The trail we hiked through California’s Dick Smith Wilderness.
David Stillman and I recently hiked the Deal Canyon/Rancho Nuevo Canyon trails. Five years after the Zaca Fire destroyed most of the forest, with sooty deadfall logs lying about and the earth bristling with the blackened skeletons of chaparral and dead trees, the wilderness feels like a weed-choked wasteland.
After a wildfire plant life rapidly returns. The bushes, scrub brush and chaparral, it all grows back relatively quickly, along with weeds galore. Of course, fire or not, the various sandstone outcrops lining canyon walls will always remain. But without towering big cone Douglas fir trees clinging to the rocky slopes, the characteristically stark Dick Smith Wilderness feels especially barren and empty.
As I walked past pockets of dead trees and peered up at cragged mountainsides patchily covered in them, I was left to imagine what it all looked like when the blackened, leafless trunks were alive and green before the fire. I had not hiked either trail before, never seen the area.
Unlike oak trees that can endure and survive fire to sprout new growth from their branches or rootballs, conifers go up like torches and do not regrow. Throughout the hike I thought of how the tall timber will, best conditions allowing, take decades to regrow from seed. How it will never be the same in my lifetime. And how I never saw it all alive.
The majestic needle-leaved sentinels overlooking rocky, cave-riddled mountainsides adds an enchanting feel to the land. The trees in lower Rancho Nuevo Canyon survived the fire preserving the characteristic ambiance of this particular stretch of the canyon. And a patch of forest surrounding Mine Camp remains in otherwise burned out hills. In much of the wilderness, however, the alluring character the conifers added to the land went up in smoke.
I took along my trusty iPhone for a camera and played around with it using different settings and apps to capture some images from the hike.
Black trees and blue skies in the Dick Smith Wilderness.
The slant of early morning light along the Deal Connector Trail.
The red dot marks the location of Mine Camp.
Stillman walking down what is perhaps the best section of the Deal Canyon Trail, as also shown in the next two photos below.
Looking downstream over Deal Junction Camp.
A closer view of Deal Junction Camp.
The red dot notes the location of Deal Junction Camp.
A ragged sandstone outcrop along Rancho Nuevo Canyon.
Looking upstream at Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp. The camp is located in the midground just left of center.
Looking downstream over Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp, which is located about center frame under the burnt trees at the foot of the rocky ridge on the right.
Looking upstream from Rancho Nuevo Camp.
The red dot marks the location of Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp.
Another view of lower Rancho Nuevo Canyon from the trail, which is faintly visible leading from left to right through the pines.
Chumash Indian rock art.
Fire sucks, but the entire Bear/Mine/Deal/RN loop is a great place to explore. (And some really good off-trail exploratory options.) Really nice photos, Jack — thanks for sharing them.
All those rock formations up there are pretty cool. I’ve already been back up the canyon to the upper camp once since the hike with Stillman, but I’m dying to get back further, way up the canyon, and take a closer look.
Looks like an awesome trail. Thanks for sharing.
Love the pawprints, horny toad, and Indian rock art. We know fire well here in Florida. The difference is the environment is geared toward annual fire and rebounds extremely quickly. I saw Yellowstone after the fire there many years ago, and thought the same thing – it would take decades to return the way it was. Thanks for sharing.
Nice photos, makes me want to get out there. Yeah, all of these fires are heartbreaking, on one hand, I remember during the Zaca Fire I kept hoping they’d put it out before it burned through another favorite place of mine, saying for example well at least Flores Flats hasn’t burned, at least Indian Canyon hasn’t burned, etc. But now I feel fortunate to see first hand the cycle of regrowth, twenty years on either side of these events they would just part of the literature on chaparral that one would read about.
Hey James. Yeah, the regrowth is something to see, and the fires have certainly opened up some previously chaparral-choked inaccessible areas to exploration. It’s just the loss of big cottonwoods and conifers that is disheartening, as they take forever to regrow from seed.
Agreed, there are places that I’ve seen for the first time post Zaca Fire that I imagine must’ve been spectacular and yeah there are trails now that one can find that were nearly forgotten. Always tradeoffs.
You got some great photos bro. Yeah, RN Canyon is way worth it.
Thanks for sharing the photos, as hard as it was to look at them. I’m with you, Jack. I hate to see those conifers go. I have fond memories of hiking out there. I remember piñon pines there, too. I once found an old Spanish spur peeking out of the ground on the Deal Connector Trail. Over the thousands of years that those trees have survived in that arid, fire-ridden habitat, the frequent fires regularly burned the oily chaparral and zipped through the low understory past those trees leaving them a little bark-scorched but otherwise no worse for the wear. You could see it as an indictment of our fire-suppression philosophy over the past 100 years. Anyway, let’s enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it, right?
That’s an interesting point I hadn’t thought of.
Wow, oh wow, and I haven’t said “oh, wow” much since the very early 1970s. Well, here is what some of it looked like in 1985, 22 years before the Zaca Fire.
Note some of the similar views, especially your “Looking upstream from / at Rancho Nuevo Camp” and “Another view of lower Rancho Nuevo Canyon from the trail;” also the craggy peak near the camp that is in the left of portion of your pano.
Thanks for spinning another great yarn.
Thanks for linking to your old photos.
I last through hiked Rancho to Deal where I had a bike stashed for the ride back to Tinta in 1999. Not one tick. I actually missed the Deal/Connector junction, there was no sign at the time. So I came out further up the highway and had to walk down in the dark to get to my bike. I just went back 02/27/2021 to go in at the Deal (Ozena) Trl head to find my previous error. there’s a beautiful new sign now LOL. I was impressed with the amount of ticks through Deal, a post fire bloom I imagine(?) As I got close to Deal Junction I decided to through hike out Rancho Nuevo (no ticks) then stay in the river bottom back to my car at Deal Trl head. I went back the next week 3/7/2021 walking from the Tinta gate to RN with intention of finding URN camp and reported archeological sites. Again the ticks were insane on URN. I stopped at approx 3 miles in where finally after a bunch of ugly to look at stuff the valley ends in a V with some dramatic rock formations and a rock wall across the back of the V, but more bushwhacking and ticks to get there. I must have been within a 1/2 mile. I lunched and turned around. Ticks not as bad on the return. They had not had a chance to re-establish themselves on the bushes I had just passed through, but I was seriously disappointed that now on the beautiful lower Rancho Nuevo stretch it was alive with ticks!!!
Going to Deal Canyon very soon. I’ve done the research and put together enough clues to find hidden treasure.