Posted by: James Wapotich | November 4, 2010

Journey through the Upper Sisquoc and Manzana

Went on a 4-day backpack trip over Easter of this year [April 1-4] through the San Rafael Wilderness with a friend. We started along the Judell Trail, down the Sisquoc River to South Fork, and then from there over to the Manzana and out to Nira—a total of roughly 32 miles. I had envisioned this trip while looking over maps of the Santa Barbara backcountry, and it seemed like a great way to visit a number backcountry highlights.

Thanks to my friend Lawrence, who generously offered to give us a ride to the trailhead, we were able to make a traverse through the backcountry instead of a loop trip. The weekend before he and I had gone to Nira and left my car there for the ride out. And now the long awaited day was here. We left Santa Barbara Thursday morning around 7am, stopped for a simple breakfast of muffins and coffee at Rainbow Bridge in Ojai. And after breakfast headed out on Highway 33 towards Cuyama. A half an hour later we were driving through snow!

In the days leading up to the trip I had spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about the weather—is it going to rain, will the road be too muddy to drive, what if it snows…will that make it easier to drive, is it going to rain while we are hiking…wait now it looks like it might not rain at all. In the end it was none of the above. After weeks of religiously studying the weather maps at the NOAA website and fretting over the different scenarios I was dreaming up, we instead received a dusting of snow in the hills and a smattering of rain in the lower elevations the night before our trip. Just enough to clean everything off and cover a portion of the world in white. It was a great lesson about not being in control.

At around 10am we arrived at our destination, the locked gate on the Big Pine-Buckhorn Rd. From here we would have to hike on foot to the Judell trailhead. To reach this jumping off point one drives north from Ojai along Highway 33, past Pine Mountain and Ventucopa towards Cuyama. On the road before Ventucopa one leaves Ventura County and enters Santa Barbara County and then after Ventucopa on the way to Cuyama crosses into San Luis Obispo County (about 4 miles after Ventucopa). Why I’m mentioning this is that right on the San Luis Obispo County line there is a country road turnoff on the left (Foothill Rd.) that crosses the Cuyama River which saves you driving an additional 8 miles through Cuyama. Immediately upon crossing the river turn left again on to Santa Barbara Road—you’ll know you’ve missed the turn and gone too far if you see a large cattle feeding lot.

Santa Barbara Road takes you all the way to the locked gate where the “trail” begins (about a mile past Willow Flat where one finds the trailhead to Madulce). It was generally agreed that, this last portion of the drive with its red rocks, sage brush, and now snow was reminiscent of the Southwest.

From here we said our goodbyes to Lawrence and began the mostly uphill 5.5 mile hike along the Forest Service road that would take us to the Judell trailhead. I had driven the road once doing volunteer trail work for the LPFA. This time however with the snow it seemed decidedly magical. In fact at one point it felt like we were walking through the clouds. The climb itself helped clarify for me that I was definitely carrying too much food. We made good time, partly to get it over with and partly to beat the chill in the air.

Los Padres National Forest Hike Sierra Madre Mountains Sisquoc River

Sierra Madre Mountains in Snow

None the less the snow seemed like a rare treat. Along the way there were fresh tracks in the snow from deer, rabbit and quail and it was hard not to appreciate this quiet grandeur welcoming us on our journey.

Los Padres National Forest Hike Sierra Madre Mountains Sisquoc River

Manzanita in Snow

After those first 5 plus miles we arrived at the turnoff for Judell Canyon. Shortly thereafter one passes Santa Barbara Potrero. A somewhat stark campsite lacking trees, probably best saved for those trips when you get a late start or need to break up the miles. The Judell trail itself is in pretty good shape and was easy to follow given the number of goat tracks left by intrepid trail foreman and goat packer Mike Smith from the Los Padres Forest Association, who had just brought in a group a volunteers the weekend before. 2 years ago, before the Zaca Fire put a hold on such trail work trips, I’d gone with Mike and the LPFA to Sycamore camp via the Jackson trail to do trail work along the Sisquoc. It’s actually a great way to see the backcountry. It’s basically a 3-day trip. On Friday you get to ride into the trail head, backpack to camp and explore the area. On Saturday you clear brush and repair trail and that night are treated to a BBQ tri-tip dinner provided by the LPFA. And then Sunday you pack out and return to civilization. All in all a pretty painless way to see the backcountry.

