Name of hike: 24-mile moderate backpack to White Ledge Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness (in the Los Padres National Forest)
Mileage: 12 miles up Manzana Creek and over eastern Hurricane Deck to White Ledge Camp (shorten this by staying at shady Manzana Narrows Camp)
Suggested time: 5 days/4 nights depending on your constraints; bring light backpack with food, safety gear, maps, and usually a reliable friend; on this occasion, June 2011, I deliberately chose to go alone (have made this trip many times)
Map: Bryan Conant, San Rafael Wilderness Map Guide (2009 ed.)
During this 24-mile round-trip backpack to lovely White Ledge Camp, you encounter two basic ecologies. You walk almost seven miles of riparian woodland along the Manzana river trail to Manzana Narrows camp, yet the stream is surrounded on all sides by towering brown desert foothills leading up to 6,600-foot San Rafael Mountain to the south and the Hurricane Deck formation to the north and east. The verdant creekside lands feature glorious sycamores and mighty oaks, and are redolent with masses of late spring’s colorful wildflowers.
After leaving Manzana Narrows you enter the high desert with yucca, manzanita (mostly Arctostaphylos glauca), scrub oak, and the many sages studded across stark, dry hillsides. The Chumash ground up the dried bigberry manzanita fruit as a meal for gruel (or pinole), as well as for making a refreshing drink. On this hike I also observed a plethora of lizards and snakes, ants and centipedes, butterflies and horned toads.
In her great nature book Land of Little Rain (1903), Mary Austin describes this sort of territory: “Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian’s is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.” After hiking solo along the creek, when you finally begin to ascend onto the hillsides and into the June heat of this southland, you realize you have entered another universe, and the villainous yuccas may stick you whilst you watch carefully for snakes.
Over my 40 years of backpacking both locally and in the eastern Sierra Nevada, most of my hiking comrades have succumbed to illness, age, or injury, and several can simply no longer accept the cruel discomforts of the backpacking life. This particular White Ledge column is about a 63-year old man’s deliberate choice, during five days last summer, to take on more discomfort. It was an effort to reduce the dense weave of his accumulating comforts by a few degrees. One way to reduce your civilized “needs” and wants is to go backpacking; and fetching even fewer things along for this five-day easy backpack intensifies the comparison with urban life.
When British economist Robert Skidelsky writes about what constitutes “the good life,” he lists seven essential human “Goods.” These include “Harmony with Nature” (see box). I agree that a balance between nature and “civilization” is absolutely critical in order to enjoy the good life — and why? We evolved in nature. In his 2012 book How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, Skidelsky writes that our “alienation from nature is just one of the unpriced costs of consumer choice.”
According to Skidelsky, we urbanized wealthy Westerners have forgotten that crucial distinction between “needs and wants” because we seldom debate the terms of “the good life.” What is all this production for? Seeing how little one can live on is an interior goal for this adventure, and going it alone is perfect for the exercise. How simple. I’m only responsible for myself on this little five-day jaunt: How many things/comforts are truly necessary to lug to White Ledge?
The exterior goal is to overnight at lonely White Ledge Camp itself, and then dayhike down to the fabled Sisquoc River. The amiable ambling eastward along Manzana Creek takes you to picturesque Lost Valley Camp after just one pleasant mile, then you continue two miles to much less beautiful Fish Camp. “Fish” has a good wooden table, a big fire pit, and an outdoor toilet. Since it’s overused, I try to avoid utilizing this campsite; it’s pretty filthy.
In another three miles, the trail starts to ascend toward the eastern Hurricane Deck, and you reach a rustic campsite called Manzana Camp. The deep pools here invite a plunge, so I plunged in immediately and the salubrious dip relieved the 80-degree heat of early summer. This site is a favorite with children.
After an overnight at Manzana Camp, using the pristine water from the unpolluted creek, my sore legs let me know we could only go on up another mile to Manzana Narrows Camp. With summer heat scorching the burnt brown hillsides, the deep cleft of Narrows Camp, dark and protected, boasts four tables and four firepits, as well as a six-foot-deep swimming hole.
Considering the mosquitoes and deer flies here in summer, my mesh netting is better than any tent, and I really do need it in order to sleep. Since it’s a short 45-minute backpack from Manzana Camp to the Narrows, there was a vast space of time spent at the Narrows musing in the “Bug-hut” (the commercial name for the mesh netting). Probably because of the abundance of flying insects at the Narrows, all the weekend campers had fled, maybe back to Nira or someplace up on the Hurricane Deck.
After the ridiculously easy second day, with ample time for reflection in “mesh heaven” while chuckling at the frantic blood-sucking insects clustered outside my universe, I began heading east toward the Hurricane Deck: five dry miles to White Ledge, following my assumption that White Ledge Creek would be flowing. We had had 27 inches of rain that winter, so this was a safe bet to wager.
Just where the ascent really begins we see one of those reassuring old iron trail signs indicating that the Sisquoc River is “8 miles” away, and Happy Hunting Ground Camp is “4 miles” up the Deck. Hiking by 6 a.m., I’m lugging three liters of water, glad of my Spartan gear since the water alone weighs over six pounds.
