What’s in a Name?

Idle Musings on Los Padres Toponomy

Quick — where’s Bluff camp?

If you’re a Santa Barbara hiker, it’s the site off the service road between the San Raf and Dick Smith Wildernesses. If you’re a Ventura County hiker, it might also be that elusive and seldom-visited site in Santa Paula Canyon.

Ready for another? White Ledge. Beartrap Creek. (I bet you said “Reyes” or “near Scheideck”.) Alder (or its Spanish synonym, Aliso). There must be a million of those; I’ve counted at least seven Alder creeks or canyons in the southern Los Padres thus far (English edition only).

So why all the duplicate names? I have to check my cynical side at times when I think it was just people being lazy, like naming a street Elm or Maple (regardless what trees might actually grow there).  But then I am reminded (or remind myself) most of the folks who named the features in the Los Padres backcountry weren’t the lazy type. This is rough terrain, and dang it if you get to put a name on it, good on you!

Some of the names may lack some creativity, sure, but in the case of, say, Bluff — originally used as a base camp for the crews building Big Pine Road during the Depression — that’s not my place to say (while I sit in my ergonomic chair under the light of a bank of CFLs and a pint of Murphy’s at my elbow). More power to them.

Some places are named after what grows or lives there (Madulce, Oak This, Lady Bug, Oak That, Blue Jay, Oak Flat, Bear Gulch, Turtle Canyon … oh, and Oak Something!), what happened there (Beartrap, Sluice, Ellis Apiary), or after the owner or other historical figure (Ortega, Mutau, Reyes, the Tumamait Trail, Bill Farris camp, etc.).

And for a region with far less geothermal activity than Yellowstone and a far lower mean temperature than much of the American southwest, the southern Los Padres — the Sespe Wilderness especially — seems to have a disproportionate number of infernal placenames. Devils Canyon, Devils Heart Peak, Devils Gateway … the mind boggles (more on those later). And of course there are plenty of Chumash names (Matilija, Sespe, Topatopa).

But I like places with almost ridiculous names. I read recently “Ozena” was a term for “horse with distemper” … gold star. Dead Horse Creek (just east of Snowy Peak in the Sespe)? Just as good!

… and I don’t even have anything against horses.


3 responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. In this vein, one does wonder about the specifics of the story accounting for the name Borracho [drunk] Spring. Having been to both Bluff camps, if there were a contest over possession of the name, my inclination would be to give it to the Santa Paula Canyon site.

  2. I think that would be my vote as well. The sandstone formations there are quite impressive, and make quite a wall separating the canyon from Bear Heaven.

    For those who’ve not viewed the good doctor’s great collection of Los Padres images from decades past, check them out here.

  3. Jack Elliott Avatar
    Jack Elliott

    This a great topic, Craig, that I have been thinking a lot about lately. And just shaking my head to be honest. I’m not as forgiving in my assessment of this matter as you.

    For instance, Lower Bear, Bear and Upper Bear? Sheesh. There is no shortage of inspiration to draw on in naming places, whether it’s the flora, fauna, geology, natural or human history of the area. Yet, they couldn’t bother to think of anything but adding the word Lower and Upper to Bear. I realize the three camps are pretty close to each other, but come on. I think it’s really too bad that nothing has the name of Grizzly. Okay, I’ll stop whining now.


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