Rediscovering the Franklin Trail - Blog

Written By Ray Ford on Mon May 4, 2015 View Comments

Things to Know

At the beginning of the 20th Century, as the newly-created Santa Barbara National Forest began to extend its influence, forest rangers began to work with local communities to connect them via trail into the backcountry. By 1910-20 a great number of trails had been constructed that linked the front country to the top of the mountain wall, including one very rugged route up a steep ridgeline behind the Carpinteria Valley called the Franklin Trail. Closed to the public in the 1970s, thanks to the help of a group of hard-working volunteers the trail may be open once again.

The Details
0.0  Franklin Trailhead (28')
1.0  End of lower section; start of single track (1.0 miles; 127')
.38  Top of power lines; Frank's Bench (1.9 miles; 662')
.83  Top of the World (3.0 miles; 1,135')
1.0  Bench #2 (3.3 miles; (1,321')
.74  Sutton Creek (4.1 miles; 1,294'')
0.0  Last turn (4.5 miles; 1,524')
0.0  End of Phase 2; Beginning Forest single track (5.2 miles; 1,703'
SY Mountain crest (7.9 miles; 3,720')

The Franklin Trail provided access for decades for many an outdoor adventurer, hunter, fisherman and backcountry explorer for many decades until things began to change after World War II, especially as avocado ranching became more and more prominent.  About the same time Carpinterians were first venturing over the Santa Ynez Mountains to explore the mysteries of the backcountry, Santa Barbara Judge R.B. Ord introduced the Mexican avocado to the area. By the 1950s a number of varieties were becoming commercially successful, among them the Fuerte and the Hass.

In Carpinteria, ranches such as those owned by the Franklin families and others began to change hands and this shift in ownership accelerated in the early 1970s when the Carpinteria Valley became a mecca for commercial flower growing. Over time a wide swath of valley land stretching along the base of the mountains from Santa Monica Canyon east to the County were developed either for avocados or nursery related businesses. By the mid 70s public access to the mountains ground to a halt and after the Romero Fire in 1971, brush rapidly closed in what was left of the upper parts of the Franklin Trail. 

Discovering the Franklin Trail
“Let’s me crawl up through the brush and see if I can find the trail,” Gordon yells back at us as he scrambles up ahead, bear like for forty yards. I bend over and push the branches apart, to get a look myself. I can barely see him in the distance and can’t really see if we are still on the old trail or not.

Then I hear a shout. “Got it!” Gordon yells. “I can see the backslope up ahead.” Then he pushes some of the dirt aside and shouts back that he’s spotted the tread as well. “Yes!” I yell and motion to the sawyers to follow Gordon’s route up through the tangled ceanothus, chamise, chaparral pea and other brush that is so thick it has almost obliterated the trail.

Gordon Jenkins is one of eight volunteers out with us today and he’s got the savvy to keep us locked on a historic trail — the Franklin — that a handful of Forest Rangers and hired crews from the Carpinteria area busted their butts to build just over a century ago. It’s been close to fifty years since anyone has hiked or ridden this trail and with no maintenance in between there are plenty of places like this where the only way through is on your belly.

Once I signal I’m OK with the route, the chainsaws come alive. We’ve got two hard-core young guys, Andy and Nicky Culbertson, on the saws — big ones with 28” bars and loads of power but in this tangled brush the going is still slow. By 10am we’ve gotten an hour’s work in, everyone’s warmed up and we’ve developed a slow-but-steady rhythm, with Gordon on the lead, Andy working the lead saw and Nicky following. After that come the rest of us. Our job is a simple one: get the brush out of the way and off the trail. 

Fortunately we’ve got a great group with us today — most of us are old timers but still capable of putting in a good day’s effort. Besides Gordon, our other “animal,” as we like to call the guys who can pull the big branches out of the cut piles and toss them like matchsticks, is Nick. He's an environmental planner with the City of Carpinteria and strong as an ox. While Nick and Gordon take turns pulling and tossing, the rest of us work on cleaning up the small stuff, cutting a bit of a tread to make it safe to walk through what was just cut. It’s a team effort all the way.

Slow Progress
Though we may still be on the historic route, brushing it out is a slow process. Overall, the Forest Service portion of the trail is 2.7 miles long and almost all of it is choked with brush, some live, some dead, most of it tilted across the trail corridor as gravity has caused it to lean over on the steep hillsides to the point that quite a bit of it creates a horizontal barrier that Nick and Andy must cut through.

