Adventures in hiking…

Archive for April, 2012

San Bernardino National Forest – South Ridge Trail

One of many vistas from the South Ridge Trail.

For some of the most spectacular views of the Desert Divide and Strawberry Valley, this jaunt is one you should check out.  After the drive up from SD County, we checked in at the ranger station in Idyllwild to obtain our permit.  The rangers are normally very friendly and have a lot of information about the various trails.  I should mention that you will also need a National Forest Adventure Pass to park in the National Forest areas in Southern California.  We purchased one while in the Laguna Recreation Area last year and the $30 was worth it.  You can order these online or at various vendors throughout the state.  I try not to be political in my blogs, but with the amount of taxes we pay in this state, it is ridiculous to pay for day use on public land.   Today, the ranger suggested the South Ridge Trail (3E08) and gave us directions to get there.

The forestry service road was rutted by erosion, but we were able to navigate with the small Toyota.  We stopped short of the trailhead after hitting a particularly deep rut and walked about 1/3 mile up.  The rut was actually the only serious one on the road but the extra walking distance warmed us up for the trail.  At the end of the dirt road, there was a parking area that holds about 8 cars.  Another late start for us, we were probably the last to head up the trail. Starting out around 6,300 ft. the trail began a gradual climb and it didn’t take long for the beauty of this area to present itself.  The first half of the trail is wide and one of the best maintained that we’ve seen.

Strawberry Valley

After a couple of miles, we found an area where boulders had fallen and formed a tunnel.  We climbed through and found the perfect lunch spot.  A flat ledge made for a great bench and views to the south and east where we could see the area that the PCT passed through.  It was a quiet and perfect weather day.  The boulder formations along this hike are really cool.  After leaving the site, we ran into a forest ranger who asked for our permit.  He was a nice guy, initialed our permit and we were soon on our way.  We passed a family who were not in the best of moods.  My guess is that they got caught on the trail without a permit and were either fined or asked to leave.

Lunch spot through there.

After the two-mile mark, the trail narrows a bit and the elevation increases quicker.  Well, at least there were switchbacks.  The last 1/2 mile is an intense cardio workout in thin air where today it seemed like we were stopping every few minutes to catch our breath.  What does it mean to catch your breath?  Do this hike and you’ll find out.  Near the summit of Tahquitz Peak, the terrain is similar to San Jacinto Peak, lots of boulders and scree.  The lookout tower at the top has some history.  It’s over 77 years old and apparently the highest one in Southern California.  Mostly abandoned, I’ve read that it is staffed part time after May.   The 360 degree views made the trek worthwhile.

Lookout tower, San Jacinto Peak behind me.

We were warned by the ranger not to go past the tower since trail conditions were bad.  There was quite a bit of snow up here and I didn’t even see where the trail went after the summit.  Like most hikes, we didn’t spend a lot of time at the top, and started down  moving three times faster.  Talk to most serious hikers and they will tell you that hiking poles are a necessity going downhill.  They save your knees and give you much more stability.  I don’t fall much on the trail thanks to the poles.  Another summit in the bag, we descended with the setting sun bringing a new perspective in the forest.  Dude, you just gotta get out here – it will just clear your mind.

Marion Mountain Trail – San Jacinto Wilderness

Sunset near Idyllwild

Mary and I have discovered our favorite area to hike in Southern California.  The San Jacinto Mountains are less than a two-hour drive from North County San Diego.   This range is on the northern end of the Peninsular Range that extends into San Diego County, all the way to the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico.  Off on our usual late start, it was a comfortable 68 degrees leaving home.  By the time, we passed Temecula, 88 and  the town of Banning on I-10 was a dry 97 degrees.  A general rule of thumb is that for every thousand feet you go up, the temperature drops 3-5 degrees.  We wanted to get above 8,000 ft. today so that would hopefully be in 70 deg temps at the summit.

