San Rafael Wilderness

The  federal Wilderness Act will celebrate its 55th anniversary on September 3, 2019, and my first thoughts are with the first Wilderness set aside by this amazing piece of legislation: the San Rafael Wilderness.

The San Rafael Wilderness also happens to be the one closest to my home. It’s about 16 miles as the condor flies from downtown Santa Barbara to the southern boundary of the San Rafael and about 25 miles to NIRA Campground, a popular trailhead for hikes into the wilderness.

The Wilderness Act first protected some 9 million acres of America’s wild lands as official Wilderness. Many more wondrous wild lands have been added to the national wilderness system, and today about 110 million acres of mountains, desert, forest and seashore are part of the nation’s natural heritage.

About 5 percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California— is protected as wilderness. Alaska contains a bit more than half of America’s wilderness (57,438,771 acres), followed by California (15,347,208 acres), Idaho (4,796,521 acres), Arizona (4,512,066 acres), and Washington (4,484,466 acres).

The 197,380-acre San Rafael Wilderness includes two parallel mountain ranges, the San Rafael Mountains and Sierra Madre Mountains and two major waterways, the Sisquoc River and Manzana Creek, which eventually merge and flow into the ocean near Santa Maria.

I love hiking this wilderness. The hiking along Manazana Creek is pretty mellow—a good day hike or fine family weekend backpack adventure. For something more challenging, hike along Hurricane Deck, a rugged 15-mile long sandstone ridge that divides the drainages of Manzana Creek and the Siquoc River.

“San Rafael is rocky, rugged, wooded and lonely,” President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked when he signed the San Rafael Wilderness bill on March 21, 1968. He was right on three of four counts: rocky, rugged, and lonely. Not very wooded though. Ninety percent of the wilderness—in fact, 90 percent of the entire Los Padres National Forest—is chaparral.

“I believe it will enrich the spirit of America,” declared Johnson.

He got that right. Certainly everyone I know who’s hiked the San Rafael Wilderness comes away enriched in spirit. 

Fortunate is the hiker who has camped along the Manzana River, hiked the awesome and austere Hurricane Deck and sighted a condor soaring high over the oak-dotted potreros and chaparral.

It is altogether fitting that we give thanks for wilderness, refuges for Nature primeval and places that uplift the human spirit.