Early March is not the most ideal time for a San Rafael Wilderness backpacking hike along upper Manzana Creek, but after our recent deluge, my pseudonymous colleague Manfred and I simply had to charge out to Nira Camp, the well-known “gateway to the San Rafael.”
We utilized the four-wheel-drive mode on his aging truck, and it was helpful in the mud on the three-mile dirt section of Happy Canyon Road, but we did notice some fine new cars were also able to get to Nira (see 4-1-1 for driving directions).
Given the intense February rainfall, we knew enough to remain flexible about our hiking goals and even concerning where we would overnight (we had no reports about how high the surging Manzana was).
The loose plan was to check out water levels, backpack past Lost Valley and Fish Creek camps, and spend two nights either at Manzana Narrows (7 miles) or trusty Manzana Camp (6 miles from Nira).
The pièce de sístance would be the middle “layover” day hike sans backpacks, hopefully the 4 miles to Happy Hunting Ground Camp (thus an 8-mile day). We’d make the return backpack trip on day three (March 10).
Assuming numerous creek crossings, and much deeper than usual, I brought heavy gaiters to keep some of the water out of my boots. This allowed necessary hiking shorts, since we knew inland heat would intensify while we were out in this rugged backcountry. My pack weighed in at 32 pounds — far too heavy — and Manfred hefted a horrendous 37 pounds.
We figured the deepest crossing of the Manzana was right at Nira Camp itself, so we wore old tennis shoes for the inevitable plunge — above the knees in the middle of the channel and very rocky — then immediately changed into regular boots and left the wet footgear behind a bush (retrieved two days later).
Raging floodwaters had scoured the magnificent and ever-meandering Manzana, rerouting its channel in many sections, doubling and piling up new banks of small boulders. The torrent flattened many plants unlucky enough to be out in the great “wash,” and not all of the sycamores and willows survived.
If you study the upper half of the second photo, you will detect many downed trees in the channel hurled against surviving trees along the new riverbank. The landscape there includes other channels out of view. You also don’t hear the constant roaring cries of the receding floodwaters — we heard this changing river-melody all day and all night for the entire three days.
Urban nasal passages won’t enjoy the early blooming white ceanothus’ constant sweet fragrance filling the air throughout our walking tour. Chumash-speakers termed the white ceanothus, a type of hard chaparral, as sekh, and the later-blooming but more useful blue ceanothus as washiko. I had observed lots of the blue ceanothus already blooming in earlier March on our own upper Rattlesnake Canyon and Tunnel Trails in Santa Barbara, but not along the Manzana.
Trail conditions and preservation of the often-muddy trail were on our minds as we toiled a bit around puddles and occasional washouts. In general, our U.S. Forest Service performs a great job in the heroic task of keeping Manzana Trail open, usually with the help of volunteer groups such as Los Padres Forest Association and other groups.
Manfred and I had noticed an eight-horse trailer back at Nira, and we endured a couple of unhappy miles going around and through ugly “post-holing” gouges disfiguring the soft, muddy trail. Much of the mud is adobe-type clay, and it hardens like adobe bricks — not to smooth out until the next heavy rainfall.
After trudging for four hours, laboriously and happily fording the wide creek several times (one very difficult crossing just above Ray’s Camp required jumping with pack), we arrived at picturesque Manzana Camp.
In one photo you can see Manfred crossing the creek with his orange backpack and using his twin poles very carefully. It is enjoyable to do this, but the water is deeper than it appears in this moderate ford.
I’ve described Manzana Camp before (see map there) — it’s a captivating winter camp that gets far too much summer and early fall sun to enjoy in those periods. Our collective exhaustion made it easy for us to choose an overnight here rather than the more enchanting Manzana Narrows Camp, another mile ascending up the gnarly and narrowing gorge.
The bay trees are in full bloom here, early California poppies amaze your orbs with rich deep-golden hues, but it is still too early for most of the flora to bloom. We sighted the gorgeous succulent called “chalk liveforever” (Dudleya pulverulenta), and often located in crazy locations high up canyon walls.