Driving up the 15, San Jacinto Peak stands out early, with its snow-capped peak in stark contrast to the flat, dry valleys surrounding it.  Our approach through Banning brought us up the northwest side and the curvy switchbacks on the 243 make for an enjoyable ride.   Since we would be hiking in the wilderness areas, we needed to obtain the wilderness permit at the state park headquarters in Idyllwild.  Not knowing exactly which trail we would hike, I wrote down Marion Mtn. and Seven Pines for the permit.  I usually print out a partial topo map of the areas we hike since we trail-blaze occasionally.    I picked up a Tom Harrison trail map of the San Jacinto Wilderness at the ranger station and asked for directions to the trailhead.   The Harrison maps work well for me since they are fairly durable and have UTM coordinates on the outside edges.  My little Garmin Foretrex GPS works ok using UTM.

Marion Mtn Trailhead

The Marion Mtn. trailhead is located near several campgrounds, none which are opened for the season.   The trail wasted no time increasing in elevation, the first mile was almost a 1,000 ft. gain without an abundance of switchbacks.  The path was well maintained and we crossed a couple of fire or maintenance roads before entering into a deeply wooded area.  The amount of dead timber was really high.  I haven’t researched it, but it was almost like these trees were hit by disease or a wind storm since the wood was not burnt.  Even so, there were plenty of thriving Sugar and Jeffrey Pines, along with some fir trees.  A mile or so into it, the trail became harder to distinguish and by the time we hit the second vernal stream around the 1.2 mile mark, we climbed onto a bolder in the middle of the stream and had our lunch.  Also brought my Kindle on this day and we did our daily couple’s devotion right there on the rock.  The one we use is named Moments With You by Dennis and Barbara Rainey.  It was an awesome time surrounded by God’s creation.  Once again, not a soul around but us.

Marion Mt. Trail looking north.

We jumped down and crossed the stream to what appeared to be the trail.  Not long after,  we realized that we were bushwhacking again.  After 30 minutes of picking our way up the mountain, I broke out the map and got a rough plot of our location.  Land navigation is a skill that is challenging to be proficient at and difficult to master.  The terrain was covered with tall pines and huge boulders, making it tough to pick out landmarks more than a few hundred yards away.  Our estimated position was about 400 yards east of the Marion Mtn Trail and maybe 1000 yards to a major trail junction.  We worked our way around the scrub, over a few streams and found the actual trail. From this point on, the path was a mix of blowdowns (fallen trees) snowed over, and streams that flowed down the trail.  The snow was crusty and slippery due to the cycle of melting and freezing over the past couple of weeks.  The snow was hard to hike in but a blessing because you could make out the footprints of those that had gone before.

The trail above 8,000 ft

Surrounded by the white stuff, it was noticeably cooler, almost like when you open the refrigerator.  We continued to trudge uphill and it leveled out around 8700 ft.   We hit the trail junction which was the intersection of the Marion Mt., Seven Pines Deer Springs and the PCT.  San Jacinto Peak was also “only” a couple of miles away.  Tempting, but it was already after 5 p.m. and we weren’t exactly prepared to camp out in the snow.  While each of us carries a small survival kit in our day packs, I could tell that Mary did not want to create an episode of survivor man/woman.  We decided to lay in the snow and pretend to make snow angels.

The descent was a bit more treacherous and slippery because the snow hid the rocks underneath;  a sprained ankle up here would make for a long trip down.  Picking my way around a fallen tree, I was following tracks in the snow and before I knew it I post-holed ( fell in a drift up to my thigh).  Funny thing was that it was just the right leg, so I awkwardly extracted myself from the hole and laughed at myself.  We were able to follow the trail the remainder of the trip and weren’t sure where we actually got off the trail going up.    We ran into another couple on the way down who said that they also lost the trail and turned around.  So, the path less traveled is worth it as long as you are prepared.

The Marion Mt Trail is a great trail that is moderate-strenuous with decent views. In early spring, there is plenty of snow and streams to explore.

