Adventures in hiking…

Archive for May, 2012

Yosemite In The Spring – Part I


Vernal Falls, May 2012

When my friend asked me to go camping in Yosemite this spring, it took about two seconds to say yes.  Each season in this place promises to provide a different perspective on the ever-changing landscape.  This was an opportunity to hang out with him and his family and do a few day hikes in the valley.  With the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, the campsites were full.  These things fill up quickly with all variety of campers.  From ultralight tents like mine, to tent-condos and vintage RVs, you will see them all.  Not one to enjoy being around throngs of people, I found the car camping experience in the Upper Pines Campground to be very decent.  Most people are good neighbors and obey the multitude of rules.  Other than the 0730 trash trucks, it was fairly peaceful.

Merced River & Vernal Falls

Pollen is abundant in the valley and the conifers were producing it in vast amounts.  Hay fever sufferers, beware – get your shots and/or bring your antihistamines with you.  Diligence with your food and toiletries is required while camping here as the vermin are quite adept at the snatch and grab, especially the ravens and squirrels.  My friends watched as a squirrel disappeared under a neighbors truck with the doors open;  the rascal emerged with food in a matter of seconds.  He went right for the boxed graham crackers, found the bag, eaten through the box and extracted his morsels before they knew what hit them.  I love animals, but thought back to what I would have done as a kid in this campground.  A sling shot would have been awesome.

At night, the muted roar of the Merced River beckoned me as I drifted off to sleep that first night.  Soon, I would venture out with my friends on a trek to Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail.  Having done this cardio extravaganza in the fall of 2010, I was excited to see the volume of water during the spring snow melt.  I read in the Backpackers magazine that 90% of hikers hike only 10% of the trails in Yosemite.  Well, I think that 99% of the visitors to Yosemite hang out in the valley and then go to Vernal Falls.  Crowds aside, the steady climb up to Vernal is rewarded with the drenching mist probably similar to Niagara.  The granite steps would give a stair-master competition.  The one thing that kept me going was the humility of having an old person pass me up on the steps.  At the top, the volume of water is near flood stage compared to the previous fall flow that I witnessed.

Nevada Falls

The trail continued up to Nevada where you cross the Merced and I was in awe of the speed of the water as it rushed through a shallow granite track into a 90 degree curve.  The sheer power of the current is amazing.  You get a respite from the incline and then start a steep ascent over the manmade steps.   This section of the trail is a testament to the trail builders over the years.  The huge slabs are cut and fit together like a puzzle.

Looking west from Nevada Falls.

Nevada Falls was busy, but there was plenty of room to spread out.  This cascade seems even more powerful than Vernal because the water is funneled through a crevice that is maybe 6-8 ft. across.   The roar and subsequent plunge is impressive.  Glacier Point fills the western vista and hawks lazily glided around the nearby Liberty Cap.  Even with all the people, it was peaceful to lay back and take it all in.

Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail

The walk down the John Muir Trail is always a treat.  As you progress down, you get quick showers from above and obtain postcard views of Half Dome, Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls.   This is a shared trail and we encountered a couple of riders on a mule and quarter horse.  It can get slippery as the sand covered rocks keep you alert as you try to prevent rolling your ankles.  We returned via the JMT to the Mist Trail down to the valley floor.

At just under 7 miles, this loop is a good workout, full of killer views.  Due to the crowds in the spring, I would recommend a late start – like after 1 or 2 in the afternoon.   The risk with an afternoon hike is the occasional thunderstorm. Most  people start up around 0900.  Half Dome bound hikers pass by this way and it’s worth the stop.


God certainly knew what he was doing when he created this place.  It’s best enjoyed with family and friends.

Devil’s Slide Trail to Tahquitz Fire Lookout

On the edge…

Probably the second most popular trail in the San Jacinto Mountains is Devil’s Slide.  Not normally ones to hit the crowded trails, this one promised decent views and moderate elevation gain.  There was also an opportunity to reach the Tahquitz Peak Fire Tower from the other direction.  Last month we did South Ridge to the tower, a calf burning stroll with its’ toughest leg in the last 1/4 mile.  Snow and ice prevented us from going farther to the PCT junction on that trip.

