Sunday, March 18 , 2018, 1:07 pm | Fair 57º


Hit the Trails, Nature Lovers — Courtesy of CCC

Backpackers and day-hikers can enjoy recent work by the California Conservation Corps

If you’re a backpacker or serious day-hike adventurer, now is the time to get out and enjoy the benefits of some good old-fashioned hard labor put into trail maintenance in the San Rafael Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.

The Santa Lucia Ranger District has had the California Conservation Corps backcountry trail crew Inyo stationed at Manzana Narrows Camp on the Manzana Creek trail 6 miles up out of Nira, back behind the Figueroa Mountain area. The Santa Barbara Ranger District has had two CCC trail crews working behind Little Pine Mountain. The San Luis crew has been tackling the wilderness portion of the Santa Cruz and Grapevine trails, while a Santa Maria trail crew has worked on the Santa Cruz trail portion that drops north down off Little Pine to the Santa Cruz Creek.

Regular wilderness trail maintenance had seen a slow death because of dwindling federal funds during the past 20 years. Relying on the odd grant here and there and a small collection of dedicated volunteers, trail work simply fell overwhelmingly behind. Throw in some destructive wet winter events and a major fire or two, and many miles of our backcountry trails just slid off into oblivion.

As it turns out, the Zaca Fire of 2007 (California’s second-largest wildfire), along with the latest economic downturn, has actually been a blessing in disguise. Even though the fire contributed the final blow to many trails, it did clear old-growth brush in most places, allowing much-needed money to start flowing in.

Enter the newest funding source — from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — and, finally, after many years of hoping and planning, our local forest was able to employ the able-bodied forces of the California Conservation Corps. Recovery money was made available via part of the federal government’s economic stimulus package, with the goal of creating jobs and putting people to work.

Work they have. The Inyo CCC backcountry trail crew has now fully cleared and installed sustainable trail features on the lower 2-mile section of the old Big Cone Spruce Trail, which splits off east by southeast up out of Manzana Narrows Camp, along the headwaters of the Manzana Creek. Along with last year’s work on the upper section of this trail from the Cachuma Saddle access side done by the Santa Maria CCCs, a nice loop has finally been reopened.

Now you can hike upstream out of Nira on the Manzana River trail, loop east on the Big Cone Spruce Trail up to Big Cone Spruce and connect up top to the old McKinley dirt road and back down to Cachuma Saddle, or go the opposite way. Take your pick — loops are nice alternative, especially without brush and rock slides to contend with. Total mileage is a bit more than 18 miles, assuming you left a car at both trailheads.

The Inyo crew is finishing up final work back out of Manzana Narrows where the route turns into the White Ledge trail heading up east/northeast to White Ledge Camp in the Sisquoc River direction. During this same time a Santa Maria CCC trail crew is also working on the lower section of the Lost Valley Trail. So along with previous work done on the trail right out of Nira last fall, these trail systems are in the best shape I’ve ever seen. And with the quality, sustainable trail work carried out by the CCCs, we can all look forward to those trails holding up much longer.

Meanwhile, back behind our immediate front country, the SB Ranger District has been working to restore the historic Santa Cruz Trail. This trail starts out of Upper Oso campground, goes up the face of Little Pine Mountain and drops back down into the Santa Cruz Creek drainage, where it eventually climbs up to Mission Pine Basin looking down into the Sisquoc River drainage. All 16 miles of it suffered terrible damage from slides and rains after the Zaca Fire, was worked on a bit only to suffer again from this year’s rainy season and resulting intense spring plant overgrowth.

There have been two CCC trail crews on this trail system. The San Luis crew has been working back near Coche camp in the wilderness and has cleared the trail from Santa Cruz camp almost up to Mission Pine Basin. They’re also pushing to get the whole 6.5-mile Grapevine trail opened up that splits off and heads east toward Bluff camp. At the same time, another CCC crew from Santa Maria has been working on the trail closer to Little Pine Mountain along the infamous “Forty Mile Wall” to clear overgrowth and rebuild tread along those steep and narrow drop-offs. Gone for now is wild mustard plants of more than 6 feet high, confusion where the trail led and a much wider, safer trail. Thank you!

It’s a backpackers delight. If you’re heading out into our backcountry, there are several good sources of information to consult on trail conditions. Remember that just because a trail is clear one day doesn’t mean it’s clear the next. Expect changes amid Mother Nature’s constant forces of wind, water, erosion and gravity. Any connecting trails or trails other than the ones specifically mentioned here are still not maintained at this point. What works for people to hike on doesn’t always work for stock (horses).

Besides calling the local Forest Service district office for trail info, unofficial but good current trail updates can be found on posts made on the Santa Barbara Hikes Web site. Lastly, don’t forget your latest copy of Bryan Conant’s updated San Rafael Wilderness map, available online direct or at most area sports stores.

It’s been a great spring with lots of wildflowers, flowing water, active reptiles, robust poison oak and still not a lot of ticks. Get out there while you can and enjoy it before it gets too hot!

— Photojournalist Lori Rafferty shows her appreciation for Santa Barbara by pursuing her love of water sports, the backcountry and all things in between. She is also a volunteer wilderness ranger with Los Padres National Forest.

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