The upper Franklin Trail is an interesting one in that of its 2.7 miles, almost 2.3 of that follow the west side of a major ridge with nary a switchback. Apparently those who built it were more concerned about getting to the top than in designing the trail to more sustainable standards. The result is a trail that is steeper in places than you’d want but the good news is that being on the west side of the ridge for the most part the sun doesn’t hit us until well past noon. That means cool mornings and a more enjoyable work environment.

Today is our 9th volunteer day working the Franklin Trail. There are days we move at what I’d call a brisk pace, cleaning out 300-400 yards of trail but on a typical day two hundred yards of progress is a really good day. On average, Andy and Nicky are up here with me several days a week, meaning that overall we’re close to having put in 20 days. Finally we’ve gotten to the point where we’re looking straight across at the final wall we’ll have to work our way up to get to the top. In terms of distance we’ve gained two miles and a thousand feet. But from here the last section seems almost vertical: .7 miles on the trail but another thousand feet in gain to reach the crest.

Along this section of the trail it has been difficult to know if we’re on it or gotten sidetracked a bit. The hillside here has slumped enough that spotting tread is a bit tricky. Finally, a yelp from Gordon tells us he’s found something. “Got it!” he shouts and we continue on. Towards the end of the day we reach a saddle that is overgrown enough that we decide to call it a day. Then someone spots a metal post entrenched in the hillside almost exactly along the route we’ve been cutting, evidence we are indeed still on the trail. It’s a good feeling we all have as we trudge back down the trail, a good day put in and another three hundred yards closer to the top.

On the Crest
Over the next week Andy and Nick continue their assault on the crest and we creep along, working our way past the saddle up to the next corner, then the next and the next to the point that we are almost at the base of the last vertical section. The trail by now is obvious: cut through a series of sandstone layers jutting out of the ground, it’s clear that a large amount of dynamite has been used to blast out the path. 

At one point we get to a massive rock outcropping the size of the Gibraltar climbing area. We’ve been wondering how we’d get around that and when we reach it we discover they’ve blasted out a 4-6’ wide section of solid sandstone to create the trail. Steping off the edge in places means a 40’ drop straight down; in others where the ledge slopes a bit more sloping would mean a 100’+ free fall. There are stories of horses that have been lost along here many years ago.

Above this is a series of switchbacks. Other than a short switchback just below us, these are the first we’ve encountered. According to the map there are seven of them and then the top. This seems a good place to stop, sit back and rest against the rock and enjoy the moment before we head back down.

On January 31st there are eleven of us volunteers heading up, our plan to make it to East Camino Cielo. By this point it is an hour and a half hike just to get to work site but by 10am we are at it once again, cutting, pulling, cleaning and then moving ahead. The switchbacks, it turns out, are easy pickings. The combination of steep hillside, rocky ground and poor soil have resulted in much thinner vegetation and best of all, much more chamise, which is much easier to brush out than the taller ceanothus. 

By lunch time we’re close to the 6th switchback, which means if we’re right there’s only one last corner to turn and then one long straight away to the top. We make it by 2:30pm, with still enough energy left to celebrate the moment. Yes! It may not be ready for use yet but the goal of re-opening the historic Franklin Trail, once a major route into the upper regions of the Santa Barbara backcountry, is now much closer to becoming a reality.

Next Steps
Though the preliminary route along the upper Franklin Trail has finally been opened up, there is quite a bit that still needs to be done before it can be opened to the public. Next steps include environmental review, fund raising and then re-construction. All of these require support from the community. If you would like to contribute to the cause, please visit the Trails Council or Friends of the Franklin Trail websites to see how you can become involved or how to make a contribution.



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Managing Agency: Multi Agency: Phases 1 & 2 - Santa Barbara County; Phase 3 - Los Padres Forest

Entry Fee: It's Free!

Keywords: carpinteria,hiking,mountain biking,equestrian riding,friends of the franklin trail

Location: Santa Barbara County,Carpinteria

State: California

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Driving Directions
Get Directions to Rediscovering the Franklin Trail which is located at 34.406805,-119.517413.

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Additional Resources

Friends of the Franklin Trail
Santa Barbara County Trails Council

Hike Details
Difficulty: Moderate.

Elevation Gain: Moderately strenuous to Frank's Bench; a bit more to the Top of the World; strenuous to the end of Phase 2; gonzo to the top of the mountains.

