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Figueroa Mountain Loop Drive

Mattei’s Tavern to Nira Camp - Guide to the High Country


Saturday, May 3, 2008

As you crest San Marcos Pass, Figueroa is the first part of the San Rafael range which comes into view. It is roughly twenty-five air miles from Santa Barbara, far enough from Santa Barbara to escape much of the coastal haze which sometimes restricts views from the Santa Ynez Mountains and high enough in elevation to provide a change in the seasons.

The road distance is approximately forty-five miles and is just over an hour’s drive from the city to Figueroa’s 4,528’ crest. Psychologically, this may be one of the shortest drives you can take to get the furthest away from what is typically Santa Barbara: chaparral-covered hills that never seem to change and seasons that always seem the same.

VIEW FROM THE TOP

From the Lookout Tower located on top of the mountain, 360 degree views of much of the county greet you. The Santa Ynez Mountains are to the south, from this perspective a shear mountain wall. On a clear day the Channel Islands shimmer on the horizon, so close it seems like you can almost reach out and touch them.

As your gaze drops to the foreground you look out over the Santa Ynez Valley, its open expanses of grassland dotted with Valley Oaks, a land that turns green in January while the high country is filling with snow. Above and to the west is Point Conception, a land revered by the Chumash, the place of the setting sun, where these Indians believed they would travel in the life that comes after death.

Turning north, to the right, the rugged San Rafael Wilderness comes into view, where exploration of this pristine country is by foot travel only. If you know just where to look you can spy Pool Rock and Condor Cave, formations that may have marked an important winter solstice site for the Chumash. In the distance, looming over the thin knife-blade edge of Hurricane Deck, are the Sierra Madre Mountains, a relatively even-crested range that has magnificent potreros , or meadows, and ancient Chumash rock art sites.

Turning even further to the right, on the eastern horizon, 6,593’ San Rafael Mountain rises somewhat inauspiciously to a rounded summit. Hidden on its flanks, however, are the beautiful Mission pines, thought to have supplied the huge beams from which Franciscan fathers constructed the Santa Barbara Mission and magnificent sandstone outcroppings.

FIR CANYON

Just across the road from the trail leading down Fir Canyon to Davy Brown Campground, a large green outcropping of serpentine is exposed, its shiny, pointed surface marking what is the start of what I consider to be the prettiest canyon anywhere in Santa Barbara County.

The trail was built by Edgar Davison, one of the first rangers to be stationed in this area when the Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Forest Reserve was created in 1898. A bronze memorial plaque encased in serpentine that commemorates his efforts is located down the trail near the intersection with the Munch Canyon Connector.

Davison’s cabin was located a short distance down into Fir Canyon and from it he made regular patrols, watching out for careless campers who might start a forest fire, checking on grazing permits, and hacking out the trail systems we use today. His district included all of Figueroa Mountain and extended throughout most of what today is the San Rafael Wilderness.

Unfortunately, nothing remains of his cabin, though halfway down the trail you can still spot the remains of a cabin built by Harry Roberts in the 1920s to service chrome mining claims he had established on the east side of Figueroa Mountain. This old cabin was used as an overnight spot until several years ago when the roof collapsed. Today all that is left are the rotting remains of the log siding.

The canyon is narrow, alternating between long level sections which pass through thin-bedded layers of shale and steep plunges over boulder fields which form beautiful moss-covered waterfalls. Tall forests of big cone spruce grace the upper canyon, with bigleaf maple and oaks inhabiting the canyon bottoms.

The combination of cascading stream, deep pools, moss-covered rocks, and sense of pervading solitude provide a feeling I never tire of. In the winter Fir Canyon takes on a different kind of color - hundreds of thousands of ladybugs migrate to the canyon from the Sierras. Thick blankets of the small insects cover downed logs, boulders, leaves, and tree branches and many other surfaces.

The trail drops down into Fir Canyon quickly, then meanders through a vee formed by Monterey shales gradually dropping downhill for a half-mile to a creek crossing. In another hundred yards a major side drainage comes in from the right. The main trail turns left, crosses the creek, and goes up and over a slight hill, then drops back down to the creek where you’ll find the sign in memory of Edgar Davison.

Look across the creek and you should spot a trail heading uphill that connects with Munch Canyon. As you continue down Fir Canyon, just a few yards below the Davison sign look for the spur leading to Black Willow Springs Trail. It cuts diagonally up and to the left . This eventually leads to the Catway Road. Shortly below this is the ruins of Harry Roberts’ cabin. An old road to his mining claims leads off to the right and up onto the northeastern side of Figueroa Mountain.

These connector trails form a network which make a variety of loop rides possible. The more you get to know the mountain, the larger the number of possibilities. From the Roberts’ cabin, the Fir Canyon trail drops steeply, losing several hundred feet over the next half mile. There are numerous cascades and plenty of pools throughout. Below this the creek becomes level and quiet, the pools reflecting an image of serenity. Near the trail’s end the canyon opens to a wide meadow, the former site of Davy Brown’s cabin, and just beyond this it turns to the right, leading through a gate to the campground.

RANGER PEAK

In the late 1890s when the US Topographical Survey Team began to work in this area, they wanted to name this peak after its first ranger, Edgar Davison. The shy, retiring ranger had previously named it Alice Eastwood Peak in honor of the famous San Francisco botanist who had visited him at his station on a plant collecting trip (he had also named many of the other nearby geographical features such as Sunset Valley, Fir Canyon, the East Pinery, and Figueroa Mountain) and didn’t want it named after him. Finally he suggested that the survey team call it Ranger Peak in honor of all rangers who had served the Forest Reserves. The name stuck.

If you have time, hike up the ridge just opposite the East Pinery Road to the top of the peak. The last hundred yards are pretty steep, but once on top you’ll discover that it is flat and open, with views out over what seems like everything. It is a great place for lunch or just to relax for a few minutes. An afternoon here will be well spent.

ROAD LOG - Mattei’s Tavern to NIRA

0.0 - Mattei’s Tavern

5.0 - Midland School - rustic (and expensive) private school which owns most of the surrounding land, including that up Birabent Canyon.

6.0 - Birabent Canyon creek crossing. End of valley and beginning of climbing up to Figueroa Mountain.

8.0 - Something Reserve. Most of the land south of the ridge is in the preserve. For more information contact.

10.5 - Figueroa Mountain Ranger Station

11.0 - Catway Road. Leads out onto the Zaca ridge.

11.5 - Figueroa Mountain Lookout. Fantastic views over the entire country. Best viewpoint in the county. There are three picnic areas as well as a self-guiding nature trail.

11.7 - Figueroa Mountain Campground. See camping info for details.

12.9 - Davy Brown Trail. Leads down into Fir Canyon. Davy Brown Campground is at the bottom of the canyon.

14.3 - Ranger Peak Loop. Trail leads up the south shoulder of Ranger Peak and down to De La Guerra Springs.

15.0 - East Pinery. Dirt road leads north down into beautiful pine forests and several connector trails. The White Rock Trail is a quarter mile down the pinery road.

18.0 - Cachuma Saddle

19.0 - Lower White Rock Trail

20.0 - Fish Creek overlook. Cross country route leads down Fish Creek a quarter mile where there are pools and a great canyon to explore

22.0 - Davy Brown Campground. See camping information for details. Lower Davy Brown Trail starts from the campground.

22.5 - Fir Canyon Jeepway. Leads 4 miles up to the Catway.

24.0 - Lower Manzana Trailhead. Leads downstream into San Rafael Wilderness.

24.5 - Nira Campground. Leads upstream into San Rafael Wilderness.

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