Gear we recommend:

Headlamp: Ultra Bright LED Headlamp Flashlight – Complete Lifetime Guarantee! Light & Comfortable With 248% Longer Battery Life! Adjustable White, Red, And Strobe Light Ideal For Camping, Running, Hunting, Reading, More! Water Resistant with 3 AAAs Included!

Hiking poles: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

Lessons Learned:  1. Take maps and practice land navigation with a compass.  2. A GPS is nice, but technology isn’t always reliable.  3. Hiking in the snow is tricky, especially going down a slope.

Yosemite in the Fall Part IV: The Mist Trail

Waterfalls have a special allure to us.  Not sure why, maybe it’s just the sheer display of power.  During this time of year in Yosemite, the volume of water is fairly low.  Still, recent rains provided life to Yosemite Falls, so there was hope that Vernal and Nevada would put on a show for us.

This hike started on the valley floor as we parked in the Day Use area and walked the relatively flat couple of miles to the Mist Trail.  We would pass the campgrounds where people were just waking up and cooking their breakfast.  The smell of bacon wafted on the air as we passed by.  I imagined a tall stack of pancakes with maple syrup and, oh I’m sorry this is a blog about hiking not food.  Hiking just makes me hungry.

Early morning is the best time to start a hike, it is a different experience.  The first part of the trail was asphalt and you got the feeling that you were in a municipal park somewhere.   It gradually became a steady incline.  You could hear the Merced River and occasionally get a peek at it as you make your way up.  We crossed a footbridge with our first good view of the river as it made its way down the canyon.  The sound of the water rushing over boulders was getting louder the closer we came to the falls.  The path became less structured and the effects of erosion were evident.  The sound intensity of the falls gradually increased as did the incline on the trail.

Soon, we could see slabs of rock carved out that was to be our path to the top.  It was like the stair-stepper from hell.  Often, you were almost crawling to get to the next slab.  The closer you got, the wetter the rocks were.  It was exciting and a bit disconcerting if you thought about what would happen if you would trip.  We paused to take some pics, now noticing the mist from the falls.  I imagine that at full flow, you would be drenched as you made your way through here.  The last set of steps would be a narrow path cut out of the cliff with a railing to hold on to.

Looking down the "steps" near Vernal Falls.

The area at the top of Vernal Falls has railings that will allow you to get within a few feet of the falls.  The precipitous drop looked radical.  Within a year, several more people would die here – being swept over the falls as they foolishly climbed over the railing.   The water actually wasn’t that deep near the falls, but boy was it swift.  We would have our lunch here as the ground squirrels bravely made their way to your feet for the crumbs.  Ever the mischievous one, I threw a few breadcrumbs at Mary’s feet to see how close they would get.

After lunch, we started making our way to Nevada Falls.  Most people would turn around here and head down.  We ran into a couple and the man asked us if we had something to fix his shoe.  I looked at his shoe, the bottom was flopping around like a beaver’s tail.  After laughing at his predicament, I gave him some rope and he secured the sole.  They took some souvenir pics with us and we continued up.  On the way up, we were passed by a group of young German guys.  The hike through the forest was peaceful with the leaves changing, the leaves bright green,yellow and orange.

Between Vernal and Nevada Falls in October.

We came to an opening and the falls popped into view.  Thinking that we were close, we noticed that the top of the falls were actually a couple of hundred feet higher.  The path there was another crawl over even steeper steps that required a break every 3-4 minutes.  Well, at least there were steps.

Nevada Falls

The top of Nevada Falls really opens up like one huge slab of granite with a river running through it.  There was a stiff breeze that would take your hat off.  The sound of the falls was intense, like mega white noise.  You had to yell to hear each other.