Length: 5.2 to the end of Phase 2 (10.4 out and back); 7.9 miles to the top of the SY Mountains (15.8 out and back).

Path: Good tread and jeepway road to the end of Phase 2; a minimal trail on the Forest section to the top of the mountains that is not formally ope to the public. Use the FS portion at your own risk.

Canine: Dog friendly. Must be on a leash on the County portions of the trail. Trail is also open to mountain biking and equestrians.

Use: Hiking, Trail Running, Mountain Biking, Photography. The upper Forest section of the trail is not passable for mountain bikers or equestrians. An excellent trail and jeep combination for equestrians.

Requirements: Parking is not allowed at Carpinteria High School during the weekdays when school is in session.


Fine Cuisine

There is no water along the trail. At one point you do cross Sutton creek but there is almost never running water there.


Santa Barbara Independent
November 1, 2013 • Author: Ray Ford

The Franklin Trail is one of our area’s oldest trails, having been constructed in 1913 by the Forest Service and support from the Carpinteria community. For many years the trail was one of the most popular ways to access the backcountry, climbing over the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains and dropping down Alder Creek to an area known as Billirad Flats, not too far from the present site of Jameson Reservoi

In that year the Santa Barbara Guidebook, authored by Leila Weekes Wilson noted: “The Carpinteria-Juncal Trail [the Forest Service designated name for the trail], a new trail, from Franklin Cañon, Carpinteria, over the mountains to the upper Santa Ynez River, is now complete. This is a trail that will appeal strongly to every resident of Santa Barbara County. From the summit one may turn and look toward the Pacific Ocean and the islands, and the Eden of Santa Barbara County, the lovely valley of Carpinteria, at your feet. While looking east [actually north] are rugged ranges that drop down to the beautiful Santa Ynez River, where trout fishing is good, and camping facilities ideal.”

Cate School Adventures
One of those who plunked down a chunk of change to see the Franklin Trail completed in 1913 was Curtis Cate. According to Roxie Grant Lapidus, whose description of these early days on the Franklin Trail in her essay titled: The Historic Franklin Trail and Early Adventures in the Back Country, “Cate quickly discovered the trail’s potential for teaching his kids some tough lessons,” she wrote “Mr. Cate was an advocate of cold showers and rugged outdoor experiences, and every student was required to have a horse. Small groups of boys rode the local trails every weekend, either toward the Casitas, or up the Franklin Trail and over into the Santa Ynez River area.”

Lapidus also describes the nostalgia for one student who as he is about to graduate, describes what the experience has meant to him: “One cannot possibly forget certain moments associated with camping: that first smell of frying steak, the first meal prepared in the twilight after the long ride over the Coast Range, and, next morning, the keen exhilaration of a plunge into the Santa Ynez. What can be finer, on the return trip, after the exhausting climb up the north slope of this last western range, than reaching the summit and looking out over that wide vista of coastal plain, the blue Pacific, and beyond….”

The Franklin Trail provided access for decades for many an outdoor adventurer, hunter, fisherman and backcountry explorer for many decades until things began to change after World War II, especially as avocado ranching became more and more prominent. About the same time Carpinterians were first venturing over the Santa Ynez Mountains to explore the mysteries of the backcountry, Santa Barbara Judge R.B. Ord introduced the Mexican avocado to the area. By the 1950s a number of varieties were becoming commercially successful, among them the Fuerte and the Hass.

Avocado Ranches Boom
In Carpinteria, ranches such as those owned by the Franklin families and others began to change hands and this shift in ownership accelerated in the early 1970s when the Carpinteria Valley became a mecca for commercial flower growing. Over time a wide swath of valley land stretching along the base of the mountains from Santa Monica Canyon east to the County were developed either for avocados or nursery related businesses. By the mid 70s public access to the mountains ground to a halt. In 1975 when I wrote my first Day Hikes book, a brief description of the Franklin Trail was included and the trail still passable via an Edison jeepway that led from Linden to the start of the trail. By 1980 when I added a second edition, it had been closed and though the upper trail was still there, there was no longer a way to get to it.

The issue for the local ranchers was what is known as avocado (Phytophthora) root rot, considered to be the most serious and important disease of avocado worldwide a disease that is potentially fatal should a tree become infected. Worrying that horses or foot traffic could introduce the disease into their orchards the solution was simple; keep the public out.

