Black Mountain Trail – My Calves Ache
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.