With a very early start like my colleague and I made on Nov. 1, the enterprising hiker can begin this exciting jaunt from Davy Brown Camp in Los Padres National Forest by 7 a.m., summit at Figueroa Mountain Road by 9, enjoy a brief repast there with outrageous views over the gleaming Santa Ynez Valley, return to Davy Brown by 11:30, and then get home to Santa Barbara by 1 p.m.!
There will therefore be enough time to plug back into our electronic frenzies, take the kids to their soccer games, and appreciate one’s urban life in contrast to four and a half hours in raw nature.
In his celebrated 2015 book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, biologist Carl Safina contends that “modernity” and all our electronics have rendered us humans much less able to imagine animals having emotions and thoughts like our own.
And MIT Professor Sherry Turkle references studies that show an alarming 40-percent loss of “empathy” among young Americans, especially since 1990.
These two points of view intersect in our appreciation and admiration for nature (and wild critters) and in our capacity to imagine saving, savoring, and preserving our diminishing wild regions.
The beautiful Davy Brown Trail from the lower end of the eponymous camp leads into enchanting Fir Canyon and Fir Canyon Creek.
While you can begin this hike from the top at Figueroa Mountain Road where a leaning iron sign marks the spot a ways past Figueroa Mountain Campground, the drive there from Los Olivos is much longer, and I always prefer the first half of a hike to be the hardest.
Thus, teaching colleague Chris Caretto and I chose the shorter drive in and to begin the steeply ascending path from Davy Brown Camp to the “top.”
On the drive in, after vast vineyards, we saw three mule deer darting across the road.
We also noted the remnants of a 40-car “rave” and Halloween Party at the former “Cachuma Camp” (a cool setting for a party?), and we could see young people cleaning up the area as we sped past at 6:30 a.m.
There was no one camping at Davy Brown Camp on this Saturday, and I presumed this was because no water would be flowing in usually-reliable Davy Brown Creek. I had checked the water level in July and been amazed that the creek was dry: the first time ever in my experience dating back to 1973.
However, this time due to recent very light rain the water flow was – amazingly – back at Davy Brown!
This augured well for finding potable water up in Fir Canyon.
The Fir Canyon hike is especially child-friendly because the first third ascends very gently, and includes oaks, gray pine, and fragrant bay trees along with hard and soft chaparral.
We immediately detected water flowing in Fir Canyon Creek, and the copious and melodious qualities were pleasant surprises indeed.
Yes, we’re in a devastating drought’s fifth year, yet some of our water sources are still holding up and providing critical water for the deer, bear, mountain lion, coyote, and other smaller critters in the area.
Crazy people keep moving the U.S. Forest Service trail signs around back here, perhaps because in the recent past (2010) marijuana growers have used some the side canyons as grow spots.
At any rate, do not take the trail side taking off east (right) since it leads underneath Figueroa Mountain itself and eventually to the Catway Road (no water).
Stay with gurgling Fir Canyon Creek, at times you range high above it on the “left” but you can still hear it as you gaze upon wonderful rock jumbles.
You can clamber around in this and other rock garden playgrounds with your children and friends looking for pictographs, although I’ve searched long and hard and found nothing.
The strenuous second half of the ascent demands careful, one-pointed focus and is very steep in places. At one spot you encounter a Forest Service monument, with a photograph embedded on a boulder, dedicated to Forest Ranger Edgar B. Davison who built this Davy Brown Trail in 1898-99; and actually lived at this spot in a tiny slate–roofed cabin.
Davison must have gotten to know old Davy Brown himself — Brown died in 1898 in Guadalupe, and there are many legends and stories about him.
A recluse, he had a mysterious past and supposedly ran slaves from Africa to Cuba, rode with Kit Carson, and supplied meat to the Gold Rush ‘49ers. He had a cabin just below the site of Davy Brown Camp (naturally), where he lived with his friend, “Boy,” from 1879 until 1895 (into his 90s).
Above the boulder with Davison’s picture the ascent steepens even more, the trail is crumbly and slippery, and the orange-colored talus walls catch your interest.
I needed my twin hiking poles for the descent on this eroded section.
When we hike in semi-silence along deserted and picturesque trails like this one up Fir Canyon – we never encountered anyone the whole Saturday morning – we give ourselves precious “slow time” to reflect quietly, and mindfully observe the fascinating natural world all around.
We can indeed grow our empathy for animals and plants in nature, and perhaps transfer this critical human understanding to others less fortunate than ourselves.
4-1-1 Fir Canyon Hike on Davy Brown Trail
Distance: 5.6 mile roundtrip dayhike with 1200 foot elevation gain to the road; suitable for children 7 and up
Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, take Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma, turn right at Armour Ranch Rd. and shortly right again on Happy Canyon Road to the entrance of signed Davy Brown Camp (47 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.