Lost Valley, Hurricane Deck, Potrero Cyn 20 Mile Day Hike

Hurricane Deck San Rafael WildernessHurricane Deck, the prominent ridge defining the skyline.

There is no trace of water on Hurricane Deck, no trees and no campgrounds. It’s a 20 mile long ridgeline with south facing cliffs and steep grassy slopes on one side and a dense cover of chaparral on the other. It can be hot even in winter and deadly, broiling hot in summer.

Something sort of like a trail runs across the top of the ridge, but it’s neglected and unmaintained, brushy and ill-defined. In some sections it’s downright dangerous as a makeshift trail skirts the cliffs with only inches of space to walk, a precipice on one side and a wall of wiry chaparral poking at you from the other.

The clifftop is shaley and loose, with piles of small domino-like flat, rectangular pieces of interlaced stone covered in thin layers of dirt. Step near the cliff edge and the shale dominoes slide apart and the earth seems to disintegrate underfoot. One misstep could easily send a hiker over the edge and they wouldn’t stop tumbling for several hundred feet.

Lost Valley Trail San Rafael WildernessLost Valley Trail

Lost Valley Trail Twin Oaks campsiteTwin Oaks Camp along Lost Valley Trail.

Crossing the top of middle Hurricane Deck recently, I was able to link a combination of old trail cut through the brush, current animal paths and thin use trail left by the occasional intrepid backcountry hiker. I only had to crawl under or through the brush in three areas, but only for a few feet at a time, which wasn’t bad. I had expected worse.

Never having crossed this middle section of the ridge I wasn’t sure how passable the route would be, and was all the while concerned I was going to run into impenetrable chaparral half way into my day, some 12 to 14 miles from the trailhead, and find myself stuck with only fleeting hours of short winter daylight. Sunset comes fast this time of year. I didn’t want to be fighting my way through a bramble of brush at half a mile an hour or less as the sun began setting.

At a certain point on such a hike there is no going back, and you commit to the planned task and just hope you make it through before it gets dark. I’m not the type to ask people for current conditions. Life’s a gamble. And that’s the beauty of it.

Sisquoc River drainage Hurricane DeckLooking over the Sisquoc River watershed as seen from the junction of Lost Valley Trail and Hurricane Deck Trail.

Hurricane Deck Trail Lost Valley junctionThe junction of Lost Valley Trail and Hurricane Deck.

Hurricane Deck TrailLooking back, eastward, over where I’d come from along the top of Hurricane Deck.

There are no rock formations of interest, no rolling grassy potreros or any other sort of notable features on top of middle Hurricane Deck. Perhaps the most remarkable feature are the views of Manzana Creek watershed on one side and the Sisquoc River drainage on the other.

I’ve heard of Europeans visiting the Santa Barbara area who’ve allotted time in their itinerary to hike Hurricane Deck. I wonder if those tourists made this particular geographical feature of the San Rafael Wilderness a destination based solely on the romantic, adventurous name it was bestowed with, because I can’t imagine what else might have led them to want to spend what little time they had on vacation hiking it. It had to be the lure of the name.

I’ve heard of other people of local origin that set out to hike the trail for the first time by trying to do it at night under a full moon. I don’t know how it works elsewhere, but around the southern Los Padres National Forest it’s not wise to assume a trail is easily passable just because it’s listed on a map. In fact, what’s labeled on a map as a trail may not even exist in any other manner but in old cut branches long buried in a thicket of overgrown chaparral.

What if Hurricane Deck was renamed using the ever expansive Big Book of Tiresome Cliches? What if it was instead named all too accurately the sunbaked, wind-swept, dry as a bone, God forsaken ridge? It certainly would not attract as much attention or foot traffic as it does, which is little as it is.

Hurricane Deck Trail San Rafael WildernessA section of Hurricane Deck. The trail, or a trail, runs up the edge of the steep ridgeline to the conical apex and then down the saddle on the left.

Potrero Trail San Rafael WildernessPotrero Canyon Trail showing Hurricane Deck looming in the upper left-hand corner of the frame.

