Posted by: James Wapotich | May 10, 2018

Trail Quest: La Jolla Trail to Manzana Creek, Part 1

We got our second wind half-way up Cedros Saddle Trail. It had been a somewhat demanding hike connecting together several overgrown trails that rarely see visitors.

The idea had taken hold a couple years ago when I was able to locate the middle section of La Jolla Trail and thought it might be fun to hike the trail as part of overnight backpacking trip. The route I envisioned followed La Jolla Trail to the top Zaca Ridge and connected over to Manzana Creek using Zaca Spring, Cedros Saddle, and Sulphur Springs Trails.

The 15-mile hike would provide a chance to see some remote parts of the San Rafael Mountains, but would also require a fair amount of bushwhacking and route finding. It would also require two cars, one at the trailhead along Figueroa Mountain Road and the other near Nira Campground along Manzana Creek.

Needing a cohort, I immediately thought of Volunteer Wilderness Ranger Curt Cragg. Curt had not only expressed interest in hiking La Jolla Trail, but seven years ago had led a series of volunteer trail projects in the area around Zaca Lake, including Zaca Spring and Cedros Saddle Trails. The projects were organized by Santa Barbara County Outdoor Foundation, which he founded, and included the installation of signs at various trail junctures.

I figured that alone would inspire him to look past all the implied bushwhacking and route finding, but as an added inducement I mentioned we would also be visiting “Cascade Canyon” along Manzana Creek. I’d located the canyon on the map after reading Ranger Edgar Davison’s journal. Davison described the canyon as a “miniature Colorado” because of its narrowness.

Curt was up for the adventure. On the appointed weekend, a car was left near Nira Campground and we made our way to the top of La Jolla Trail.

La Jolla Trail is reached from Santa Barbara by taking State Route 154 to Los Olivos and turning onto Figueroa Mountain Road. The road follows Alamo Pintado Creek upstream through a broad valley and then starts its climb towards Figueroa Mountain. The trailhead for La Jolla Trail is about a half-mile past Figueroa Mountain Ranger Station and just before the turnoff for Catway Road.

From the trailhead, we quickly cover the first two miles down into the Birabent Canyon and arrive at Ballard Camp. The camp has two sites and can make for an easy overnight backpacking destination.

The canyon is tucked in against the San Rafael Mountains with water flowing intermittently in the creek year round. Growing along the shaded creek are maple, alder, willow, and sycamore, as well as plenty of poison oak.

About a half-mile below Ballard Camp, the trail turns up a side canyon and becomes more overgrown as it starts to make its way towards the top of Zaca Ridge. Here, we both observe a blaze mark on an oak tree; it’s a square cut with a half size rectangle on top of it. These types of blazes were once a common way to mark routes and can still be seen in the backcountry along a number of trails.

We follow the trail up the side creek. After about a quarter of a mile, the trail crosses the creek one last time and makes its way onto an oak-covered ridge that separates two side creeks. Continuing up the ridge we pass a second blaze on one of the oaks. Here, the trail starts to fade.

The trail was badly damaged during the 1993 Marre Fire, which burned more than 40,000 acres.

The first time I’d hiked the trail I’d made it this far, but couldn’t find where the trail continued. A few years later I’d heard someone had brushed the first set of switchbacks where the trail continues up the hillside. On a return visit, finding that small section of cleared trail was just enough to set me on the right path to get to the upper meadow where the trail is in much better shape.

We are already feeling the heat of the day as we start up the first set of switchbacks. The trail is overgrown with regrowth from the fire and much of the old tread is covered with loose ravel that has slid down since the fire.

As we continue, the overgrown switchbacks begin to disappear. We know the trail makes a short dog leg into the canyon to the west, before crossing higher up back into the canyon on the east side of the ridge. Rather than continue to scout around for the trail we opt to bushwhack up the ridge with the hope of intersecting the trail.

