More than 100 years ago, California sportsman Charles Dabney decided to build a fishing lodge on lower Manzana Creek, about two miles from the confluence of the Manzana and the wild and scenic Sisquoc River. This early western log cabin pitched in a scenic spot was perfect for trout fishing, which was undoubtedly far superior to the fishing there today (fishing is now illegal on the Manzana).
Dabney brought in carpenters along the Sulphur Springs Trail (now a road), and they utilized the abundant alder trees for the logs to construct the sturdy cabin.
Late fall is an ideal time for meandering down the rocky riparian corridor along Manzana Creek and reaching the cabin before the big winter rains. For the past several years, those prayed-for rains have not fallen, and most of the lower Manzana Creek wilderness is a dry tangle of small trees and occasional meadows (potreros). The boulder-strewn channel meanders west, festooned with dying arroyo willows and stubborn sycamores.
I’ve reported on summertime ventures here when the heat is another serious adversary. Bright yellows and burnt orange colors predominate.
Poet Gary Snyder writes about a California composed of oak, grass and pine, and hikers see all of these and more along the deserted Manzana, which is like a gorge in places:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
In late November, two school colleagues joined me in hiking past Coldwater Camp and Double Meadow (aka Horseshoe Bend Camp) to the impressive Dabney Cabin. This is the first structure we’ve seen in almost seven miles trekking downstream: remarkable in its singular solitude next to a gushing section of the mostly dry Manzana.
We wanted to continuously check out water levels to determine whether any backpack camping would be possible on the lower Manzana.
The seven-mile trail to Dabney winds along the stony creek, crossing and recrossing it more than 30 times. We were continuously thrilled by the intense autumnal colors decorating our way, including the dull red of dying poison oak. We saw occasional groups of California mule deer browsing and munching.
After hiking almost two miles from our car parked near Nira Camp, we dropped down into old friend Potrero Canyon Camp. After fording the deep and dry Manzana creekbed there, we encountered the old iron sign indicating the “Manzana Trail.” The mileage numbers are off on this 1930s-era sign, so it’s actually more like eight miles — not six — down to the Sisquoc River confluence at Manzana Schoolhouse.
At this trail junction, avoid taking the Potrero Canyon Trail stretching north up to the Hurricane Deck, but stay with the arid creek bearing west (“downstream”).
This path allows pleasant and generally quite easy walking. We each carried a good lunch and extra water (I had three liters).
The sere, brown landscape hides all sorts of life, and there were some flying black bugs that landed whenever you stopped hiking. The burnt orange of dying sycamore leaves stood out brilliantly against the ubiquitous oaks as we kept a vigilant lookout for available water.
We managed to find good water in just three locations: near Coldwater Camp, below Horseshoe Bend Camp and especially copious water right in front of Dabney Cabin itself.
A jagged small mountain, locally termed “Castle Crags,” was a beacon for us as we partially circumambulated this picturesque white peak during our long roundtrip.
Although almost every source I consulted stated “1914” as the origin date, the historic plaque on the cabin itself indicates this is “S.B. County Landmark No. 8,” and you can read the “1913” on it in my photo.
At any rate, while World War I raged in Europe, Dabney’s carpenters contructed the fishing and hunting lodge. Instead of using adobe mud for sealing between the alder logs, the carpenters used freshly mixed mortar. By 1930, the cabin was a semi-ruin, and Midland School took it over in 1932 and used it as part of its very active outdoor education program.
After passing through Horseshoe Bend Camp (aka Double Meadow), the trail leaves the San Rafael Wilderness and enters private landholdings. An old 1878 sign states you are now on private land in the area of the Davis property.
I do not know about the Davis family, but sculptor John Cody still maintains a private in-holding in the area, and we saw a few of his intriguing iron sculptures along the wandering trail, including one of a diving angel or woman.
The trees surrounded us on this mild hike: alders, various oaks, bays, tree-size manzanitas. Acorns were scattered everywhere. We also observed very cool late 19th-century iron farm implements scattered in long-abandoned fields and pastures. (Please stay on the trail to respect the landowners who allow this passage.)
We started our long but easy hike at 6:45 a.m. and needed three hours to arrive at Dabney Cabin. The cabin is locked, but we enjoyed the surroundings, savored a hearty but simple lunch, admired the copious water spurting along, and began to mull over extending ourselves to reach the fabled Manzana Schoolhouse.
But then our 14-mile day would become an 18-mile day. Caution being the better part of valor, it seemed a bit much to tackle, and we turned back toward Nira Camp.
We trudged back upstream, as it were, and it was more difficult since there is a slight uphill gradient. We reached the vehicles by 2 p.m., with a 90-minute drive back to Santa Barbara. (Scroll down to the 4-1-1 for driving directions.)
We encountered only two people on the trail all day: hardy backpackers at Coldwater Camp. These men would have to travel a few hundred yards to scoop water from the Manzana (filter the water), the nights are cold, and in this drought the U.S. Forest Service wisely decrees that no open fires are allowed at this time.
Bringing ample water is critical on a seven-hour dry hike, and we also toted food, rain gear, a medical kit and the excellent Bryan Conant San Rafael map. While it’s cooler in November and December, the essential reason it’s the best hiking time, before winter rains, is that the 30 creek crossings are relatively easy.
In another column, we will read about crossing the Manzana 35-plus times during a wet and wild winter of February 1993: repeatedly fording the deep and surging creek, the cold and wet boots, huddling beneath a huge oak in the 17-hour rain.
My recent November jaunt down the Manzana was pleasant and full of spectacular nature beauty and autumnal colors — yet 25 years ago, I experienced a two-day wet nightmare backpacking trip from Schoolhouse to Nira. Mother Nature giveth and then She taketh away.
» Drive 47 miles to Nira Camp behind the Santa Ynez Valley: Driving up Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma, turn right on Armour Ranch Road just after crossing over the concrete Santa Ynez River bridge. After about a mile, turn right again on signed Happy Canyon Road and drive to the end (= Nira Camp). Park about a quarter-mile west of Nira, right at the Manzana’s banks, and avoid the $10 parking fee that Parks Management Co. hits you with inside Nira Camp itself.
» Gary Snyder quote is from his Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (1969)
» Bryan Conant’s excellent map is the San Rafael Wilderness and Map Guide
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. 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.