Name of hike: West Hurricane Deck Loop Backpack
Mileage: 17.2 miles (2.5 of them ascending)
Suggested time: two long days (or three, if you want a layover day at Manzana Schoolhouse)
There’s an entire cadre of Santa Barbara County nature lovers who return again and again to our own beautiful local backcountry. Led by forest adventurers like E.R. “Jim” Blakley and Ray Ford, and many others during the early 1970s, more than a few Santa Barbarans have turned away from the glistening Pacific and headed for the pristine San Rafael Wilderness. Located northeast of Santa Barbara, behind the Santa Ynez Valley and within Los Padres National Forest, this federal primitive zone encompasses two creek systems and almost 200,000 machine-free, chaparral-covered acres.
After driving just 47 miles from my home on Santa Barbara’s Westside and parking at the United States Forest Service Nira Camp along gurgling Manzana Creek, teaching colleague Chris C. and I struggle into our lightly loaded packs. We walk freely into the San Rafael, observing scattered clumps of brown and yellow leaves littering the dark earth while the nearby Manzana rumbles in its rocky bed. We’ve dispensed with all additional gear since there’s just a single overnight on our adventure: no annoying tech gadgets like a cell phone and GPS, but the tiny plastic thermometer works, showing 36°F, and we have maps and a compass.
Our easy first hiking section starts off with crossing Davy Brown Creek where it dumps into the larger Manzana; the crossing was a little tricky and slippery at 6:30 a.m. (We’d left Santa Barbara at 4:30 a.m.) After getting over it we amble along the well-trodden, fairly muddy trail to reach Potrero Camp in just over a mile. There we ford the larger Manzana Creek, stash our extra shoes behind some willows, and then ascend steadily about 1,600 feet during a demanding two-and-one-half hour trudge through hard chaparral and rocky trail.
At the top we’re at the apex of the fabled Hurricane Deck formation (3,300 feet high). The Deck is a fabulous, crazy, arid, lonely, and quiet place redolent with overwhelming beauty. No water, no people, no white noise!
While I’ve often taken groups of Crane School students to the easily reached Potrero Camp (one wooden table, right by Manzana Creek), quite suitable for younger children, I had not trudged on up and onto the amazing Hurricane Deck itself. A prudent fear of going solo into the wild and up onto the western Deck led me to talk backpacking buddy Chris into joining me on this two-day, 17-mile backpack loop.
It’s a vigorous walk amid hardy desert plants, scrub oak, chamise, manzanita, and several varieties of sage, so we both wear long pants and long sleeves to avoid slashing our limbs. At 64, I have had to move toward ultra-light backpacking: The new pack carries “only” 35 pounds (the experts tell us this still isn’t truly “ultra-light”), and I’m also wielding two hiking poles to further aid my knees.
From our hard-scrabble Deck apex we can see all around; since it’s so dry and rocky there aren’t any actual tall trees, like Digger pines, on top of the Deck. Plenty of thorny bushes, but few over four feet high. Exhilaration strikes as we enjoy glorious 300° views while savoring a spartan lunch, with fine vistas of the forested backs of Figueroa Mountain and the darkened Zaca Ridge. Off to north and east we stare over the deep Sisquoc River Valley to the even higher Sierra Madre Range, showing significant snow. We make out whitened Montgomery Potrero and ivory McPherson Peak (almost 6,000 feet), so we witness how wintry December backcountry weather moves east and north toward the Cuyama.
While the first 4.6 miles, hiking up to our position on the Deck, challenged the heart/lungs/legs complex, the next 4.8 miles was all on top of the sticky ridge itself. Utilizing Bryan Conant’s excellent San Rafael Wilderness guide map (2009), I could see he has downgraded the trail conditions here compared to his earlier assessment, and indeed, there is no trail for at least half this portion: You bushwhack around, staying pretty much to the ridge line itself, allowing your feet to wander a bit. This kind of backpacking is pleasurable and agreeably “slow,” but also harsh on the aging knees, or any knees, really, and at times the uncertainty also contributed to a mental exhaustion. However, the awesome light of a bright but cool late fall day kept our spirits up.
A ruling credo in this hiking section is to stay high: Don’t give in to trending south toward Castle Crags and the facing Zaca Ridge. The most challenging part of this backpack was the two trail-less miles enmeshed in thick, sticky “adobe” mud from recent light rain. Couldn’t get it off the boot lugs. I fell hard at least twice, but angled down the steep inclines and just slid a few feet, then popped back up with the sticks’ help.
We eventually stumbled into the large USFS camp called Manzana Schoolhouse around 2 p.m., by descending onto the Sisquoc River side first. The Schoolhouse lies on a flat meadow near the Manzana and Sisquoc River confluence (becomes Santa Maria River here). This is where we will spend the night.
The Schoolhouse isn’t my favorite campsite because it’s mainly used as a horse camp. However, there is no one here, and the campsite feels clean; it’s a sunny afternoon, and the Manzana still flows nearby, so we have our water-source for tonight and for our breakfast tea and coffee. Use the water filter.
Chris and I eat and rest under the shadow of Wheat Peak, named after Hiram Preserved Wheat, a late-19th-century fundamentalist Mormon. Eleven Mormon families farmed on the Sisquoc and joined together to build the still-standing Manzana Schoolhouse cabin which dates to 1895 and was just recently refurbished. We know that at one time about 25 children were taught in this late-19th-century American “blab school.” Hiram Wheat could supposedly heal with a laying-on of hands, like Mitt Romney.
The second-day return backpack is a simpler tale of crossing and recrossing the eternal Manzana fords, and it’s a flat trek all along rippling Manzana Creek. You will ford at least 60 times during the eight-mile return part of this loop. We see mule deer, which are plentiful, but while we know that mountain lion, bear, bobcat, and coyote are also around, all we see are their tracks. We enjoy the scent of the bay-laurel trees and the light shade of the sycamores and listen to the ceaseless water-music serenading our riparian path. Early on the return we see the Dabney Cabin, an historic landmark, built in 1913. We earn a break at the big meadow called Cold Water Camp and devour a leisurely lunch.
We arrive uneventfully at my truck parked near Nira and drive back to Santa Barbara along the 154, reaching our respective abodes before 4 p.m. The restorative value of full immersion in nature has never been more evident. This was a 17.2-mile, demanding backpack, with a much easier second day looping back to Nira. We encountered no humans while out on the trail, although we met three burros down at Schoolhouse.
Getting There: From Santa Barbara, head north on the 101, exit at the Highway 154 turnoff, and drive over San Marcos Pass, past Lake Cachuma. Turn right on Armour Ranch Road just after crossing the Santa Ynez River bridge. Drive about a mile and again turn right, on Happy Canyon Road. Proceed to Nira Campground, at the very end. Park your motorized transport here, cinch up, and begin hiking with Creek flow.
I used B. Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Map, 2009 edition, obtainable for $8.95 at bryanconant.com (the 2003 edition also works) and compared it with the United States Geological Survey 7.5 min. series topo map Bald Mountain (40 ft. intervals). To view a clear map showing the San Rafael Wilderness in relation to Santa Barbara County go to San Rafael Wilderness in Wikipedia.