Until quite recently, the only truly thorough hiking guide to this region was Dennis Gagnon’s Hiking the Santa Barbara Backcountry, a popular guide that covered most of the trails and backcountry camps in the Santa Barbara and Ventura County portions of the forest. Unfortunately, this guidebook was last published in 1991 and has been both out-of-print and out-of-date for some time.
Luckily for visitors to this area, Craig Carey has come to the rescue with a brand-new, up-to-date guidebook, Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura. This new guide, first published in 2012 by Wilderness Press, covers just about every trail, trailhead, and trail camp in the Santa Barbara, Ojai, and Mount Piños Ranger Districts of the Los Padres. Ninety-six hikes are included, all with highly detailed information about not only the trails themselves, but also the fascinating geology and history (both natural and human) of the area. As befitting a 21st Century hiking guidebook, each hike includes GPS coordinates for every major point of interest along the route. These coordinates are particularly valuable, as the effects of massive wildfires in recent years and sporadic trail maintenance have made navigation particularly challenging on many of the more remote backcountry trails. NOTE: GPS coordinates are given in UTM format, which is ideally suited for manually plotting your location on a paper map. If you plan to use the coordinates listed for a hike, either set your GPS receiver to the UTM format or convert the coordinates to the latitude/longitude format using your favorite mapping software.
While maps are included for all of the hikes, they are generally not suitable for use out on the trail, and are intended as a general overview only. Fortunately, Carey provides information about several commercially-produced maps for the area, including excellent maps by Tom Harrison Maps and Bryan Conant. The Harrison map covers the Sespe Wilderness, while Conant offers separate maps of the San Rafael Wilderness and the Dick Smith & Matilija Wildernesses. Both the Harrison and Conant maps are also available on Amazon. For users of the traditional USGS topographic maps (paper or electronic versions), Carey points out and corrects known errors in the most recent versions of the quadrangles covered in the book’s hikes. Most of these errors involve the location of obscure trail camps – a good thing to know when you’re deep in the backcountry, looking for a place to camp after a long day of hiking.
One notable omission is the exclusion of coverage of the southern portion of the Santa Lucia Ranger District. Because of this, only the very southernmost corner of the San Rafael Wilderness is covered in the book. Popular destinations such as Manzana Schoolhouse and the Sisquoc River are left out. Old heads who still have a copy of Gagnon’s guide would do well not to throw it out just yet. Hopefully, a later edition will be expanded to include full coverage of the San Rafael Wilderness.
In addition to the 406-page print edition, an e-book version is also available on the Kindle. Wilderness Press has recently begun to release Kindle editions of their guidebooks, and the sheer size (and weight) of the physical book makes a digital version particularly useful for both pre-trip planning and in the field. While most hikers won’t want to lug their Kindle along on the trail, the Kindle apps for iOS, Android, and other smartphones and tablets allow quick offline access to the entire guidebook while hiking. This eliminates the need to carry a physical book. Of course, you’ll still want to bring a paper map for your intended hike, and maybe a printout of the route description, in case of battery failure.
All in all, Carey’s book is an “instant classic.” Wilderness Press has been setting the gold standard for hiking guidebooks since 1967, and Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura continues that tradition with extremely detailed route descriptions and copious supplemental information about the area. Be sure to visit the author’s website for additional information about the book and the Santa Barbara/Ventura backcountry.
UPDATE: In 2014, Wilderness Press published an revised second printing of Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura which includes numerous updates and corrections to the original printing. If you have a copy of the original 1st Edition printing, you can find a list of errata here. Rumor has it that an expanded 2nd Edition is in the works — one that will cover even more of this remarkable slice of Southern California backcountry.