Like many avid backcountry hikers before me, I became obsessed by the crazy Hurricane Deck formation the first time I backpacked near it.
When Frank Hudson, a graduate student in Germany and a friend, led me east along the upper Manzana Creek trail in 1973, we caught staggering glimpses of the towering 17-mile-long sandstone formation bisecting the San Rafael Wilderness.
Human beings have died “up on the Deck” over the millennia although there have never been villages up there. There was a fatality as recently as June 2008, and as always it was from getting lost and then running out of water.
The 15.5-mile Hurricane Deck Trail has no water along the entire stretch, and the sketchy trail often just disappears.
Therefore, with willing collaborators including Hudson, Chris Caretto and crazy Peter, I’ve often indulged my obsessive-compulsive disorder to revisit the horrendous California Hurricane Deck.
Yet while returning again and again to this desolate, deserted, gigantic, waterless and forbidding geological formation, I have managed to avoid most of the actual summit path — the Hurricane Deck Trail.
Every year, I tackle at least one of the three known trails leading up from Manzana Creek to the south-facing side of the Hurricane Deck and to the top, then turn back and return to the creekbed.
In early June, my trail compañeros and I attempted the “easiest” path that draws hikers up the well-used Potrero Canyon Trail (an arduous 9-mile roundtrip).
The other two trails leading up onto the Deck also begin at Nira Camp, or near it. The Lost Valley Trail heads past Twin Oaks Camp to middle Hurricane Deck; for more detail, click here for a recent column I wrote about Twin Oaks and the Deck.
The upper Manzana Trail ascends above Manzana Narrows Camp and at White Ledge Camp, you can start the Hurricane Deck Trail going west for 15.5 menacing miles until you reach Manzana Schoolhouse.
Since we’ve had a wonderfully wet winter, the Manzana and the Sisquoc are both currently flowing well, and this might last into July.
The U.S. Geological Survey has a topographic map called Hurricane Deck. The Deck itself swarms with lizards, horned toads, snakes, ants and vermin moving beneath the rocks. There’s even a local brew named after this near-mythic rock monument (Hurricane Deck IPA).
After hiking the 1.5 miles or so to Potrero Camp beginning at 7:30 a.m., we managed to ford surging Manzana Creek without getting our boots soaked. The enchanting creek gushed more water at this time period than any June in at least six years.
We then began the steady but steep ascent — almost 1,700 feet over the 3.2 miles — toward the Deck’s well-rounded summit. Fortunately, June 1 was a misty morning, and it remained cool and damp until about halfway up.
Along the path we saw riotous wildflowers, and back here they seem to have had more precipitation and appear “fresher” than some of those in Rattlesnake Canyon in Santa Barbara.
Blossoming chamise, Indian paintbrush and violet Farewell to Spring flowers (clarkia cylindrica) make the hike fragrant and colorful, while many others waved at us in the light breeze as we enjoyed the uphill trudge.
Insensibly, a few dozen yards began to separate me from my hiking partner, and we each appreciated an hour of complete silence in the ebullient outback, the only sounds a few piercing bird calls. While we vainly searched the skies for condors, we spied regal red-tailed hawks in all their glory, and other birds we couldn’t identify.
Out to the west (on our left), we began to pick out the pearly pointed summits of Castle Crags (aka Castle Rock) — whose silvery tips lunged up from the aforementioned misty and gray landscape. On an earlier hike to Dabney Cabin, I had managed to circumnavigate about 240 degrees around the base of Castle Crags.
While the western Deck’s 3,400-foot apex might not seem notably high, it dominates the entire area. It’s reasonable to describe the Hurricane Deck as a spectacular massif — a single extremely large mountain.
It’s a unique block of marine sandstone deposited in the Miocene Age (5 to 23 million years ago). As such, the serrated, wide 17-mile block effectively bars the Sisquoc River from its main tributary, Manzana Creek.
When the western Deck ends at U.S. Forest Service campsite Manzana Schoolhouse, it creates a confluence of the two streams, and thus we get the Santa Maria River.
When we arrived at the first ridge below the looming Deck, we could rest since we knew we would drop down the other side through a lovely, sloping potrero studded with valley oaks (quercus lobata).
Off to the west and north we spotted fascinating boulder formations, often in whiter sandstone (piedra blanca) similar to the Castle Crags formation, and we became distracted scrambling around in them and simply exploring. This is where tiny fanny packs, gloves and a long-sleeved shirt became necessary as we scrambled, and noxious ticks were abundant.
In one dusty rock shelter, my friend spotted a mostly obscured Native American rock art design, and we could barely make out the upper half of the sphere. Far too many of these sacred designs have been damaged by campfires, like this one, but some of the blazes are from ancient times themselves.
This stone age “human in a circle” reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 1492 sketch of “Vitruvian Man,” though it’s likely far older.
Hiking back, we caught sight of a scuttling horned toad in the trailside brush. A type of lizard, horned toads (phrynosoma) are cheerful little guys with their triceratops-like frontal horns and squat, waddling bodies. And they’re easy to catch.
Crucial Chumash informant Fernando Librado’s grandmother told him that all the animals are related (including humans), and that the horned toad is the wot (ruler) of all the beasts (see 4.1.1.).
As we came down, the sun pushed through and the temperature soared to 80 degrees, and we began sweating profusely despite the relatively easy downhill pace. We ran into several backpacking families once we reached the Manzana again.
This eight-hour experience has all sorts of weather: a cool, misty morning turning to a hot noontime, and then a thunderstorm hit us as we reached the car! There were all sorts of omens, geometric pictograph designs, imperial toads, and finally a light rain as I staggered into the truck.
This hike would be ideal for hardy children older than 8, but remember: Start early, and there's no water on the Deck!
» Thomas Blackburn, December’s Child; Librado quoted on page 102.
— 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.