Sublime creekside hiking on a little-used trail in the California Central Coast’s Garcia Wilderness
Looking for a pleasant way to enjoy the beautiful spring weather? The Trout Creek Trail provides an excellent day hiking opportunity on a very lightly-used trail in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Margarita, California. While navigating the unpaved road to the trailhead and finding the unmarked trailhead can prove challenging, the trail itself more than makes up for this. Pastoral oak woodlands, gurgling streams, wildflowers, and a lovely, remote trail camp – it’s all here. You can also expect lots of solitude on what is probably one of the best-kept secret trails in San Luis Obispo County. While the route presented here makes a nice dayhike, it’s also possible to backpack the trail, camping at Buckeye Camp or continuing deeper into the Garcia Wilderness.
The route to Buckeye Camp in the Garcia Wilderness follows the Trout Creek and Buckeye Camps Trails, first paralleling Trout Creek and then following a climbing traverse along the south slopes of Garcia Mountain to Buckeye Camp. The route crosses a mix of national forest land and private inholdings for the first 2.4 miles before entering the designated wilderness area. The trail crosses Trout Creek nine times, although none of these crossings normally require a wet ford. Buckeye Camp is one of only two designated trail camps in the Garcia Wilderness.
The Garcia Wilderness protects 14,100 acres in the northern portion of the Santa Lucia Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest. Established in 1992 by the Los Padres Condor Range and River Protection Act, the wilderness is located just south of the tiny community of Pozo, deep in the interior of San Luis Obispo County. The wilderness lies between the Santa Lucia Wilderness to the west and the Machesna Mountain Wilderness to the east.
The wilderness encompasses a variety of plant communities, including grasslands, chaparral, oak woodland, and riparian vegetation. Elevations range from a low of 1120’ along Stony Creek to 3100’ on the summit of Garcia Mountain.
Condor Trail Association has an excellent website with maps, photographs, and information about the trail. Check it out and see how you can get involved in helping to make this dream a reality!
Distance: 7.8 miles round trip
Elevation gain/loss: +1300’/-1300′
Hiking time: About 4-5 hours
Permits and fees: No Adventure Pass is required to park at the undeveloped Trout Creek Trailhead. Likewise, wilderness permits are not required for access to the Garcia Wilderness. You will need a California Campfire Permit if you plan to build a fire or use a camping stove at Buckeye Camp.
Maps: Santa Margarita Lake, Pozo Summit, Caldwell Mesa, and Tar Spring Ridge 7.5’ USGS topos cover this trail and provide the best level of detail. Note that the Trout Creek Trailhead is not accurately located on the Santa Margarita Lake quad (1995 version). The actual trailhead is approximately 0.1 miles northwest of the location shown on the map. Likewise, Buckeye Camp is inaccurately located on the Caldwell Mesa quad (1995 version), being about 0.15 miles northeast of the location shown on the quad. You will also want a copy of the current Los Padres National Forest (Monterey and Santa Lucia Ranger Districts) map for driving the roads in this area. This map is not suitable for use on the trail, but provides an excellent overview of the roads and facilities in the area.
Best time to go: March through early May is generally the best time to visit. Temperatures are pleasant and spring wildflowers are at their peak. The trail is also accessible in the summer and fall, but high temperatures and extremely dry conditions make this a less-than-desirable time to go. Plan to hike early in the morning if you go during this time of year, and bring plenty of water. Winter brings cooler temperatures, but the Hi Mountain Road is usually closed due to muddy conditions from about November – February. Always confirm that the road is open before attempting this hike. Hi Mountain Road is maintained by San Luis Obispo County, which lists road restrictions for Hi Mountain Road and other roads within the county on their SLO County Road Restrictions web page. Road closures are also found on the Los Padres National Forest website, or you can call the Santa Lucia Ranger District Office in Santa Maria at (805) 925-9538.
