Exploring the Los Padres National Forest with Pack Horses

A thousand places in Santa Barbara County could vie for the title of "the quintessential view," the one vista that seems to sum up why we live in such a wonderful place.
You've probably been to a hundred of them. Atop the Riviera for that bird’s eye view of the Harbor, a grove of oak trees lit like a cathedral in Santa Ynez, a wildlife beach on Santa Cruz Island with pounding surf and birds orbiting towers of rock.
Yet there is one place so extraordinary, so scenic and so representative that it perhaps deserves to be first among equals. The Hurricane Deck Trail, nestled within the San Rafael Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest, has been a balm for intrepid campers, hikers and horseback riders, a Mecca for brave urbanites seeking solitude and oneness with nature.
Wildly beautiful and accessible on foot, the Hurricane Deck Trail, with its dense chaparral, canyons and undulating mountain peaks, are as much a part of the Santa Barbara County experience as are our dazzling shorelines, restaurants and historical monuments. Just don’t expect a leisurely stroll.
The 217,000 acre San Rafael Wilderness is located in the wild and remote San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountain Ranges in Santa Barbara County, just northeast of Los Olivos. This surging terrain ranges from high, snow-covered peaks to dense forest to desert yucca. There are over 125 miles of roads and hiking trails throughout the vast, protected wilderness, but a few – like the Hurricane Deck Trail, sandwiched between the White Ledge Campground and the Manzana Schoolhouse – delivers one of the rawest and most primitive views you’ll ever discover in Central California. Once home to the foraging Chumash, the Hurricane Deck is traveled by just a handful of seasoned mountaineers each year. Their sole purpose: witnessing extraordinary vistas that could only be seen otherwise from an airplane or helicopter. Recently, I had the opportunity to join the ranks of those intrepid mountain men and women who have conquered Hurricane Deck.
It’s 5:30am on a clear Sunday morning and I am having coffee with Graham Goodfield at the Nira Campground, the starting point for our 2-day, 37-mile trek. The 26-year-old, with football frame and rugged good looks, has been a licensed guide since he was 18. Goodfield, once a star tight end for Southeast Missouri State, earned a college degree in Outdoor Recreation. He later worked as a guide in Idaho and Montana before returning to his hometown of Carpinteria to hone his skills. Working for Tony Alvis, founder of Carpinteria-based Los Padres Outfitters, Goodfield, like Alvis, had a natural kinship with horses and the neighboring mountains. The two loved nothing more than exploring the Santa Barbara backcountry. Goodfield continued to sharpen his horsemanship, packing and backcountry survival skills by learning from Alvis. “He was my mentor and close friend,” says Goodfield. Sadly, Alvis perished in the La Conchita Mudslide in January 2005. “I am continuing where Tony left off,” adds Goodfield, who now owns Los Padres Outfitters. “He is with me wherever I go.”
This morning, Goodfield has decided not to take me on one of his popular trail rides. Often, the Carpinteria native leads clients on a variety of scenic excursions from afternoon daytrips into Los Padres to weeklong sojourns which exemplify the true essence of California wilderness. During such outings, guests are led through spectacular surroundings which conclude with a picnic and a relaxing soak in a natural hot spring or chilled pool rejuvenated by a cascading waterfall. “Not today,” says Goodfield, who is also known for his bravado and revered for strength. “For the next two days we will be on a reconnaissance mission to evaluate the condition of the Hurricane Deck Trail.”
As he saddles up his five pack mules and four horses, I grin from ear to ear, excited to participate on a bona fide trailblazing expedition with a genuine cowboy. What I don’t know is that we’ll be ascending to an elevation of over 4,000 feet and traversing over a precarious mountain range that will ultimately offer that “quintessential view” of Santa Barbara County. Accompanying us on the journey is Goodfield’s friend Dave Mills, who works on Santa Cruz Island and who will assist with the horses. Marilyn, Graham’s courageous mother, is joining us for moral support and to prepare the sumptuous campfire cuisine.
“We will be traveling on horseback from Nira to White Ledge Campground, where we will overnight before connecting to Hurricane Deck,” says Goodfield, studying his topo map. “Then we’ll begin the 23 mile climb over the mountains ending up at the Manzana Schoolhouse…hopefully,” he quips with a grin.
As our first day gets underway, the temperatures soar into the eighties then nineties. Fortunately, there are many refreshing streams along the way for us to cool off, take a dip and quench our thirst. We follow the Manzana Trail, which smells of white sage and Manzana berries, taking us past Lost Valley and Fish Creek. The vegetation becomes increasingly lush, with craggy oak trees now offering ample shade. Approaching a few welcoming pools at Manzana Narrows, we dismount from our horses and break for a picnic lunch. “The fishing is good here,” says Goodfield, pointing to some deep water of Manzana Creek. “All wild trout.” I assemble my fly rod and tie on a standard nymph pattern. Within fifteen minutes, I land a half-dozen fish! The trout are small, but they are all native rainbows.
After 14 miles on horseback, we finally reach the White Ledge Campground which overlooks another stretch of Manzana Creek. Marilyn sets up her camp kitchen and prepares fresh guacamole using avocado om her home orchard. Graham, Dave and I, meanwhile, unpack the mules and set up the rest of camp before setting off in search of Chumash cave paintings in the nearby hills. Dinner is proscuttio-wrapped prawns, cedar plank salmon, butter and blue cheese-basted corn on the cob and a nice Chardonnay. Clients booking trips with Los Padres Outfitters can always expect gourmet fare and exemplary service to accompany their unbridled backcountry experience.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs and fresh-brewed coffee, our intensity escalates as we prepare for our ascent to the Hurricane Deck Trail. “Don't forget to fill your water jugs,” advises Goodfield. “There won’t be any water for 23 miles.” Our trusty guide also warns that Hurricane Deck should never be attempted alone and that significant hiking experience is essential. Even so, experienced hikers have been rescued by helicopters because of extreme dehydration and getting lost.
Two thousand feet high and the postcard views are beginning to take shape. There are a multitude of unusual rock formations, caves and impressive cliffs to admire.
After traversing along the crest, sometime on the south side and sometimes into the shady side to the north, where we have to literally scratch and claw our way through unyielding walls of vegetation and hillside scrub, we ascend another two thousand feet. I try to not look down as my horse navigates steeply uphill on shards of loose rock that clink like china dishes from baking in the relentless sun.
The mountainous terrain is changing and becomes more and more rugged and remote as we cross the narrow ridge. The air is silent and clean, with the haunting sounds of wind in the pines. California vultures and red tail hawks wheel above us. The brush is still overgrown and we often mistake fresh animal trails for our trail as there are no posted signs to aid along the way. Stopping to replentish ourselves and lick our wounds suffered enroute, it’s clear this trail isn’t for everyone. It is no surprise that the Forest Service prefers that this trail fall into disrepair and close up with brush permanently, given the amount of rescue squads dispatched to search for lost hikers.
Yet there is something about Hurricane Deck that fascinates me as I sit on the edge of a 4,000 foot cliff looking down at the Sisquoc River which bends around the Manzana Schoolhouse, signaling the end of our journey. Maybe it is the way it looms over anyone who hikes in this area for miles and miles. Maybe it is the element of the "extreme adventure" because it is so difficult to get to, so dry and hot, and without water. I really pushed my body and mind to the limit up here, and because of that, I am able to enjoy beautiful 180 degree views – views that I now consider to be the “quintessential” of Santa Barbara County.