Thursday, January 14, 2021

Solo in the San Rafael Wilderness

Hard to believe (for me) that it has been 2.5 years since my last backpacking trip. That was just a quick overnight with Lori and was pretty rough, mainly due to the heat. As it happens it was from the same trailhead that I started from for this trip. However, this time I did the trip in January and not August which makes a huge difference. The heat in this part of the back country in August is brutal, in January not so much.

The route started at Nira Campground and was a semi loop that ended at Grass mountain just off Figueroa Mountain road, in total about 50 miles. 

Day One (Nira Campground to Manzana Narrows  White Ledge ~ 12 miles):

Lori dropped me off at the trailhead around Noon, we said goodbye and I headed onto the trail. I had arranged to be picked up at the parking lot below Grass Mountain in four days. As there was no cell coverage until Grass Mountain, once I started I was committed to the journey. I had left my itinerary with Lori so that if something did happen S&R would know where to start looking. While it is always good to be prepared, I did not expect too much difficulty.

Almost immediately, I took a wrong turn and carelessly went up the wrong trail. I was going from memory at this point (big mistake) and thought I was on the right track. It wasn't until I started to run into some interesting but totally unfamiliar geologic features that I started to think something was wrong. This was 6-7 miles into the trail and after I had gone 8 miles, I realized I was definitely not in the right spot. Fortunately, I ran into a trail sign and figured out where I was, up on the Hurricane Deck trail, nowhere near my first campsite at Manzana Narrows. The trail did reconnect with the Manzana trail about 4.5 miles further, so I headed that way and adjusted my plan to stay at White Ledge. I was hoping there was water, I hadn't mapped out all the water sources, which are not many.

View from White Ledge Trail

Cool geological features


I had to speed hike down to White Ledge while it was still light. The trail was very overgrown and my legs got scratched up pretty good. I did not want to try to navigate the trail in the dark, so had extra motivation. I rolled into camp just as it started to get dark and fortunately there was some stagnant pools of water I could filter. I set up my Zpacks hexamid and enjoyed a very quiet evening.

Yucca in the sunset



White Ledge Campsite



Day 2 (White Ledge to Sycamore ~ 8 miles)

The second day was pretty mellow, I shaved off 4 miles of hiking due to my extended first day and chose to chill at Sycamore camp after I arrived around two. It's a pretty nice camping area with plenty of shade and flowing water in the Sisquoc. There was even a picnic table and toilet! Unfortunately I found a tick feeding on me, which clued me in to be a little more careful. I wasn't expecting much tick activity due to it being a dry winter but there were still plenty out there.

Cairns were really helpful for keeping on the trail

Ye Olde trail register at Sycamore camp

Backcountry luxury

Day 3 (Sycamore to Manzana Schoolhouse ~ 15 miles)

I traversed the majority of the Sisquoc trail on day three. The trail, while not particularly hard to follow did require paying attention. There were cairns and flagging tape marking some areas but I did struggle in a few sections to find the trail. The landscape was pretty exposed to the sun with the trail mostly winding through grass land and scrubby manzanita bushes. The Sisquoc river was mostly dried up but there would be small sections with water. I guess these were fed by springs? The temps were in the uppper 70s, I can imagine this being a really difficult hike in the summer. As it was, I would consider it moderately difficult. The elevation profile is fairly flat but there were still some very nice views. The trail crosses the Sisquoc many times over the course of the day. It would be interesting to hike it when winter rains come, I think it would be a very different experience.

Following the trail

Dry landscape


I camped at the Manazana Schoolhouse campsite. This was the most developed campsite I came across although there was no water source. Fortunately, I was expecting this and carried enough water to dry camp for the night.

Unfortunate signs of civilization


Day 4 (Manzana Schoolhouse to Grass Mountain trail head ~ 12 miles)

The last day was probably the toughest. The trail I was following was mostly overgrown and at times very steep. It was also infested with ticks, more than I had seen during the rest of the hike. The tick bite I had gotten on the second day had by this time swelled up and looked infected. This nagging worry of Lyme Disease added to the mental challenge of the day knowing I was hiking through many ticks. I had to stop periodically to pick them off me. The only water I came across was at Dabney Cabin, where there was a small trickle. The trail crossed a jeep road periodically and I walked to road as much as I could to avoid the ticks. 


Tick waiting to hitch a ride


Nice view of the Sierra Madre range and the Hurricane Deck


This one didn't make it, would I?

When I reached the highest point of the day, near Zaca Peak I finally had cell service. I gave Lori a call and let her know when I would reach the trailhead. She also managed to get me an appointment to see a doctor that afternoon to look at the tick bite, which by this point was starting to hurt and looked pretty bad.



view from just below Zaca peak, Grass Mountain to the right

From Zaca peak to Grass Mountain is a little used trail that was fairly straight forward to navigate. The hike down Grass Mountain did a number on my quads (it's very steep) and by the time I made it to the bottom my legs were feeling like jelly. I also ran into the first people I had seen since I started. Lori picked me up at the trailhead at 2 and all was well.

The doctor told me he didn't think Lyme disease would be an issue as it is rare in Santa Barbara county. Apparently young ticks feed on a lizard which exudes a protein that gets rid of the bacteria. I had never heard that before. But he gave me an antibiotic prescription anyways to be sure.

Overall it was a great hike, right about the challenge I was expecting. I did expect to see a little more wildlife. There were plenty of birds and squirrels but no larger animals other than a bobcat. I did see plenty of bear tracks and scat but nothing that looked particularly recent.