From Highway 101 just north of San Luis Obispo (at the top of the Cuesta Grade), exit onto Highway 58 East. Continue through the small town of Santa Margarita, following signs to stay on Highway 58. Once out of town, you will reach an intersection where Highway 58 turns left. Continue straight at this intersection, now on Pozo Road. Follow Pozo Road for 15.8 miles to the tiny community of Pozo, California. Turn right onto Hi Mountain Lookout Road (Forest Service road 30S05) just before reaching the Pozo Guard Station on your right. The road almost immediately passes through a gate and turns to dirt. Carefully follow this road past several private ranches and onto the national forest, crossing the Salinas River at a ford and slowly climbing into the mountains. At 3.6 miles from Pozo Road, pass an intersection with the road to the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout on your right and the start of the Garcia Ridge OHV Trail on your left. Continue 1.2 miles to the trailhead, which is just beyond a ford of Trout Creek. There are no signs marking the trailhead. Look for a short dirt driveway on your left and a small clearing with a fence and cattle gate. The trail starts at the cattle gate.
The trailhead can also be reached from the coast from Arroyo Grande. From Highway 101, exit onto Grand Avenue (Highway 227). Turn left onto Highway 227, signed for Lopez Lake. After 1.0 miles, turn right onto Huasna Road, again signed for Lopez Lake. Continue straight at 1.2 miles, where Huasna Road becomes Lopez Drive. Continue a further 8.1 miles, then turn right onto Hi Mountain Road. At 6.2 miles, the pavement ends, and Hi Mountain Road continues as an increasingly rough dirt road for an additional 5.3 miles to the trailhead on the right.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N35-15.468, W120-23.658. Elevation 1500’.
Found the trailhead? Congratulations! It’s certainly obscure, but not too difficult to locate. Road and trail conditions on the Los Padres National Forest are a stark contrast with the paved trailheads, large informative signs, and occasional clean restrooms found at most of the state and local parks in the Central Coast region. However, this also has a distinct advantage: solitude. You are far more likely to have the trail to yourself here, and consequently you’re more likely to see some of the area’s abundant wildlife. On a spring weekend visit, I encountered only one other group of people, and they had come in from the opposite side of the wilderness area. I also saw a blue heron flying down over the Salinas River on the drive in, and two wild turkeys were making quite a racket near the trailhead. Be on the lookout for other common animals, such as mule deer and bobcats. Black bears also inhabit the area, but you’re not likely to see them during the day. This is also prime rattlesnake country, although fortunately I didn’t see any during my hike.
While there are presently no signs marking either the trailhead or the Trout Creek Trail, the route is obvious. A cattle gate in the trailhead clearing marks the start of the trail. At the gate, a narrow hiker’s stile allows access to the trail itself. Be careful not to get caught on the barbed wire! Once through the stile, the Trout Creek Trail is clear and obvious. Briefly parallel Hi Mountain Road before dropping down to the first of nine crossings of Trout Creek in a small meadow. This and all subsequent crossings of Trout Creek can usually be accomplished by rock-hopping. Water levels will rarely be high enough to require getting your feet wet, although it is possible after an unusually wet winter.
The portion of the trail along Trout Creek is quite pleasant, being generally level and offering frequent shade. Riparian vegetation is predominant along the creek. Unfortunately, the vegetation also includes a lot of poison oak. Poison oak is arguably the most common plant species in California, and in the central coast ranges it is everywhere. An unusual sight along this part of the route is a cluster of prickly pear cactus growing in a flat meadow along Trout Creek. This area may have been a homestead at one time.
After the final crossing of Trout Creek, the trail descends to a junction with the Buckeye Camp Trail. The only sign marking the junction is a simple carsonite post. However, the junction is hard to miss as a cow skull has been placed to mark the location. Here, we turn left on the Buckeye Camp Trail and begin the first real climb of the route. While the main Trout Creek trail continues straight, it ends in about 0.5 miles at a private property boundary. On the Buckeye Camp Trail, climb steeply up a hill, entering the Garcia Wilderness. The wilderness boundary is not marked here, but a fallen trail sign marked ‘Trout Creek Trail’ lies next to the trail about where the boundary is located. Continue up hill, cresting a ridge in a pleasant oak woodland. Here we start to get out first good views of the surrounding countryside. From the ridge crest, the trail continues uphill to a prominent saddle, located about 3.25 miles from the trailhead. Here, Caldwell Mesa and Pine Ridge are visible on the horizon to the southeast.