Los Padres National Forest Hike Judell Canyon Sisquoc River

Judell Canyon

One of the nice things about the Judell Trail is that there are portions of the trail that were not affected by the Zaca Fire and so it affords one the opportunity to see some of not only the contrast, but how much has grown back. As we hiked down Judell Canyon, we transitioned below the snow line, at which point it started to sound like rain with the clumps of snow falling from the trees, loosened by the warming weather. In fact by the time we were half way down the Judell trail we’d all but forgotten about our ordeal hiking in—it was as if it had happened the day before.The last mile towards Heath was in some ways the toughest as we were starting to feel both the miles we had hiked so far, and the awareness that we soon would be settling into spending the night in the woods and all the tasks that go with it.

Surprisingly, however, once we were freed of our packs both us of had a burst of energy and quickly gathered firewood, got a fire going, and made dinner.Dinner was great (especially given the sweat equity involved in carrying it in!) and included albacore steaks, Jaipur Indian vegetables, rice and red wine. I’ve become a real strong advocate of bringing along a little wine, as just a few sips can really help the muscles let go of all their efforting from the trail and settle into resting, which believe it or not can make a big difference the next day. For desert we had brownies, having brought with us what seemed like enough to last a week (they didn’t). And at 8:30pm we promptly went to bed, worn out from our day, and slept soundly beneath the stars.

Heath camp is literally at the intersection of the Judell and Sisquoc River trails and is a quaint, funky, little site tucked under a couple of medium sized oak trees. The water in the Sisquoc at this time seemed impossibly clean and clear, given the recent rain and snow. And it was definitely cold. The one notable downside to Heath is that it is fairly littered with bottles and cans from over the years as evidenced by several collectors’ items found in the mix.The next morning I got up early and hiked upstream and found two more campsites associated with Heath.

After breakfast we hit the trail. I had hiked Judell Canyon to Heath with the Boy Scouts many years ago, but had never been down the Sisquoc or from there over to the Manzana and so was looking forward to seeing the sites. The first mile or so was fairly straightforward and we arrived at Cottonwood camp in no time. There are actually two camps associated with Cottonwood, one on each side of the river crossing. The upstream one being so-so and the second one more impressive as it was situated in a little flat area tucked under some oak trees above a bend in the river and featured some nice looking swimholes nearby. In fact it was one of the nicer camps I saw that day. 

From there we continued downstream and stopped at Rattlesnake canyon. This was one of the highlights on my list. The side trail to the falls is well marked. Leaving our packs there, we hiked and bushwhacked our way a relatively short distance, maybe ¼ mile, to Rattlesnake Falls. Where we went for a swim and took the obligatory photos. The waterfall is rather impressive and definitely rates as a travel destination in the Santa Barbara backcountry. 

Our next stop was Mansfield. Of particular interest to me was whether or not one could easily find the “legacy” Fall Canyon trail. Arriving at Mansfield I was somewhat disappointed as the camp itself looked as if someone had thrown it there. I was however able to find and follow the old Fall Canyon trail and hiked it up to a small saddle, from where I could see the trail continue. Although it looked a little overgrown, it definitely seemed like a trail that could be found—perhaps a little indiscernible, but probably made much clearer by the Zaca Fire, which ironically is what left Mansfield looking in such disarray. In fact without the Zaca Fire the trail would be impassable. Standing there I couldn’t help but think that it would be cool or least interesting to hike from Mansfeild to Mission Pine Basin and then out to Upper Oso. Fall Canyon Trail overlooking the Sisquoc Valley

From Mansfeild headed downstream for what seemed like the longest part of the trip so far. In speaking with Mike Smith before the trip I had gotten a scouting report on the trail conditions from his last trip and agreed to survey the trail for him from Mansfield to South Fork. Of particular interest was:

1. How may river crossings? 22.
2. How many trees were down across the trail and what size? 10, various sizes.
3. What percentage of time would I estimate that I was actually on the trail? 80%.
4. Was I able to find Skunk camp? Yes.

Los Padres National Forest Hike Skunk Sisquoc River Falls

Skunk Camp

This last one was made easier by the fact that someone had marked trail with pink ribbons the entire way. Apparently the previous trail had bypassed Skunk camp altogether. The camp itself, in the aftermath of the Zaca Fire, was now half buried under silt. Skunk is also the last camp before South Fork and represents the roughly halfway mark between Heath and South Fork. [the LPFA has since restored Skunk camp]

Overall the trail from Mansfield to South Fork is definitely a mixed bag with some stretches smooth and easy to read and others brushy with new growth in the wake of the Zaca fire. The creek crossings were equally mixed, some easy rocks hops across, others requiring more creative approaches—my friend favored taking her shoes off, while my cat blood inspired me to hunt up and down stream to find crossings that often involved leaping. When it was all said and done it was quite a workout.

