Posted by: James Wapotich | October 26, 2014

Trail Quest: Manzana Creek, Part 1

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The act created a way for federal land to be permanently protected from development.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law on September 3, 1964, he commented, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

In its wild state, the land can provide an unbroken connection back to the beginning of time. The native plants and animals, even the rocks and mountains have paths that lead from where they are now back through time to the mystery of creation.

Time spent on the land and in nature can serve as a powerful touchstone for reconnecting with our own origins and our own place in the larger world around us.

Manzana Creek trail hike San Rafael Mountain Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Big Cone Spruce

San Rafael Mountain and the headwaters of Manzana Creek are seen from Big Cone Spruce Trail

In the words of author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

When the Wilderness Act was signed it set aside 9.1 million acres as designated wilderness, a total area less than that of Vermont and New Hampshire. The act also created a process for designating additional federal lands as wilderness. In the 50 years since the passage of the act, close to 110 million acres of land have been set aside as protected wilderness, an area larger than California.

In our local area, San Rafael Wilderness was the first land to be protected under the act. When it was formed in 1968, it encompassed 149,170 acres of our local backcountry. In 1992, an additional 48,210 acres were added.

If the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act introduced in Congress earlier this year by Representative Lois Capps is passed, all eight of the wilderness areas in the southern Los Padres National Forest would see an increase in size, including an additional 41,000 acres for San Rafael Wilderness.

One of the easier places to visit San Rafael Wilderness is near Nira Campground along Manzana Creek. The creek flows some 20 miles from its headwaters near San Rafael Mountain down to its confluence with Sisquoc River. And the trailheads near Nira Campground provide a good jumping off point for hikes that lead both upstream and downstream along the creek.

map los padres national forest manzana creek trail san rafael wilderness lost valley nira big cone spruce white ledge ray's camp narrows fish

Map courtesy

To get to Nira from Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 north over San Marcos Pass and continue past Cachuma Lake to Armour Ranch Road, on your right.

From Armour Ranch Road, turn right onto Happy Canyon Road. Happy Canyon Road leads through ranch land before climbing out of the valley and arriving at Cachuma Saddle. Here, Happy Canyon Road meets Figueroa Mountain Road and becomes Sunset Valley Road, which ends at Nira Campground. The drive is about 1.5 hours from Santa Barbara.

Nira Campground was built in 1937 and takes its name from NIRA, National Industrial Recovery Act. The campground has 11 campsites, each with a fire ring and picnic table. All of the camps are on a first come first serve basis, and an adventure pass is required to camp there.

The hike upstream from Nira, starting along Manzana Trail provides for a variety of hiking and backpacking opportunities. Along Manzana Creek there are six different camps that one can visit. Manzana Trail is in generally good condition and is suitable for horseback riding as well.

Parking for the hike upstream is found at the campground, and the parking area is large enough for horse trailers.

Manzana Creek supports a rich corridor of riparian plants that threads its way through the surrounding chaparral. Along the creek one can find bay laurel, willow, sycamore, and alder. And along the trail, coast live oak, gray pines and even juniper.

Manzana Creek trail hike San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres national forest

Some flowing water can still be found in Manzana Creek

At the 1-mile mark, the trail arrives at Lost Valley Camp. The camp is located near the beginning of Lost Valley Trail, which leads to the top of Hurricane Deck.

The trail then climbs above the creek, and continues through chaparral before returning down to the creek and arriving at Fish Camp. The camp is about 2.5 miles from Nira and is located just above the confluence of Fish Creek and Manzana Creek. In the springtime a swim hole can be found just below the confluence.

Past Fish Camp, the canyon widens, and after crossing the creek, the trail continues above the creek before returning back down to the creek, and arrive at Ray’s Camp. The camp is about 4.5 miles from Nira and is named for local author and trail advocate Raymond Ford.

From Ray’s Camp, the trail continues upstream another mile and arrives at Manzana Camp. And at the about the 7-mile mark, the trail arrives at Manzana Narrows Camp, which has four campsites.

Each of the campsites along Manzana Trail above Nira has a metal fire ring, and in most cases a picnic table.

In the spring when the creek is flowing all of the camps along Manzana Creek have access to water. In the summer and fall, and during drier years, the creek becomes intermittent. Currently the only water along Manzana Trail, above Nira, is between Manzana Camp and Manzana Narrows, with flowing water just below Manzana Narrows Camp.

Manzana Narrows Creek trail hike Los Padres national forest San Rafael

Scenery along Manzana Trail between Manzana and Manzana Narrows Camp

Continuing upstream from Manzana Narrows, Manzana Trail arrives a quarter mile later at the intersection with White Ledge and Big Cone Spruce Trails. To the left, White Ledge Trail climbs out of Manzana Creek drainage and leads over towards Sisquoc River and South Fork Station. To the right, Big Cone Spruce Trail continues upstream along Manzana Creek towards Big Cone Spruce Camp.

Both the trail and camp take their name from the big cone spruce that grow along the canyon. The trail is more overgrown than Manzana Trail, but is still followable. Currently there is water flowing intermittently in the creek, and near the camp.

At about the 9.25-mile mark from Nira, the trail arrives at Big Cone Spruce Camp. The camp has two sites, each with a grated stove and picnic table. The first site is fairly easy to find and located near a spring. To reach the second site, continue a short way upstream along Big Cone Spruce Trail and look for a side trail on your left that leads to the camp.

Big Cone Spruce trail hike Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness

Scenery along Big Cone Spruce Trail

Just past the turnoff to the second campsite, Big Cone Spruce Trail crosses the creek one last time, before starting its 1.25-mile climb towards to the top of the San Rafael Mountains and McKinley Fire Road. The trail quickly leaves the shady confines of the canyon and continues through the more exposed chaparral. The trail is steep, but does offer views to the east of San Rafael Mountain and the headwaters of Manzana Creek, and to the north, views of Hurricane Deck and Sierra Madre Mountains.

At the top of trail is a picnic table that has been placed there for the benefit of weary travelers. To the east, less than a mile further along McKinley Fire Road is McKinley Spring Camp where one can find reliable water.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll have a chance to explore Santa Barbara’s first wilderness area.

This article originally appeared in section A of the October 20th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. Manzana Creek, Part 2 will cover the rest of Manzana Trail down to Manzana Schoolhouse.

Water Report: currently, upstream from Nira along the trail one doesn’t find water until about halfway between Manzana Camp and Manzana Narrows, and then intermittent pools and flows. Standing water only at the Narrows, but good water just below camp. Water in two of the crossings towards Big Cone Spruce, but only standing water at the crossing at Big Cone Spruce Camp #1. The spring is flowing at the camp and lots of evidence of bear activity at the muddy, wet hillside where the springs is located. Water in the creek just past Big Cone Spruce Camp #2.

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