Adventures in hiking…

Hikes in Southern California

San Bernardino Mountains – Cedar Springs Trail

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Where the pavement ends, the fun begins.

 

U.S.D.A. Identifier: Cedar Springs Trail-4E13

Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks.

Distance as hiked: 6 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,400ft., Top of trail- 6,800ft.

Temps:50-57 degrees

Difficulty: moderate

The Mountain Fire in the summer of 2013 devasted a large area of the southern San Bernardino Mountains.  Located near Mountain Center and Idyllwild, Ca. the fire eventually spread to over 25,000 acres and burned in steep, difficult terrain.  I don’t know of any deaths, but unfortunately homes were destroyed.   Some info and pics here:  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=81677

The fire affected an approximate 10 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail and a half-dozen trails throughout the San Jacinto Forest area.  PCT hikers in 2014 and again in 2015 will have to detour onto Hwy 74 before getting back on the trail near Idyllwild.  It also destroyed one of our favorite trails – Spitler Peak.

We would find a trail just south of the burn perimeter named Cedar Springs Trail. It’s located off of Hwy 74, about two miles from the junction with Hwy 371 and four miles south of Lake Hemet.   There is a trail marker along the highway and a paved road takes you up and over a ridge several miles to the trailhead.  The trail is located on private land, named Camp Scherman – a 700 acre camp owned by the Girl Scouts of Orange County.   The pavement  ends about 100 yards past the trailhead and parking is very limited, you basically have to angle your vehicle on the inclined hill.

The path starts out on a fire road and makes its way into a wooded area through a gate.  There are several gates on this hike; not sure why but suspect there are horses or maybe some free range cattle.  We paralleled a dry creek bed and the trail becomes a rocky, rutted path that appears to be a dry creek.   The oak trees are the dominant tree and offer nice shade.  We came up to a picnic area consisting of two tables near a meadow.  To the right, the trees and shrubs are concentrated in a riparian area.  We noticed a ribbon of a stream about 25 yards off-trail.   Ahead was an ominous sign that made us giggle.

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An ominous sign

Up until this point, it was a leisurely walkabout along a fire road and a riparian path through the woods.  Now, we would hit some switchbacks and begin a gradual climb.  The views usually get better when you have switchbacks.  If nothing else, the perspective changes.  The hillside was covered with young yucca plants and skeletons of the old ones.  It’s an interesting plant and can live for many years.  I suspect the average life of this variety is less than ten years.  Some species live to be over a hundred.

We rounded a switchback and were confronted with a mixed breed Rottweiler off-leash who was barking angrily at us.  I got in front of my wife and held out my poles in case he charged.  Three women were about 50 ft. behind and his owner tried to get him to stop advancing and barking at us, but he wasn’t very obedient.  Eventually, she got him under control and we passed.  I love animals, but some breeds are a bit intimidating on the trail.   I reigned in my frustration over the incident and hiked on.

As we hit a summit and intersection with the PCT, we also saw some other signs which were disappointing.

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Sign at the junction of Cedar Springs Trail and the PCT. Aww man!

Oh well, we will just hang a right and go south on the PCT for a bit.

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We removed the graffiti sticker on the PCT sign.

The wind picked up as we trekked south and eventually we found an area sheltered from the wind looking down into the desert.

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View from the PCT into Anza-Borrego Desert.

As we enjoyed the solitude and had our lunch with some hot tea, I noticed someone passing about 30 ft. behind us moving fairly quickly.  I don’t believe he saw us because we were down behind some rocks.    After lunch, we hit the trail for our return trip.   Within a few minutes, we ran into the guy who passed us.  He looked a bit frazzled and stressed.   He had a distinct British accent and mentioned that he had been lost for several hours just south of here and was supposed to meet his wife at a restaurant nearby.  I assured him that he was on the PCT heading back in the right direction.  This gentleman was out alone, no map, no backpack, a GPS with a dead battery and a 20 oz. bottle of juice.   We made sure he was ok and followed behind him.  He was moving quickly and eventually disappeared.

Our descent was uneventful as I reflected back on another enjoyable day on the trail.  While the beautiful Sierras are the ultimate eye-candy, the short hikes on the PCT near our home are a good prescription for the office cubicle doldrums.