We spent some time checking out the area which we had to ourselves.  So the trick is get on the trail late in the day, by early noon most of the people were gone.  Of course in the summer with thunderstorms around the afternoon, this wouldn’t be a good plan.  We would cross the Merced River over a footbridge.  It took a little while to see where the trail picked up, but soon the John Muir Trail came into view.  It was a nice descent down to the valley floor.  A good 8 miles from where we parked and 1,900 ft. of elevation gain.  This combo is a good cardio workout with some excellent scenery.  But hey, where in Yosemite is the scenery not excellent?

Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap as seen from the John Muir Trail.

This hike would be the last on this trip to Yosemite.  Our goal is to be up here at least once during each of the four seasons.  The Sierras take on a different character during each.  Can you imagine snowshoeing to Sentinel Rock at night during a full moon?  I can!  Enjoy life friends, God has blessed you more than you could imagine.  Get out and see what He has created.

Yosemite in the Fall Part III: The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Oct 2010. J.Lowe

Similar view of Hetch Hetchy Valley from Surprise Pt. before the dam. Circa 1910, J.N. LeConte

The Hetch Hetchy Valley has been called a miniature version of Yosemite Valley.   That is until the Tuolumne River was blocked by the O’Shaughnessy Dam starting in 1915.     The battle between the city of San Francisco and the preservationists of the day – including John Muir would eventually be decided in part due to the great San Francisco earthquake. The rest was political.  The dam was actually completed in 1923 at a cost of 68 lives and would forever change the pristine landscape of this area.  Today, we would trek to the northern boundaries of the park to see if we could imagine what this area looked like before the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was created.  After you’ve hiked in the backcountry for any length of time, you find yourselves seeking the path less traveled.  To us, it’s worth driving the extra 30 or 40 miles to get away from the tourists.

To get to Hetch Hetchy, you must pass through an area named Mather that draws eccentric (hippies) people who camp and who knows what else.  The road is a maze with no clear directions and you get the sense that Janice Joplin is in one of the tents around here.  A little farther up, it became apparent that the reservoir is now under the protection of Homeland Security with controlled access.    We would obtain our day pass at the ranger station and wind our way down to the dam over a narrow mountain road  to the dam.  Nearby is a sign to the Poopenaut Valley Trail which descends to the Tuolumne River.  Who comes up with these names? Indians?  I would have died laughing if it was named Poopenutter.

The hike starts on the dam  where you have nice views of the reservoir and spillway below.  There are plaques that explain the history of the dam and all that blah blah tourist stuff.  The road on the dam continues into an old train tunnel which is lit by dim light bulbs every 100 ft. or so.  Due to the recent rains, or maybe it just leaks a lot, there was standing water and we puddle jumped our way through it.  We could see the light at the end of the tunnel, no longer was it a cliche’.  🙂

Into the tunnel....

The path out of the tunnel is fairly level  and wide with a steep drop into the reservoir.  We came upon some illegal crops growing off the path and took some pics.  Well, to us they looked like some type of cannabis, but were probably some variety of hemp.  It made for a good photo op to a couple of goobers like us.  Other flora included manzanita, the odd red-barked bush, monkey flower and  lupine. As the trail wound its way around we noticed that there were many streams that flowed over and under the trail into the reservoir.

Hemp? Cannabis? You decide

Parts of the trail passed over large slabs of granite and descended into areas of tall grasses and woods.  We stumbled upon our first mule deer of the day who watched us from a distance before darting into the cover.  We would take our lunch break on a rocky outcropping overlooking the water.  Compared to the Tioga Road, it was noticeably warmer in the Hetch-Hetchy.   The relatively lower altitudes and mostly sunny day reflecting off the granite made it almost hot.  We crossed an area that would normally be a steady, wide creek but the late season made it a series of small streams.  The water was cold and gurgled as it passed underground.

Looking out on the Hetch Hetchy.

