Hike: Backpack to Indian Creek Camp (in the Dick Smith Wilderness) via Lower Buckhorn and Meadow Camps
Mileage: 16.4 mile strenuous backpack on the Lower Buckhorn Trail [27W12] then the Indian Creek Trail [26W08] to the end via Meadow Camp (Indian Canyon is a box canyon); for driving directions and the first 5.2 miles of this trail see previous column
Time: Three or four days; little elevation gain or loss but heavy bushwhacking “down in” on the final three miles to Indian Creek Camp; okay for hardy children over 9
Maps: B. Conant’s Matilija and Dick Smith Trail Map Guide; USGS 15’ topo map Little Pine Mountain; Craig Carey’s excellent Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura, pp. 182 – 184 (Route 40)
I embarked on this challenging Indian Canyon backpack on Memorial Day weekend with my stalwart nephew, photographer Eric Vizents. We intended to explore further than we had before into picturesque and remote Indian Creek Canyon (aka Indian Canyon), entering the arid Dick Smith Wilderness just past Meadow Camp.
Our eventual goal was to reach secluded Indian Creek Camp near the end of the narrowing and twisty box canyon. Indian Creek Trail ends at this ultimate U.S. Forest Service wilderness campsite perched high above the faltering creek.
President Roosevelt’s famed Civilian Conservation Corps’ jobless men constructed the bare-bones campsite and the trail to it sometime in 1933. It was fast work, considering that FDR had only signed the CCC social welfare legislation in April 1933. When the federal government suddenly grew larger and began redistributing money down to the jobless and homeless (this was the Great Depression of the 1930s), Santa Barbara County received most of our backcountry camps.
As a lifelong history teacher, I have always found it exciting to imbibe new information — for example by traveling and living abroad, studying world religions, and roaming the Santa Barbara backcountry. The dry badlands east of Santa Barbara, north of Los Angeles, and south of Bakersfield comprise a huge area in which to complete my own strange backcountry education. Friends and I have been day hiking and backpacking into our five adjacent and nearby federal wilderness areas within the ginormous southern portion of Los Padres National Forest since 1971. Guru Franko and I have mountain biked on the edge of several of these wildernesses (only on legal roads; no trail riding for me). However, Indian Canyon and its small drainage, this long finger of land protruding from the southern end of the Dick Smith wilderness, has eluded my forays.
As described last column, it isn’t an easy drive to the trailhead at the Mono Creek Gate on Camuesa Road, and after leaving my school on Friday, May 24, the almost two-hour drive, mostly on washboard dirt road, was pretty demanding, even in my four-wheel-drive Ranger truck.
After parking at the Mono Gate at 5 p.m. on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, Eric and I kitted up and quickly backpacked 0.9 of a mile on (Romero) Camuesa Road, then made a free camp at the first potable water spot we could find in the waning light along Indian Creek. The water was okay when I day hiked here on April 26, but I was aware that we would have difficulty locating pools deep enough to submerge our water filters.
The next morning, Saturday, we hiked steadily like little soldier ants along the green and muddy Indian Creek to Lower Buckhorn Camp. Here we made the uphill trail turn east (“right”) toward signed “Meadow Camp,” where we rejoined the now much deeper cut of Indian Creek Canyon. Do not take the west (“left”) trail turn onto the now-impassable Buckhorn Trail over to the Buckhorn Road. Amazingly, there’s a rugged wood table at Meadow Camp, possibly dating from the 1930s, but hardly any available shade, rendering it a poor choice for an all-day campsite.
We estimated we’d backpacked about 3.5 miles from our unmarked “free camp” campsite to the vast potrero that gives Meadow Camp its euphonious monicker. There’s a signage discrepancy here concerning how much further Indian Creek Camp is up along the gently ascending box canyon: The old 1930s-era iron sign reads “3 ½ mi” but Conant’s trusty map states it’s “2.2 mi.” The distinction does matter, since Eric and I also noted Conant’s trail color shifts from the desirable yellow to the much-feared pink in the middle of this final stretch down in the creekbed. Conant writes that his pink-colored “trail may require some bushwhacking … potential substandard trail conditions.”
While Craig Carey’s recent Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura agrees with Conant’s 2.2 mile figure, in point of brutal fact, the backpack from Meadow to Indian Creek Camp absolutely felt like five miles to me! The aging backpacker began to struggle immediately after we successfully hiked through a half-mile of very tough chamise and manzanita hedges, like walls of barbed-wire fencing with jagged points jabbing into your clothing. Here is where gloves are critical, since we were both accepting regular hits on the pole-wielding hands. The trail sort of disappeared as we suddenly dropped “down in” and began laboriously traversing the tortured course of the twisting creek bed again and again. Around this time, we encountered the negative impacts of the awesome 2007 Zaca Fire, which had raged through here unchecked.
