Posted by: James Wapotich | June 23, 2012

Trail Quest: Hurricane Deck

Hurricane Deck is not a trail to be taken lightly. It is in the vernacular of ski trails a black diamond trail. Not because it’s steep, or overgrown, or without water and shade, but because it is a mix of all of the above.

The Hurricane Deck Trail runs east to west along the ridge line that separates the Manzana Creek and Sisquoc River watersheds. The trail is both rugged and challenging and at the same time offers some incredible views of the surrounding area.

The trail connects White Ledge Camp at its eastern end with Manzana Schoolhouse at its western end. The entire length of the trail is roughly 15.5 miles, however this can be misleading in the context of our local backcountry, where one’s pace can easily slow to a mile or less an hour because of trail conditions. There is no water or shade along the entire length of Hurricane Deck and no places to camp.

In fact the best way to visit Hurricane Deck is to hike a portion of the trail as part of a loop trip. The trail can essentially be broken into three sections, and so one can craft a loop along the eastern section of Hurricane Deck making use of the Lost Valley Trail or the western section making use of the Potrero Trail.

The best time to go is in the spring when it’s still cool out. The lack of water and shade along Hurricane Deck cannot be understated. Regardless of what kind of shape you’re in, how good of a backpacker you are, hiking overgrown trails always takes more time and energy than one expects. Add to that heat and too much sun and the problem only becomes compounded.

In June 2008 a hiker died of heat stroke while trying to hike along Hurricane Deck. He and his friend had run out of water by mid-afternoon and the hiker collapsed from heat exhaustion. His friend went to get help but by the time help arrived it was too late. In addition to this tragedy there have been reports of people getting lost, running out of water, and having to spend the night on the trail.

The lessons that can be taken here are be familiar with the trails you’re hiking and do not underestimate the terrain and conditions or over estimate your abilities.

Starting from White Ledge Camp, the Hurricane Deck Trail heads west climbing its way out of the White Ledge Canyon watershed. This first portion of the trial was burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire and much of the trail along the eastern slope is dominated by salt brush and other regrowth. The trail then transitions to the north facing side of the ridge, which did not get burned. Here the trail traverses its way through mostly scrub oak, often becoming a narrow lane through the chaparral and requires some route finding. Recent trail work by volunteers through this section have helped some parts to be less confusing.

The trail then climbs on top of the ridge, which is also overgrown, but does make it easier to follow.

At about the 4.5 mile mark the trail arrives at the junction with the Lost Valley Trail. From here one can take the Lost Valley Trail 7.5 miles down to Manzana Creek as part of a loop hike along the eastern portion of Hurricane Deck. For this loop one would start at Nira, hike east along the Manzana Trail to Manzana Narrows, and then along the White Ledge Trail to White Ledge Camp returning along Hurricane Deck and the Lost Valley Trail for a loop of about 25 miles.

From Hurricane Deck the Lost Valley Trail follows an old dirt road much of the way. The first the quarter mile has been washed out over the years but after that takes on more of the characteristics of a long, overgrown road.

The road dates back to the 1930s when a network of roads were being built in the Santa Barbara backcountry to aid in fire suppression. The road originally was intended to continue along Hurricane Deck east towards South Fork and upstream along the Sisquoc River, but was set aside when access became available to complete the Sierra Madre Road.

From the Lost Valley Trail juncture, the Hurricane Deck trail continues west through the middle section of Hurricane Deck. This is the least traveled section of the trail and in some ways the most challenging. As the trail continues it becomes even more overgrown and difficult to follow, and requires pushing through brush in some places.

The trail then starts to alternate between overgrown chaparral and open grassy stretches, which offer some relief. However it is also through this same section that the terrain becomes more varied as it climbs up and down hills along the ridge. In fact it is this variation that can make the trail more tiring as each transition can require readjusting ones pace and create confusion around which route to take.

For example there is a section of trail above Miller Canyon that is so overgrown as to literally require crawling through brush. Here most folks have bypassed the trail following instead the ridge line which in some places is more open as the ridge through this section is often grassy to the south and brushy to the north.

This middle section also offers some of the most dynamic views of the area as one is rewarded with stunning views of Lost Valley, the San Rafael Mountains stretching from San Rafael Mountain to Figueroa Mountain, as well as the Sierra Madre Mountains and Hurricane Deck itself.

At the 10.5 mile mark from White Ledge the Hurricane Deck Trail arrives at the Potrero Trail and offers some great views of nearby Bald Mountain and its grassy hillside.

The Potrero Trail leads roughly 3.5 miles back down to Manzana Creek and offers another loop opportunity. In this case one would start at the trail head at Nira, hike down the Manzana Trail to the Potrero Trail and follow Hurricane Deck to Manzana Schoolhouse and then return along the Manzana Trail to Nira for a loop of about 18 miles.

The Potrero Trail also does not have much shade, and is overgrown in places, but is followable.

From the Potrero Trail junction continuing west the Hurricane Deck trail does improve somewhat in that much of the trail is dominated by either wild grasses or less dense chaparral and follows the ridge line most of the way, making hiking and route finding a little easier.

As one continues Castle Rock to the southwest begins to come into view, here the trail starts to transition off of the ridge and does again become more overgrown, but does also offer some great views of the Sisquoc River Valley. The trail then returns to the ridge briefly before making its final descent down towards the Sisquoc River.

In some ways this last section can be the trickiest. Even though the trail switchbacks its way down to the river, it is overgrown with wild grasses and can be a little confusing as it threads its way through the pines and oaks. The trail then levels out and joins the Sisquoc River Trail and a quarter mile later arrives at Manzana Schoolhouse.

And while it’s rare that one would hike the entire length of the trail, Hurricane Deck although not for everyone, does offer opportunities to create some interesting loop hikes and take in some great scenery.

And as with any trip into our local backcountry it is best to check on conditions, as water can be unreliable, trail conditions can change and temperatures can vary dramatically between the coast and the backcountry. Take the time to plan accordingly and know and respect your own limits.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 23rd, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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