I squeezed in this backpacking trek plus long day hike just before the expected onslaught of intense summer heat along lower Manzana Creek in the primitive San Rafael Wilderness (see 4-1-1).
With teaching colleague crazy Peter, on the first day we backpacked just three easy riparian miles along the snaking and still-verdant river banks. We observed aquatic garter snakes swimming, horned toads, frogs, arroyo toads (a threatened species) and abundant floral displays as we pushed through green and red poison oak.
Our excitement mounted since on this Sunday, June 23, three backpacking groups passed us on their return to their cars at Nira Camp. We had hoped to day hike the 6 miles to the historic Manzana Schoolhouse and the Sisquoc River on our second day, and from these returnees we realized that we were the only homo sapiens left along the flowing Manzana!
The meandering Manzana gushed merrily on that third day of summer, and it almost felt like a South American jungle given the best water in at least six years. When we arrived at Coldwater Camp after a very early start, it was just 9:30 a.m., and the plan was to mellow out the rest of the day, float in the nearby Manzana and recharge ourselves for a more demanding layover day.
The Boy Scouts and some of the larger horse groups favor Coldwater since it boasts a huge two-acre potrero and three camping sites with firepits. At the time of this writing, open fires were allowed inside the iron rings (see photo), and I had my fire permit from the online site (it takes 10 minutes, and print your own PDF copy to carry with you). We selected the much smaller site with the red table, right next to the creek from which we filtered all of our water. The low oak trees offered some shade.
After detecting the picturesque heart-shaped “balancing” boulder that commanded the eye whenever you looked upstream, I wondered if nature artist Andy Goldsworthy had been building aesthetic rock cairns here. Otherwise, Coldwater Camp sits solemn and tan, with an iconic huge valley oak dominating the middle of the fertile meadow.
The heat was rising on Monday, so we had begun hiking at 7:30 a.m. with the full knowledge that the return would be a challenging 11-mile day. As we walked with our small fanny packs and the rising sun behind our backs, cobwebs crossed the path in places, assuring me that we were indeed the first humans through. We saw deer and hawks, along with the languishing remnants of glorious spring wildflowers, including flowering chamise and Indian paintbrush.
This trek is also a continuation of a one-day hike to Dabney Cabin, which I described in December. Thus, when we reached Dabney Cabin on Monday, we simply sped by knowing we still had 2 miles to go.
Near the cabin, you temporarily leave the San Rafael Wilderness and cross some private property of the Davis and Cody parcels. Be sure to stay on the marked trail since what looks like Los Padres National Forest is actually private property. Most of the time we enjoyed views of Castle Crags looming above.
We finally came to a vision of symmetrical Wheat Peak and knew we were closing in. The Manzana Schoolhouse Campground, mainly for horse groups, has more than five sites, several tables and accompanying firepits.
At almost 120 years old, the sturdy Manzana Schoolhouse still stands today, and it’s worth a hot trek down the creek even in late June (see photo). The Davis family and others built a sawmill here around the turn of the century, and gray pine lumber was milled on the site to construct the sturdy schoolhouse, which still has a remnant of the archaic blackboard inside. The U.S. Forest Service displays the date of its construction to be 1895.
In an area without a church building, the Manzana Schoolhouse also served as a center for weddings, funerals and various community gatherings for the 100 or so settlers who lived up the Sisquoc and Manzana. Twenty-five students was the high for academic “summer” classes around 1900, but as an intense drought progressed, more and more settlers abandoned the Sisquoc and tried farming somewhere else.
By 1902, most settlers had left. There was only one student planning to attend, and the government shuttered Manzana Schoolhouse forever. In 1966, the Santa Barbara County Historic Landmarks Advisory Committee designated the schoolhouse as the second historic landmark in Santa Barbara County. It has been renovated a number of times (particularly in 1988).
Just as for ancient nomads, the cruel dictum to these settlers became “move or starve.” Obviously, the Chumash and Yokuts tribes knew the climate well enough to avoid permanent villages back in there, even though they might remain for a month or two in prime seasons such as middle-spring and late September.
After exploring the building, we wandered out into the vast “wash” west of the Manana Schoolhouse Campground, which forms a mighty confluence with the fabled Sisquoc River. This blending of Manzana and Sisquoc simultaneously marks the end of the Hurricane Deck, the beginning of the Santa Maria River and serves as another entry point into the relatively new Condor Trail that was established in 2014.
The 411-mile Condor Trail begins in Piru and snakes north up into Monterey County, ending at Botcher’s Gap Campground. The 2015 edition of Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Backcountry Wilderness Trail Guide helpfully indicates sections of this new through-trail. Over the years, I’ve managed to hike a scenic 35-mile segment of the Condor Trail up the Sisquoc from Manzana Schoolhouse, then past Mormon, Sycamore, South Fork, Heath and Bear camps — certainly one of the trail’s more stunning and wild sections.
Returning from the schoolhouse meant an additional three hours trudging back up the Manzana, getting our boots wet from scores of swollen creek crossings, enduring 80-degree heat and finally stumbling into Coldwater Camp after a seven-hour, 11-mile excursion. I was exhausted but even more exhilarated, and Peter’s iPhone showed we had hiked 13 miles. The extra miles came from wandering around, seeking out the Sisquoc and just rambling.
On the third, we made the easy 3-mile backpacking return to Nira and our parked vehicle. Bugs were an issue at all times, but the plentiful water somehow made for a joyous excursion.
» Directions: Take Highway 101 north to Highway 154 and proceed past Lake Cachuma to Armour Ranch Road. After one mile on Armour, take Happy Canyon Road to the very end. 47 miles.
» Books: Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Backcountry Wilderness Trail Guide (2015) is available at Chaucer’s Bookstore.
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Eternal Backcountry Return, has been published by Sisquoc River Press and is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the 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 additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.