Santa Paula Canyon to Cienega, East Fork Trail
Submitted by: Jeffrey Scott Hanssen
Many years ago, my son and I backpacked to a remote camp called Cienega on the north side of Santa Paula peak. We hiked over the 5000-ft. peak from Timber Canyon, east of Santa Paula. An erstwhile, easier route up the east fork of Santa Paula Canyon had been partially washed out by the rains of 1969. Around the late 1980s we tried to reach the camp via the washed out trail, but we ran into problems since the trail was sporadic and I believe we passed up the trail leaving the canyon, going up to the camp. As a result, we came upon what seemed to be an impenetrable barrier in the canyon which, combined with our fatigue, caused us to turn back. It would have been nice if we had had GPS to know how far we had to go. Now comes the present day; we have GPS, and the idea strikes me – let’s try that east fork hike again. Armed with the coordinates of the camp, and those of the start of the trail up to the camp, we set out, full of vinegar. Alas, the rain storms of 2005 had completely washed away any remnants of the trail, and we found ourselves slugging it out over boulders and through dense forests of alder trees. It was exhausting and slow progress. We managed to go about 0.7 mile up the canyon from the Punchbowls. GPS said we had 1.18 miles to go to get to the trail up to the camp, and then probably another mile of hiking up to the camp. We were running out of time and stamina and so, decided to end the hike at 4.6 miles in. The trip to the Punchbowls is a very popular and fairly easy 4-mile hike. Beyond that, up the east fork, you won’t see another human being. That makes it a little scary, but there’s lots of water and beautiful scenery. This is not a trek to be taken lightly. You need to be a strong hiker. If you go, take plenty of water, don’t go alone, and let someone know where you’ve gone. If you want to feel like you’re away from civilization without going too far, then then hiking up the east fork of Santa Paula Canyon is for you.
Park along highway 150, north of Santa Paula, at St. Thomas Aquinas College. You are not allowed to drive into the campus, but there are parking areas along both sides of the highway. Lock your car and don’t leave any valuables inside. The first part of the hike goes through the campus and past a ranch and oil fields. Shortly after the second group of oil wells, you will cross the stream and the real trail hiking begins. The trail is difficult to pick up at times, but if you look for the graffiti, you should be ok. Eventually you will make a final stream crossing where you will start a fairly steep climb up to Big Cone campground. Along this part of the trail, you will come to a washed out ravine with a steep descent and ascent (a result of the 2005 storms) that might be difficult for older people. After Big Cone camp, the trail descends to the stream below, If you’re smart, you’ll turn left at the bottom, or cross and go up the other side, to enjoy the Punchbowls. If you’re ready for a challenge, turn right and proceed up the east fork of Santa Paula canyon.
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