Owners Restrict Use
By the 1980s, fate of the Franklin Trail was held in the hands of three property owners: Johannes Flowers, the Horton Ranch and a large 3,000+ acre holding above known as Rancho Monte Alegre, owned by RMA Partners VI. The question was whether easements through the three properties might ever be established. Of these, the Monte Alegre property was the first that the County and its Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee (CRAHTAC) began to look at since it stretched from the top of the first knoll behind the high school to Forest Service owned land further inland. Eventually after a number of battles, both in court and in the political arena, an easement was confirmed through the property but only under the condition that it be fenced on both sides for its entire length. Clearly that was no a practical option and for the 1980s and 90s, there was little progress in re-opening the trail.

Land Trusts Get Involved.
Then in the early 2000s, a glimmer of hope appeared when negotiations began for the development of conservation easements on two of the properties. In 2004, RMA Partners approached the Trust for Public Land (TPL) in 2004 to discuss a conservation easement that would help protect the natural and agricultural resources and provide the long sought trail easement that could re-open the Franklin Trail.

According to the TPL website “the conservation easement granted to The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, permanently extinguished development rights on the property except for the agreed upon 25 home sites and permitted agricultural uses.” In addition the RML Partners agreed to begin a separate discussion on the donation of two major public trail easements, one along the Franklin Trail corridor and the other an east-west route that could tie into other existing trails.

Then in late 2005 Bill and Glenna Horton, owners of the middle property, entered into an agreement with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County to preserve 104 acres of the Horton avocado ranch. “We wanted to preserve it as a ranch and open space for the benefit of the community,” noted Bill. “I would hope other property owners do the same. I hate to see the hillsides covered by these monstrous homes and/or greenhouses.”

“It’s a way for some owners to get the value out of their home without selling it,” said Land Trust Executive Director Michael Feeney at the time. “If the ranch is ever sold, he noted, conditions of the conservation easement do not change.

It appeared that public access to the Franklin Trail might soon be on the horizon. However, it turned out not to be the case. Along with a number of technical stumbling blocks it turned out that raising the funding for the construction of the trail once the easement issues had been settled was not so easy. County Parks turned to a grant source known as the CA Recreational Trails Program but was turned down repeated in the mid-2000 period. When the economy sunk in 2008, the grant funds began to dry up and when the economic issues began to impact the RML lands, discussions relating to the easement on that property began to lag as well.

Friends of the Franklin Trail Emerge
Enter long time trail supporters Jane Murray and Bud Girard, both members of the Montecito Trails Foundation and long time Carpinteria residents, who stepped up and took the lead. With Bud working with the County and Land Trust on the technical issues and Jane helping to spearhead the fund raising side, a group known as the Friends of the Franklin Trail was born in 2010. By 2012 the group had raised sufficient funding that trail construction was now a real possibility.

In the meantime, working with the Horton Ranch and beginning discussions with Johannes Persoon on the easement through his nursery, by early 2013 it was clear the trail would be built. Construction began in late May and though it took much longer than anyone would have wanted, starting today it is official. The Franklin Trail is open and ready for use through Phase 2.

Forest Land Beyond
North of the RMA property a significant challenge remains in opening the trail through Forest Service lands. Though open and usable three decades ago, the trail is now overgrown enough to be almost impossible to follow and completely impassable for the parts that have been explored. The route is also extremely steep, climbing slightly over 2,000’ to the crest. Until surveyed, it is impossible to know what challenges may lie ahead on this part of the trail.

Already Jane and Bud and the Friends of the Franklin Trail are hard at work on what they are calling Phase 2 of the project. An ambitious lot, they hope to have the rest of the trail open by 2015 at the latest. If you’d like to support the effort you may do so by visiting the Friend’s website and making a donation.

Things to Know

While there is an agreement in place for public use of the Franklin Trail through Rancho Monte Alegre now, the last portion of the trail through Los Padres Forest to the crest is signed as "Closed" to the public. That doesn't mean you can't explore this last section but you should know that the trail beyond Phase 2 is in the process of being reviewed so that re-construction may begin.

Forest Service crew memberputs the finsihing touched on the "Trail Closed" sign for Phase 3.
The trail above this point should be used "at your own peril."

The last 2.7 miles is steep — basically a rough preliminary trail opened enough to allow the environmental studies to be done — and is in no way up to typical trail standards. There is minimal tread, staubs you may trip over, overhead brush hasn't been cut back and in many places sections where the trail has slid away, creating the potential for serious injury.

The key phrase is, "use at your own peril."

Access Map

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Last Updated: Tuesday, July 28, 2015