Lessons Learned:

– When hiking alone, pack the 10 hiking essentials and always let someone know where you are hiking.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Essentials

– When day hiking, I carry a little extra water and snacks in case we run into a lost hiker.

– If you get lost, take a break, calm down and try to get reoriented.

– If you are hopelessly lost, do not get off the path.  Stay put, eventually you will be found.

Gear we use:

Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS

SPOT-3O Spot Gen3 GPS Satellite Messenger

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A yucca looking down from the top of the stalk

 


Kidnapped on the Trail

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…. He found the 550 para-cord in my backpack and used it to bind our hands behind our backs and to the trunk of a large manzanita bush.  We were beyond scared and prayed for deliverance knowing that when “el jefe” returned, we would be on our way south of the border to be held for ransom, or worse.  Dusk was coming quickly as I made eye contact with my wife and gave her a wink.

The Espinosa Trail is a well-known trek for locals in the greater San Diego area.  The goal is normally Corte Madera Mountain, a distinct rock formation on a plateau in the southern Cleveland National Forest.  I actually found the hike in our local guidebook while looking for something closer to home.  Normally, we would head north toward the San Bernardino Mountains.  Today would be a bit different with views of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

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View from the Espinosa Trail looking north.

We loaded up our packs with the typical days’ fare of 2-3 liters of water, a lunch and some extra snacks.  With the microclimate in this area the temperatures can vary 40-50 degrees within 60 miles, so we took our layers of clothing.

Making our way out on the I-8 freeway, we passed El Cajon and a handful of smaller communities in eastern SD county.  Zipping by the exit for Mt. Laguna, we noticed a Border Patrol checkpoint on the eastbound side.  The exit to the Corte Madera Mtn trailhead came up and we headed south toward the small town of Campo.  It’s well-known for the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  The southern terminus of the PCT is very close to the Mexican-U.S. border.  We turned down another road with a gravel washboard for a surface.  It bounced the heck out of us until we came up on a military installation (Navy SEAL training base) behind a barb-wired topped fence.  Of special note, we were behind a Border Patrol SUV.  Hmm, that is interesting, but we are near the border.  We also noticed that this road led to an Off-Highway-Vehicle (OHV) recreation area and noticed quite a few trucks pulling Jeeps and hauling dirt bikes.  The road changed to a mostly one-lane black top as we drove the 4 miles to the trailhead.

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The trailhead wasn’t labeled, but the gate to the private road was noted in the trail guidebook.  There was a USDA placard describing how this area is subject to closure due to the mating season of the raptors.   Like many trails, this one was diverse.  Beginning as a dirt road, we exited at a handmade trail sign sitting on top of a trash can.  “Espinosa Trail”, yes that’s the way.  Starting our 1,800 ft. climb we emerged into a nondescript area of chaparral and scrub.  Apparently, the Espinosa Creek was nearby, but there was no evidence of water.  We could see a fire tower in the distance, one of the last remaining ones in the county.  Emerging on a jeep trail, we took a right and proceeded up a winding dirt road to the next trail junction.  Noticed our second set of hikers today, but this would be a fairly uncrowded trail.  To the north was Hill 4588, as the Forest Service calls it on their maps.  Topped with Coulter pines, it was our first objective.  The trail narrowed and began a steep ascent.  Scrambling over rocks, this became the hardest part of the hike.  My wife – as nimble as a billy-goat going uphill,  steadily traversed the path.  I huffed and puffed while taking an occasional drink from my hydration pack.

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The cleft of a rock…

The view from Hill 4588 was nice as we could see for miles in every direction.  The trail was full of those senseless up-downs (SUDS) and we finally leveled out on a plateau.  Now, we could see the cliff, a notable 300 ft. drop into the canyon below.  We stopped, found a trail log and had our late lunch.  The view was amazing.  So this was Corte Madera!  The Pacific to the west, Mexico to the south and the rest of Cleveland National Forest to our north.  It was getting late as the days were getting short.  I estimated that we had less than two hours of daylight left.  We set a decent pace as our hiking poles helped us to skirt down the hill, the sun setting quickly behind the mountain.  We entered the last leg near the jeep road and I was looking forward to a hot shower to knock of the trail dust.

