Prickly Phlox
Dan McCaslin

Hike: Easy weekend backpack into the San Rafael Wilderness along upper Manzana Creek; suitable for sturdy kids 7 and older

Mileage: 12-mile round-trip (it is six easy miles from Nira to Manzana Camp)

Time: Two and a half to three days, with two overnights along the green riparian corridor

Maps: B. Conant, San Rafael Wilderness Map Guide (Ray’s Camp is not shown on either map)

Only in glorious California do we find a profusion of wilderness regions lying very close to highly urbanized zones. On my mid-spring return to the Manzana’s beautiful riparian corridor (see Manzana), I encountered nature redolent with color and burgeoning life. There is still sufficient water at Nira Camp, where my three-day backpack began, and Nira — gateway to the San Rafael Wilderness — is less than 48 miles from the City of Santa Barbara. Inland from our emerald green coastal plain, as you cross the local Santa Ynez Mountain ridge at San Marcos Pass, you almost immediately discover the five federal wilderness zones embedded in vast Los Padres National Forest.

These five enchanting “primitive” areas without roads or gasoline engines comprise about 500,000 acres: The San Rafael, Dick Smith, Chumash, Sespe, and Matilija wildernesses form wonderful resources for restful contemplation, immersion in native beauty, separation from urban cares, and, not least, simply a great place to snatch two nights of blissful sleep.

When you have a day job but are committed to hiking in the backcountry, as I am, then sometimes you manage to contrive a two-and-a-half-day weekend to carry out a three-day backpack but learn that your friends are busy in town, so … it’s another easy solo backpack up the beckoning Manzana. Along this creek-side route, the springtime wildflowers display their many-hued bloom — the prickly phlox, purple lupine, Chinese houses, Indian paintbrush, as well as fragrant blue ceanothus.

After two hours skipping along the still-flowing creek with my 27-pound backpack, I’m nearing Ray’s Camp when a human voice emanates from the sunken campsite. Plodding by on the magically green trail, I nod to four middle-aged Anglo men with their erected tents — obviously in for the weekend with stove and food piled on the new table — constructed there in 2013 by Jeff Bastanchury of Buellton Scout Troop 42. The late April heat really picked up after 10 a.m., and I struggled and slowly trudged the next, more steeply ascending one-mile trek east and up into the narrowing canyon to Manzana Camp.

Entering this windy canyon makes the copious water feel more prominent and its melodious tunes more audibly dominant. Chalk lettuce (Dudleya pulverulenta) decorates the canyon walls, and bay trees are everywhere. Manzana Creek at the camp gushes freely and roars along carelessly, filling the beautiful pools with clean, sacred water. Quickly throwing up my 1.9-pound tent, I brewed Earl Grey tea and enjoyed my vistas from a seat at the rickety wooden table next to the ancient iron fire ring.

Manzana Creek Pools
Dan McCaslin

While this backpacker’s lower back and rickety knees still allow five- or even 10-mile days, they require a wooden table at which to sit in order to rest at the overnight spot. Along the Manzana’s 10 official USFS campsites — from Bigcone Spruce to Manzana Schoolhouse — most now have wooden tables. I’d wanted to camp at Ray’s, but Manzana Camp also boasts gushing water, and it’s located higher in the fantastic canyon.

After an hour at the Manzana Camp table, two loquacious older men hiked through, coming down from the east from Manzana Narrows and from Happy Hunting Ground on the Hurricane Deck formation. We chatted for an hour, and from Vince and Dave I gathered all the trail information I had planned to get on the following day’s “day hike.” They also told me there were already three groups up at Manzana Narrows Camp, so I wouldn’t be able to do my second night there. The three of us noted the excessive amounts of horse dung scattered all over upper Manzana Camp.

On my second day at Manzana Camp, the so-called layover day, I easily gave up the crazed proposition to make the 13-mile solo day hike up onto the eastern Hurricane Deck to Happy Hunting Ground and White Ledge (Santa Barbara) camps. The crucial data, of course, is about water levels. In late April, I was betting White Ledge would be dry, just as I’d found Fish Creek dry.

Figueroa Mountain
Dan McCaslin

Veteran backpackers, these gnarly men said there is water at Happy Hunting Ground and even a pool in which to submerge. They also found enough water at White Ledge Camp. Our conversation at the Manzana Camp table covered everything under the sun, and we wondered why some people keep coming back here (or another wild place) year after year. We’re outside the cell-phone zone, beyond the thunderdome of screens and organized sports, and aeons past the last gas station back in Los Olivos.

Discomfort is ever a backpacker’s plaintive lament and peculiar pride. On this venture, the body was sore enough after an “easy” six-mile backpack that I chose to take the second day off in the near-wilderness, despite the lack of an easy chair, food from a fridge, guitar, and iPod. Merely kicking back beside the churning watercourse was dandy, doing a few easy yoga asanas to relieve tension on the lower back, reading a few poems by Alan Stephens, splashing in the creek, shooting photos, and savoring white-noise-free wildeor. Nearby was an exciting view back down the Manzana streambed featuring Figueroa Mountain in the distance.

There were very few noxious flying insects, for which I had extreme gratitude, and a light breeze kept the bright heat from becoming too much. I had a water filter and stopped at the creek and filtered H2O often. Pumping on the little pump isn’t easy, it’s hot, and it reminds that the comforts are indeed few out here. The Buddhist thinker Pema Chödrön writes, “If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run.”

West Hurricane Deck
Dan McCaslin

Local poet Alan Stephens in his 1970 poem “A Day in the Backcountry” wrote about his return to our coastal town and all the people (I think of my 68 students) and how stupefied one feels when back with the crowd:

On my return….

I distressed myself

Among them, come back down

As I was, unfit

For human converse,

Drunk with the dry, bright

Liquor of the day

(Alan Stephens, Selected Poems (Dowitcher Press, 2012), available at Chaucer’s Books)


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