Related Post:

Potrero Canyon, Hurricane Deck, Manzana Creek 20 Mile Day Hike

This entry was posted in Santa Barbara County and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Lost Valley, Hurricane Deck, Potrero Cyn 20 Mile Day Hike

  1. Bryan says:

    I’m a veteran of many treks across the Deck, both under the sun and the moon. I credit my fascination and romance of the Deck to Ray Ford and his 1986 map which states, “Hiking across it (Hurricane Deck) by moonlight, however, is one of life’s finest rewards.” I think this statement alone sparked a generation of backpackers to make their way across the Deck.

  2. Anonymous says:

    As a veteran of many trips to the area, I thought it worth sharing a bit of local history relating to your starting and ending points from a long day hike across most of the deck.

    NIRA was built in 1937 and is an acronym for National Industrial Recovery Act, a federal government program responsible for road and camp construction during the 1930’s. “Manzana” was the original name of the camp, which was moved six miles upstream to it’s new location

    Coldwater Camp was originally located about a mile and a half upstream. After the floods of 1969 the camp was relocated to it’s current location. Cold water can be found reliably just upstream from the camp even if the creek is dry as the bedrock forces water to the surface. Thus, the camps name is very appropriate.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Thanks for the info, and the water tip. Funny you should mention that of NIRA, as I had written something nearly identical but then erased it. I think Fish Camp was relocated after ’69 as well. That’s before my time, but I think I remember reading that somewhere or seeing it on a map. It used to be on the east side of the creek below the trail somewhere.

      • Anonymous says:

        I believe the anonymous writer is confusing Fish Camp and Cold Water. Cold Water is located down stream from Nira. I remember reading in Dennis Gagnon’s guidebook from the ’70s that it was relocated after a major fire, (the Wellman fire?) in the ’60, but the subsequent flooding may have been a factor. Thank you for the info on “NIRA.” Very interesting!

      • Jack Elliott says:

        There is too much contradictory information here for me to sort out right off hand, not that I’m an expert, mind you. But anyway, here goes. . .

        I believe Anonymous, in saying that Coldwater Camp was originally located 1.5 miles upstream, meant not upstream from NIRA but upstream from the current location of Coldwater Camp. I say this because as per a USGS map from 1988, Coldwater Camp is located where currently Potrero Camp is located, which is in fact 1.5 miles upstream from today’s Coldwater Camp.

        (That same USGS map from 1988, incidentally, shows Fish Camp located where I had mentioned in my previous comment, which is on the east side of Manzana Creek below the trail and somewhat directly across from the current location of Fish Camp. So either the map was outdated from the get go and failed to accurately note the proper location of Fish Camp at the time or the camp was relocated to the west side of Manzana Creek well after 1969. And so that would also mean that Coldwater Camp was also relocated well after 1969.)

        It would seem Anonymous is correct about Coldwater Camp, as I understand it from Bob Burtness who in his campground guide from 1963 (hat tip C.C.) makes clear, that cold water can be found reliably upstream from the camp even in drier years. However, that guide from 1963 would obviously have had the original location of Coldwater Camp noted, which was where today’s Potrero Camp is located and therefore would not correspond with having reliable cold water upstream from today’s Coldwater Camp location. Further confusing the matter, if my recapitulating it all hasn’t sufficiently boggled your mind already, Burtness says that Coldwater Camp, as of 1963, was located about 1.25 miles downstream from NIRA, which today does not match the location of any camp at all.

        Furthermore, Coldwater Camp is not where this hike ends, which is, at least in some manner, actually at today’s Potrero Camp. Potrero Camp being 1.7 miles downstream from NIRA.

        So, anyhow, make of it all what you will. I don’t mean to nitpick. I welcome and appreciate all comments.

      • Anonymous says:

        Jack: I hiked the Manzana trail before 1981 and Portrero was where it presently is. Coldwater was downstream at its current location by the mid-’70s. I know the map you refer to and it was mislabeled as of that date. In any event, Manzana Creek was beautiful than and it is now. Actually, it may be better, as there are no cattle grazing there now polluting the stream and causing large amounts of algae.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s