They came out of the bushes to our right and shouted something unrecognizable in spanish.  There were four of them, two with guns drawn.  Shocked, we dropped our hiking poles and raised our hands.  In broken english one of them pointed to the woods and said something like “go to there”. They herded us off the path about 50 yards or so into the woods.

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Next – Kidnapped on the Trail – Part II – Time for a Decision

I recommend these hiking poles.  They are lightweight and fairly sturdy.  Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

We use this Nikon camera forour treks: Nikon D3300 DX-format DSLR Kit w/ 18-55mm DX VR II & 55-200mm DX VR II Zoom Lenses and Case


San Gabriel Mountains – Icehouse Canyon via Chapman Trail

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U.S.D.A. Identifier: Icehouse Canyon

Type of trail: As hiked – a modified loop

Distance as hiked: 7.5 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,400 ft., Top of trail-7,234 ft.

Temps: 75-85 degrees

Difficulty: moderate

Trail Composition: dirt, rock, scree

Fees:  Day use fee  or Adventure Pass

Due to recent fire in San Jacinto area, we ventured back to the Mt. Baldy area.  We haven’t been there since last summer and there are tons of trails to explore.  Today, we picked Icehouse Canyon.  My blogging buddy “Hiking Angeles Forest” knows this area well and has written extensively on the San Gabriels.

Be sure to pick up your permit at the Visitor Center in Baldy Village.  The volunteer on duty was friendly and we were on our way in minutes.  The trailhead is approximately 1.5 miles up the road with a well marked sign on the right.  The parking lot for the trail is large, mainly because this is a busy trail.  Too busy for my liking, but it is a summer weekend and there is water near the trail.

The path is well marked as you navigate your way around boulders.  Going up, a canyon wall is on the left and there are old cabins along the trail next to a creek.  This creek appears to run year-round with several nice cascades.  We would take the Chapman Trail on the left around the one mile mark.  Most of the people were continuing on Icehouse Canyon.  Actually most of the lowlanders were hanging around the creek.  The Chapman trail was less crowded and provided decent solitude – even for a Saturday afternoon.

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We stopped for lunch at Cedar Glen Camp, a relatively flat area with – you guessed it – cedars.   It was a bit buggy for this late July day, the gnats were annoying, but at least they weren’t mosquitos.  After lunch, we began a gradual climb, emerged from the woods and entered an area of chaparral.  You could see where parts of the area burned and the new growth appeared to be between 7-10 years old.

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The trail broke out as we hiked through talus and slides.  We trekked along a cliff with drop offs that were 500 ft. or more.  If you are afraid of heights, this is not the trail for you.  Heck, if you are afraid of heights, you probably shouldn’t be hiking.  It was exciting and the views to the west were great.

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Hitting the junction to Icehouse Canyon Saddle, we took a right and began a quick descent.  I can imagine that this would be a fun climb in the winter and envisioned what it was like to snowshoe up here.  Haven’t done that yet, but we are planning to try out some snowshoe day hikes this winter.  The Chapman trail would actually be sketchy in the winter unless you had some crampons and an ice axe.

The path from the Chapman Trail junction down would wind its’ way along a mostly dry creek and would criss-cross the canyon several times.   We were keeping our eye on a helicopter that was flying circles about 3-4 miles to our west toward Mt. Baldy.  Soon, we saw smoke near the helicopter’s path.  We picked up the pace a bit just in case.  We still had two miles to go.   I took the opportunity to discuss how we would handle a fire if it breached the hill.  Canyons are not the best place to be in a fire as they tend to concentrate the flames.  I pointed out areas of scree and talus on the slopes to the east where there was less fuel.  Not ideal, but our choices would be limited.   We could also soak our neckerchiefs with water and place them over our mouths/noses if needed.

After 20-30 minutes, the smoke diminished so whatever it was appeared to be under control.  Hike with us and you are assured to have an adventure.  Nearing the trailhead, we laughed at the sign warning the fishermen.