Located not far from Idyllwild, the trail starts in Humber Park, which was little more than several parking lots.  Finding a spot later in the day is hard to do, so get there early on the weekends.  The view of Tahquitz Rock (Lily Rock) is the dominant landmark from the trailhead and urges you to climb the summit.  The trail is  well maintained (and travelled)  slowly gaining elevation over the course of 2.5 miles to Saddle Junction.  The views of Suicide Rock and the surrounding area are primo.

Vernal stream on Devil’s Slide Trail

Today, we would hike with a friend who we promised to treat to a more challenging hike than the previous mild 10 miler on the PCT in the Mt Laguna area.  Our objective today was the fire tower on the same ridge as Lily Rock.  For many people, this trail is a great way to get to San Jacinto Peak without feeling you’ve cheated.  On the way up, the trail was double wide, and alternates between that and single track.  We crossed a few vernal streams on the way, one with decent flow.  It will probably be gone by mid summer.  There are many places to pull off the trail and do some bouldering.  Each one promises a different angle of Lily Rock and the valleys below.

A doe near the trail junction.

The junction is a good place for a break and many will eat their lunch and head back down.  We decided to continue on to Tahquitz Fire Lookout through the Chinquapin Flat.  It was like a leisurely stroll through an alpine forest and happens to be part of the PCT.  A few up/downs, but a nice change up.   Within a mile,  there are remnants of a PCT marker post with a faint trail that breaks off to the right.  We scrambled a bit and emerged into one of the best views in the San Jacintos.  Lily Rock was in clear view as well as Suicide Rock.  The fire tower was to our left.  Our friend made his way out to an outcropping which provided some great photo ops.  Once again, getting off the beaten path provided amazing vistas.

Off the beaten path. Lily Rock, San Jacinto Mtns.

After hanging out a bit, we got back on the  trail and the PCT breaks off about another 1/4 mile to the left.  We continued on to the tower. Remnants of snow drifts encroached the trail.  Here, it is single path and a steep drop off to the canyon below.  I can see why the rangers closed this section last month.  Laden with snow/ice, it would have been treacherous.  We deposited some water bottles in the snow bank, hoping for some cool water on the way back.  We would only run across 6 or so people on the trail since the junction.  If you want to encounter fewer people, start later in the day.  The views from the tower were limited today as the heat and haze obstructed the western  vistas.  To the east, a bit clearer into the desert.

The explorer…..

The trip down was easy and fast.  We stopped at the stream with the waterfall and let the cool water flow over our heads.  Due to the crowd factor,  this trail is best hiked during the week (Mon-Fri) in early spring.

I encourage you to get out and explore my friends.  The Lord has made an awesome creation.

Big Laguna Trail – PCT Round Robin

Big Laguna Lake

Today, we took some friends to one of our favorite San Diego County hiking areas – Laguna Mtn Recreation Area.  Located in the Cleveland National Forest, it is a mix of amazing desert views and alpine forests, all within a day hike.  We would start around mile marker 25.5 on the Sunrise Hwy, where the Big Laguna Trail crosses the road on the way to the PCT.  The Pacific Crest Trail passes through this area and offers a diverse display of scenery and color.  We planned on hiking the PCT to Penny Pines, cross over to the Big Laguna Trail and loop around the lake to end up near the starting point.  Should be under 10 miles, not bad for a good day hike.

The gently rolling hills and occasional escarpment offer fairly easy hiking.  The temps vary greatly here, but it was in the high 70’s today as the warm currents came up from the desert.  We would take the “BLT” as the local trail maintainers affectionately call it to the PCT and head north.  Not long after we hit the 2,600 mile long trail, we started seeing many runners.  It’s rare to find trail runners out here, but today we would see over 150, all heading south.  It was the annual PCT 50 mile run and we were smack dab near the turn around point.  Over the next couple of hours we would kindly step off the trail for the runners as they came by.  About half were walking, but I am amazed that people run 50 miles  anywhere, much less on a rocky trail.