“Down in” became completely exhausting, a kind of beautiful horror and entirely different ecosystem. We bulled through a riparian jungle, two pygmies struggling through the vines, while all above us brown and demented hillsides boiled and glowered. We clambered over and through, even occasionally under, a tangle of alders, sycamores, and the especially vicious, rope-like arroyo willows, which try to trip you up. There were endless acres of beautiful, and deadly, poison oak, mixed with other soft chaparral and oak woodland plants. Mixed in as well was the ubiquitous chokecherry with its scratchy thorns. There were almost impassable thickets of fresh-growth chokecherry right at several creek-bed crossings; we simply had to stomp through, wielding the hiking sticks to good effect here and simultaneously trying to flush out any snakes.
After about three tiring hours mostly spent bushwhacking “down in” Indian Creek, seeking the trail and stumbling around most of the time, we abruptly entered Indian Creek Camp on a high bench on the western (left) bank. I was grateful to the Forest Service and wilderness volunteers for hauling the good wooden table to this camp in 2010 and cannot imagine how they managed it in such terrible trail conditions. My estimate is that about 40 percent of the Indian Creek Trail, from Meadow Camp northward, has been effaced by the brutal Zaca Fire, winter rains, natural erosion, disuse, and lack of trail maintenance.
Here was a spatial heterotopia indeed. From the looks of things, very few humans have ventured here since the Rangers hauled in the table during the 2010 hiking season. While Eric and I lounged about parched and glorious Indian Creek Camp, we kept our eyes and ears wide open. We spoke little and sipped plenty of chamomile tea, hot or cold. Despite sleeping high above the creek bed on our second night, I could hear the shrinking remnants of Indian Creek gurgling over the rocks and flowing slowly into a few algae-choked pools.
Why go to such outlandishly remote spots in a local wilderness zone at all?
It furthers one’s backcountry education. My credo is full immersion.
Eric wanted to make a three- to four-hour scramble up and back to the Indian Creek waterfall shown on Conant’s map. I hesitated, savoring how much my mind wanted to do this next bit. Anonymous poster “1234” noted after my first column on Indian Creek (and Lower Buckhorn), it’s “a pretty spectacular double waterfall,” and I also recalled Jim Blakley’s comments about rock shelters and stunning pools up there. But I also remembered to be mindful of my body’s state. “Check yourself” is ever the excellent mantra: Take time to ponder the effects of such a decision. Unfortunately, I’d suffered a small retinal hemorrhage in the left eye on May 23, and vision from that orb was very blurry with a resulting kind of milky-eye condition. If we did this scramble, we would have to stay the third and final night here at Indian Creek Camp and then undertake the entire 8.2 mile return backpack on Memorial Day Monday.
Eric is a very strong and gracious man whom I’ve known all his life. I regretted having to admit to him that I did not think this 65-year-old body should do the extra scramble to the falls and then the next day knock out an 8.2 mile backpack to the truck. He was generous and relaxed about it. We agreed this meant we would have to come up here again!
We instead backpacked the return to Meadow Camp where we spent the last night. Indian Creek is almost dry here, and just climbing down the extremely steep cliff to pump from the watercourse was an adventure in itself.
On the final day, we therefore only faced a 5.7 mile backpack out, perfectly retracing our route in. We got back to my truck by noon, drove out and rejoined East Camino Cielo Road, and made it to my beloved Westside by 2 p.m.
One gets perplexed by how things work out and is always reminded that he isn’t in charge of timing. If we had done the extra scramble up to the double falls on the Sunday, we’d have gotten out much later on Memorial Day Monday and quite possibly after the White Fire broke out. Reports have it igniting around 2:30 p.m. Eric and I might have smelled the smoke. Indian Canyon Camp is barely four miles as the crow flies from the Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area, where the 2,000-acre White Fire started. I was very alert to the fire danger due to a claustrophobic awareness that we were backpacking into a dry “box canyon” with no exit at the upper end. If we had smelled the wildfire smoke, we would have freaked out. We had no cell-phone coverage in upper Indian Canyon.
A new chapter in my backcountry education commands that one not be up in a deep box canyon during a dry spring, with wildfire danger, and no alternate way out. In these circumstances, smoke inhalation would be the greatest threat.
Five thousand car campers just four miles away from our box canyon were evacuated from the Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area on Memorial Day Monday in the later afternoon because of this White Fire. Whereas we saw absolutely no other humans during our entire 3.5 days spent near the Dick Smith Wilderness.
We are all travelers, whether beneath a sheltering sky in the Dick Smith, at Red Rock Campground, or playing tourist in Berlin’s sleazy bars.