Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2018

Trail Quest: Big Cone Spruce Camp

Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches when planning a backpacking trip. I had a planned a leisurely three-day trip with my girlfriend Sierra to Big Cone Spruce Camp along upper Manzana Creek, but scheduling challenges reduced our available time to two days.

With access to so much of the backcountry closed due to the Thomas Fire and related road closures it can be challenging to find a place to backpack to that doesn’t involve adding extra miles to the hike just to reach the trailhead or desired destination.

East Camino Cielo Road is closed east of Gibraltar Road, which limits easy access to the trail camps behind Santa Barbara and parts of the Dick Smith Wilderness. Rose Valley Road is also closed blocking off much of the Sespe Wilderness. And seasonal road closures have similarly limited access to other parts of the forest.

Manzana Trail creek canyon camp hike backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Scenery along Manzana Creek near Manzana Camp

One of the areas that has remained open and generally accessible is the San Rafael Wilderness and in particular Manzana Creek. The trail along the creek offers a variety of camps to choose from and can be used to access points farther in the backcountry for longer treks.

Not finding many alternatives to Manzana Creek and reluctant to give up our destination we opt to hike to Big Cone Spruce Camp as overnight trip and decide on an early start to give us the whole day to enjoy a more relaxed pace.

The trailhead for upper Manzana Creek is reached from Santa Barbara by taking State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass and continuing to Armour Ranch Road. From Armour Ranch Road continue along Happy Canyon Road. The route leads through scenic ranch country and on our drive we were treated to seeing two coyotes dash across the road, as well as a dozen deer grazing along side the road.

Happy Canyon Road crests over the San Rafael Mountains at Cachuma Saddle and continues down the backside becoming Sunset Valley Road. The road passes Davy Brown Campground and the trailhead for lower Manzana Creek before ending at Nira Campground and the trailhead for upper Manzana Creek. An adventure pass is unfortunately required to park at Nira.

Manzana Creek is a popular destination, with a half-dozen trail camps spread out over the length of the upper creek. In springtime, there is generally water in all of the camps. From Nira Campground, it’s about 14 miles roundtrip to Manzana Narrows Camp and about 19 miles roundtrip to Big Cone Spruce Camp.

Grey Ghost Foothill Digger Pine Manzana Creek Trail hiking backpacking San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

A stand of gray pines is seen from Manzana Trail

From the trailhead, Manzana Trail quickly crosses the creek and leads through a mix of riparian plants along the creek and chaparral on the hillsides. Amongst the riparian plants are alder, sycamore, mule fat, and willow. And amongst the chaparral is ceanothus, manzanita, yerba santa, chamise, and yucca. Also in the mix is coast live oak.

Many of these plants can be seen along other trails, and so in some ways the stand out plant here is gray pine, which is fairly common along Manzana Creek. Gray pines are found throughout parts of California and recognizable by their branching trunk, that can give the tree a narrow y-shaped profile. Pine nuts from its relatively large cones are edible and were used by native people throughout much of California, including the Chumash.

Settling into our hike, we quickly cover the first mile to Lost Valley Camp. The camp has two sites each with a picnic table and metal fire ring and grill. The camp is near the beginning of Lost Valley Trail, which leads up to Hurricane Deck.

From here, Manzana Trail becomes generally more exposed, staying on the northern side of the canyon as it rides above the creek and crossing the creek just before arriving at Fish Camp. Fish Camp is about 2.5 miles from the trailhead and features two sites, each with a picnic table and metal fire ring and grill.

Canyon Wren Manzana Creek Fish Creek San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Canyon Wren

We take our first rest stop at Fish Camp and walk a short ways downstream to the swim hole found below the confluence of Fish and Manzana Creeks. It’s not quite warm enough for a swim, but a spirited canyon wren keeps us entertained hopping from rock to rock.

Continuing upstream from Fish Camp, the trail soon crosses the creek, and again climbs away from the creek, staying on the more exposed northern side of the canyon. The trail then descends back down to the creek and arrives at Ray’s Camp, which features a picnic table and metal fire ring and grill. The camp is about 4.5 miles from the trailhead and is named for local author and trails advocate Ray Ford.

Past Ray’s Camp, the trial generally stays closer to the creek, becoming more shaded and offering a lot of rich scenery to take in. The trail crosses the creek several times on the way to Manzana Camp and it is refreshing to see clear, flowing water here in the backcountry.

As we continue, the canyon starts to narrow, which lets us know that we’re about to arrive at Manzana Camp where we plan to take another rest stop.

Manzana Camp is about six miles from the trailhead and features two sites. The first site is near the creek underneath a large sycamore tree and features a picnic table. The second site is under a canopy of coast live oaks and lacks a picnic table. Both sites have a metal fire ring and grill.

From Manzana Camp, we continue another mile up to Manzana Narrows. The camp features four sites, three with picnic tables and all with metal fire rings and grills. The camp is situated under a mix of coast live oak, canyon live oak, and California bay laurel.

There is usually water year-round at Manzana Narrows Camp and in the springtime one of the more attractive features is the medium-sized cascade in the creek.

Waterfall pool Manzana Narrows Camp trail creek hiking backpacking san rafael wilderness los padres national forest

Cascade and pool at Manzana Narrows Camp

Past Manzana Narrows, Manzana Trail continues upstream another half-mile to the intersection with Big Cone Spruce Trail. Here, Manzana Trail leaves Manzana Creek and continues over towards South Fork Station and the Sisquoc River.

Continuing up Manzana Creek, Big Cone Spruce Trail takes on more of a wilderness feel. The trail becomes more overgrown and as we continue we start to see bear sign on some of the trees and bear scat with cherry pits along the trail that are likely from last fall when cherries were on the bear’s menu.

The plants also change, near the trail juncture is the last of the gray pines, while further up the canyon the trail arrives at the first stand of big cone Douglas fir, also known as big cone spruce. Mixed in are canyon live oak, with the two trees become more prevalent as the trail continues.

We manage to arrive at camp just at sunset with enough light to settle in. The lower camp has a picnic table and grated stove and is nestled under a mix of canyon live oak, California bay laurel, and big cone Douglas fir. Water can be found in the creek near camp year-round.

As a reward for our full day of hiking, I make tri-tip tacos with pre-cooked tri-tip from Whole Foods that I’ve packed in along with tortillas, cheese, and fresh cilantro and onions. For breakfast I’ve packed in fresh eggs and mushrooms to go with the cheese and onions for an omelet.

Manzanita blossoms flowers Manzana Creek San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara County

Manzanita blossoms

In the morning we awake to the raucous sound of several Steller’s jay. Both Steller’s jay and western scrub jays are in the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, and magpies, which in my mind goes a long way to explain why they seem to enjoy making so much noise.

Steller’s jay have a wide range of vocalizations, and even more impressive is their ability to mimic the sounds of other animals such as red-tailed hawks and other raptors. The ploy is used to chase off other birds from productive feeding areas.

Steller’s jay prefer conifer forests and other wooded areas and seem to favor areas with year-round water.

Before leaving the area, we visit the upper camp, which features a picnic table and grated stove. The camp is apparently a favorite of the bears as the table is scratched and there’s even hairs from where bear has used as a scratching post.

With more time on the hike out we notice that in this uppermost part of the canyon that a number of plants have are already starting to flower. In bloom along the trail are California bay laurel, wild gooseberry, nightshade, and bush poppy.

Retracing our route back to the car, we feel renewed, in spite of the miles, and plot our next backcountry adventure.

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 5th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Western scrub jay Manzana Creek trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara County

Western scrub jay at Fish Creek Camp


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