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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 10:52 pm | Partly Cloudy 57º


Dan McCaslin: Manzana Creek to Double Meadow Camp

A moderate 9.5-mile roundtrip hike leads to the backcountry gem, enjoyable even in the heat of summer

Lower Manzana Creek pool. Click to view larger
Lower Manzana Creek pool. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Most of my recommended San Rafael Wilderness backcountry treks lead east upstream along magnificent Manzana Creek, but this mellow dayhike downstream to well-used Double Meadow Camp has its own spectacular allure.

We hiked on July 2, and given the increasing summer heat, an early start seemed crucial.

Hence, Crazy Peter and I were driving on Highway 101 at 5:15 a.m. and began walking our 9.5-mile trek before 7 a.m. (see 4.1.1 for directions and books). Along Happy Canyon Road on our drive we saw several deer, and we caught a glimpse of a young coyote inside a barbed-wire horse pasture.

We knew the Manzana’s flow would be nonexistent in places, but our hopes to see some trickling water were rewarded along stretches at Potrero Canyon Camp and Coldwater Camp. There are a few places to easily filter water, thus overnight backpacking is still barely possible.

The drought persists, and most of the wildflowers I reported on recently have gone to seed and their colorful blooms lost in the wind.

A coyote along Happy Canyon Road.
A coyote along Happy Canyon Road. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The 1.7-mile trail to Potrero Canyon Camp is the same one we passed through to begin the West Hurricane Deck hike in March. This portion of the trail stays high above the watercourse that is quite visible below.

If you look back east, you can see the backside of 6,800-foot San Rafael Peak, which gives its name to this entire remote, 240,000-acre protected wilderness.

After fording the flowing Manzana easily at Potrero Camp (no one there), we hiked down and “in” the deep riparian cleft crossing and recrossing the usually dry stone “wash.”

Dry Lower Manzana Creek.
Dry Lower Manzana Creek. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Long pants and long-sleeved shirts seem vital given the lush poison oak, dense willows and general clambering involved while hiking in the creekbed. I also needed my twin hiking poles, wide-brim hat, sturdy boots, and daypack containing water and lunch.

Though the creek is indeed a bare trickle in places, entirely dry in others, it’s nonetheless a riparian Eden compared to the brown, chaparral-clad slopes boiling above us.

The hard chaparral on high differs markedly from these soft chaparral plants we move through down “in” the creek’s mossy corridor. The hard chaparral includes scrub oak, thorny Manzanita and brushy chamise; the soft chaparral consists of rampant coastal sage (white and black sage, buckwheat, golden yarrow and others).

An iron sign to Coldwater Camp is posted in the dry meadow.
An iron sign to Coldwater Camp is posted in the dry meadow. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The sweet sage fragrance is overpowering in sections as we brush by.

Coldwater Camp once was much closer to Potrero Canyon Camp, but the massive floods and debris flows from the historic 1969 deluge back here led to moving this campsite to the current location in a big meadow (two tables and two sites). The Pratt family had an historic homestead near this spot.

Trudging past the big potrero at Coldwater, we moved on in the cool of early morning through a number of small meadows, some featuring wind-twisted tree “sculptures.”

A sculpted tree in the meadow near Coldwater Camp.
A sculpted tree in the meadow near Coldwater Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s first formulation of his famous categorical imperative asserts that one must "act only on that maxim which you can only at the same time will to be a universal human law” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals). This is very close to a positive reformulation of the "Golden Rule" that states we should "treat others the way we would wish to be treated."

When Kant wrote this in 1785, he couldn’t have known it would become a bulwark of western liberal thinking and the core of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

For example, as a rational human I have the free will and “autonomy” to leave some trash behind at Coldwater Camp; no one will know, and the sticky plastic will be messy in my daypack after lunch.

But my categorical imperative is that I should do this only if others should do it as well. I do exercise my free will by taking out my own refuse since I think it’s a universal principle to do so. (By the way, I always take out my trash! This is just an example of Kantian ethical thinking.)

Castle Crags above Double Meadow Camp.
Castle Crags above Double Meadow Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

In short, the end can never justify the means — as many of us studied in Philosophy 101 in college.

If an Environmental Protection Agency administrator believes in the “end” of overwhelming fossil fuel independence for the United States, it doesn't follow for me that the “means” of drilling in our nearby Carizzo Plain is justified in any way.

About 1.3 miles past Coldwater, continuing on the same lower Manzana Trail, we entered Double Meadow Camp, which has an outer camp with a table, and another site set right next to the streambed. Unfortunately, the huge pool usually present here also was stone dry.

Double Meadow (aka Horseshoe Bend Camp) has a shovel and an iron fire ring, and also sits at the base of the spectacular “Castle Crags” formation (also: Castle Rock). On July 3, the fire level was raised by the U.S. Forest Service, but we had no fire plans and simply settled for a break and quick lunch.

We ran into the only other human we saw on this trail, my old friend and volunteer wilderness ranger Paul Conshaw, usually known as the “Bee Man.” He graduated from my Crane Country Day School in 1968, and he was out there trekking solo in the rising heat of early summer.

We were all surprised to see another human. Paul was the first all day for us.

Peter asked him directly, “What the hell are you doing out here solo, Paul?”

Paul was checking on information that some cows had wandered down into the Sisquoc watercourse, and he also simply was out there to cruise around like the other incredibly hardy wilderness rangers I’ve been lucky enough to encounter.

He was on the 49-mile “southern wilderness loop” backpack, from Nira to Nira, choosing the clock-wise direction. While I have made this semi-epic backpack five times myself, it’s always been counter-clockwise (very important!), and in the company of hiking buddies.

“How much does your pack weigh?” Peter asked.

“18 pounds,” was Paul’s laconic reply.

I was amazed because I felt I had really cut my weight by getting the load down to 28 to 30 pounds, but 18 was astonishing.

That was hardtack backpacking without any of the usual accoutrements, or really anything extra at all! Self-reliance and sturdy appreciation of the challenge would see Paul through, but I stepped back in admiration. He didn’t even have a stove and would have to eat cold the whole three days.

The moderate hike to Double Meadow Camp via Coldwater Camp is ideal for children, or for those unaccustomed to our dry backcountry. With its Valhalla of stone seats apparently designed for giants, and useful fire ring, Double Meadow is a backcountry gem.

After winter rains, the swimming hole there right beneath Castle Crags enchants young and old, and historic Dabney Cabin is only another 2.5 miles farther along the creek.

[Note: Check fire conditions and weather forecasts before hiking out into the San Rafael Wilderness by clicking here.]


» Drive up Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma. Turn right on Armour Ranch Road, just past the concrete Santa Ynez River bridge. After about a mile, turn right again on signed Happy Canyon Road and drive to the end (Nira Camp). Park on the high bench above the Manzana Creek, about a quarter-mile west of Nira Camp itself (47 miles one way).

» Kant, Immanuel [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd edition, 1993), Hackett. See also Paul Crichton, Self-Realization and Inner Necessity (2013), Kiener Press, pages 285 to 288.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Double Meadow Camp’s Valhalla of giant stone seats. Click to view larger
Double Meadow Camp’s Valhalla of giant stone seats. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

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