Fish Creek Camp sits pleasant and green beside Manzana Creek about three miles east of Nira Camp, gateway to the San Rafael Wilderness. Day hikers and backpackers leave their vehicles at Nira, where the road literally ends in several ways.
The N.I.R.A.’s Public Works Administration (not to be confused with the more famous Works Progress Administration of 1935) funded trail work and camp construction back here, including Nira Camp itself.
With ample parking and many tables and fire pits, pitched next to the Manzana, Nira was built in 1937 as the original “Manzana Camp” until the U.S. Forest Service moved the name six miles upstream.
A very early morning solo hike to Fish Creek via Lost Valley Camp is along the Manzana Trail going to Manzana and Manzana Narrows Camps about seven miles into this pristine federal wilderness.
Our path generally parallels the drought-stricken and totally dry Manzana Creek.
After an easy mile ambling east, when encountering the trail Y just before enchanting Lost Valley Camp, stay closer to the rocky creekbed and take the right path, which also appears to be the main one. In another 200 yards, you are in Lost Valley Camp, with its two tables and two iron rings (no open fires at all!).
Lost Valley is an ideal location for a very young child’s first backpack/campout. My son enjoyed it when he was 3 years old.
I wandered up the left part of the Y junction, and this Lost Valley Trail makes a steep ascent up past Vulture Spring and finally to the apex of the menacing eastern Hurricane Deck (a 9.6-mile tough ascent to the water-less Hurricane Deck Trail; shown on Conant’s map).
After walking a bit, and because Vulture Spring is more than six miles one-way, I came back down to Lost Valley Camp and returned to the Manzana Trail. Today’s Fish Creek jaunt is meant to be a half-day excursion, and one that younger kids can enjoy on a mild and cool early November day.
Approaching Fish Creek Camp on a steep hillside, one looks back toward Nira and above the orange sycamores and single standing gray pine giant and notes Figueroa Mountain and its conifer-strewn ridge forming the skyline. We aren’t really so far from Figueroa Mountain or Los Olivos, but it feels wonderfully separate and clean out here in the federal wilderness region.
During this entire six-hour hike there and back again, I never encountered another human.
Because I began hiking hard from Nira before 7 a.m., I got to Fish in just under two hours (discounting time on the Lost Valley Trail foray). You cross the wide, dry wash of boulders and sand and lizards called Manzana “Creek” one last time before you enter the Fish (or Fish Creek) Camp, and in doing so you see the small mudflows from a squall in the area last year and a late October small shower (Figueroa Mountain received more than an inch of precipitation).
Fish Creek is a small camp with two sites and one towering oak giant over the spacious main site, nearest the actual Fish Creek.
Fish Creek itself in lengthy Fish Creek Canyon is fun to explore with children or friends, and it runs in quite a way. It’s also dry because of our severe drought, although I’ve read that several decades back Fish Creek had a large trout population.
Because of huge floods in 1969, the original Fish Creek Camp site near here somewhere was relocated beneath the mammoth oak. Overnight campers will appreciate the clean and recently redone actual throne toilet near the site, with its wooden palisade giving additional privacy, as if it would be needed back here.
I spent a half-hour munching a nutritious midmorning snack of dried almonds, iron-heavy raisins and plenty of my water. The other table was very helpful, too, and I sat there and took notes in my field notebook while chewing.
You can barely make out the daypack and two water bottles at the shaded end of the table. The small fringe of deep green winter grass was striking given the arid landscape, hammered-dry creekbed and desolation of midautumn in the Santa Barbara backcountry: north of Los Angeles, east of Santa Barbara, west of Bakersfield and on the edge of the aptly named Cuyama Badlands.
This six-hour half-day hike from Nira to Fish Creek is ideal for healthy children older than age 2 or 3. If a parent wanted, he or she could take eight liters of water and backpack to spectacular Lost Valley Camp and have a first-time overnight in the wilderness there. What fun, and what a crucial experience!
I am grateful to those PWA guys who built these trails and trail camps in the 1930s, as well as to the recent folks who worked on the Lost Valley Trail and improved it.
» Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive the 46 miles to Nira (end of the road); from Highway 101 North, take Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma and turn right on Armour Ranch Road at the concrete Santa Ynez River bridge; after about a mile, turn right again on Happy Canyon Road and drive to the very end (about three miles of this is dirt road).
» 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.