A brief descent from the saddle leads into and back out of a narrow ravine. The trail continues to another junction. Look carefully, as the junction is only marked by two small wooden signs lying on the ground. A burnt, hand-carved ‘Camp’ sign points left toward Buckeye Camp. The main trail, signed ‘Campground,’ continues to the right. This route leads down to a junction with the American Canyon Trail, which accesses the Garcia Wilderness from the north. On the lateral trail, a brief climb of about 0.1 miles leads to Buckeye Camp, nestled on a well-shaded flat beside a spring-fed tributary of Trout Creek. The camp has a single fire ring with a metal grate and several benches. A wilderness toilet is located just below the camp, but dense poison oak made it difficult to access. While there are no buckeyes here, there are plenty of oaks and a few bay trees. Buckeye Camp makes an excellent place for lunch, or a fine overnight camp. Once you’ve had your fill, retrace your steps back to the trailhead on the same route. The return trip is mostly downhill, and the grade climbing back up along Trout Creek is nearly imperceptible.
- Trout Creek Trailhead has ample parking, but no other facilities.
- Watch for barbed wire fencing along the trail. The route crosses in and out of a private inholding before entering the wilderness area. While the cattle gates along the trail have been removed, some fencing still remains.
- Poison oak is abundant along the entire route, especially in the springtime.
- This hike is suitable for older children, but due to the prevalence of poison oak along the trail and several steep drop-offs, I would not recommend it for toddlers.
Also in the Area
Buckeye Camp can also be reached from the northeast by trail #16E05, which starts from the American Canyon Trailhead on Avenales Road. This hike is a strenuous, 13.0 mile out-and-back trip. Access to the trailhead requires passage over a private inholding. While access to the public is allowed during deer hunting season (mid-August to late September), the road is gated during the remainder of the year and requires a permit from the Forest Service. Contact the Santa Lucia Ranger District for further information.
Hi Mountain Campground is the nearest campground from Trout Creek Trailhead, being about two miles back up Hi Mountain Road. It has 11 sites and vault toilets, but no piped water. Reservations are not accepted.
For a truly fascinating side-trip in the area, continue up Hi Mountain Road to the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout. This retired fire lookout tower is now used as a research station, monitoring the re-introduction program for the California condor. Condors transit through the area from release sites in Ventana Wilderness to the north and the Ventura County backcountry to the south. While the population is still quite small, there is always a chance that you might see one on a hike in this region. Note that visiting the lookout requires prior coordination – check out their website for details of how to arrange a visit.
For post-hike refreshments, continue east on Pozo Road a short distance to the Pozo Saloon. This local landmark was originally established in 1858 as a stagecoach stop, and features excellent food and drink, as well as ample historic ambiance. Open-air concerts are frequently held here on Sunday afternoons.
If you would like to enjoy some wine on the way home from your hike, the tasting room for Ancient Peaks Winery is located in the middle of “downtown” Santa Margarita, just one mile before the Highway 101 interchange. Ancient Peaks features an excellent selection of wines, as well as tours of the vineyards at nearby Santa Margarita Ranch. For the more adventurous, the Ranch also offers zip-line tours. See their website for more details.
Trout Creek Trail and the Garcia Wilderness are managed by the Santa Lucia Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest. The Los Padres website offers road condition updates and the latest fire restrictions, as well as a wide variety of other information about the area. While the website is updated frequently, it is always a good idea to call or stop by the ranger district office for the latest and most reliable information.
Santa Lucia Ranger District
1616 North Carlotti Drive
Santa Maria, CA 93454
Phone: (805) 925-9538
Hours: 8:00am – 4:30pm Monday – Friday
San Luis Obispo County Trail Guide is published by the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, and is probably the best guidebook to Trout Creek Trail and the surrounding area. The most current edition (3rd) was published in 2001, and while there have been some changes on the trails since then, it is still quite accurate. Day Hikes Around San Luis Obispo is another excellent guide to the area. While not nearly as detailed, it includes a greater variety of trails in the San Luis Obispo area.
More photos of this hike are on Flickr.