Posted by: James Wapotich | May 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Coldwater Camp backpacking trip

With the arrival of spring, now is a great time to head out onto the trails for backpacking. Winter rains have helped to revive the backcountry, and camps that were without water because of the drought are once again viable destinations for camping.

Within our local backcountry are a range of places to visit, some of which lend themselves well for easy overnight backpacking trips.

I was recently asked to lead a backpacking class to help introduce people to our trails and natural history, and was joined by my girlfriend, Sierra Boatwright, who is an avid backpacker and naturalist.

The class met three Saturdays in a row, followed by an optional overnight backpacking trip to allow the participants to put into practice the skills they had learned. Each class took place on a different trail and covered a range of topics including orienteering, maps, gear, basic first aid and self-care, route-finding, trip planning, and nature connection.

There were eight participants in the class, and the destination the group selected was Coldwater Camp along Manzana Creek in the San Rafael Wilderness.

Coldwater Camp is about 5.5 miles roundtrip from the trailhead and typically has year round water.

The trailhead is reached from Santa Barbara by taking State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass to Armour Ranch Road. Turn right onto Armour Ranch Road, and follow it to Happy Canyon Road. Turn right onto Happy Canyon Road, and follow it all the way to the trailhead. Happy Canyon Road leads through scenic ranch land before climbing out of the Santa Ynez Valley. At Cachuma Saddle, it meets Figueroa Mountain Road and continues down towards Manzana Creek, changing names and becoming Sunset Valley Road.

The trailhead for lower Manzana Creek is about a half-mile before Nira Campground, which is at the end of the road. The trailhead is along Manzana Creek with a large, unpaved parking area.

We met at the trailhead. The overnight backpacking trip in some ways was the culmination of the class, and everyone was energized about getting out and doing some camping. After a brief safety review of the different hazards along the trail including, rattlesnakes, ticks, and poison oak, we set out for Coldwater Camp.

From the trailhead, Manzana Trail rides above the creek for the first mile and a quarter before descending back down to the water and arriving at Potrero Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and fire ring.

While at Potrero Camp, Sierra and I invite the participants to name the different plants we could see around us that they had learned in class. The group quickly identifies manzanita, hummingbird sage, ceanothus, grey pine, and sycamore, as well as some their attributes.

In a previous class, one of the participants shared the realization that learning about the plants and animals in our local area helped to make wherever we went feel more familiar. He also observed that it made being outdoors that much more engaging.

In many ways connecting with nature is the doorway to having a more immersive experience of the outdoors and a deeper appreciation of how everything is woven together.

At the first creek crossing, I find myself noticing how well the group works together. Winter rains have raised the water level of the creeks, requiring some care in crossing. Watching our diverse group in action, I’m reminded how it’s sometimes easier to find a sense of belonging out in nature and be more accepting of different ability levels and personalities.

Our group included a couple from Germany, who recently moved to Santa Barbara; already avid hikers, they were interested in getting into backpacking, as well as just becoming more familiar with our local area. A former Army medic and his fiancé, a former Navy hospital corpsman, joined to learn more about backpacking. Two other women included a local business owner wanting to get outdoors more and an avid hiker wanting to start backpacking. The men included a speech therapist and musician, who wanted to get back into backpacking, as well as an adventurer, who had been backpacking for more than 40 years, but was interested in meeting other outdoor-minded people.

On the other side of the creek, near the junction with Potrero Trail, we take time for some map review. During the three-week sessions, we learned how to read and navigate the landscape without the use of a GPS or compass.

From Potrero Camp, we continue downstream along the trail weaving around the healthy, vibrant poison oak; stopping to admire the bear sign on a couple of sycamore trees; and making our way through the different creek crossings.

By midday, we arrive at Coldwater Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and metal fire ring. The group fans out into the meadow surrounding our camp and sets up their tents. After lunch, we day hike the mile and a half down to Horseshoe Bend Camp.

While hiking down the trail and taking the lead, I hear what sounds like a rattlesnake. I jump off to the side of the trail, away from the snake. From a safe distance, we stop to admire the healthy-looking snake. No longer feeling particularly threatened, the snake stops rattling at us. And then, tired of being the center of attention, the snake slithers off into the brush, rattling along the way as if to let us know the day was going just fine before all the commotion.

At Horseshoe Bend we enjoy the relatively deep swim holes along the creek. At one point, we watch a western pond turtle patrol the largest pool. Seemingly at ease with the number of visitors to its home, the turtle would swim out into the middle of the pool and back, and then along the rocky edge of the swim hole, putting on quite a show for us.

Arriving back at Coldwater Camp, we start to gather firewood. Under a large coast live oak, I demonstrate something I learned in the Boy Scouts. The leaves of coast live oak are shaped such that rainwater is directed away from the trunk, creating a relatively drier area under the canopy of the tree. By tugging on the dead branches that haven’t fallen yet, you can tell if they are dry enough to gather as firewood. When other wood is wet from the rain, this wood is still mostly dry and can be used to get a fire started.

After gathering enough firewood, we set about building a fire and making dinner. We settled on spaghetti and meatballs for the shared meal. In honor of the couple from Germany, for dessert we decided on s’mores, which apparently are unique to the United States as a quintessential aspect of camping.

Following dinner, we are treated to some fine ukulele music from one of the participants, before heading off to bed. We agree to wake up early in the morning and head out on the land for two hours of solo time as a nature connection experiment.

In the morning, Sierra and I offer some suggestions about how to more easily tune into one’s senses and the environment before the group disperses out onto the landscape to find their spot.

When the time is up, we call them back, and form a circle for a group discussion about the experience. One woman shared that she found being alone on the land uncomfortable, which brought to light the challenges women can face when hiking and backpacking on their own. Others shared how at first they didn’t know what they’d do in one place for two hours, but by the end of the experiment wished they could’ve stayed out longer and spent the whole day immersed in nature, citing the sense of peace and wonder they felt while being out there.

After breakfast, we packed up our gear and shared our appreciations for the group and the time we spent together. Several of the participants shared that they were already planning their next backpacking trip, excited to put their new skills to use and appreciative of the new found confidence they had about exploring our local trials on their own.

We then give thanks to the land for hosting us and begin the hike out. We make a stop at Potrero Camp for one last dip in the swim hole below camp before returning to civilization.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 10th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press..


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