Name of hike: Figueroa Mountain hike/bike (1 day)
Mileage: 3.0 ascending hike plus 8.5 miles easy cycling
Suggested time: approximately 4 hours, not including driving time to Santa Ynez
When you have been hiking in or near Santa Barbara’s glorious backcountry for four decades you begin to look for ways to vary the trips. In addition to straight hiking, the hike/bike option offers its own particular pleasure.
The one-day Figueroa Mountain hike/bike is a compelling example of how much fun you can have in varied terrain. You can enjoy the energy from two sets of muscles, take a great lunch stop, and get back home by evening. It does require about 150 miles of driving while toting a standard mountain bike (or even a sturdy street bike). I’ve enjoyed this day trip with my son as well as solo.
I arrive at Davy Brown Camp at about 10:30 a.m. on December 5, after a 76-mile drive on Highway 154 from downtown Santa Barbara to Figueroa Mountain Road. Along the way to Cachuma Saddle I stashed my 14-year-old Specialized brand mountain bike in deep brush at the top of Davy Brown Trail where it abuts Figueroa Mountain Road (just past the entrance to Figueroa Mountain Camp).
There are only 13 spots for cars at Davy Brown. There haven’t been any cars on the long mountain road since passing Midland School; and there are no cars here at Davy, so I park anywhere in the camp.
My day pack is loaded with warm gear and safety gear when I set out walking down the barely paved camp road toward the lowest sites at the bottom, very close to gushing Davy Brown Creek. I have 1.5 liters of water, my Bryan Conant “San Rafael Wilderness” map, and I’ve made this three-mile hike up into Fir Canyon several times, including excursions with my middle-school students.
Just below the lowest campsite I traverse the very slippery watercourse, using my hiking poles, then enter a big grassy potrero (meadow) through a large, green, metal gate originally intended to keep cattle in (or out). I cross to the other stream, Fir Canyon Creek. At the mounted sign I head left up the Davy Brown Trail, which will end three miles higher at Figueroa Mountain Road and my hidden bicycle.
Marvelous easy hiking at first, with glorious riparian woodland scenes thick with sycamores, bays, and oaks; at first ascending slowly, always next to Fir Creek, which rollicks along, making several crossings without getting my boots wet. One often sees mule deer in the fastness here. I didn’t see deer this time – however, a large, dark bobcat darted up the opposite hillside. There are occasionally deer hunters in this area, and in August of 2010 authorities rooted out some 19,000 marijuana plants in four illegal “gardens” near Davy Brown.
As the path steepens dramatically, you encounter a trail problem with attendant confusion. About a mile along, the trail turns up the slope and right (west) and indeed there’s an official USFS mounted sign – but it is misplaced and sends you up the miserable Willow Springs Trail away from the main Davy Brown Trail and the rendezvous with your bike. So ignore the official sign. Instead, duck under the huge boulder and scramble right down into Fir Creek; ford the creek with dry boots and push up the facing hillside opposite. On this isolated day hike, never stray far from the creek and the damp fastness, it can be your infallible guide, far more sure than government signs.
The trail narrows and gets very steep – it’s almost 2,000 feet to the top. Further along you see the plaque honoring an old forest ranger, Edgar B. Davison, who constructed this trail in 1898 and actually lived in a cabin at the site of the plaque. Higher up the trail you encounter magnificent shale formations mounting above you on both sides of the gorge, with sharp fractured rocks everywhere and small conifers barely clinging to the fractured shale. In the spring, one sees brilliant tiger lilies, but now the darker, wintry aspect prevails and there’s little growth or color.
At the top, only somewhat sweaty since it barely hit 50° in Fir Canyon, you sit next to your bike beneath small oak trees, shift into warmer clothes since you’re getting cold in the wind, and gnaw a lunch – in my case cheddar cheese, bread, apple, licorice. Savor breathtaking views across the Santa Ynez Valley, UC’s Sedgwick Reserve, and the back of our own coastal range.
Fastening your hiking poles to the bike-rack and donning your helmet, you slowly cycle three miles across to beautiful, 4600-foot, heavily wooded Ranger Peak. The first three miles to Ranger Peak are more up than down, but the remainder of your leisurely ride is an almost straight shot downhill shot – make sure you have excellent brakes in good repair. At well-marked Cachuma Saddle you head left on the Sunset Valley Road down to Davy Brown Camp and your vehicle.
Absorb the solitude, splash off in the creek, read the New York Times you left in the truck that morning. Savor the mix of near-wilderness and hot tea, the music of the water and the news of the day.
Drive home in time for dinner with tired legs, full heart, and relaxed mind, ready for the relentless world of screens and virtual information.