The surging Upper Manzana Creek rushes noisily through the chaparral landscape you see in the lead photograph — a few giant sycamores stand forth against the flood, but much of the former trail has been wiped out in these January-March rainstorms (4.1.1. LPFA).
Without the hard work of the U.S. Forest Service on the roads and the Los Padres Forest Association volunteer trail crews, none of us ordinary citizen users would be able to reach even the trailheads, much less begin hiking along human footpaths.
The second photograph reveals an area I enjoyed bushwhacking through during a recent mid-May hike, and shows that in mid-January the gushing Manzana surged at least 8 feet above those stones. In January, it would be near-certain death to try fording the Manzana when you’re trudging in this protected federal wilderness zone of more than 200,000 acres. In wet winters, sometimes the weak Manzana morphs into a river, not the intermittent stream or creek we usually enjoy.
My colleague Shaman Ryan and I arrived at Nira Trailhead at 6:45 a.m., and in the next photo you can observe him in a blue jacket as he assesses how to cross the Manzana without suffering wet boots and feet.
Although I’ve been backpacking and hiking here since the 1970s, I’ve been unable to return for several months because of those intense winter rainstorms (road closure) noted above. The LPFA is the only organization working these backcountry trails, and I became full of gratitude for their selfless volunteer efforts as we strode along the Upper Manzana Creek Trail (30W13).
Through these columns, I was able to press the USFS and critique its rather slow response to the many polite requests from the public and stakeholders to open up the roads sooner. As the roads opened, the dedicated LPFA teams could go back into the Nira Camp area to clear trail in all directions (4.1.1.).
The USFS has carefully covered itself and the public for liability as folks like me pour into the luscious and extraordinary Santa Barbara backcountry. The new special sign at the start of the Manzana Creek Trail makes this explicit: “Enter At Your Own Risk.”
Walking deep into the San Rafael or Sespe Wilderness has always been at my own risk! I’ve had eye injuries, wrenched my back, wandered way off trail, and experienced intense migraines while pushing forward out there “on the trail.”
Certainly parts of the recently cleared Upper Manzana Trail were quite easy as I trudged along in heavy boots, with twin poles, a wide-brim hat, long sleeves, hiking gloves and toting ample water. Where straight sections of the creek are present, as you notice in the fifth photo, the water is much more placid and forms shallow green pools ideal for splashing around.
Yet other sections had been almost impossible for LPFA to repair completely despite heroic efforts. In the photo, you can detect that the former trail had angled right, but it has literally slid away entirely — so I went left around the new pools “down&in” the stony wash of white river-boulders. Nothing more fun than bushwhacking!
As an 11-year-old boy in the city of San Fernando (Los Angeles), I would play in the huge wash at the end of Maclay Boulevard. We never went into this stony streambed in the wet seasons, of course, but summertime rambles in that wretched waste of boulders gave us great joy. My friends and I were delighted to spot various lizards, millipedes, strange plants and weird rock formations.
The great “wash” of boulders in the Manzana had moved around after our January-to-March heavy rainfall, but they became even more interesting and complicated this May: I remembered the wide wash of my childhood precisely while struggling “down&in” the Manzana this year (San Rafael Wilderness). There is no trail, but you know which side of the streambed to hug and that you will eventually need to clamber back up to a remnant of the old trail.
On this three-mile Upper Manzana slog to Fish Creek Camp, the refurbished trail occasionally rose up several hundred feet higher than the creek. From one of these vantage points, we could admire the sinuous meanderings of the ever-changing Manzana’s serpentine course. Parts of the Manzana dry up almost every summer, proving it’s truly an intermittent stream.
I’m sure that this summer our bounteous Manzana will flow free throughout the dry months and deep into September, or at least in the wetter parts of the bends of this watercourse.
One astonishing mile of glorious spring hiking led us to Lost Valley Camp. The two sites with tables have remained unchanged, and the overhanging gray pine and robust oaks provide cover from the rising sun.
Decades ago, I overnighted here at one of these fire rings with my 3-year-old son while the melodious Manzana warbled about 20 feet away. Back then, deer ambled through the camp, and the cries of various birds kept grabbing my son’s attention; it seems his audio sense was more compelling than his visual sense even then.
Fish Creek Camp sits another two miles farther on the Manzana Trail beneath an awesome oak giant. Nearby is a second site with its own table and a fire pit.
Fish qualifies as raw dirt camping with almost no amenities: You get a table, a legal fire ring, free water to filter, and thousands of acres of near-wilderness surrounding you. It’s a major job trekking the three miles to Fish, and I’d estimate there are two places where you do have to bushwhack a bit, stumble around in the “wash” and get re-acquainted with your stone age self.
The USFS is correct that “Conditions Have Changed” on this trail! The LPFA has brought the path back to life, but for a few years it will remain sketchy in places. I strongly urge readers planning to hike here to go with a veteran hiker, be ready to get wet, and realize cellphones most likely will not work. How different this is compared to glamping, car camping or boondocking (dispersed area camping). Be prepared for anything.
I am grateful to the Los Padres Forest Association for the challenging trail work that its civic-minded volunteers have accomplished after savage rainfall — these wilderness trails are there for the general public and remain free today. The backcountry beckons — grab the kids and rush to hike along these paths! All hikers should appreciate the self-less service proffered by the hardworking LPFA folks, who come out in all conditions to restore these local backcountry trails. No other organized group performs this important function in our backcountry (volunteers are welcome at LPFA, see 4.1.1.).
The best map for Lost Valley and Fish camps is Brian Conant, “San Rafael Wilderness Trailguide and Map” (2015 edition).
Some details of LPFA trail work in 2023 (my partial backcountry list):
Jan. 9-10: Massive storms mean the forest thrives with all the water, while roads and trails erode or fail completely. (See comments on the “Upper Manzana Creek Trail” above.)
Feb 1. and after: The USFS cleared the road to Nira Camp — huge work.
Feb. 3-4: LPFA right in there surveying from Nira out to remote campsites in the San Rafael Wilderness as far as Horseshoe Bend and Lost Valley Trail. LPFA with 30 volunteers cleared the trail to Potrero Canyon Camp (Lower Manzana Creek Trail: 30W13).
Feb. 5-28: More volunteer LPFA surveys in the backcountry, extending up Lost Valley Trail and to the more remote Sisquoc River eventually (a favorite area for backpacking).
Early March: After more storms add snow, there are more slides for USFS and LPFA to deal with; meanwhile, in Late March, LPFA spends a couple days clearing downed trees from the Sunset Valley Road, the key access to Nira and the Manzana Creek trails.
By Late March: The USFS finally pushes the road to Nira open again.
April 5-9: LPFA hosted a “working vacation” in the backcountry clearing more of the Upper Manzana Creek Trail beyond Fish and as far as Ray’s Camp (ca. 5.5 miles). On the Lower Manzana Creek Trail, LPFA volunteer crews work the trail down to Cold Water Camp and beyond. During April, a few smaller follow-up projects to clear trees and more slough from the trails continued as volunteers became available.
Correction: In the last column, I erred in identifying that “Naples Train Station” photograph as from 1901. What you do see in my photo is the modern railroad track with a miniature replica train station from a misguided 1980s development effort. Thank you, Tom Modugno.