As we neared the 1400 ft. Wapama Falls, we could hear it before we saw it.  Alas, we rounded a corner and saw it from about 1/4 mile away.  Up ahead we saw a guy taking a lunch break and the trail was blocked with yellow police ribbon.  A sign indicated that the footbridge had been swept away due to the recent heavy rains and snow melt.  We hesitated bypassing the sign but prudence dictated otherwise.  Usually park rangers close trails when an incident has occurred or the hazard is extreme.    The bridge was repaired and eight months later in June 2011, two hikers were swept to their deaths when they tried to cross the Wapama Falls bridges after a storm.  Water, even when shallow has the ability to sweep you off your feet.  Today, we would just have to admire the falls from a distance.

Wapama Falls

Wapama Falls bridges

This would be a short day hike for us, but it left us longing to come back here another time.  Perhaps, next time we will make it to Rancheria Falls, a 13 mile trip.

Yosemite in the Fall Part II: Land of Diversity

Tenaya Lake

What do you think of when “diversity” comes to mind?  Well, for me California and it’s not because of the people.  This blog isn’t a social commentary you know.  The real diversity here presents itself in the contrast of the landscape.  From the great Pacific Ocean to the Sierras, to the Mojave Desert.  The Golden State is truly a treasure.   Day two in Yosemite would take us a few miles north of the valley to an area less traveled during the fall.  After the previous days’ hike, my knee reminded me how important it was.  While hiking uphill is physically difficult – (cardio wise), going down can be brutal on the knees.  Today, we would head up to  the Tioga Road and stroll around.  Not a “zero” day of hiking, but close.

The Tuolumne Grove of Sequoias is a collection of approximately two dozen of the gentle giants on the western end of the Tioga Road near Crane Flat.  There are actually three sequoia groves in Yosemite, this one is the easiest to see.  These specimens usually grow at specific altitudes between 6,000-7,000 ft.  They are the largest living things on earth.  The coastal redwoods in California are taller, but the sequoias are more massive.    We just had to see the Dead Giant which was over 29 feet wide at the base with a tunnel that was cut through it in 1878.

"Dead Giant" in Tuolumne Grove of Sequoias

I didn’t realize until we started our walk to the grove that we would descend about 500 ft.  It was slow going, my knee testing my pain tolerance.  Man, would I be able to make it through the week with this knee?  I was determined to finish this one and hit the drugstore in Oakhurst for a remedy tonight.  Once we leveled out, the grove was peaceful and quiet.  The only sounds were the occasional woodpeckers.   Mary found one of the largest cones I ever saw.  Imagine this thing falling on your head from over 150 ft.

Now that's one big pine cone

The walk uphill was uneventful, the pain less – nothing a few motrin couldn’t deal with.  We had a picnic in the parking area and watched people come and go.  Most of the tourists were foreigners.  Funny how they were drawn to this awesome place too. I’ve since discovered that the adventurous Europeans love the American back country.  Where else can you “freely” roam?

We decided to head east on SR120, the Tioga Road.  The Park Service would be closing this road next week in preparation for winter. We expected to find crowds along the way, but were pleasantly surprised to run across no more than a few cars the rest of the day.  Olmstead Point with its wide open views was simply amazing.  Clouds Rest, was appropriately named as passing clouds brushed its’ summit.   Continuing to head east, we came up on a nearly vacant Tenaya Lake.  We parked at the east end to see if we could navigate around the lake and find a trail.  After a half mile or so,  we discovered the recent rains had swamped most of the shore.

Having a snack on a swamped picnic table.

Half Dome from Olmstead Pt.


The only sounds were the wind blowing through the conifers and the waves lapping the shore.  Driving to the west end of Tenaya, we made our way along the shore, hopping from slab to slab of granite, over boulders and through the bogs.  Hoping that we could reach the south shore, we were disappointed to find an area that would normally be accessible, under 2 feet of water.  The trail was in sight, but just out of reach.  It was in the 40’s and not wanting to get wet, we settled on exploring the shoreline.

On the shore of Tenaya Lake

All in all, a trip to Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Grove  in the fall are quiet getaways and decent places to picnic.  No crowds and a good place to explore.