportunities that seem to go on forever; climbing in to the heavily-wooded mountains or stretching across the barren mesa littered with rock faces and cleft streambeds that radiate wilting heat in the summer but rage with snowmelt in the spring.
Most stays at Sheep Camp, we sit around a crackling fire of pine and sagebrush long into the night. Great Horned Owls sit sentinel in the mature woods, hooting under night skies ablaze with the northern hemisphere constellations.
It’s a corner of the forest of which neither I nor my children tire, and one I hope they continue to enjoy long after they no longer need me to get them there.
Maps: A handful of USGS 7.5’ maps cover the Chumash Wilderness; central is Sawmill Mountain.
For more about hiking and backpacking the Chumash Wilderness, refer to Chapter 11 of my guidebook, Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura (Wilderness Press, 2012).
About Craig Carey
CRAIG CAREY grew up hiking and backpacking in the southern Los Padres. Currently based on California’s Central Coast, his work has appeared in New Zealand Wilderness, Islands, Hooked on the Outdoors, Rugby, The Green, and New Zealand Adventure. An active Scout leader, Craig holds a BA in History from the University of California-Santa Barbara. You can follow Craig’s work and idle musings at craigrcarey.net, on Facebook, or Twitter.
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