MONTECITO, Calif. - Front country hiking trails on the Santa Barbara South Coast, especially in Montecito, have been especially popular outdoor outlets during the pandemic.
But as much wear and tear as those trails get from hikers, mountain bikes and horses, Mother Nature delivers most of the damage.
Crews are working to rebuild sections of the popular San Ysidro trail in Montecito, which still has damage from the January 2018's devastating debris flows.
“Of all the trails that were impacted by the Thomas Fire and then our debris flows… I feel like the San Ysidro trail was hit the hardest,” said Bryan Conant, a local trails expert and member of Los Padres Forest Association. “It just really was sort of the last trail that we decided to chip away at and work on.”
MTF Board President Ashlee Mayfield says while the extensive Santa Barbara trail network is special and beautiful, it's also tough to maintain.
“What makes the trails most unique, also makes them the most difficult to repair and keep in good shape,” she said. “Our soils are very fragile. We don’t have that really solid base. So we’re constantly coming in for slides and drainage.”
The San Ysidro restoration is an even more extensive project, requiring a paid trail crew to complete work over an extended period of time.
The crews are building retaining walls that stabilize the trail in areas where terrain is treacherous or difficult to pass. That requires lumber to be sent up the trail to the most vulnerable spots.
With carrying the lumber by hand a time-consuming option and a helicopter unavailable, mules from a local rancher became the solution.
“Probably the easiest way to do it is with mules,” Conant said. “They’ve been working on these trails for a long time. If you go back to when these trails were originally built, they were built with mules.”
“You know, going to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, you often see mule trains,” Mayfield said. “It’s not something we’re used to seeing around here. And so it wasn’t our first instinct… It was fantastic to see how they respond to one another and how they love their jobs. How incredibly agile they are.”
Graham Goodfield, owner of Los Padres Outfitters, provided the mules. He also frequents the trails when leading horseback rides and trips into the backcountry.
“You give a trail a year off on maintenance, it’s almost, you know, mother nature and the terrain just takes over,” Goodfield said. “And you’ll lose those trails… It’s one thing just to build a trail, but to build a trail that’s durable and stand up to the horse use and the foot traffic… that’s the tricky part.”
MTF is hosting a volunteer work day next week to maintain another local front country trail, the first time doing so since the pandemic began.
Mayfield says the goal is for work on the San Ysidro trail to be done by the end of the year, weather permitting. She also says MTF is incredibly grateful for the volunteers and partners working to keep local trails maintained.