End-of-spring backpacking trips into the Santa Barbara backcountry and federal wilderness zones are usually sketchy and fraught with water, heat, and glare issues.
My ambitious plan for a 45-mile trek into the entrancing 200,000 acre San Rafael Wilderness would be mostly dependent on locating potable water and staying “low” down by the shady creek during these longest days of the year.
Perhaps I would even make it the 22 miles to Fall Canyon Spring leading up from the Sisquoc River.
Maybe I’d ascend to 5,400 ft. Mission Pine Basin Camp, but perhaps I’d have to abort the mission partway and simply accept my best effort.
Nira Camp on enchanting Manzana Creek serves as the “gateway to the San Rafael,” and is in fact where civilization’s last road stops.
Once known as Manzana Camp, Nira is 46 driving miles from my Westside home. Constructed by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, Nira boasts parking for at least 50 cars, but when I pulled in on June 18, there was just one other vehicle in the giant site, and it was a bit eerie.
My first day’s solo backpack, bearing 36 pounds, would head upstream into the San Rafael for 6.1 miles to the actual Manzana Camp right on the eponymous creek, endowed with some large pools for relief and for water.
I thus packed east starting out at 6:30 a.m. and crossed moving water right away — Manzana Creek was very low but present! — and noted the official U.S. Forest Service sign.
I chose to hike in simply to savor the near-silence and the remnants of relative wildness in our shared Anthropocene Age.
Masses of yellow monkey flower lined long stretches of the pleasant footpath along with fragrant white sage.
I would also check water-levels, animal and plant life, and try to find the mysterious spring supposedly at Fall Canyon Camp, more than 20 miles into the San Rafael on the backside of the Mission Pine Ridge.
There was barely a trickle of water at pretty Lost Valley Camp one mile in, and north of Lost Valley lurked the astounding Hurricane Deck formation of sandstone ledges.
The ‘Deck’s scoured ridges form a gigantic 25-mile long chunk of rock lying athwart the San Rafael, bisecting the two main sources of water: the Sisquoc River and Manzana Creek.
There was absolutely no water in the Manzana at Fish Camp three miles in, and all that’s there is a wooden table, a shovel, and the iron fire ring shown in the photograph.
No fires at all on this trip!
Water conditions appeared catastrophically low. This savage four-year drought has been equally rough on all the larger mammals such as bears, lions, and deer, since the smaller critters and plants they feed upon have dried up or disappeared.
While there were a few stretches of the Manzana with some water, and I managed to extract water from one, the Manzana baked stone dry for most of this hike.
While there was some liquid at sun-blasted “Ray’s Camp,” when I got to Manzana Camp there was no water but ample hot sun at 10:30 a.m. The prodigious pools, seen just past the table and pack shown in the photo, where I swam with friends in 1973, were long-dry.
In 42 years hiking back here, I’d never seen dry pools at Manzana Camp. This situation caused ugly doubt and sobering thoughts to rear up in my still-ambitious mind. Fall Canyon Spring… or not?
The backcountry’s hyper-dry conditions tend to frighten us and drive us away from visiting wild remnants such as the San Rafael and neighboring Dick Smith Wildernesses. Fire itself is a considerable risk, and all night on June 18 there was a hot wind blowing, making conditions even more arid and almost suffocating.
It’s so uncommonly dry that there are hardly any birds about, and no mice or vermin that I can see. To balance this dearth, Mother Gaia sends increasing waves of flying and crawling insects, including mosquitoes, biting flies, and questing ants.
I’m well aware that there is only one person ahead of me, “out there” in the San Rafael, and likely he’s also seeking water.
Although rather exhausted at 10:30 a.m. after sauntering a mostly level six miles, dropping the pack I immediately went back with my water bottles to the tiny Manzana, where it crossed the trail near Ray’s Camp and filled up the three liters for the day.
Obviously, this camper would have to “lay up” and relax back in his shaded 2-pound tent, sipping sacred creek water all the while.
It’s standard practice to filter this water, and I had a reliable water filter along, but I chose to quaff the wet elixir direct vom FaB as German speakers say (directly from the source).
Too hot to sleep, I was up at 3 a.m. sitting at Manzana Camp’s wooden table sipping coffee and pondering the rest of this trip while scrawling in a journal: “Should I stay or should I go?” as the Clash wailed so long ago in 1982.
Isn’t summer the worst time to go out into the backcountry and the San Rafael? Why would you recommend this to readers?
Yet if solitude or deep silence charms your soul, then the summer season becomes the best-chosen time to visit and seek a semi-mythological distant spring.
But the question remained whether to go on in, and further east one mile up to shady Manzana Narrows Camp. From there I would cross over the menacing ‘Deck 8.2 miles to Lonnie Davis Camp, the next spot where one could be sure of precious water. (No water at White Ledge Camp.)
There is copious and always-running water at “Lonnie” and the South Fork of the Sisquoc River.
In Vedanta and in Buddhism we are enjoined to continually “check ourselves” – including where we stand in the three worlds of the physical, the mental/emotional, and the spiritual. I felt fine in the physical realm, and existing just two days back there inspired spiritual renewal and more energy.
But the monkey mind infected with emotion went OCD about sketchy water sources amid continued deep solitude, and then mind recalled some written water reports at Nira, stating only a “trickle” of Sisquoc water at the camps beyond Lonnie Davis … and these were dated June 5.
I backpacked a return to Nira Camp on the second day of this Manzana Camp pack, and never got to Fall Canyon Spring or to the Sisquoc River.
Nothing daunted and neither embarrassed nor chagrined by this fiasco, the two 6-mile backpacks strengthened the legs, improved the outlook, proved I could, challenged the energy level, and reinforced confidence for the next, more demanding, non-summer backpack.
This backpack up the Manzana isn’t recommended until after the next winter rains (if we have any), and conditions would be punishing for most children (certainly 11 years old at least).
However, try this trip is an arduous day hike from Nira to Manzana Camp or Manzana Narrows, and start off by 6 a.m. latest.
Manzana Camp 4-1-1
Hike: Moderate backpack from Nira Camp to Manzana Camp on Manzana Creek in the San Rafael Wilderness.
Distance: 12-mile round trip over two days.
Maps: Bryan Conant, San Rafael Wilderness Map and Trail Guide (2009, or new 2015 ed.)
Driving directions: head north on the 101, exit at the Highway 154 turnoff and drive over San Marcos Pass, past Lake Cachuma, and turn right on Armour Ranch Road just after crossing the wide Santa Ynez River concrete bridge. After about one mile, turn right again on Happy Canyon Road and drive to the end which is Nira Camp.
— 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.