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All in all, Icehouse Canyon – Chapman Trail is a nice hike.  Best done during the week or late on the weekend.  It was good to review some wilderness skills like wildfire procedures.  I’ve learned so much by reading other blogs and resources on the Internet.  If you are old fashioned like me and enjoy the feel of a book, then The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills by Rick Curtis is an excellent resource.  Enjoy your hike friends, and take someone with you to enjoy the beauty of this great land.


Marion Mountain Trail to San Jacinto Summit. JMT, We are Ready.

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U.S.D.A. Identifier: Marion Mountain Trail-2E14

Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks, pine straw

Distance as hiked: 12.5 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,400ft., Top of trail-10,834ft.

Temps:75-90 degrees

Difficulty: strenuous

The last time we hiked Marion Mountain Trail was in April/May of 2012.  Snow covered a good portion of the trail above 8,000 ft, and we only made it to the junction.  It is known as one of the shortest and steepest routes to the summit of San Jacinto.

We took my brother on this hike as a warm up for the JMT at the end of the month.  this is a challenging trail with difficult terrain.  You must keep a sharp eye out for the path as it gets tricky.

Less than half a mile into today’s hike, I came within a foot of a Pacific rattler, who warned me in the nick of time.  My hiking pole was inches away from his tail.  I backed away slowly to allow this 4-5 foot adult make his way up the slope.  Close encounters with rattlers gets the adrenaline going.   The color and pattern of this one blended in perfectly with the trail.   While I’ve had over a dozen encounters with rattlers in my few years of hiking, this was the closest.  Our altitude was approx. 6,700 ft.  In my observation, snakes are rarely seen above 8,000 ft. in the San Bernardino Mountains.  It made me more cautious the rest of the day and I also took the time to brief my hiking partners on how we would handle a poisonous snake bite situation.

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Crossing paths with a 4-5 foot Pacific Rattler.

After snapping a few photos of this viper, we focused on our journey to the summit.  The trail wastes no time in elevation gain as it climbs out at over 900 ft. per mile.   The short switchbacks and rocky, sandy trail makes for a calf and quad burning extravaganza.

Due to the lack of snowfall last winter, the vernal streams are fewer and water flows much less.  The first significant stream was around 9,300-9,400 ft., and probably feeds into the tiny San Jacinto River.  The temps stayed in the 80’s for much of this trek and we were using up our water faster than predicted.  There were a couple of other streams where a someone with a pump could extract some water.

Sometimes, I question why we do these tough hikes.  Marion Mtn is one of the hardest ones around.  It’s really mind over matter because it isn’t always fun.  It does build confidence in the sense that once you put your mind to something,  you can conquer it.  Besides, if you always hiked on flat terrain it would be boring.

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We took many breaks today due to the heat and intensity of the trail.  We started feeling the possible symptoms of mild acute mountain sickness (AMS) around 9,000 ft.  To compensate, a motrin and increased fluid intake helped, as well as slowing the ascent.   Symptoms may include nausea, light-headedness and a mild headache.  We kept an eye on this and agreed to head back down if the symptoms did not go away.  AMS is nothing to play around with and is important to recognize it as it can lead to a more serious condition.  You can read about it here: http://www.altitude.org/altitude_sickness.php

We took a lunch break at the junction of the PCT/Marion Mtn/Seven Pines trails.  From the junction, you enter a heavily wooded area for 1/2 mile and begin a steady climb that is exposed to afternoon sun.  The trail is rocky with occasional shade under some conifers. We continued on to Little Round Valley campground.  It is a nice area with private campsites less than a mile to the summit.  The nearby vernal stream  was pretty much dry, so I recommend you top off at the stream about 700-800 yds before camp on the ascent.

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We broke out into a clearing with signs that pointed us to the summit and points to the tram, Wellman’s Divide, Deer Springs Trail and Humber Park.  The views to several 10,000+ peaks and the desert below are beautiful.

No hike to San Jacinto is complete without stopping by the summit cabin.  The last 200 ft. to the summit are spent scrambling up boulders and around the flora.  At the top, we saw several others – not too bad.  Sometimes, you can run in to 30 or 40 people crowded around the sign.  It was 5:30 by then, so that might have something to do with it.