Curt is the first to locate the trail further up. Pausing there, I can’t help but enjoy the juxtaposition of bushwhacking and route finding in the backcountry, while being able to see the ridge where Figueroa Mountain Road runs and knowing that we’re not that far from the Santa Ynez Valley and civilization.

From here, we resume threading our way through the chaparral. Someone once said it’s not bushwhacking unless you’re crawling. We were definitely bushwhacking, fortunately there is only a handful of places where we had to crawl to get through the ceanothus.

At one point we pass an old wooden barrel encased in travertine that may have been used as a trough, although the spring above it is no longer flowing. After one final scramble up a brushy hillside we arrive at the upper meadow, a glorious respite from all the brush we’d just pushed through.

The trail follows the western edge of this little meadow, passing through some light chaparral, before continuing along the western edge of a much larger meadow. We aim for a large dead oak tree near the upper end of this meadow.

Here, the trail leaves the meadow and threads its way up towards the top of Zaca Ridge. The trail is more overgrown than the last time I was there, but is comparatively easy to follow.

At the top of the trail we arrive at Zaca Ridge Road and continue a quarter of a mile west along the road to the top of Zaca Spring Trail. Curt’s sign is no longer there, but we’re still able to spot the beginning of the trail.

The roughly mile-long trail starts out okay, making a couple of wide switch backs, but then quickly dissolves into a series of game trails threading through mostly canyon live oak and ceanothus. Curt’s GPS leads us up from where we are, but I recall the trail being lower down. Not finding anything higher up, we angle down into the canyon until we intersects what looks like the old trail. To the untrained eye, it’s little more than a well-used bear trail, but we both recognize it as what’s left of the trail and follow it down the canyon.

The first time I’d hiked this trail I was coming up from Zaca Lake and actually saw a bear. I was busy musing to myself that it seemed like the only ones hiking the trail were the bears and looked up to see one cutting down one of the switchbacks.

The bear was closer than I liked; I remembered my sister telling me once that animals generally prefer to avoid conflict, since it can cost them energy they have to recover or, worse, present the risk of injury. It occurred to me that if I didn’t change anything in my behavior maybe the bear would do the same. And so without breaking stride, we essentially walked past one another, each of us looking back over our shoulder wondering what the other was doing there, but content nonetheless to continue on our way without any unexpected problems.

As the trail continues down the canyon, it joins the creek and starts to become a little more defined and arrives at the intersection with Cedros Saddle Trail. Here, at last, we find two of the trail signs Curt installed.

Cedros Saddle Trail is also overgrown in places, but much easier to follow than Zaca Spring Trail. About halfway up, we pause to catch our breath just below a stand of cedars.

From here, we start to find our second wind as trail conditions improve. Although still uphill we make better time to Cedros Saddle. Cedros is Spanish for cedar and at the saddle is a stand of cedars mixed with pines and oaks.

The trail then arrives at Catway Road. Across the road is the top of Sulphur Springs Trail, our next trail in the series.

Sulphur Springs Trail leads down to Manzana Trail, which follows Manzana Creek upstream to the trailhead near Nira Campground to complete the shuttle hike.

La Jolla Trail Birabent Canyon hike backpacking blaze mark Zaca Ridge Los Padres National Forest

A blaze marks where the trail turns up a side canyon

La Jolla Springs Trail Birabent Canyon Zaca Ridge hike backpacking Los Padres National Forest

Curt hiking along the middle section of La Jolla Trail

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 30th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Ballard Camp La Jolla Springs Trail Birabent Canyon hike backpacking Los Padres National Forest

The meadow in Birabent Canyon near where the original Ballard Camp was located. Here, the trail turns up a side canyon on its way to Zaca Ridge.

Birabent Canyon La Jolla Springs Trail Alamo Pintado Creek Los Padres National Forest

The creek flowing through Birabent Canyon

La Jolla Springs Trail Zaca Ridge hike backpacking Los Padres National Forest

The upper meadow along La Jolla Trail

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