Dungeons of Maptitude Review No. 2: Conant’s 2008 Matilija & Dick Smith Wilderness

A Map from a Man in the Arena


I first spotted the Conant map for the Matilija & Dick Smith Wilderness areas at Real Cheap Sports in Ventura. I’m pretty sure my initial response was “what the hell?”

I’d heard of the guy, of course: a fellow wanderer of the backwood who surrounded himself with hiking hounds. The guy with a trundle wheel who wore a hockey jersey … nowhere near as cool as a rugby jersey, but I had to respect the style.

I owned a copy of the San Raf map, but as I didn’t spend much time in that stretch of the Forest (yet), I hadn’t pored over it (yet). And I owned both Ray Ford’s and the Forest Service’s maps of the Dick Smith (1987 and 1990, respectively). But nobody had ever really mapped the Matilija.

I think I stood staring at the unfolded map under the counter’s glass for a good half hour. The first thing I noted was that the map beat my 90-second rule, in that I didn’t find an error within the first 90 seconds. Most maps, magazines, and other publications usually fail this test in one form or another (sometimes more than once in those first 90 seconds of review).

Hmmm. Clean and unobtrusive UTM/MDS collar. The entire Santa Barbara and Montecito frontcountry shown to boot; he could sell that as a map unto itself and still have a massively useful product. One notable and unique component was the Zaca fire perimeter; I thought that was a fantastic idea.

Conant Sample

The backcountry coverage was a goldmine. Upper Matilija? Check; nice to see. Murietta spelt correctly? Yep, all six times it appears. Blue Jay? Rollins? Those fell off the maps long ago, and here they were. Pens actually labeled Pens and not Indian Canyon (or worse, Indian Can). P-O-P-L-A-R spelt like the tree, not the kid everybody likes.

This guy was thorough, like cartographically obsessive thorough. And so my heart sank a bit. Oh hell, I hope he didn’t include — my eyes scanned a specific canyon, and — nope. He hadn’t. Nice move.

Bill Faris, spelt correctly! That sealed it. I bought one.

The Ford maps had never proved overly useful for backcountry navigation; a lack of elevation data made planning vague and the numerous typos didn’t inspire confidence. The USFS Dick Smith Wilderness map was an improvement thereon, but this new map was a quantum leap from the USFS map. (Oh, it’s printed on waterproof paper as well. Win.)

I learned a lot from this map. Places I’d never heard about, places I thought didn’t really exist, places I’d always wanted to visit and was reminded again it was time to go. And when I secured the contract with Wilderness Press to draft what I envisioned would be the Los Padres trail guide of all Los Padres trail guides, this map (and its San Raf cousin) were pressed into service with great frequency. That first copy of the map lived in the top pouch of my technical pack; a second one in the top pouch of the big pack; a third still enjoys a life of leisure in the map cabinets.

Only later — while taking a break from pushing through impassive hedges of blood-letting ceanothus with the map in my back pocket or sitting beneath a rock ledge waiting for the rain to let up — did I note a few nits.

  • Since the map’s release, Ozena Camp has been closed.


  • Kirschenmann Road in the Cuyama Valley is spelled Kirchenmann Road. I know, I know … earth-shattering.
  • The route to Matilija Falls is shown. To each their own, but we all know how that saga’s been playing out.

Image courtesy and © Ventura County Canyoneering

  • McGuire Spring is also on private land, and is also shown (at least this map shows it in the right spot, and not migrating downslope as others have). Might there be another landowner v. public agency spat brewing? Who knows.

McGuire Drainage

  • Along the Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca NRT, the little overflow site upstream from the main Beartrap trail camp is labeled “Beartrap #2” … it’s not. The true Beartrap No. 2 was washed out in the storms of 1974, and was considerably further upstream.

bear trap no 2

  • The dry 4×4 camp atop Nordhoff Peak is labeled Nordhoff Peak. The camp is called Tower.

Tower Camp

  • Cold Springs in Montecito is technically Cold Spring (singular). But “Spring” v “Springs” (Gaviota, Gridley, Toad, Mesa, ad naseum) is something every map does a little bit differently from the next. So truce.
  • The South Cuyama Oil Field is missing the “South” in its label. It matters.
  • Also in that neighborhood, I think the Branch Canyon Wash label begins too soon (too far upstream, and along Newsome Canyon), somewhat muddling where Newsome ends and Branch Canyon begins. It stands to reason the label should be below the confluence ENE of the little USFS exclave where the Branch Canyon guard station and camp once stood.

All these kinds of super-minor nits, you see. There are others (and a few mileage discrepancies), but considering all the painstaking detail and all the things that have been included, these maps are amazing. There’s no point hunting for errors (for those of you who know me, that’s quite a concession … alright, alright, calm down Beavis).

Because here’s the real trick: Conant actually hikes the trails, and had hiked nearly everything shown on this map. And so — to borrow from President Roosevelt — critics don’t count. Conant is that man in the arena, and that puts his 1:76k map in the center ring (conversely, the new Trails Illustrated maps are so riddled with errors they dwell in the cellar along with the latest series of BLM maps).

