Honey, You Missed the Turnoff….
Part of the thrill in hiking is finding a new trail or one that is lightly travelled. To do so, you have to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. There are many trails within thirty minutes of our home in north San Diego (SD) County. Usually, the locals with their dogs or trail runners hit those on the weekends. Often, I will drive 60 or 70 miles to find a remote trail. East SD county offers some of the best areas if you want to leave the crowds behind.
So began one of our weekend hikes. Before leaving home, I planned our route to Oakzanita Peak, a fairly diverse trail to a summit with decent views to the east. Our typical weekend hikes are between 5-7 miles and a good amount of elevation change. I like the scenery and Mary sees it as a workout. For mid August it would be a warm day, but I reasoned we would get a decent breeze at 5,000 ft.
At the southern edge of Cuyamaca State Park and bordering the Cleveland National Forest, Oakzanita Peak gets its name from the oak trees and manzanita bushes. The manzanita is a strange bush/small tree with a beautiful red bark and is quite at home within the chaparral community. Sometimes the bushes have berries or little fruit that looks like apples – hence the spanish name manzana.
At the trailhead, the usual routine is to get out the sunscreen, GPS, backpack, my stinger, and the maps. Uh-oh, no maps. Left them on the dining room table. No problem, I have a basic GPS, will just mark a waypoint at the beginning of the trail. The hike up to the peak took us down into a creek, up a fire road and into the chaparral. It was a moderate workout, mainly due to the heat which was somewhere around 80 deg. At the top, there was another couple but we found a secluded outcropping and enjoyed the vista while we ate our lunch. Afterwards, I told Mary that we could go north, intersect another trail and head west toward the car.
We crossed a fire road and ended up in a meadow where large birds were circling nearby. At first, we thought they were California Condors like we’ve seen at the Wild Animal Park.
After we got home, we researched a bit and surmised that they were probably young turkey buzzards. A pair of them were in a dead tree to our left. They observed us we walked past, and I couldn’t help to think that they probably wished we would pass out or drop dead so that they could feast on us. We were impressed with their wingspan and their ability to effortlessly float on the afternoon wind currents. Farther to the east, we could see several more performing lazy circles over the arid landscape.
We really felt the heat at this point and were about 4-5 miles into the hike. Coming to a trail sign, we saw something like the “Harvey Moore Trail” Hmm, not sure, but at least it was heading west so we took it. The terrain varied from an old jeep trail to a single track eroded path. We also noticed the effect that the fires of 2007 had taken here. Entire groves of oaks and pines were wiped out. It was sad to see so many dead trees, but noticed something we had never seen before:
pine sapling on Harvey Moore Trail
Some organization, perhaps the Forestry Service had planted conifers throughout the fields here and provided little shields to shade them from the harsh sun. It was cool to see new life where there was so much destruction. After another mile or so, the landscape opened up. Rolling hills with prairie grass surrounded us. The path arced its way around the plain. We could imagine herds of deer roaming this area but it was late in the afternoon, so it was just the two of us. The breeze while hot, made the tall grass wave and beckoned us to head west. After a few minutes, we noticed movement around our feet. Hundreds, no thousands of grasshoppers would scatter as we walked along the path. It was weird, like a mini-plague.
After a couple of miles in the rolling meadows, we began to enter a wooded area and noticed movement to our left. A family of wild turkeys observed us as we strolled by. I thought about the time in Pennsylvania when a wild turkey attacked our minivan while driving down a country road. Back then, this bold bird pecked our tires while we laughed. Today, I was hoping that these birds would choose to keep their distance. They gave us the evil eye, but “allowed” us to pass.
At this point, we felt out of it. Although we were well hydrated and had eaten, the physical exertion and heat must have affected our electrolytes. We continued to move west, hoping to see a recognizable trail marker indicating that we were close to the road. The path turned into a narrow rutted dry stream or creek bed and became very rocky. Mary, who is usually in the front stumbled and kept moving. Passing a trail to the north, I knew that eventually we would have to head south. After another 15 minutes, I was relieved when I noticed a trail that broke off to the left. “Honey, you missed the turnoff”, I said to Mary who was still heading straight. She was on autopilot and had zipped right by the path.
The new trail was a narrow rut just wide enough for your feet and dropped down through a thick forest. We noticed some deer moving around and realized that it was getting late and more critters would be out soon. Crossing a creek, I was intrigued at hundreds of bees that were hanging around the water. They ignored us as we picked our way over the rocks. Later, researching this phenomenon, I would learn that these bees were gathering water. They would spray it around the queen and rapidly fan their wings to cool her. And we thought mankind invented air conditioning.
After the 10 mile mark, we emerged on a fire road and eventually recognized the original trail off to the left. Today’s unmapped trek took us on a wide loop through some of the most remote areas ever. The abundant wildlife was encouraging in an area so ravaged by fire only 4 years ago. By the time we got back to the car, we were spent. Thankfully we didn’t pass out, but learned a valuable lesson on keeping your energy levels up and electrolytes in balance. Oh yes, and next time don’t forget the maps.