The alluring 2.8-mile creekside amble to Coldwater Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness makes an ideal hiking introduction to the Santa Barbara backcountry for young children.
I brought my son to Coldwater Camp when he was 3 years old, and he retains vivid memories of creek crossings, fragrant conifers, and plentiful lizards and small insects scuttling about.
The description below includes an extension to the “Horsehoe Bend” free camp, with its cool “Druids’ Circle” comprising seven stone chairs, making an 8-mile round trip if so desired.
After the 90 minute/48 mile drive to a dirt parking site just above the bone-dry Manzana Creek, very close to Nira Camp, hikers check their gear, confirm they have sufficient water, and begin walking west above the stony creek-bed.
Northward loom the exciting low mountains called Hurricane Deck, and in 1.3 easy miles we reach green Potrero Camp. While the deep creek remains completely dry, the light rains of a few weeks back have stimulated the dark green “winter grass” to spring up.
Continue along after crossing the Manzana, sticking very close to the creek, and avoid the signed uphill “Potrero Canyon Trail” heading toward the top of the dramatic Hurricane Deck formation.
Crossing and recrossing the stream bed, we see signs of a brief spate of onrushing water – a mini flash flood – among the river rocks.
At other moments, in almost Andy Goldsworthy-style, we saw interesting lines drawn in the swiftly-drying mud.
The lower Manzana Creek Trail is very easy to follow and not steep at all, thus my term “amble” at the beginning. While there is some reddened poison oak, generally it’s a very safe trail and great fun to roam along with young children.
Hiking in late November at 7 a.m., the temperature was low enough that there was no concern about rattlesnakes. We did startle some mule deer, which would be a big moment for kids.
The foliage includes valley oaks, bay trees, gray pine as well as big leaf maples. The water crossings are simple without any water to contend with, and the arroyo willows grow every which way.
Back at my truck I had seen a horsewoman take off eastward on our trail, and never observed her again the entire day, so she was on her own for at least six hours in the raw outback.
The only other humans I encountered was an inspiring group of four: two older men looking very competent and carrying light backpacks accompanied by two women under 20 whom I took to be their daughters.
They were pleasant, and said there was indeed some water available below Coldwater Camp, although they had pumped it for their one overnight. I admired these four, and the horsewoman.
When you enter the wide meadow (potrero) of Coldwater Camp, you understand why it’s a Boy Scouts favorite: there is enough flat space for 20 tents!
In the middle of the big potrero stands the dominant, giant oak with a sturdy wooden table and iron fire ring beneath. (No open fires allowed at this time.)
I remember when this meadow was jammed with a plethora of gray pine, which were mostly incinerated in 1993 by the man-made Marre Fire.
There is a second, much smaller camp with a cool red table on the hiker’s left when first entering the big potrero: this is a better spot for overnight camping if you are in a party under 4.
The Manzana was dry at Coldwater Camp, so I chose to hike another 1.2 easy miles to the Horseshoe Bend (or, Twin Meadow) free camp, a favorite of horse campers. There are two sites here, but no water in the deep pools right next to camp.
I did enjoy the weird aspect of the seven carefully established stone “chairs” around the campfire ring, making a sort of Druids’ Circle.
If the wild is a sort of refuge for the unconscious, the sudden presence of these very comfortable “chairs” miles from your vehicle, and laboriously constructed, summons thoughts of dwarves or Native American shamans.
Hauling your children along Manzana Creek’s verdant riparian corridor for 2.8 (or 4.0) miles offers extraordinary opportunities for silence and nature-joy.
When leading groups of students, I make sure to bring plentiful supplies of water and healthy snacks: nuts, cheese, rolls, Clif bars, raisins, apples, oranges, bananas, jerky.
The young have more sensitive “antennae” than we do, and my students invariably ask me how it is that the snacks and food always taste better in the backcountry than back in town.
The reduced effects of the polluting Anthropocene, clean and rhythmic exercise, the many enchanting vistas, the stimulating flora and fauna observed throughout the day, all conspire to enhance the sense of taste as well as the sense of wonder.
Upon the meandering return hike, as you near the small bluff where your vehicle awaits, you can peer deep into Manzana’s corridor and admire the autumn colors of the big trees. In this photograph you see the sycamores’ colorful orange and the deeper red-orange leaves of the big leaf maples.
4-1-1 Coldwater Camp Day Hike
Distance: 5.6 mile round-trip day hike suitable for children 4 and up (or 8 mile roundtrip if you continue to Horseshoe Bend free camp).
Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, take Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma, turn right at Armour Ranch Road and shortly right again on Happy Canyon Road past the entrance of signed Davy Brown U.S. Forest Service Camp and stop just short of Nira Camp entrance (48 miles one-way).
Map: Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.