A PCT 50 mile runner.

We came to Foster Point on the PCT which offers excellent views to the east and north.  On clear winter days, you can see for over 75 miles to Mt. San Jacinto.  It was neat to have lunch with our friends near a cliff that plummets to a canyon far below.  Rounding a bend, a runner warned us about a rattler 50 ft ahead.  I borrowed Mary’s hiking pole and there he was, a young Pacific Ratter nosing his way out on the trail.  With runners coming through here every few minutes, I gently coaxed him back into the bushes with the pole  At one point, he warned me with his shaker but backed off and retreated into the scrub.  In my pre hiking days, I would have gladly terminated this serpent.  Now, I realize part of being a good steward is to leave the wildlife alone.  We continued up the PCT and proceeded into an area that was half scrub, half forest.  The single track trail was well maintained but dusty.  This section of the trail had a steep hill to the left and canyon to the right.  With little to no breeze, we made our way up to Penny Pines parking area where the PCT breaks off and the Noble Canyon Trail intersects with the Big Laguna Trail.  This must have been an aid station for the race as they were finished tearing it down.  After another quick break to cool down, we crossed Sunrise Hwy and headed into a sun-baked area that had burned long ago.  Crossing through a cattle gate, I began to look for the cows but none were to be found.  Soon, the meadow came into view and it felt like a scene from the old movie classic “The Wizard of Oz” as they passed out of the haunted forest.  At this point, I could have used a nap.

Big Laguna Meadow

The trail meandered on the edge of the meadow and through the forest with large pines that survived the fires.  Some newer pines were about 10-15 years old.   There was a vernal pond at the north end of the meadow; it would probably be dry by the end of summer.  Across the meadow, we could see the Sunset Trail, a decent trail that runs along the western ridge of the meadow, with good views of the Laguna area.  Big Laguna Lake varies in size and has probably peaked this time of year.

Big Laguna Meadow & Lake

We took a wrong turn at the south end of the lake.  I’m entitled to one per hike ya know.  After a few minutes on the boggy shores of the lake, we headed east toward our final legs of the BLT.  We would cross more meadows, a few streams and enter another forest which seemed to go on forever.  My GPS showed us farther south than I had wanted to be, but eventually the trail turned north, increased in elevation a few hundred feet and crossed Los Huecos Rd.  The final leg was a hot, dusty jaunt over an old fire road, onto an almost overgrown path with a welcomed trail marker for the BLT to the PCT.

The map I was using from the Laguna Mtn Recreation Area website did not seem to scale, but the lesson here was to bring better topos.  All in all the 10.5 mile trek was confirmation of the diversity of terrain around here.  Deserts, alpine, meadows, lakes – a neat area to hike.  During the week, I imagine that you would have it all to yourself.    Enjoy life friends – “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” Ps 118:24

The crew at Foster Point.

Black Mountain Trail – My Calves Ache

Sunset on the Black Mountain Trail

The Black Mountain Trail wasn’t our first choice for a hike on this day, but I don’t know of a bad trail in the San Bernardino National Forest or San Jacinto State Park.  Originally, we were going to hike the Seven Pines Trail which promised a river crossing over the San Jacinto River.   Filling out the wilderness permit at the ranger station, I put down Seven Pines and Deer Springs as the ones we would be hiking.  The area is home to about four campgrounds and is located roughly 5 1/2 miles north of Idyllwild on the 243.  Following the directions to the Dark Canyon campground, the Seven Pines trailhead is another mile or so up a dirt road.  But alas, the gate to the campground was locked.  Breaking out my trusty Tom Harrison map, I noticed another way in to the trail.   Off we drove on road 4S01, a typical rutted dirt road.   Driving on these service roads with a small car is an adventure and tests the endurance of your bladder.  The map showed a symbol for a locked gate, so we parked a few hundred yards away and hoofed it.  Hmm, what’s with the  “No Hunting”, “No Trespassing” sign?   Looking at the map again, this area was outlined in black and in tiny letters – Private Property. Man, this stinks.

We followed the fence line a bit and started bushwhacking our way down a creek toward the Seven Pines trail. I figured that we could make our way to the dirt road near the trailhead.   I stopped to review the map until Mary told me that I had ants on me.  I must have been standing on an anthill because about 8-10 of those big black suckers were rapidly making their way up my leg.  Mary started brushing them off and one bit me in the neck. Fortunately, they weren’t fire ants and  we hightailed it away from there.  Now I know who rules the forest.

This hill and outcropping reminded me of the one in LOTR.

After picking our way around a loose pine covered canyon, we decided that the trek to the trailhead would be difficult and time-consuming. I’ve learned an important part of hiking is risk assessment.  This one wasn’t worth it.  We would head back to the car to find another trail.  The closest one was Black Mtn Trail, a 3.5 mile, 2600 ft. climb.  Since the trailhead was near the highway, an easy choice.

I forgot to mention that I have been practicing for a section hike of the Appalachian Trail this summer.  A friend and I will be doing the “100 Mile Wilderness” in Maine.  So today, I packed my Deuter 65L backpack with about 45 lbs. of gear + weights.  We hit the Black Mtn Trail which begins around 5000 ft and started a rapid ascent over scree and sand.  The composition of the trail looked like  decomposed granite.   The loose ground combined with the quick elevation increase made for a cardio extravaganza.   It was in the low to mid 70’s and it didn’t take long to get winded. Take plenty of water on this hike, because unless you go in early spring or after a rain, there is none to be found.

At the end of Black Mtn Trail.

I began to regret taking the full pack, but remembered why I was doing it.  Hiking, even short day hikes often become mind over matter.  The burning in the calves and quads is enough to make you stop occasionally and contemplate why you are here.  The solitude and views, yes that’s it.  Like so many trails in this area, the terrain changes from desert to meadows to sub alpine.  Going up, you can see the majestic San Gorgonio Mtn towering above and the desert valley of Banning below.  After a mile or so, we took a break on some boulders and had some lunch.  The breeze up here was cool and steady.

The last mile is a mix of shallow canyons, forest, meadows, and steep switchbacks – quite a variety.  The scree was abundant and loose.  Not so bad when you are slowly going up, but risky when you are hoofing it down to beat the sunset.  At the trail end, we noticed a water tank from the US Forestry Service dated 1968.  Later, we would discover that a fire tower was another 15 minutes away on Black Mtn.  It’s also staffed by volunteers during fire season.  We took a break, removed our shoes and gave our feet a rest.   On longer hikes, a good break with shoes/socks off is good therapy.

San Gorgonio Mountain.

It was after 6 p.m. when we started  our usual fast pace down.  Well, I should be honest and say Mary started her usual fast pace.  An avid speed walker, she is mastering the use of the hiking poles on the trail.  I figured my pack would push me down the hill, but often it seemed to be pulling me backwards.   The sunset was amazing, the best colors after it dipped below the horizon.  The birds were beginning to settle, the owls and hawks seemingly calling out to one another.  Once again, I am in awe of God’s creation.  Taking the time to admire the wilderness is part of the experience.  To sum this trail up, it is a calf burning,  moderately strenuous trek.  It has good views of San Gorgonio Mtn,  the valley near Banning and San Jacinto Peak.

San Jacinto Peak from Black Mtn Trail

Lessons Learned:  1. If you have a chance to talk to a ranger, ask about trail conditions and things like locked gates. Budget cuts in Ca. have affected operations of the state-run campgrounds.   2. Carry a map of the general area in case the primary trail isn’t available.  A good topo with marked trails and coordinates will be fine.   3.  Carry more water than you think you’ll need.  One liter for every 2 hours of hiking on a warm day is reasonable.  I’ve learned to carry an extra Camelbak or Nalgene bottle with emergency water.