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We started down by 6 p.m. knowing that it was going to be a close call on darkness.  I have to admit, this trail is no easier going down  since you have to pick your way around the rocks and scree.   We burned through our food and snacks due to the extra effort going up. Now, we were on auto pilot.

As darkness approached, we broke out the headlamps and realized we would be hiking for at least another hour.  The forest and moonless night made for a slow descent as we picked our way over the obstacles.  My headlamp needed the batteries replaced, but I kept going.  I did have spare batteries, but just didn’t want to stop.  After a week of night hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness last year, this wasn’t too bad.  My hiking partners weren’t digging it though.  Actually, I was tired and ready for it to end too.

If you’ve hiked this trail, you know how hard it is to follow  – especially at night.  As Mary discovered, the scorpions come out at night here.   While I was struggling to see the trail ahead, she was seeing every crawling critter on the path.  Oh well, at least the scorpions are small.

After 1 1/2 hrs, we finally reached the parking area and were dog-tired.  We were still committed to the post-hike celebratory meal of In-N-Out with “animal style fries”.  Well, if you live out here – you know what that is.

This hike is a great workup for a Mt. Whitney type trip.  We used it as a warmup for the JMT.  Even though the trail humbled us, we came away confident with a few lessons learned.

1.  Take more water than you think you need or have the ability to filter some.  For me that’s 1 liter for every 3 miles.  Your mileage may vary.  I carry a backup 24 oz. Camelbak bottle and needed it on this hike.

2. Take extra food and snacks.  While we had enough, it wasn’t enough if we had gotten lost and needed to spend the night.  Keep some of those nuclear proof classic Clif Bars in your emergency pack.

3.  Hiking at night is slow going, especially in tough terrain.  Scree isn’t as obvious and a rolled ankle 3 miles from the trailhead is a bad thing.

We use trekking poles when hiking.  This is a good set that is reasonably priced:  Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue  Unless you are a pro, don’t spend your money on the carbon fiber poles.

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Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 3

Momyer Creek going down

It’s funny how much time you waste piddling around the campsite.  By the time we loaded up, it was almost 9 a.m.  We had a 7 mile descent ahead.  Other than the difficulty of carrying a full load uphill, going down is harder.  You tend to slip more and your toes feel like they’re coming out the front of your shoe.  The talus was steep and the trail angled, which caused us to compensate by putting more weight on the uphill foot.  It was slow going but we were ready to finish this.  The focus required to maintain footing was intense.  When you think about every step on this terrain being calculated, your brain gets a real workout too.

The volunteer trail crews have done an amazing job out here.  On a previous scouting hike of Momyer Creek Trail, I counted no less than 10 blow-downs blocking the trail.  By Memorial Day, they had cleared them all.   Sometimes, I will make a note on the position of a trail issue and report it back to the ranger station on the way out.  The hiking community is tight-knit and are good stewards of the trail.  By noon, the exposed areas on the trail were heating up.  It was a blessing to go in and out of the forest as the temps would drop 5-10 degrees in the shade.

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Toward the end, we started to run into day-hikers and people who seemed to be out for a stroll.  As we neared Mill Creek, we heard groups of people and lots of kids.  We passed a family heading uphill, their daughter asking us “where the river was?”  “River? Oh, you mean Alger Creek, it’s 3.7 miles that-a-way.”    I doubt they made it that far as they towed an elderly woman who was inching along.  They also had their sodas and snacks in a clear trash bag.   Please don’t take me wrong, I don’t mean to make fun of them, it’s the contrast between a few days away from society and being thrust into an urban picnic.  We came across another family and after we told them about our 27 mile hike, the daughter asked to take our picture.  Of course, we agreed.  Wow, we were puffed up now!

We entered Mill Creek Wash and the atmosphere was that of a park, with people gathered around the creek, umbrellas, blankets and picnic supplies.  It was too much for us – as in culture shock too much.   Civilization smacked us right in the face.  What we saw as a simple wash with a creek running through it became a beach front resort to the people of metro San Bernardino.

