Happy Canyon Road provides the perfect entryway into the Santa Barbara backcountry. Some names are overhyped, but this one really isn’t.
Meandering past horse farms, corrals, ranches, and cattle grazing along the road — which is often narrow enough that you have to pull over to the side to let somebody pass — the feeling is sublime.
It’s a beautiful way to enter the San Rafael Wilderness area of Los Padres National Forest.
Unfortunately, access to the main entry point into the wilderness has been closed for the past six months.
While it has been possible to visit the Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area, the Sunset Valley watershed wasn’t accessible. That includes access to Davy Brown Camp, Nira Camp and the Manzana Creek trailheads.
At issue are a number of low-water crossings below Davy Brown Camp that make it impossible for the endangered Southern California steelhead trout to reach the upper reaches of Davy Brown and Sunset Valley creeks.
The concern is the dwindling number of steelhead trout found in the Manzana and Sisquoc watersheds.
Known as “Arizona crossings,” the low-water creek crossings are similar to those on Montecito’s Mountain Drive at the Cold Springs crossing prior to the debris flows, and at the Romero Creek crossing on Bella Vista Drive. Effectively they block passage of the steelhead.
“A century ago, one could count the number of steelhead migrating up the Sisquoc and Manzana drainage in the thousands,” says Kristie Klose, a Los Padres Forest fish biologist who is the project lead. The goal of the project was to remove three of these crossings and replace them with two channel-spanning bridges.
“Today that number (of steelhead) barely reaches the hundreds,” Klose adds.
The work has not been without its critics, mostly those who’ve been deprived of access to the wilderness. Fall through the winter months are prime time for backpacking, and the two car camping areas at Nira and Davy Brown are extremely popular.
Creation of the low water crossings occurred during the early 1970s and after a disastrous series of storms in January 1969 washed out almost every trail, bridge and other structure anywhere near the edges of the creeks.
In response, trails previously along the edge of the Manzana and Sisquoc Rivers were cut further away from the flood zones, often taking routes over the tops of ridges that users still like to complain about today.
Along with these, low-river crossings were installed along creeks in numerous locations, including the upper part of Paradise Road leading up to Red Rock.
Zaca Fire Catalyst for Change
One of the things Klose and Mo Gomez, director of the South Coast Habitat Restoration nonprofit group, realized in the aftermath of the Zaca Fire was the the critical role the Davy Brown watershed could play in protecting the steelhead population if the crossings were removed.
“Riparian areas like those found along the creek often survive when the fire blows over, and can provide a refuge for species like the steelhead,” Klose explained.
After the Zaca Fire, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation received grant funding as part of legal settlements with the party responsible for starting the fire.
Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of dollars were available for projects in specific parts of the fire area, including the Manzana Creek drainage. For Gomez this was like a dream come true.
To date, the majority of the South Coast Habitat Restoration’s projects had been in frontcountry areas such as Gobernador Canyon, Carpinteria Creek and Maria Ignacio creeks, and Ventura area watersheds, many after the Thomas Fire and post-fire debris flows and flooding.
“We’re 33 miles upstream from the ocean here,” reflecting on the distances a species like the steelhead need to reach this point, “and what we were looking at seeing if we could put together a proposal that would allow them access to the last 3-plus miles of that journey.”
“This may be one of the most extensive and complicated projects we’ve ever done,” Klose noted while gazing out over the bridge at the lower end of Davy Brown Creek. “But we got it done.”
Sunset Valley Road Reopened
On Friday, the first weekend of car camping, backpacking and general access to the San Rafael Wilderness opened once again.
Thanks to the efforts of Gomez, Klose and the scores of others who helped make this a success, we again realize it’s not just what areas like this do for our recreational opportunities, but in how we support the species that call this home.
— Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.