The stunning Hurricane Deck formation manifests itself as a formidable 15-mile “bar” of marine sandstone (sedimentary) rock bifurcating the San Rafael Wilderness, about 50 miles from Santa Barbara. Like many Indigenous seekers, my hiking comrades and I often look into our souls and realize we must return to this specific holy location to recharge spirit and rejuvenate the brain’s right hemisphere.
The austere and waterless ‘Deck dates to the Miocene Age and contains remote tracks, awe-inspiring vistas, fascinating flora and significant cultural resources. Like other sacred mountains around the world, here one can find a few hidden springs and extremely sketchy footpaths.
I have often compared Hurricane Deck with the Australian aborigines’ hallowed site Uluru, another holy sandstone monument regarded with awe and reverence, and also a place for secret rituals and intriguing rock art (Uluru was once known as Ayers Rock). Despite being 250 miles from the nearest town, Uluru Indigenous peoples have now banned recreation groups and casual hikers from climbing up, whereas my friends and I saw only two other people on our trek up to the base of West Hurricane Deck (California) at the end of November.
My two colleagues and I began walking in the cold at 8 a.m. from the trailhead at the new concrete bridge, walking downstream along the utterly dry Manzana Creek. The fall sycamores and other deciduous trees presented vivid russet-brown colors and deep greens against monotone brown hillsides covered with acres of dormant chaparral.
After almost two miles of easy hiking, with more raucous yellows vivid in the blasted streambed below, we dropped into empty Potrero Canyon Camp and had a quick snack before taking on the tough ascent to Negus Meadow.
We clambered up nearly 1,700 feet over two miles of relentless ascent from Potrero Canyon with looming West Hurricane Deck ever in our upturned and eager faces. From the dessicated Manzana at Potrero Canyon to Negus Meadow, you climb almost 1,700 feet in 3 miles of relentless ascent.
Along the way we experienced wonderful views back to the inland side of Figueroa Mountain, and also the named formation called Castle Crags. Years ago, I managed to climb up most of the ‘Crags, but do not recommend it.
We knew we were treading on sacred ground, and it was an experience not unlike the many days I’ve spent at Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi in Greece or what Aborigines may be seeking during their ceremonies on Uluru. At the same time, this seven-mile round trip required every bit of my energy as I contended with the usual debilities of age (75) and minor injuries.
For this trek, the hiker must bring ample water (I had three liters), experienced companions (I had two), a daypack with food and medical gear, a hat and the good Bryan Conant map. After time in Germany, a bout with COVID-19 and other physical impedimenta, it becomes obvious that unlike many activities, long dayhiking/backpacking becomes more difficult, even with experience and knowledge.
I’ve made this trek — often adding the extra mile to the very top of the gleaming purple ‘Deck — at least 20 times, and this special edition was the most difficult. One friend had his charged iPhone along and found there were no bars and thus no cell reception on or near Hurricane Deck.
Hikers know when they are in Negus Meadow since two of these so-called sentient boulders mark the lip before you drop down into the drought-stricken meadow. (“Negus Meadow” is marked clearly on Conant’s 2015 “San Rafael Wilderness Map,” 4.1.1.). You see the dried-out version of late November in one photo, and I add the green photo from another hike there in early May 2020).
During the entire six-hour adventure, we encountered only one other group of humans. A younger woman and her older partner met us at Potrero Canyon Camp as we returned. They were engaging and told me they weren’t going much farther. I warned them of the total lack of water since it was clear they had no water, no supplies, no headgear, no daypacks … hark, hark, think about the dangers of adjacentcy.
While I’ve taken younger students on this endeavor, it is less rewarding for children than some of the other jaunts I suggest in these columns. A hiker died on the edge of the ‘Deck in 2008, and it can become a truly scary place unless you take the serious precautions I’ve suggested above. There’s no cellphone service. I would undertake this hike in summer or any high heat period. Remember, there’s no water on the ‘Deck.
»Trailhead: Drive the 47 miles to the spot at the new concrete bridge just shy of Nira Camp [Highway 154 to Armour Ranch Road to Happy Canyon Road and drive to the end]. Bryan Conant, “San Rafael Wilderness Trail Guide and Map” (2015).
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.