Sunday, March 16, 2014

Manzana Narrows and Beyond

Twin falls at Manzana Narrows Camp.
What a magically delicious day!
I've never claimed to be an expert on the Santa Barbara backcountry so I'm just beginning to travel the trails that many of you already know and love. One of the discussions Nico and I recently shared centered on the Upper Manzana watershed and what lies beyond. I can read a map fairly well and understood a long time ago that this region of our forest was calling me. I think it first grabbed my attention when I did Cachuma, McKinley, and San Rafael Mtns. From those heights I could see down into Big Cone Spruce Camp and Fish Creek, and beyond that into the Manzana, and above Manzana into the upper portions of the path to White Ledge. The time had come for me to get off my duff and go see the area for myself. It was the right call for such a pleasant Southern California day.

The orange indicates the range of my travels for the day. Nine hours very well spent 

The price of admission to the Narrows comes in the form of five rather hot and boring miles. From the trailhead at Nira Camp the route progresses upstream, passing three campsites of varying quality; Lost Valley (nice-ish), Weavers (poison oakey, but otherwise nice, not on the topo), Fish Creek (a dive). These early miles are somewhat annoying, by which I mean that the trail randomly travels up and down slopes on either side of the drainage then dips back into the valley floor seemingly without reason or forethought. Sure, the trail was well traveled and nicely manicured but I had difficulty finding or maintaining my most efficient stride. This up-then-down-then-up routine was particularly insulting in the hot afternoon on the return trip.

On the way in I met a gent named Dan Hall who frequently posts trip reports to Santa Barbara He's a salty dog, that one. He had done a fine job of collecting all the ticks between Alcove camp and where we met, for which I silently thanked him (literally, the dude had like two dozen ticks on his pants). He'd been out for a couple few days and launched into a vivid description of the devilish wind he'd experienced two nights before, a gale that had created a sandstorm within his tent, sleeping bag, ears, etc... Good times.

The Upper Manzana Trail, looking back towards the trailhead at Nira Camp.
The trail finally rounded a corner and turned upstream into a narrowing, arboreal canyon, shaded and very pretty. Before long I passed through Mazana Camp, a nice creekside site with two well separated picnic benches, shaded by oaks and sycamore. This is a pleasant place at the lower gate of the Narrows, a good spot for some breakfast while listening to the creek. Soon enough I strapped in and continued my upstream journey.

A portion of the creek through the Narrows. Very pretty.
Manzana Camp

The next mile or so were thoroughly enjoyable. The trail hugs the right side of the creek, sometimes climbing out of the drainage in short hops, which allow one to peer down through the trees into the stream bed before dropping back to the water. Between the mature and shady trees and the bubbling creek I found this stretch of trail to be one of the prettiest sections of forest I've experienced in the Santa Ynez backcountry.  Too soon I strolled into the Narrows Camp. This site is also very shady, creekside, and pleasant. There is a small pool showered by twin falls next to the camp. There are several distinct sites there, with more picnic benches, and the place even has a pit toilet up the hill above the creek.

Manzana Narrows Camp

A few minutes upstream of Narrows Camp the trail starts  climbing a short stack of switchbacks out of the west side of the creek. After the first few zig-zags I was able to see upstream to Manzana Falls, and above me on the western slope rose tall and pocketed bluffs of weathered sandstone sprinkled with bands of conglomerate cobbles. After banging out the remaining switchbacks I traversed a small plateau immediately above the falls. Here a well defined use trail cuts right to the top of the falls, and another cuts left to a small campsite called Alcove. The top of the falls offers a great view back down the Narrows, and above that, to Cachuma Peak

Alcove Camp is a pretty neat little site with great views, perched on a small bench under an ancient oak which has twisted it's way out from under a leaning boulder. There is a single bedrock mortar next to the tree. Under the bluffs behind Alcove Camp is a grotto and above that, a large overhang for which the camp is named. In normal years a narrow stream of water will pour off the lip of the alcove and down into the grotto, providing water for the camp. Today that stream was barely a trickle. 

The mesa country atop the switchbacks climbing out of the Narrows.

A look back down the Narrows from the top of Manzana Falls. That's Cachuma Peak in the background.
Lower Alcove Camp is tucked under those oaks. The lower alcove is just above and behind the camp.
Lower Alcove Camp. Note the great oak growing out from under and all over the boulder. There is a BRM next to this tree.
On a hunch I did some exploring above that small stream which trails into the grotto. I encountered a real alcove and a small campsite there. This would seem like a very private and secluded place to spend a night. There were a few puddles here, which will probably be gone shortly. There were also three shallow mortars, in an evenly spaced line. I'll just refer to this site as Upper Alcove Camp. Neat place.
Upper Alcove Camp.

Bedrock mortars (BRMs) at Upper Alcove Camp.
Back on the trail I turned north and headed for the mesa above Manzana Creek. As I ascended through twisty turns and around small rock formations I caught a glimpse of two high flying condors. Higher up the trail I encountered grassy meadows and low sandstone bluffs. Small watercourses wove downhill through the grasses and I observed numerous animal tracks: coyote, bobcat, deer, bear, and mountain lion. This high mesa is uniquely pretty. Further up to the high point, where the trail starts a long, mellow descent to White Ledge I was surrounded by large tiers of bluffs, each of varying height and riddled with pockets and caves. I selected a formation on the east side of the mesa and dropped pack for some lunch in the shade of a huge overhang which had been carved by years of wind and rain. There was a cool breeze up here and the mesa was silent but for the wind. I could see spruce growing out of the shadier sides of nearby formations, and small trickles of groundwater streaming down some of these bluffs. 
A pair of condors circling above the Alcove Camp area.
A large mountain lion print next to a standard business card for scale.

High on the mesa above the Narrows. The Hurricane Deck can be seen in the far distance.

After lunch I spent over an hour exploring this park. I scrambled up and over random formations just for an opportunity to gaze down into White Ledge and the Sisquac region. To the south I had views of McKinley Mountain and San Rafael Mountain (see Cachuma link above). I poked my head in dozens of caves and pockets and kept an eye out for arrowheads (not finding any) while walking the grasslands between formations. Before my little tour of the mesa ended I had concluded that this day was the best I had experienced in the Santa Ynez backcountry. Too soon it was time to turn things around and head back down to the Narrows and Nira.

Numerous small drainages coming off the mesa above the Narrows combine to become Manzana Creek.
One other note to share. I was briefly crestfallen early in the day upon discovering that somebody had forgotten to put the memory card back his camera, so all I had with me was an old iphone 4s which I use almost exclusively as an MP3 player. Duh. So all the shots on this post were taken with that (results not typical, I had to clean them up a bit at home). This trip done as a day hike comes to 20 miles, give or take.

Check out this weird gas-forming algae in a shallow stream of water.

1 comment:

  1. Well done on the writeup; those vivid descriptions brought that trek right to home. As of two minutes ago, that slice of back-country just got added to my hit-list.

    BTW, you done that i-phone 4s proud!