After a sweet night’s sleep to the mnemonic melodies from the singing stream, we departed about 8:30 a.m. Thursday for that longer day hike — the best and most adventurous part of our brief trip.
Though I quite enjoy the actual backpacking hours trudging the path, the layover day treks without the onerous 30-plus-pound pack shift one into the dreamtime, and possibly toward the Chumash “Upper World” (‘alapay or mishupasup) where they believed the First People dwelled.
There are six very challenging fords on this one-mile section, and we applauded ourselves for having chosen not to do it the previous day tired — and with loaded backpacks. Once we arrived at the Narrows, we were surprised to find it empty despite four inviting campsites and three sturdy tables. Deep pools and 10-foot waterfalls make the Narrows quite a favorite camping site.
We watered up and quickly marched on, and soon after began a steep climb away from the Manzana (after the iron “Bigcone Spruce” trail sign) and climbing onto the eastern Hurricane Deck’s looming escarpment.
In earlier days I’ve roamed around up on these cliffs with my adolescent students, and with my son. However, we kept on and then hiked through the even narrower gorge, the so-called ‘Notch, where I took the lead photograph of Manfred facing the backside of our coastal mountains over the pool reflecting sky-blue. He was chanting some lines in German from the Romantic poet Novalis, something like, “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”
This photograph mimics German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s famous 1818 canvas “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog,” where we admittedly don’t have the fog, but we do see jagged mountains in the distance, and the human figure flaunts his own back to the viewer (revolutionary in 1818).
The trail gets steeper and steeper until you reach a ridge, and then you drop down precipitously another two miles to Happy Hunting Ground Camp. Manfred and I were bummed by the extensive damage the Los Padres Outfitters’ horses (and mules?) had wrought on the trail — some of the hoof-holes were more than three inches deep and potential ankle-busters.
In the late 1980s, I discovered a pictographic site out somewhere on that vast Hurricane Deck escarpment with its hundreds of rock shelters, and I attempt to revisit the Red Shaman painting at least once a year. I choose to call it the Red Shaman, but most others label it The Magician.
As a rational, overeducated, progressive “western” teacher, one chuckles at the idea of worship or “naming” the red sketch, but annually making my own harsh backcountry hajj there is indeed a form of worship. In stopping by for more than 30 years, perhaps there’s now a link with the forgotten artist who drew the Red Shaman. Naturally, I would never give away the location, and readers should expect some misdirection herein.
When Manfred and I visited the site — it has an iron U.S. Forest Service sign-in box (USFS calls it “White Ledge” there) — we were saddened to see the fresh and ugly postholes in front of the rock shelter, and outraged to find a recently used stone fire pit inside the cave about 25 feet from the Red Shaman. There was no visible smoke damage to the rock art, I’m happy to relate.
We hauled away the big stones (leaving the blackened sides face down), and raked off all the burnt bits, then covered them with nearby regular sand. We did this is to avoid suggesting to anyone that it might be OK to have fires anywhere inside the rock shelter (and near the sacred rock art)!
The day became very hot, so Manfred and I turned it around before reaching Happy Hunting Ground Camp, and after seven hours of hiking made it back to our camp on the Manzana again.
On the third day we rose up from wild Manzana Camp, buckled on the lightened backpacks and hiked the six miles back to the old truck at Nira Camp. This made about 20 miles in three days, 12 of them with packs.
All the time we enjoyed the crashing water music, the lilac fragrance of mountain snow (white ceanothus) and the influence of the Red Shaman. All the Manzana Creek crossings should be fairly easy by now as the water levels continue to drop dramatically.
This three-day trek works for strong kids older than age 9.
» Distance: 6 miles to Manzana Camp; day hike can be 4 to 8 or more; 6 miles back to Nira on Day Three
» Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive the 47 miles to Nira (end of the road) on this route — from Highway 101, take Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma and turn right on Armour Ranch Road at the concrete Santa Ynez River bridge; after about a mile, turn right again on Happy Canyon Road and drive to the very end (about three miles of this is dirt road). Begin backpacking east, against the Manzana’s swift flow.
» Map: Bryan Conant’s indispensable San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide