Thursday, May 24 , 2018, 6:00 pm | Overcast 63º


Dan McCaslin: Basking in the Rustic Splendor of Upper Sisquoc River Camps

Heath and Mansfield in the San Rafael Wilderness are well off the beaten path, but they are well worth the trek getting there


On a “spooky” Friday the 13th this October, I found myself enjoying the rustic splendor of Heath Camp next to the fabled Sisquoc River’s gentle autumnal flow in the San Rafael Wilderness. The wild and scenic Sisquoc is rightly considered sacrosanct, flowing as it does copiously westward in a fiercely arid landscape.

I hadn’t been out here for 15 years, here close to the much-feared Cuyama Badlands, a region where very few plants can survive in a climate with less than 9 inches of rainfall per year. The San Rafael Wilderness has three “main” watercourses: Santa Cruz Creek, Manzana Creek and the more remote Sisquoc River.

Many of us regard the rugged Sisquoc River, just 33 miles long (98 percent is in the San Rafael Wilderness), as the Holy Grail of Southern California’s few “wild” rivers. Only Southern Californians would deem the Sisquoc a “river” — in October, it was a small and pleasant stream.

Its headwaters lie above 5,500 feet near Bear Camp, and from these crags the upper Sisquoc flows over various falls and deep pools until becoming the “lower Sisquoc” below Sycamore Camp and ending up at 1,200 feet where it conjoins Manzana Creek. Voila! The Santa Maria River is born here, and flows about 24 miles to the ocean, undammed, and debouching into the ocean near Guadaloupe.

The rocky Sisquoc corridor sustains many wide, stone-strewn “wash” areas and remains relatively natural, surrounded as it is by the 240,000-acre San Rafael Wilderness, which itself is embedded in the vast southern Los Padres National Forest.

Next to the San Rafael is the Dick Smith Wilderness, adding another 65,000 acres of strictly protected natural lands — these are mostly dry, chaparral shrublands and some riparian woodland (as at Heath and Mansfield), with small conifer pockets atop some of the small, transverse mountain ranges.

Most of my backpacking trips into the San Rafael begin out of Nira Camp, but it’s more than 20 miles of arduous backpacking to reach Heath Camp, and 18 miles to get to Mansfield Camp on the Sisquoc.

During a recent service project for the U.S. Forest Service, my Crane Country Day School colleague Chris Caretto, three other stewards and I managed to get dropped off by truck at Oak Spring Camp, about five miles from Heath Camp.

First we had driven the 120 miles past Ojai to the Cuyama Valley and up Santa Barbara Canyon Road to the gate near Cox Flat. (Study 4.1.1. driving directions carefully!)

While we encountered exactly one car on all of Santa Barbara Canyon Road, two intrepid cyclists appeared, and we could see them heading past the gate onto the Big Pine-Buckhorn Road en route to Sierra Madre Ridge Road, Painted Rock and eventually McPherson Peak and Bates Canyon Road.

An iron sign marks the end of Judell Canyon Trial at the rustic Heath Camp.
An iron sign marks the end of Judell Canyon Trial at the rustic Heath Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

I admired their audacity since they would have to cycle at least 23 more steep miles before getting to a place where another vehicle might be waiting (e.g., 5,750-foot McPherson Peak).

I wasn’t part of the Santa Barbara Outfitters group shown with horse trailer and mules in one of the photos, but the table you see there is just above where steep Judell Canyon begins. (There is a sign-in register on a pedestal there.)

Judell Canyon Trail drops sharply 1,600 feet over 4.8 miles down into the narrow Sisquoc River corridor, and ends at rustic Heath Camp (pitched near the iron seen in the photo).

Judell begins as a narrow arroyo, widens in places, and the trail is sketchy in spots — and earns only the “poor” rating with Conant’s yellow highlight on his 2009 map. There were several large mudflows that had inundated sections of the path, but they weren’t difficult to clamber over.

I wondered how the Outfitters’ mules and stock would handle it. They were on a separate mission to assist an environmental group in removing the non-native invasive tamarisk brush in the Sisquoc Corridor.

After the three-hour trudge down the canyon, I set up my 2-pound, three-season tent at the campsite, lunched on cheese and bread, then sauntered sans backpack the 1.2 easy miles down to Cottonwood Camp, also on the Sisquoc.

This double site — one on each side of the creek — also was empty, and has always been known as a fishing camp because of the wide pools right at the site. Some campers recently had used the northside camp and left ugly toilet paper and human excreta around.

Less than a quarter-mile past Cottonwood — named for the ubiquitous California cottonwood trees (populus fremontii) lining the creek and mixed with sycamores and oaks — the south-side trail had been obliterated by a tremendous debris blowout from Rattlesnake Canyon and Rattlesnake Falls. (It’s a tough scramble to get to the fabulous pool there.)

Colleague Caretto went on another 1.3 easy miles to Mansfield Camp; at this point you are merely 4.6 miles from South Fork and the handy line cabin there.

After my own almost 8 miles of backpacking and day hiking, upon my solo return to Heath Camp from Cottonwood, I got into the tent for an afternoon siesta in my mesh heaven for the hot afternoon. There were clouds of irksome black flies outside, but happily no biting flies or ticks!

Dozing in the midafternoon, listening to the water music from the Sisquoc’s soft murmurings, contemplating the cosmic condition … these hours are worth 50 hours “relaxing” in town.

Heath Camp is similar to the settings at Cottonwood and Manfield: low oaks, sycamores and cottonwoods shade a large firepit area; two iron grills and large logs comfortable for sitting create a camp center.

While I had obtained my California wildfire permit online, and knew that the Level III fire conditions permitted fires within the grate, we made the choice to avoid any fires given how dry it was, and that the overnight temperatures never fell below 36 degrees Fahrenheit.

High winds along the California coast, the terrible wildfires in Napa and Sonoma — though far away, these conditions tempered our wish for a comfy campfire.

Heath Camp’s eponymous founder, Jim Heath, lived a highly interesting life. He was another one of these crusty backcountry characters like Davy Brown or Joaquin Murietta, and he worked in the area around 1900 as a rancher, hunter and expert horseman.

We are told by Burtness (4.1.1) that Jim Heath tamed bears and mountain lions (!) for exhibitions in Maricopa, and he hunted here with President Theodore Roosevelt while the latter was in office (1901-08).

This flat ground and shady potrero by the cooling stream was one of Heath’s favorite hunting camps and backcountry hangouts. Even today more campers with stock come here than walking backpackers.

Looming above these upper Sisquoc campsites are dry hills sloping down to the creek. All along the creek we found masses of native holly-leaved cherry (prunus ilicifolia), also called islay in Spanish and 'akhtayukhash in Samala/Barbareño Chumash (according to Jan Timbrook's reliable Chumash Ethnobotany).

She also informs us the Chumash were able to keep the sweet "balls of islay" for at least a week after preparation, and they ate them as sweet treats with roasted squirrel, gopher or other meats.

A large, intact and protected ecosystem like the San Rafael Wilderness keeps this upper Sisquoc area well off the beaten track, and as noted, we never saw other humans on the Sisquoc during our three days down there.

Along these upper and center sections of the Sisquoc, campers are far from outside help and communication (cell phones don’t work). I now comprehend why Jim Heath, Judell Samon and Teddy Roosevelt loved this campsite and remote area.


» Driving directions to Cox Flat and Big Pine Forest Service gate up Santa Barbara Canyon in Cuyama, 115 miles from Santa Barbara. Four-wheel-drive is strongly recommended. Take Highway 101 south to Ventura, and then take Highway 33 past Ojai, past Rose Valley, and over and down into the Cuyama, passing the shuttered Ozena Fire Station. At Foothill Road, turn left. After two miles and crossing the dry Cuyama River riverbed, turn left again at signed Santa Barbara Canyon Road. Drive to the end and locate the locked Forest Service gate close to Cox Flat (marked on Conant’s 2009 map). Park here. It is a 4.1-mile dirt road hike to Oak Spring Camp and 4.8 miles down to Heath Camp on the Sisquoc River.

» I used Bryan Conant’s 2009 San Rafael Wilderness Trail Guide Map Guide and Bob Burtness’ A Camper’s Guide to the Tri-County Area, fourth edition, 1981 (see “Heath,” “Mansfield” and “Cottonwood” entries).

— 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 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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