Backpacking through Happy Hunting Ground Camp, I can see how terrible the recent fires have been: The gigantic oak that fell to the ground in 1975 has been completely incinerated, and this is a hollow shell of the formerly lush campsite.
Moving right along, I notice the fascinating sandstone caves in this area, a bit like those closer to the Narrows.
Bear and cubs
There are also wild bears, like the mother and her two cubs that my friend Chris Caretto photographed a day after I’d left. After a few hours backpacking across a stony, arid landscape, watching out for rattlesnakes, White Ledge Camp appears. (In an earlier column we learned there is another, much more difficult 13-mile trek to White Ledge over Lost Valley Trail and via Vulture Spring.)
I put down my gear and plunge straight into the gushing creek. The white sandstone formations are glorious, and the 90° bend in the creek makes for fabulous bathing pools. In desert landscapes, pure flowing water is rare and triply sacred – even the sound of gushing water excites continuous audio amazement. No machine noises here. After the dip and some lunch, I evade the biting insects and retire to the Bug-hut. I spent a pleasant hour in my unique mesh heaven, feeling rather like Hans Castorp in his antiseptic sanatorium on the magic mountain.
However, I had laid up for five hours back there at the Narrows yesterday, and it was still early, so after some snoozing, one of those heedless urges sprang into my restless mind: The Sisquoc River is only about three miles from here: I could still reach the mighty Sisquoc today…
After checking myself, really examining my physical condition, it seemed very doable since the legs aren’t too bad and the right knee felt fine. It seemed rash to add another six miles to today’s five miles of backpacking, setting out mid-afternoon in the heat, but one could tote minor survival gear and water, not the full backpack.
There was no one there to talk me out of this hubris, thus I quickly emptied the backpack and then repacked it very lightly with essential gear. Since the combined outer/inner goal is to reduce my wants, I felt pleased to go over those items not brought along: No cell phone, laptop, dog, tent, firearm, water filter, iPod, temperature gauge, or GPS. My “luxuries” were the tiny digital camera, Whisper-lite stove and fuel bottle, and a Martin trail guitar (2.7 pounds). None of these luxury items went on down to the Sisquoc that afternoon – which remained fairly hot due to incessant solar glare.
It was June 21, the longest day of the year, and I managed to make the downhill 2.8 miles to the Sisquoc easily, and eagerly plunge in for another dip in a genuine river. The Sisquoc is rightly a sacred watercourse, like the Ganges or Coleridge’s Alph. It’s a wild and scenic river with its own native trout population in the heart of the San Rafael Wilderness. There was absolutely no one there, and a most enjoyable hour passed swimming in the stream as the sun slowly dropped in the west. Returning uphill to White Ledge Camp was a chore, but I knew my gear was already set up and that it would be easy to eat a foil supper and just fall into the Bug-hut.
White Ledge Creek was running full and free, but it is classed as an intermittent stream and will fade as summer comes on. There was a monstrous moon at White Ledge Camp that night, its beams delineating the soft sandstone ledges in this bend of the river. Sweet gurgling water sounds of the dying stream somehow amplified the light. Lethean light, blended with an alluring soundscape. This is my third night out, and the impact of the beauty, the solitude, and the cool evening breeze creates a symphony of meaning. Laid out under the patch of mesh, I can hear tiny critters moving in the dead leaves. It turns out that I don’t need very much; in fact I lack for nothing here.
Skidelsky likes to quote the late Roman poet Ausonius’s epigram, “Who is rich? He who desires nothing. Who is poor? The miser.” And Skidelsky writes, “All ancient Greek philosophers shared Aristotle’s insistence on limiting wants to needs.” Practicing limitation of your wants, and sticking to what you truly need, is indeed humbling, and this writer worked on it for only five days.
On the fourth day I returned the five miles to Manzana Narrows Camp again, made an overnight, contended with the biting deer flies, then backpacked the 6.7 miles to my truck at Nira, and drove home.
This backpack would be terrific for sturdy children, but you need to be sure the winter rains were above 20 inches or so (16” is the average) or you cannot count on finding water at White Ledge Camp. As the iron trail sign shows, it’s about 8 miles from the Narrows to South Fork on the Sisquoc River, which would be your next water if White Ledge Camp is dry.
The Basic “Goods” Essential for the Good Life
(from Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life.)
5. Harmony with Nature
P.S. For those who read my last column, “39-mile Backpack Over Mission Ride: Hubris, Mindfulness, and Learning from Mistakes,” in which I made a wrong turn: On July 17 I made a 15-mile roundtrip trek to the 160-degree hairpin turn in the Santa Cruz Trail that I had missed. I attached more pink tags lower down in a few places, and hacked away at the overgrown vegetation that almost completely obscured this turnoff. My hope is that future backpackers coming up the 40-Mile Wall from Santa Cruz Camp will find the turnoff easier to locate.