Carving Out the Condor Trail- page 2 | Travel | Smithsonian
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A section of the rugged backcountry terrain of the Los Padres National Forest is visited by fewer than 20 people per year. (Marc Muench / Alamy)

Carving Out the Condor Trail

Cartographer Bryan Conant leads the quest to link Big Sur to southern California in the West Coast’s answer to the Appalachian Trail

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(Continued from page 1)

Winter, spring, summer or fall, though, no one expects the Condor Trail to unleash a flood of visitors to the Los Padres, largely because it’s deep, extremely rugged backcountry. “It’s not warm and welcoming; it’s wilderness,” explained Coles. “You really don’t have much real wilderness left in this state. You don’t see people. Everything is wild. . . but that’s really the charm of it.” Conant agrees. “I don’t expect this to be attracting thousands of hikers a year. Twenty miles on the PCT is like 10 miles here.”

Travails of the Trail
After the afternoon of bear-spotting and a night of shooting stars, Bryan, his cousin Will and I awake the next morning in our camp at Alamar Saddle, located at the juncture between the San Raf and Dick Smith wildernesses. This is where the Alamar Trail turns into the Sisquoc River Trail, but both will fall under the Condor Trail umbrella when Conant and his supporters have their way.

Set on getting some trail work done before the hot August sun starts scorching, we head down Alamar Trail at 7 a.m. with handsaws and pulaskis, a tool usually used by firefighters that combines an adze edge with an ax head. It’s my first time really working a trail, and I quickly learn that even the easiest of tasks — sawing down six-inch-wide tree trunks that cross the path and uprooting young plants that threaten to choke the way — is exhausting. We work for nearly three hours before climbing back out, but only manage to tackle about a mile stretch of trail.

This is the grueling hands-on work that will be required to make the Condor Trail a reality, and the strongest argument that Conant can make to the Forest Service is that it will be done by volunteers. Much like the Pacific Crest Trail, Conant hopes to develop a system of trail volunteers that would adopt sections of the trail and maintain them, as well as separate councils in each of the four counties to direct the work. “If we had a real backbone trail like that, what it would do is create potential for a system-wide set of volunteers that could be tied into other things as well,” argued Ray Ford, an author, backpacking expert and integral adviser to the trail. “I don’t see it as an additional burden on the Forest Service. I see it as a something that has the potential to make their jobs easier.”

But promises like that are where the Forest Service starts to get a little leery. “We’re in favor of anything that improves the trails and improves visitor use, but we’re having real struggles with today’s budget and economy in keeping the trails that we have open,” said Kerry Kellogg, wilderness trail manager for the Santa Barbara district of the Los Padres National Forest. Kellogg explains that it takes, on average, about $25,000 and 90 days of manpower just to restore three miles of existing trail, of which there are more than 800 miles in the forest. “Adding new trails is something that we would have to do with lots of thought. If we were going to add new trails, we might have to eliminate some in order to stay at no net gain.”

There is some hope for the Condor Trail as it is not officially seeking to create any new trails and the route can currently follow the existing network, at least through the southern end of the Los Padres. “All of them exist, technically,” said Conant, but admitting in the same breath that some of the historic trails are the least maintained and others travel along jeepways or dirt roads rather than wilderness. “I want to keep as much a wilderness feel as we can,” said Conan, “and avoid roads as much as possible.” Ideally, Conant would like to craft a brand-new nine-mile segment from Pine Mountain to Madulce Peak in order to avoid dirt roads, but he’s not planning on pushing that anytime soon, for new trail creation also requires costly environmental and archaeological review.

As a lifelong backcountry explorer, Kellogg is personally excited by the idea, knows that the emerging Condor Trail association will be able to attract grants and other funding that the Forest Service cannot, and hopes that it comes forth with a professionally laid out proposal that identifies priorities, lists alternatives and shows long-range thinking. But when his “weary bureaucrat” side arises, Kellogg has plenty of worries, including whether the new Condor Trail volunteer system would pull away from the entire forest’s volunteer pool and whether the forest would be creating an unrealistic expectation for visitors who come expecting to find a perfect trail only to encounter serious brush. “I don’t want to give a guy a T-shirt and a map and send him out on trails that are completely overgrown,” laughed Kellogg. “That T-shirt would turn to garbage immediately.”

As someone who’s had plenty of shirts shredded by the Los Padres, Conant appreciates the government’s concerns and plans to address them in the years to come. “I’m usually pretty impatient, but things like this aren’t built overnight,” said Conant, who’s working on a ten-year plan for the Condor Trail. “It’s a concept better presented slowly.”

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