Dan McCaslin: The Lure of the Fish Canyon Creek Six-Mile Hike | Outside


While hiking east along the Upper Manzana Creek Trail (30W13), neither Shaman Ryan nor I dared to expect Fish Canyon Creek to flow intermittently when we started the hike in early April.

Immersed in a long drought and seeing how the main Manzana seemed to have shrunk, our hopes rose when we managed to locate Fish Canyon Creek hidden behind the camp of the same name. (No fishing in the Manzana or Fish Creek.)

Mid-morning and 65 degrees we hiked under deep blue skies, then our hearts soared as we rushed to the rocky border of Fish Creek and witnessed the magic water that flows.

This gurgling little stream supports many diverse life forms, including cougars, bears, many fowls, and even the endangered arroyo toad (Anaxyrus californicus).

Two surprises flooded my awareness while looking at the crucial stream – that water appeared and that aquatic inhabitants still thrived in this very harsh desert environment.

Fish Peak in the San Rafael Desert.
Click to view larger

Fish Peak in the San Rafael Desert. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

Late rainfall around March 31/April 1 had very little impact here in the Santa Barbara backcountry, and Fish Canyon Creek will dry up before August.

When the US Forest Service announced the reopening of Sunset Valley Road leading to Nira and Davy Brown Camps on March 31, Ryan and I drove the 48 miles the next day to slip into the San Rafael Wilderness at the famous Nira Camp so that we can make this an easy six mile round trip hike. (See 4.1.1 for Conant Map, and click here.)

We understand that landscape and memory intertwine, and since I’ve hiked to and beyond Fish Camp (and Fish Canyon Creek) for over 50 years, I and Ryan remembered the direction many student groups here, encountering a lost Nubian goat, splashing in the stream, and special hiking trips with my 4 year old son in the 1980s.

Ryan has been coming here for overnight trips with kids from the Santa Barbara Montessori School for the past few years.

A path to Fish Creek Canyon.
Click to view larger

A path to Fish Creek Canyon. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

Walking along the trail I could often see equilateral Fish Peak far ahead until you hit Fish Camp below. Admiring the same peak for several decades via repeated hikes enriches the memory and stimulates the imagination.

Just as art critic Jed Perl recently wrote, “Metaphysics is in the material,” my material image of glorious Fish Peak merges with refreshing memories of days spent there with family and children.

Fish Creek Camp and a simple table.
Click to view larger

Fish Creek Camp and a simple table. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

We left Santa Barbara at 5 a.m. and were walking along Manzana Creek at 6:30 a.m. in the gray dawn. Once you start hiking, you have entered one of California’s most remote landscapes – the San Rafael Wilderness.

Most of this well-maintained Forest Service trail – the Upper Manzana Trail – is fairly flat, with only a few inland swings involving switchbacks up and down. Most of the time you are within sight and can enjoy the singsong sounds of the cheerful Manzana Creek.

A lodgepole pine near Fish Peak.
Click to view larger

A lodgepole pine near Fish Peak. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

We didn’t encounter any other humans on the way to Fish, but encountered two pairs of backpacks on our return around noon.

Walking happily on the cool dusty trail in early April, we noticed how quickly the dark green “winter grass” had grown after the modest rain we received in early January.

In a chaparral-based fire ecology like ours, a few inches of rainfall often provides all the moisture these hardy plants can get for a year, so they are evolutionarily programmed to grow fast and tall, and germinate the seeds quickly.

We inhaled the lilac scent of blooming white and blue ceanothus bushes, toyon and other harsh chaparral flora revitalized by the low rainfall. Chaparral plants exhibit glorious intensity based on short periods of water for growth, and the felt like late spring in terms of pollens and flowers.

Fish Creek Camp has two sites and each has its own wooden table. There are outhouses in between, and the Manzana is, in fact, closer to the campsites than Fish Creek itself. Since the area has been closed for six months, one can easily see how nature has rebounded without the pressures of human presence.

The hike is as easy as I can tell, a six mile ride, great for bringing young kids or seniors. Whether one has stepped into the backcountry 14 miles from the farther Sisquoc River, or just three miles from Fish, every human will also feel “out there” and free from the city and time. than on the Sisquoc.

We hiked a few yards to Fish Canyon Creek, and I know a low but pristine waterfall pours about a mile upstream (rock jump).

Ryan and I both enjoyed the quietness in this area – no machinery, no fires, no people, just the very occasional jet plane flying high above crossing the cobalt blue sky. He spotted a strangely “bent” jack pine on the opposite slope.

While we’re still enjoying mid-spring, take your kids to Nira Camp, then hike with them upriver from Lost Valley Camp to bucolic Fish Camp, with its own hidden stream.

Build family memories amid intriguing scenery and consider spending the night while the two streams are still flowing.


» Directions to Nira Camp (starting point): Highway 154 to Armor Ranch Road at the Santa Ynez River bridge. Turn right. In about two miles turn right again onto Happy Canyon Road (which becomes Sunset Valley Road) and drive to the end (Nira is two miles past Davy Brown Camp where this road ends). About 90 minutes one way. After Cachuma Saddle, drivers can inspect the two new concrete bridges installed by Lapidus Co. for the Forest Service.

Map: Brian Conant, “San Rafael Wilderness Trail Guide and Map” (2015).

» Books: Simon Schama, « Landscape and Memory » (1995); Jed Perl, “Authority and Freedom” (2022)..

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone anchors in antiquity and has written extensively about the local hinterland. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available on Lulu.com. He is the Archaeological Site Steward for the US Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes readers’ ideas for future Noozhawk columns and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.


Comments are closed.