Hikers can enjoy a gushing water bonanza in the Santa Barbara County backcountry this midsummer because of our bounteous winter rains. Both the upper and lower portions of Manzana Creek still flow, although lessening in some places, such as Fish Camp.
While on a late June three-day backpacking/day hike to Manzana Schoolhouse, the waterflow was impressive and exciting, as I’ve reported in a previous Noozhawk column.
Yet it’s still daunting to go backpacking into the desert canyons of the San Rafael Wilderness, and there are few souls hardy enough to push back into it in late July or August of any year.
My preferred alternative was to spend one overnight at sweet Davy Brown Camp, arriving with a hiking companion in the late afternoon on Thursday, July 18, and stride out early the next morning on a strenuous six-mile day hike up shady and well-watered Fir Canyon along the Davy Brown Trail.
About a mile up, wild Peter and I planned to literally take the path less-chosen — the even steeper ascent to mysterious Willow Spring (a seep, actually). From Willow Spring, we would loop back east on the sketchy Willow Spring Spur Trail and rejoin Davy Brown Trail much higher up in Fir Canyon, then return the two-plus miles back to Davy Brown Camp.
After a tasty meal and some singing on a balmy Thursday evening, wild Peter and I hit the sack, he in his tent and I in the bed of my truck. While campfires are still allowed at Davy Brown, and I have my valid California wilderness fire permit, it wasn’t cold at all, and we opted against one.
By 7:30 a.m. on that Friday, we had already reparked my truck just outside the U.S. Forest Service campground and quickly began the steep hike into narrow, winding Fir Canyon up the north side of Figueroa Mountain.
We were aiming for Willow Spring, which seeps behind the Willow Rock “Jumble” and where there are fantastic vistas of the entire San Rafael Wilderness, including the Hurricane Deck and Sierra Madre Range beyond (north).
The signed Davy Brown Trail begins at the low end of Davy Brown Camp: ford the rushing creek on the two logs, open the green gate (be sure to close), hike into Davy’s triangular potrero and follow the well-trod trail south (left) as it curls into enchanting Fir Canyon.
Some wildflowers persist here, and we saw several Humboldt’s lilies, named after my favorite naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. They usually flower in June and shouldn’t be called a “tiger lily.”
This riparian corridor soon constricts, and the copious flow of water continually surprises us. Most of this zone in the Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area allows no hunting and absolutely no fishing. I have often sighted deer and rabbit, along with many trout fingerlings in the upper reaches.
After about a mile with a gentle incline, we came upon the first and fairly recent iron sign that happily clarified the various trail choices. Following the arrow that points west for “Willow Spring Trail,” we left the main Davy Brown Trail back in its streambed canyon (it is a steep three miles on up to Figueroa Mountain Road).
In years past, I have bluntly criticized the Forest Service for the absent — actually, incorrect — signage in this area, and admittedly it is complicated and tricky.
Bryan Conant’s excellent map of the San Rafael (see 4-1-1) also covers this region, and he had to squeeze 10 trails into this tiny recreation area so he resorted to a boxed white inset with the 10 numbered trails. Among those appear the Willow Spring Trail, the Willow Spur Trail and the Zaca Spring Trail.
Conant’s 2015 map has the “good” yellow color for the Willow Spring Trail, meaning it’s “easy to follow” and well-maintained. “Willow Spring” is also on his map, in blue cursive, but very tiny print.
It’s not Conant’s fault, but the heavy rains of this past winter trashed sections of this one-mile steep climb. Yellow should be taken out of new editions because it was pretty bad in some places — very steep, literally washed-out, crumbly footing, heavily brushed over with plenty of poison oak mixed with poky chamise, toyon, scrub oak and other hard chaparral plants. I needed the two poles in these sections.
We’d been warned about ticks, but neither of us got a single one during the whole five-hour trek. You climb 1,100 feet in the single mile. Since I had done this one once before, wild Peter and I wore the correct outfit: long heavy pants, long-sleeved shirt, wide-brim hat, gloves, hiking poles, plenty of water and plenty of patience.
After considerable scrambling and frequent rests, we got to the barely discernible Willow seep itself and found a second new iron sign — neither of the signs was there in January 2017 — which stated that this was indeed Willow Spring. There was no obvious flow at all, so be sure to bring water.
Looking back down the way we’d come, the new sign offered three trail choices and destinations: continue west one mile on the Willow Spring Trail continuation to the Catway Road; head straight back down to Davy Brown Camp; or hike east on the Willow Spring Spur Trail to reconnect with the Davy Brown Trail much higher up (fairly close to Figueroa Mountain Road).
The trails here crisscross and change names, and it is torturous. I belabor this point because others have gone off-trail in this area even with the two fairly new, post-2017 iron signs. I once got way off trail here during an ambitious solo hike/backpack/day hike escapade in the late 1990s.
Above the large boulder marking the “seep” is the striking promontory I’ve dubbed the “Willow Spring Jumble” — the vistas to the north grab your attention (lead photograph). You can pick out the Hurricane Deck, Bald Mountain (the tan), and the higher Sierra Madre Range in the distance as you look all the way across the San Rafael Wilderness.
At the Jumble, we scrambled around a bit, ate a scanty lunch and drank water. There were holly leaf cherry bushes, Jeffrey pine and masses of hard chaparral.
The lateral hike east to the Ranger Davison plaque on upper Davy Brown Trail was also tough going. Heavy boots and the hiking sticks were essential, and then the two-plus miles back down to my truck outside Davy Brown Camp became a lark. The creek here runs strong and free.
This hike would be fine for teenagers, but the heavy brush on the skimpy trails might be too daunting for younger children.
» Take Highway 101 north to Highway 154 (Chumash Highway) past Lake Cachuma to Armour Ranch Road. Take a right turn at the Santa Ynez River. About a mile later, turn right again on Happy Canyon Road. Two miles before that road ends, you will see U.S. Forest Service Campsite Davy Brown. Park outside or pay $20 (ample places to park outside). There is a dirt portion of Happy Canyon, and there are fairly severe potholes in sections. Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Guide (2015 edition) is the best map for this complicated and joyful hike.
— 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.