Los Padres National Forest

About the Los Padres National Forest

The Los Padres National Forest is California’s second largest national forest, extending nearly 220 miles across the scenic Coast and Transverse Ranges. Rising from the Pacific Ocean to over 8,800 feet in elevation, these wildlands form the backdrop of many local communities in Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Kern Counties.

Hiking along the Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail in the Sespe Wilderness. Photo by Bryant Baker.

Outdoor Recreation

Much of this beautiful land is steep, rugged coastal mountains along the Santa Lucia, La Panza, San Rafael, Santa Ynez, and Sierra Madre ranges.  Exciting recreation opportunities abound here, including hiking, backpacking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, angling, kayaking, and mountain biking. These activities boost local economies while attracting visitors from the urban centers of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the southern San Joaquin Valley. In fact, the Los Padres is one of the most heavily-visited national forests in the nation, with over 1.8 million people exploring this magnificent area each year.

Santa Barbara jewelflower. Photo by Jeff Goddard.

Unique Ecosystems

The Los Padres is at the center of North America’s only “biodiversity hotspot,” one of the Earth’s biologically richest and most endangered ecoregions. The forest forms the hub of a vast matrix of public lands in central California, including the Carrizo Plain National Monument, the California Coast National Monument, three national wildlife refuges, a national marine sanctuary, and other public wildlands. It is here that the marine coastline meets three other ecological regions to form one of the richest varieties of ecosystems in the world, including sea coast and marine habitats, redwood forest, mixed conifer forest, oak woodland, grassland, pinon-juniper woodland, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and semi-desert.

Wildlife Habitat

The forest provides habitat for 468 species of wildlife and over 1,200 plant species, including over 90 species at risk of extinction, more than any other national forest in the state. These species include the San Joaquin kit fox, steelhead, Smith’s blue butterfly, California spotted owl, bald eagle, California red-legged frog, arroyo toad, and California jewelflower. The forest is also the focus of efforts to reintroduce the California condor, one of the world’s most endangered species.

Sunset on the Chumash Wilderness. Photo by Eldon Walker.

Backcountry Wilderness

The Los Padres contains ten wilderness areas totaling 876,012 acres, nearly half of the total Los Padres land base. The San Rafael Wilderness contains the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary, and was the first-ever primitive area designated as wilderness. The Ventana Wilderness contains the southernmost stands of ancient coast redwoods, and is one of only a few coastal wilderness areas in the nation. The Sespe Wilderness contains southern California’s last undammed river – Sespe Creek – as well as the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail.

Free-flowing Rivers and Streams

The Los Padres was originally established to protect the pristine water sources for the coastal communities surrounding the forest. Today, the Los Padres encompasses 1,134 miles of rivers and streams, providing water for urban and agricultural use, habitat for rare and at-risk species, and exciting recreation opportunities. Eighty-four miles of Wild & Scenic Rivers – including the Sespe, Sisquoc, and Big Sur Rivers – flow through its boundaries, and the Sisquoc River has been called “the most pristine stream in southern California.” Healthy and freeflowing waterways are a vital part of this landscape.

Chumash Culture

Many areas of the Los Padres have cultural and spiritual significance to Native peoples. About one hundred prehistoric rock art sites are found in the Los Padres. These fragile and unique sites represent one of the richest records of prehistoric rock art in the world, and are part of an estimated 20,000 cultural sites in the forest, including the remains of ancient villages, burial sites, rock shelters, and ceremonial locations. Certain peaks and other landforms continue to provide spiritual and cultural value to Native American communities.

Overgrazed area (left) and ungrazed area (right) on the Carrizo Plain Ecological Reserve, October 2009.

Threats to Our Public Lands

Today, the forest is facing more threats than at any other time in history. The U.S. Forest Service is the agency charged with managing these public lands, but the agency often approves projects that are not in the public interest. Oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicle abuse, mining, and other extractive industries are causing significant impacts to wildlife habitat, wilderness values, clean water, and recreation opportunities.

The Los Padres is the only national forest in California that contains commercial quantities of oil and gas. Drilling now occurs on 15,000 acres and near some of the most sensitive areas of the forest – areas like the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Sespe Wilderness. The agency is proposing to expand drilling into even more areas.

Commercial livestock grazing allotments cover nearly half of the Los Padres, and a recent study revealed that over three-fourths of these areas do not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. In some areas of the forest, improperly managed livestock trample fragile streams, pollute waterways, and harm rare wildlife.

Off-road vehicle trespass in the Santa Barbara Ranger District.

Off-road vehicles (ORVs) are invading more and more areas of the forest. There are currently 451 miles of ORV routes and the forest service is proposing to open up more than 730,000 acres to ORV access. Despite this widespread access, renegade off-roaders have blazed hundreds of miles of illegal trails through fragile areas of the forest. These roads, and the erosion caused by them, are the leading cause of water pollution in the national forest.

A new Vision for the Forest

We are working to immediately reverse these threats. These are public lands, and we believe that they should be managed and protected in the public’s interest. Join us in achieving our vision of healthy ecosystems, pristine rivers, and wild landscapes along California’s Central Coast!

Photo credits: Los Padres National Forest (header image), Jeff Jones; California condor (footer image), Daniel Bianchetta