Later of course I learned (as we all have) Conant was also rekindling Coles’s Condor Trail concept, has championed much of the Dick Smith, and is an active trail volunteer. Those are the mapmakers the Forest needs, not some graphic artist in Evergreen or DC with no idea of what cobbles clacking in a storm-swollen Sisquoc sound like, or what a freshly-snapped piñon twig along the lower washes of Reyes Creek smells like, and what its sap feels like pressed between your fingers. You can’t learn those things by sitting in some artificially-lit cubicle. That’s why you’ll find the Conant maps tacked to the walls inside South Fork Station, Santa Cruz Station, in Forest Service offices, in the glove box of USFS trucks, and on the walls of the dungeon (remember how hard it was to get a copy of the San Raf map after the Zaca Fire? I’ve heard tell the Forest Service bought them all).

These days I call the cartographer Bryan, or just “B” … eventually he and I ended up trading obscure Forest history, swapped many maps, fact-checked one another, and generally worked in complementary but not necessarily over-lapping circles. (That admission may serve as a disclosure/caveat for those who need one.)

Subjective Stuff:

I don’t like the symbol set.

The main label font is Century Gothic; secondary labels are Century Schoolbook (which to the casual observer looks very similar to Times New Roman). I’m not really a fan of either, but give Conant props for not cluttering the map with a bazillion different fonts. One serif, one sans-serif, and go. Approved.

As discussed in the previous map review, I’m also not a fan of relief (or hill) shading, either hand-rendered or by elevation model. Give me contour lines or even physiographic texture or hachures first. My brain works in contour lines, so that’s always the go-to for me.

That said, shaded relief just seems to be the way it is these days. Both Conant maps — whilst toeing the industry line and using relief — at least extend us two courtesies. First: the relief isn’t jarring. It’s there, but not so heavily shaded as to distract. Second: the shading departs from the (I think British) convention by which most maps are shaded as though a lamp is placed on the NW corner of the map. That’s absurd; the only maps that should depict the light from said direction would be those of the southern hemisphere (e.g., my beloved LINZ 1:50.000 topo sheets). Conant’s map show the light as coming from the south — like our own sun — and so earns points there.

LINZ Relief Shading  (Topo50 Claris)
LINZ Relief Shading (from the Topo50 Claris). Sourced from LINZ. Crown Copyright reserved.

Elsewhere, I love that the original Ortega trail camp along 23W08 is shown; Conant labels it “Ortega Vieja” … this is one of numerous colloquial Conant-isms appearing on the map. Jackson Five? Perfect Ten? Surely there are some stories worth hearing here.

Rock Soup

The verdict? Without question, this was the best $8.95 I’ve ever spent on outdoor gear.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


8 responses to “Dungeons of Maptitude Review No. 2: Conant’s 2008 Matilija & Dick Smith Wilderness”

  1. Hi Craig,
    I appreciate the review and critique. I’ve made it a policy to buy beer for whomever finds an error on my maps, is there room in the Dungeon for a keg? The ’08 Dick Smith/Matilija was the first version of this map and has some errors. I have been buried in my own Dungeon of sorts working hard to get a ’12 version released, should be out in the summer. I’m trying to get this next version perfect, but an issue with printed maps is that no sooner do you publish than it’s already out of date. The ’12 version will have the main map on one side and various other hopefully useful tidbits on the back. The price will go up to somewhere in the $10-$11 range in order to compensate for the extra printing charges. Blah blah, don’t get me started – it’s all a big excuse to buy me some more time in the backcountry.

    Cheers and please any other comments, errors, thoughts, questions – they all help make the map a more useful tool for exploring the backcountry – bring it and maybe you can earn yourself a beer (or a red cup at the Dungeon).

    1. And B throws down the gauntlet. You heard him peeps, the game is afoot!

  2. Chris Chandra Avatar
    Chris Chandra

    I have both Conants maps, one thing I really like about Bryan is that you can contact him and he will respond regarding trail suggestions and places to check out if you ask, it’s very nice to talk to the guy that actually hiked the trails and made the map, great guy and awesome maps.

  3. bardley Avatar

    say what you will. i am a friend of bryan’s maps.

    after viewing the latest topo maps from the usgs, i’m am totally disillusioned.

    many of the places i’ve wanted to visit have explicitly been because i’ve seen those places on a usgs topo map. and the trails to get me there. this map = NO TRAILS!

    their latest version include NO trails. the smallest route they appear to identify ( i have only visited two of their local maps ) is a four wheel drive road.

    check out chief peak / hines peak road on the 2012 lion canyon topo. it ( for no apparent reason ) becomes – and continues to be – a four wheel drive road at a certain point for no obvious reason. i have walked that section of road countless times, and yes, there are a few steep places, but certainly not nearly as steep as the section leaving rose valley campground on it way to the ridge.

    do these folks ever even see the terrain?

    or have we become so reliant on computer modeling that reality goes out the window?

    boy, am i unhappy with this arm of my government.

    sorry, craig.

    totally unlike me rant off.

    1. Bardley, you’re absolutely right, the USTopo series is a severe let-down. The map reviewers here in the dungeons are sharpening their knives as we speak.

  4. Bryan Avatar

    Nice catch on the Branch Canyon Wash. A shot for sure.

  5. The signage still looks nice, why did Ozena close?

  6. The Canyon he Left Out, your killing me here Craig with these mystery’s.

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