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After getting back to the car, we laughed for a long time about what we just witnessed.  Imagine, going into the backcountry for a few days without having time to acclimate to society.  We still giggle about it.  In the end, our trip to Gorgonio was hard, but great practice for the JMT.  Time spent together as a couple was primo.   Taking the bear canisters gave Mary an idea what it was like to pack everything (including trash) in a can.  One more hike up San Jacinto and we will be ready for one of the best treks in the country.

The scene at Mill Creek showed us one thing – people love to get out and away from the city.  Imagine how much more fun it is to venture a few miles out.  I encourage you to go higher and farther.  Amazing times await you…


Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 2

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Day hiking is definitely a good way to warm up for section hiking.  Just like car camping is a good way to warm up for wilderness camping.  At least that’s how we approach it.

The first day up Momyer Creek Trail was a challenge.  With 3,000 ft. of elevation gain and difficult terrain, we were ready for a quiet night.  Our first task after getting camp set up was to get water for dinner and the next day’s trek.  I’ve had a Sawyer 2-bag water filtration system for a few years now and it is dependable, albeit a bit bulky for two people.  It does require an adequate water source and doesn’t work well in small puddles.  The gravity feed from the dirty bag to the clean bag through the filter is slow and takes awhile to filter 6-7 liters.

Dinner consisted of dehydrated meals.  Mountain House makes some decent ones that are fairly palatable. We use the portable Pocket Rocket stove with propane-butane fuel.   Also found a MSR knockoff stove to use as a backup.

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We settled in for the night into our tent as the temperature dropped quickly.   After a full day of hiking, it’s amazing how fast you can go to sleep.  The first night takes some getting used to, kinda of like sleeping in a strange room or hotel.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.  At first, the sound of the helicopter was distant as we heard it pass through nearby canyons.  Suddenly, the sound of the blades were overhead, followed by a bright searchlight.  I was like, what the heck?  I unzipped the door to the tent to see what was going on when the searchlight illuminated me like a Sci-Fi movie where the spaceship beams you up.   The pilot announced through his speaker that they were looking for a lost hiker.   I shook my head no,  and the pilot proceeded a couple of hundred yards uphill where he lit up the camp were the boy scouts were.   This continued for about 10 more minutes and then it was gone.  That was midnight.  The rest of the evening was uneventful. We never did find out who was lost.

Morning was brisk and breakfast consisted of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon.  Crystallized eggs, sounds yucky huh?  Actually it is one of the best inventions in a long time when it comes to freeze-dried type food.  I don’t know how they do it, but when mixed with water and cooked in a skillet, it is exactly like scrambled eggs.  Well, they are eggs. The pre-cooked bacon was also near normal taste and texture.  Overall, a tasty breakfast with hot tea.  Maybe coffee next time.

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Today, we would hike from our base camp at 8,400 ft. to the summit at 11,500.  I had Mary drop her main pack and carry a Camelbak hydration pack that I use for mountain biking.  I dumped most of the stuff out of my backpack and used it to carry our days’ supplies.   We hit the trail and continued through a sub-alpine forest before emerging on the edge of a meadow.  Another small stream a mile away provided the last water until our return leg. Crossing above Plummer’s Meadow, we would see the first of many awesome views that day.   The switchbacks up to Dollar Lake Saddle junction were steady and steep.  This portion of the trail gained about 700 ft. per mile.

At the junction, we ran into a group of boy scouts trying to melt some snow.  They had quite the quandary as they did not bring adequate water with them for the summit.   It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow and in the end, I believe they failed to make the top that day.  Planning, especially water – is everything on this mountain.

As we continued, the elevation ticked off, 9,000, 10,000…  No altitude sickness today.  It helped that we camped above 8,000 ft. last night to get acclimated.  Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is nothing to mess with.  It could begin with a persistent headache, nausea or dizziness and can affect the healthiest of people.  Don’t confuse it with a hangover because the symptoms are the same!  For a mild case, often hydrating and a couple of ibuprofen help.  For persistent or worse symptoms, the only cure is to descend.

