This hike begins like others I’ve described by descending the well-known Davy Brown Trail from the iron sign on Figueroa Mountain Road (about two miles east of Figueroa Mountain Camp), which is now open and cleared of falling timber.
Because the Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area is large and diverse, from conifer-laden slopes at the Pino Alto Picnic Site (4,400 feet; currently closed) down to wet riparian corridors like Fir Canyon leading to the U.S. Forest Service Davy Brown Campsite, we experienced different eco-zones while descending.
We didn’t go down quite as far as Davy Brown Camp, which has 13 tables, firepits, two bathrooms and now a large garbage bin.
For this late December day hike, I took the well-used Davy Brown Trail as it winds down historic Fir Canyon with running water, planning to amble about 2.2 miles to the intersection with the Willow Springs Trail and then take it west (left).
I strongly recommend you have your compass and Bryan Conant’s indispensable map, San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide, in hand with you. After tramping around in the area since the 1970s, there are still hidden zones and spur trails I’d never noticed before. I still have never taken the infamous Munch Canyon Spur Trail, for example.
Conant had to create a special legend (in all white) in his map to delineate the contortions and many odd trails contained in the fascinating Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area. Happily, hunting and shooting are not permitted in the recreation area, which includes eight numbered trails in Conant’s white box next to the Figueroa Mountain maze.
After a very steep mile through outrageous orange-colored shale, we encounter a Y in the well-marked trail right there at the memorial plaque for pioneering ranger Edgar B. Davison.
Davison is an iconic figure from the turn of the 19th century, around 1898-1899. When he built this rough-hewn cabin, he must have known Davy Brown himself. In the plaque’s archaic black-and-white site photo you can just make out the tent cabin, storage tent, two men, heavily laden laundry line, rifle leaning against the doorjamb, and smoke coming out of the iron chimney.
We hike past Davison’s plaque, sticking close to the descending creek bed (don’t take the high trail left, Conant’s “Willow Spur Trail” #5) for another 1.2 knee-rattling miles.
Fir Canyon Creek was gushing heartily in several narrow places: a wonderful sound in time of drought. The riparian trees thriving in the wet creek bed include sycamores, alders, bay and, of course, the big leaf maples, whose luminous orange-beige leaves littered the hillsides with subdued color.
When the trail begins to bottom out and you aren’t over a mile from Davy Brown Camp on D.B. Creek, you will see another well-marked trail branching west (left). This is the Willow Springs Trail, Bryant’s Trail #4, and you’re now heading toward Zaca Peak and Grass Mountain, beneath the massif of Figueroa Mountain itself.
This hiking section became quite demanding as we constantly ascended from the instant we headed west.
We saw a number of promising rock jumbles, exciting places to explore and perhaps to ingest a spartan lunch and guzzle more water. While there are always rumors of rock art, we weren’t seeking the sacred symbols and did not come across any.
Since it had rained some before our Dec. 21 “solstice day” hike, we couldn’t detect Willow Spring itself by the characteristic wet patches — I had never been there. But it surely wasn’t running much, and we found no rivulets. Near another jumble of massive boulders we ate a protein-filled but limited lunch.
In addition to the savage uphill return ascent, we enjoyed one insect event and suffered from a second one. Ladybugs (coccinellidae) had hatched and were swarming everywhere! Luckily, both guru Franko and I had chosen to wear long pants, and I stubbornly clung to my long-sleeve shirt despite the heat and the exertion. They can nibble a bit on exposed skin, but generally do no harm.
The second swarm of insects proved noxious and deleterious to our health. The recent rains have stimulated hordes of California ticks to emerge and frantically seek warm-blooded mammals to suck. While we noted two or three types, the most common was the brown Pacific Coast Tick (dermacentor occidentalis), a three-host tick feeding on squirrels, deer and adult humans (they also love dogs).
Guru Franko’s problem was that he chose to pare down to a simple T-shirt in the heat as we pushed uphill and thus ended up with a whopping eight (!) embedded ticks, which I had the gross duty to remove with my fingernails, and four of them were already somewhat swollen with his blood.
Smug because better-covered, much later I found that a tick had crawled up my leg and embedded itself behind the knee in a really tight spot. After removing it myself, the open wound was sore despite the antibiotic cream I applied after washing it carefully. This wound got bigger, an edema formed and it affected my walking for a week after the return. I had to make a poultice to drain out the blood and gunk.
My spouse heckled me to go into the clinic, but a stoic old anglo guy, I refused and toughed it out. If you bring children along, special attention must be paid to cover them fully, and frequent skin checks are essential.
After eating, we trudged uphill and chose a new trail heading back east, a path neither of us had ever known — the Willow Spur Trail (Conant’s #5). Do not continue hiking west on the extension of #5 but turn up and back on it. After 2½ grueling miles, we ended up back at the Davison Plaque. Franko’s dog had hundreds of ticks on her, so we spent time picking them off.
We then slowly slogged up the very steep final mile back to our parked vehicle on Figueroa Mountain Road at the iron Davy Brown Trail sign.
This loop trip covers almost six miles, but the second half is an extremely steep uphill. After your hike, considerable delousing may be necessary. This hike would be demanding for younger children, and none of them would appreciate the ubiquitous ticks.
Driving directions: Drive to Los Olivos either via Highway 154 or preferably Highway 101 around the Gaviota Tunnel to the Los Olivos turnoff at Zaca Mesa Road. At Los Olivos, take the Figueroa Mountain Road inland about 11 miles to the old iron Davy Brown Trail sign. There is ample parking.
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.