Los Padres National Forest Hike Sisquoc River

South Fork Station

Eventually we arrived at South Fork Station and somewhat to our surprise, there was no one there. We had the whole camp to ourselves. After the rigmarole of setting up camp, making dinner, we promptly went to bed, hoping that tomorrow would be an easier day and that the clouds that rolled in at the end of the day were only passing through and not planning on leaving any rain. It had been a long 7 miles.

On the third day we decided to take a different approach, and so after two days of hard work hiking trails we took it easy. We slept in and then had a leisurely morning, making a point with breakfast, as with dinner the night before, of eating the food that weighed the most. At 11:30am we hit the trail.

Shortly thereafter we arrived at Lonnie Davis and from there followed the trail as it continued to climb its way up White Ledge Canyon toward White Ledge camp. Along the way we ran in the first person we’d seen since being dropped off at the trailhead, our good friend Arden who had backpacked up from Nira the day before and spent the night at Happy Hunting Ground (a more impressive task now that I’ve seen the trial). He was continuing to the Sisquoc and not planning on returning to Civilization until Thursday! [I later spoke with Arden and he continued from South Fork, up the Sweetwater Trail to Painted Rock where he endured the rain and then hiked down the Jackson Trial to Sycamore and from there to Manzana Schoolhouse and back out to Nira].

Los Padres National Forest Hike Sisquoc River South Fork

Bush Poppies in bloom

Shortly before White Ledge, in the spirit of making of life easier, we changed our plan of trying to make it all the way to Manzana Narrows that day, aiming instead for Happy Hunting Ground and saving those additional 4 miles for the hike out. This freed us up so we could take time to just rest and relax.

Los Padres National Forest Hike Hurricane Deck Chumash Cave Painting

Chumash Cave Painting

At White Ledge we ran into two guys from Los Olivos who were making camp there. It’s at White Ledge that one finds the eastern terminus of the Hurricane Deck trail. There was good water the length of White Ledge Canyon and the trail in these upper reaches of the canyon is quite evocative as it winds its way along with the creek through some incredible sandstone formations. Along the trail between White Ledge and Happy Hunting Group we also came across some cave paintings. It was hard to tell if they were damaged by the Zaca fire or had always looked that way. Eventually we arrived at Happy Hunting Ground, all in all a much easier day.

My impression in talking to Arden, was that before the Zaca Fire that Happy Hunting Ground was a far more picturesque. This being my first time there I was still struck by the beauty of the area and excited to find mountain lion tracks along the creek.

On the first night of our trip back at Heath, the nighttime temperature stayed in the 40s, the second night at South Fork was balmy in the mid 50s, but this last night the temperature plunged down to the 20s. The water in our water bottles froze, frost was everywhere and I had to get up every hour or so to stoke the fire to offset the uselessness of my sleeping bag. The only upside was that it was not hot the next day on the hike out.

Much like the trail from White Ledge, the trail from Happy Hunting Ground wove its way through the sandstone and then eventually crested the Manzana drainage, where we were treated with some great views of the Manzana Valley. As we hiked down to the narrows I could tell that we were beginning to return to civilization as the trail from this point and all the way to Nira was in good shape. I also developed a new appreciation for people who hiked up this trail, as it would definitely be a work out going the opposite direction.

By the time we reached Manzana Narrows the weather was starting to look a bit gloomy. In fact it later rained that night highlighting that we had manage to tuck our trip in between two storms. At Manzana there were two guys who’d come up for an overnighter. And that was it of the people we saw on our trip. From the narrows, we continued on, pausing at Manzana camp where I was anxious to find the beehive I’d found situated up along a sandstone wall the last time I was there. I was hoping to take a better picture of it with my new camera, but alas was disappointed to discover that it now looked abandoned, perhaps a victim of the Zaca fire. Sensing the changing weather we pressed on, eventually arriving at Fish camp where we took a short break before continuing out to Nira.

At times during the trip I was reminded of my time in the backcountry with the boy scouts (BSA Troop 15), each year we would undertake a 50 mile back pack trip over spring break. Starting in February we would go on 5, 10 and 20-miler backpack trips as both a conditioning for the 50-miler and as a way of seeing who was ready for this year’s 5-day backpacking trip. We would generally start on the far side of the Los Padres and hike in some fashion towards Santa Barbara often arriving at Sage Hill where there would be a base camp set up for us. In fact hiking out on the last day of this trip I kept half expecting to arrive out at Upper Oso.

We instead arrived at Nira and were very appreciative of having had such a nice time in the backcountry. And even though I’ve driven the road out a dozen or so times, this time it seemed different, almost unrecognizable, the world somehow having been subtly altered. And when we arrived in Santa Barbara I could even see little glimpses of the town I knew growing up as a kid. And so ended another journey through the Santa Barbara backcountry.

If you have a trail report I’d love to hear it.

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