Section Hiking The Condor Trail: Cuesta Pass on the 101 to Adobe TH on the 166

  • Updated: April 18, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

April 18th to 22nd
Condor Trail
58 miles, 8,800'

This is the second of three sections I backpacked along the Condor Trail during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. For more information on the trail itself please see the first post Section Hiking The Condor Trail: Bottchers Gap to Kirk Creek. It covers the first 85 miles along the northern end to the point where I was forced to exit at Kirk Creek due to county trail and road closures.

Since then my girlfriend and spent two nights in an Airbnb. This mostly involved sitting in bed researching options on my laptop, taking some very well deserved showers, and resting up my feet while eating everything in sight.

So why did I settle on the the section between the 101 and 166? I'd originally intended to continue the trail south from Vicente Flat but I didn't want to flagrantly violate a trail closure even if the chances of getting caught where I'd be spending most of my time were slim.

Also near the area marked Ragged Point on Google Maps there's a somewhat unfortunate 50 ish mile section of "trail" which involves walking along the beach / PCH. If I had a shot at doing the entire 400 miles then I would have powered through that section but considering I had a hard stop date when I needed to pivot to the PCT I was inclined to spend what time I had along the more wilderness-y section.

Talking to the always informative Brian Sarvis I settled on starting at the 101 near Cuesta Pass and heading south. He said the trail was likely to be in better shape than what I'd been through and he said it was a spectacular section where he'd seen more bears than anywhere else along the trail.

So the morning of April 18th I threw everything back in my pack and I was off for another round of tick infested bushwhacking.

Day 1: Cuesta Pass To Lopez Canyon

Since it was now the weekend Jen planned to hike in with me the first day, spend the night, then hike back out the way she'd come in so she could be back out in cell range to teach classes on Monday.

The trailhead at Cuesta Pass was only a short distance from our Airbnb and it was quite busy with both hikers and mountain bikers. We were generally able to keep our distance outside of the occasional overly friendly dog running around off leash.

After climbing over a gate at the trailhead we walked up the road past Mount Lowe and around the back of Black Butte where the trail split off and dropped down into Lopez Canyon.

Here we were on a trail proper which dropped down into the canyon constantly criss crossing the stream.

Jen had grumbled a bit about the road but once we were down in the canyon she was a lot happier. We came across numerous salamanders and banana slugs crawling across the leaves much to Jen's delight. On a sadder note we also found a dead fox.

The USGS map showed two marked campsites along this section. Upper Lopez was the first and we found it surprisingly well developed and unsurprisingly empty since we hadn't seen any signs of other hikers since leaving the road. I wanted to push on to Sulphur Pot Camp which was only a few more miles in but sounded like the more interesting of the two.

The trail became less distinct and we had a few cases where we climbed up the side of the canyon a short distance on what we thought was the trail only to realize it was just another game trail that soon ended in dense brush or a steep hillside. My best advice for this section is to generally stay as close to the stream as you can.

Unfortunately as we approached Sulphur Pot Camp I heard a dog barking and some low voices. Sure enough we turned the corner and found two people set up around a smoky fire pit with their dog.

I waved and said hello but I didn't feel like camping in close proximity to anyone else especially with everything going on at the moment. So we pushed on hoping to find a decent tent spot.

We came across a few we could have made work but didn't live up to my standards. There was even one spot that had a fire pit though the ground around it was soaked by a nearby spring,

Then the trail very suddenly turned into a road. A big clear dirt road with indications of having been rather massively cut back recently.

I kept expecting to find a developed car camping site around the next curve but after the first few stream crossings Jen said she'd prefer to just stop. So we found a wide corner in the road and stomped out a flat ish spot to spend the night.

Please note that this section is actually private property with an easement so we really shouldn't have been camped here. But I didn't find that out until the next day thanks to the fact that all the signs were on the side facing the Big Falls TH.

Day 2: A Long Day to Big Falls and Hi Mountain Lookout

Jen had the entire day to get back out to her car so she sat around and had breakfast with me until I was packed up and ready to get going.

