Nira to Upper Oso: An Early San Rafael Experience

Here’s me in April 1991 posing in front of a San Rafael Wilderness sign. We had just climbed out of the Upper Sisquoc River watershed. I was as a young buck laying eyes on, what was for me, never before seen territory.

We put in at Nira Campground and had been out on the trail for several days, spending our first night at Manzana Narrows Camp. I vividly recall laying eyes on the sandstone formations at the top of White Ledge Canyon for the first time in my life, the next morning, after climbing out of the Manzana watershed. We popped through a narrow gap in the rocky hills near a creek and right into a huge sprawling albino Lizard’s Mouth. At least that’s how I saw it. Already having a fascination with rock formations and caves stoked by years of scrambling around the Santa Ynez Mountains closer to town, the landscape looked like a lithic playground of epic proportions.

We proceeded down White Ledge Canyon passing through a lush Happy Hunting Ground Camp and on down the trail to spend our second night at White Ledge Camp. The next day the weather began to change and the cloud cover thickened through out the day. It started raining as we approached the last several miles before the Sisquoc River and South Fork confluence, and so we holed up in the South Fork cabin the rest of the afternoon and night. The cabin at that time was little more than a rat nest made of four walls and a roof. But it was dry and we appreciated the wood burning stove and the dry fuel other hikers had kindly stocked. The river outside was dirt filled from runoff and rippin’.

South Fork cabin in 1991.

Lazing the afternoon away reading a paperback at the cabin in June 2011. It is shown here after being restored by the Los Padres Volunteer Wilderness Rangers, which started, I believe, in 2008. Hat tip to all those involved!

The storm bathed the landscape in a gentle intermittent rain, but cleared during the night and the next morning we picked our way along a less swollen Upper Sisquoc. I spotted a large morel mushroom that third day.

We made it to Upper Bear Camp after more deep river crossings than we cared for. It was a mite chilly and there was some snow still scattered about. On a huge pine log near camp, there was what to this day is still the largest clump of ladybugs I’ve ever seen.  The backside of Big Pine Mountain also had a cap of crusty old snow, which we crunched over on our way down the fire road after staying the night at Upper Bear.

The first photo in this post was taken on Big Pine-Buckhorn Road east of Alamar Camp after having climbed out of the Sisquoc headwaters. We followed the road to Bluff Camp that day and set up for the night. It was an easy walk compared to what came next.

The following day we plodded along until well after dark, grinding through mile after curving mile of seemingly endless fire road. It was one of those hikes where you round a bend only to see the road running along the ridge far off in the distance, and you sigh in exasperation, as it winds around numerous hills to disappear and then reappear even further off in the distance. We had hoped to reach Upper Oso Campground. We didn’t make it.

We covered somewhere around 15 miles before my little brother finally could go no further. He put in a hell of a day for how young he was. We ended up rolling out our sleeping bags right on the thin strip of dirt that was the trail, somewhere on the south face of Little Pine Mountain, above Nineteen Oaks Camp.

We must have chewed some jerky and trail mix or something for dinner, but I don’t recall. We surely didn’t cook anything. We were plumb tuckered. The second half of the trip wasn’t the most inspired course to take, that’s for sure, but altogether, the route got us just about as deep into the backcountry as is possible around these parts. It was certainly a remarkable experience for kids of our age.

The last morning we walked the remaining short distance down Oso Canyon and through a vacant Upper Oso Campground. The gate was still closed at First Crossing. We waded across a shallow spot in the Santa Ynez River and hitched a ride to Paradise Store, where we called for our ride back to civilization.

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6 Responses to Nira to Upper Oso: An Early San Rafael Experience

  1. Nico says:

    Great overview of your first trip into the San Raf! I’m looking forward to the cooler hiking seasons getting started up here soon. Thanks for the early inspiration.


  2. Eldon Walker says:

    This is a great tale exceedingly well told. I can see all those places vividly in memory through your descriptions. I have for years been trying to formulate a description of the trip from Bluff to Upper Oso via the fire road; you have done it perfectly. In January, 1984 I force-marched that stretch, finishing with a bad attitude and a sore Achilles tendon. And a parking ticket on my car for a missing front license plate, lost while driving into Upper Oso. For a bit of old Santa Barbara color, the final act of the day was pancake gluttony at the original, infamous Sambo’s restaurant location, wherever that was (State street?).

  3. steve says:

    Beanie boy in the wilderness!

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