A Lost Valley hillside with rustic buckwheat.
A Lost Valley hillside with rustic buckwheat. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Once upon an era, I planned backpacking treks and even day hikes with excruciating precision and plenty of handwritten lists.

I would give great emphasis to the gear, maps, safety, topography, flora, fauna, geology and local history concerning both Indigenous and European conquerors.

Now, having hiked this backcountry and studied history and archaeology for more than 50 years, I see that this outdoor obsession has altered as I’ve aged.

Choosing to walk along the spectacular Upper Manzana Creek Trail (29W14) on the sublime September equinox seemed a natural decision to make and direction to take.

The wonderfully picturesque and remote Lost Valley Trail then connects Manzana Creek with an even more isolated trail atop the mysterious Hurricane Deck formation, which the hiker always sees looming ahead. The Hurricane Deck Trail (30W14) branches off a grueling six miles to the north and eventually leads into White Ledge Camp.

Lost Valley.
Lost Valley with the Hurricane Deck above. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

There are many stories about the “secrets of Lost Valley” and the gloomy ‘Deck — it’s also a conduit to the fabled Sisquoc River Valley — all within the San Rafael Wilderness.

Neither my former teaching colleague Ryan nor I had any pre-conceived notions about reaching a specific U.S. Forest Service trail campsite of any name, certainly not Twin Oaks Camp, which is too far.

No, just quietly roaming about idly in quest of cosmic wonders hidden along the creek … determining whether intermittent Lost Valley Creek still flows, and seeking animal signs … bird life (I have birding binoculars) … colorful flowers (flora) … unusual creeping insects … horned toads …condors … .

We can build wisdom by long-term roaming and concentrating on each step right in front of us. This one-pointed focus can engender meditation, silence, creativity and an internal rhythm that relaxes the mind and stirs the soul.

We come to realize that the mind itself is a type of landscape, and hiking also can be termed a form of travel.

Call these hikes — walkabouts as the Aussies say, post-dinner strolls like Goethe and Schiller made, Virginia Woolf’s peregrinations, straight hiking up Rattlesnake Canyon Trail or wherever nature still holds on near your domicile.

When one peruses Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” it can boost the individual’s ignition: The body rises from the couch or car and enters nature and the wild.  Just GO OUT THERE … and thinking usually subsides to a controllable level where Spirit can resume some influence. Solnit understands that mental/spiritual creativity flourishes best when the mind unshackles itself from the daily cares of home/family/job/duties (dharma).

She writes:

… thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented
culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it
as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.

We knew that if we wanted to reach the top of the ‘Deck it would be a demanding seven-mile day (one way!). Thus began the first discipline of the unruly mind: Wake up at 3:30 a.m. and ingest a hearty breakfast; drive the 47 miles up the Chumash Highway (154) starting at 5 a.m. to Nira Camp; commence hiking at about 6:45 a.m. when the sunrise first flowers in pink and gold.

We crossed the Manzana just below the Nira Trailhead and noted that the creek’s flow had fallen dramatically since we were there in May.

Manzana Creek at Nira camp.
A measly Manzana Creek at Nira Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The first interesting mile is along the creek, and we chose the “low route” because it’s more fun but also trickier (if you choose the “higher” route it climbs up then comes right down).

When Ryan and I strode into Lost Valley Camp, we cried out, “What an ideal campsite!” A family had a tent there, and at 7:30 a.m. we heard the laughter of children along with the gentle flow of the receding creek nearby as we kept away and bade farewell to riparian splendors.

Lost Valley Camp has two tables and two separate firepits, with sparkling water still flowing there on the fine fall equinox.

The signed Lost Valley Trail begins here by branching off and angling north inland on its own singular meandering path almost entirely out in the open. We ascended strongly and agreed it was important that we had started so early, thus the under-48-degree temperatures were helpful against later heat.

From higher positions on the partially overgrown path, we could look down steeply into deep Lost Valley, where it appeared that the stream had completely dried up; the white stones were blinding after the intense winter rains scoured the green growth away.

A nearly dry Lost Valley Creek.
A nearly dry Lost Valley Creek. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The trail widens dramatically in several places, despite the overgrowth, and this “bench” attests to those early 20th-century plans to build a road bisecting the forest from Nira over to the Sierra Madre Range (north of Hurricane Deck).

The road would have gone west on the Hurricane Deck, run through Big Bend Canyon and then crossed the “wild and scenic” Sisquoc River. Activists led by Robert Easton and others managed to block that untenable development plan, and we today are the beneficiaries.

We carried on about two miles and finally struck a small potrero with an iron sign indicating “Trail” to the right. From there we had to leave the wrecked path in places and clamber down into the streambed.

There were few wildflowers left in such a dry environment, but we noticed some spectacular red penstemon along with the ubiquitous sage.

Blooming red penstemon.
Blooming red penstemon. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

A great find came with the abundant holly-leafed cherry plants ready for the plucking.  Prunus ilicifola or ‘akhtayukhash (Ynezeño Chumash) was called islay in Spanish and is the most common form of wild cherry plant in coastal California.

Holly leaf cherries.
Holly leaf cherries. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

I ate a few and noted that the stone is huge and the amount of sweet flesh quite limited. Ethnobotanist Jan Timbrook tells us that the Indigenous peoples had special woven “network bags” made from hemp for collecting these fruits (and they would need a lot of them); in fact, the large stone was the most useful part for the Chumash (Timbrook, 4.1.1.).

To my knowledge, there weren’t any Indigenous villages on the Hurricane Deck for the obvious reason that there are no perennial water sources up there, and Lost Valley Creek almost always dries up before July.

We were able to locate some flow higher up, but it was muddy and ebbing, so we figured it wouldn’t last through the winter.

Crossing the channel of Lost Valley Creek.
Crossing the channel of Lost Valley Creek. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

High places are sacred in too many cultures to make an exhaustive list here, but I think of Mount Zion (Moriah) in Jerusalem, Mount Olympus in Greece (home of the gods), Mount Iwihinmu (aka Mount Pinos near Frazier Park), Mount Tabor, the Concow’s “West Mountain” (aka Lassen Peak), Mount Parnassos (Delphi) … and I have made pilgrimages to all of these and many more.

On this hike, we chose not to make the final push to the holy Hurricane Deck’s rounded apex, but even approaching the sacred ground lends power to the walking and sanctity to the thinking.

Solnit remarks that walking …

ideally[,] is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world
are aligned … as though they were three notes making a chord.

On this fateful equinox, we did not make it to Twin Oaks Camp, but in our roaming and wanderlust we may have found ourselves and realized an inner unity — much needed in these troubled times.  


Driving: 47 miles from Santa Barbara to Nira Trailhead on the Manzana. From Highway 101 go up the Chumash Highway (154) to Armour Ranch Road at the Santa Ynez River concrete bridge (right), drive to the end at the Nira Trailhead: the San Rafael Wilderness begins here. R. Solnit, “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” (2000); J. Timbrook, “Chumash Ethnobotany” (2007), pp. 151-154; B. Conant, “San Rafael Wilderness Trail Guide and Map” (available at Chaucer’s Books).

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 cazmania3@gmail.com. The opinions expressed are his own.