She later said she had an easier time on the way out because she avoided trying to climb and canyon walls and just stuck close to or inside the stream. (She also has a habit of not caring if her feet get wet)

I continued up the road and found myself making a series of water crossing as the road cut back and forth. Some of these had rocks or logs I could balance across but a few times I had to either get my shoes wet or take them off.

As I mentioned there is a private property notice but it's on the Big Falls TH side of the canyon. I actually ran into one of the land owners on the way through and we had a nice conversation about the whole area. According to what he said the road used to be massively overgrown before one of the larger landowners in the area brought in a tractor and went to town.

As I said goodbye he warned me that the nearby Big Falls Trailhead was going to be busy and sure enough there were multiple large groups getting started when I turned the corner.

I ducked around a large group of several parents herding a crowd of small children and dogs and dashed across the first stream crossing. As I disappeared up the trail I heard one of the parents loudly exclaiming that she wasn't going across that and that she was done.

I passed several other large groups as I worked my way up the canyon and I was glad I had enough water to avoid filling up. There were a number of nice looking swimming spots that were tempting.

I took a side trail a short distance over to what the map labels as Big Fall and found I had it to myself. I briefly debated taking a quick swim but this was only day two and I enjoying the pace I'd been able to make on the clear trail.

I stopped above the falls where a side stream came in and used that to make lunch and camel up a bit while I had access to water. Right after that I met a young couple who said they'd come from the top and that they hadn't seen anyone.

And sure enough they were the last hikers I saw for a few days.

There were registers at some of the trailheads and I found scattered mentions of people on the Condor Trail like these two from 2019.

When I reached the ridge the trail turned into a dirt jeep road leading out to Hi Mountain Lookout. Some people hate walking roads like this but I was appreciative of the chance to stretch my legs and get some miles in.

I passed the Hi Mountain Lookout which appeared to have been renovated into a museum but there was no one around and everything was shut off and locked up. There was a faucet coming off the side of the building but nothing came out when I tried it.

Sadly I left the road at this point and started descending along a much smaller trail. Vegetation had once again started to encroach on the trail and I found myself periodically pulling out the branch cutters I'd been carrying to make my way past a particularly bad spot and falling back into the groove of flicking off ticks every few minutes.

I'd already made a decent number of miles and I would have been happy to stop any time I just really needed water for dinner and breakfast. I did eventually find some water around the junction to Huffs Hole but there was nothing usable as a campsite so I continued on.

I ended up hiking maybe an hour after dark until I came to a road junction and heard water running nearby. I found a small turnout and declared it home for the night.

Day 3: Cows, Vegetation, and Ticks on the Way to Stony Creek

This next section would have been my favorite part of the trip if not for the abundance of ticks. I loved the greenery and the feeling of isolation back there.

It was impacted just a bit by the fact that each time I came into contact with brush I was having to stop and manually pick off several ticks I'd find climbing up my leg. I counted 10+ at once more than once and I was soon getting tired of flicking the bastards off.

The only bug spray I had with me was picaridin and I try applying it liberally to my pants. It seemed to slow them down a little but they'd just start climbing at a slightly different angle and I still had to flick them off.

I was also clearly in cattlelands now. I had an incident where I was almost charged by a bull out near Tehipite Dome a few years ago so I always keep a slightly wary eye moving through them but these all hurried to avoid to me.

The trail became a bit less distinct through this section and there were multiple downed trees I had to walk around or climb over.

I also ran into this little guy guarding the entrance to Buckeye Camp. His trail went up right in front of me and when I hastily retreated he started to follow me until I started yelling at him. He then disappeared back towards the camp and I decided to leave him to it.

The trail climbed and dropped several times and based on the amount of cow dung spread around this was heavily used grazing lands.

Caldwell Mesa was quite striking and I briefly debated leaving the trail and trying to find a campspot. There was a pond so I could have filtered water though anything sitting stagnant out here was likely to have a fair amount of cow poop and such dissolved in it.

On the far side of the mesa the trail joined Stoney Creek and turned back into a slightly overgrown road. This made for easy progress and I started to keep and eye out for a place to stop for the day.

(There was a small campsite right where the trail joined Stony Creek but I passed it figuring I could find something better possibly with a better fire pit to dry out my gear. And as a result I ended up staying at Stony Creek)

Stony Creek Campground is located right along the side of the road right past the trailhead sign and register. It's apparently been long abandoned and per what others have told me privately owned so I probably shouldn't have been camping here. But at the time I didn't pass any gates or signs indicating I shouldn't be there and it was a better alternative than backtracking and camping on the road.

I initially got excited when I saw a porta potty in the distance. As a constant backpacker I always like to take advantage of them where available. But it had been shot a number of times and was out of order...

Aside from the questionable legality of camping here it was a pleasant enough camp except for the fact I swear I had ticks dropping onto the tent / open door from the trees above!

Day 4: Possibly Involving Some Light Trespassing?

Today I had a choice to make. The official Condor Trail track spends some time cross country trying to avoid some parcels of private property.

Green line is the road, dashed black line is the route used to avoid the private property parcels.

After enduring the tick hordes for most of the previous day an extended period of bushwhacking to avoid roads that didn't seem to have any sort of no trespassing signs seemed a bit silly. The road ended at a trailhead sign with a register after all so I figured there was likely an easement in place and worst case if I hit a posted no trespassing area I could reassess.

The only signs I came across were a few of these off to the side that seemed to just not want anyone leaving the road in that direction. I did pass a single mountain biker in this section who nodded as he went past.

I also had cell reception off an on through this section allowing me to share pictures of the painfully green hills with jealous friends and family.

Where the Condor Trail leaves the main road it becomes an ATV track that runs along a ridge. The CT track drops down the side to presumably avoid private property but again there wasn't any indication that it was necessary and I hustled along keeping an eye on the roads and houses visible to the west.

After that I had another cow encounter and found a single sign facing south that may have said no trespassing before it was shot and worn to the point of being unreadable.

Brian had mentioned multiple times how the next section had a rather rough bushwhack leading down to Cable Corral. So when I got there and found the track seemed to leave the main road which appeared to continue down to the right canyon I decided I might as well take a chance and see if it was a better alternative.

Nice idea but it didn't really work out how I hoped. The road ended partway down the ridge and I was left to make my way down the hillside as best I could. I made it but it was rather steep and rough and left me having to hike along the canyon for a bit to return to the road.

I'd thought to camp near Cable Corral Spring but when I got there I found trailers set up behind the corral and I didn't really want to deal with any caretakers. So I continued on to the last crossing of Alamo Creek before the trail started climbing out to the 166 and set up on a small sand bar.

Day 5: Hiking Out To Hike Back In

One of the quirks of how I'd set up the gps track on my phone was that I couldn't access an elevation profile like what you see above. I can read the topo lines but it tends to be difficult to really see all the subtle ups and downs.

I had it in my head there was a bit of climbing but that the hike out would be relatively short. So I set out with two liters of water figuring it would be an easy time.

It was steep, it was hot, and the road was occasionally a bit rutted.

I had to make two subtle turns along the way one of which is shown above. Left of the shaded tree with the signs is the trail down. It's easier to follow further down but junctions like this can be easy to miss if you aren't paying attention.

It was brutally hot and I ended up wishing I'd brought a bit more water along. I could see the road in the distance long before I reached it and I did technically have the option of filling up out of a cow trough at one point.

Instead I pushed through and found Jen napping at the trailhead having little to do since the spot had no cell reception. Being the awesome girlfriend she was she had a cool -ish soda and a lukewarm beer waiting for me.

Per Brian the next section to Manzana was going to involve significant bushwhacking and with only 5 days or so left before I had to leave the Condor Trail for the PCT I made the call to jump forward again this time to do the stretch leading to Piedra Blanca.

First though I was really hankering for some non trail food. Jen was game for trying to find me a burger though that can be a challenge in an area made up of scattered small settlements that can hardly be called towns.

New Cuyama ended up being a bust with the only open restaurant telling us as soon as we walked in the door that the grill was off and so there would be no burgers. I was amused by their version of the town population sign though.

Fortunately we found the onlybest restaurant in Ventucopa aka The Place. They had cold beer on tap, burgers, and milkshakes which I attacked while Jen watched in amusement.

After that we went a few miles down the road and hiked in a few miles to start my last 4-5 day section from Lower Rancho Nueva to Piedra Blanca... 

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