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We could see Mt. Baldy on one of the switchbacks and the views only got better.  We passed through the last trail camp and the tree-line was around 10,700.   Up the next switchback, Mt. San Jacinto came into view.  The closest of the Three Sisters, its’ majestic peak stands out as a sentinel to the sprawling desert below.  Streaks of snow remain at her higher elevations.  The trail intersected with Vivian Creek Trail, the shortest-steepest route to the summit.  We began to see more people as the trails converged on the summit like freeway ramps.

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Near the summit. I was dragging at this point.

There are several false summits along the way.  Unless you’ve been there before, each view to a taller hill appears to be the top.  It’s only when you see people nestled in the boulders like eagles on their nests do you realize you are there.  We would take our pics, write in the journal, text our families and have lunch right there – only feet away from people you’ve never met before.  The summit had a celebratory atmosphere to it, with everyone smiling and quietly chatting.

You could see for miles or as far as the L.A. smog would let you see to the west.  It actually wasn’t that bad today.   Big Bear Lake to the north, the high desert to the east and the Peninsular Mountain chain farther south.  By the time we left, there were over 100 people up there.  Oh well, it is Memorial Day weekend.

The six-mile trip down was pleasant as we would run in to a few more people making their way up to camp at the top.   We did not see anyone else after two miles.    The constant downhill was harder on the feet and we took a “foot break” at Dollar Lake Saddle.  There was a cool breeze as we aired out our socks.  The  pounding takes a toll on your arches and toes.

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By the time we got to camp, we had logged 12 miles and were ready to eat dinner and crash.  After filling up our reservoirs at the creek, we had a spicy Mountain House chili meal.  It was actually pretty good and one bag was enough for two people.  Well, one hungry dude could probably eat the whole thing.  After cleaning up, we nestled into the tent around 8:00 with the intent to relax and read a bit.  By 8:30 we were in la-la land.

I would be awakened some time later by a bright light next to my head on the outside of the tent.  “What is that?”  Mary was like – “huh?”  I said “that light, what is it?”  The flashlight in my backpack pocket must be on I thought.  I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the chilly night air.  The full moon in all its’ glory had crested the ridge and lit up our tent like the spotlight from the rescue chopper.  We laughed and went back to bed.

The wind picked up a bit that night and made a soothing sound as it passed through the conifers on the exposed ridges.  Soothing, but a bit eerie as the pitch would vary.   Our campsite was on a downhill slope and not affected by the wind.  Eventually, we would drift off only to be awakened by the woodland birds at dawn.  Most were pleasant to listen to, except for the woodpecker.

Next:  Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 3:  Talus Is Hard To Walk On.


Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 1

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Plummer’s Meadow, Momyer Creek Trail

As part of our workup to a section hike of the John Muir Trail this summer, Mary and I decided to do a 3 day practice hike to the summit of Mt San Gorgonio via the Momyer Creek Trail.   The tallest of the Three Sisters (San Antonio, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio) it stands out at 11,503 ft.  Southern California isn’t necessarily known for its’ majestic mountains, but these peaks are often used to warm up for longer backcountry trips into the Sierras, especially Mt. Whitney.

It’s always good to check in with the rangers to get the latest on trail conditions.  Also, get an update on the water flows at the creeks and streams.  The office is often staffed with volunteers who are a wealth of knowledge.  Having obtained the backcountry permit several weeks prior at the Mill Creek Ranger station, we arrived at the Momyer Creek Trail parking area  around 0900 on what we expected to be a busy Memorial Day weekend.  Altitude at the trailhead is approx. 5,450 ft.

This was Mary’s first time out with her new Gregory 60 liter pack, complete with a few days worth of food in a bear canister.  While the canisters are not mandatory here, I suggested it to get used to our next backcountry on the JMT where they are required.  She has the BearVault 500, and I picked up the Garcia canister.  Both are highly rated, and I’ve rented the Garcia type in Yosemite.  They are cumbersome and take up a lot of space in the pack, but we just dealt with it.  My wife is an amazing hiking partner.  She really kicks it on the trail and doesn’t complain a bit.

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Now that’s a big girls backpack.

We began our trek by crossing the Mill Creek Wash, which has two sections of the creek that are fairly easy to cross.  The terrain gradually changes from the rocky, sandy wash to a single track laced with chaparral.  We passed through several wooded areas before breaking out into the open.  You want to hit this section of the trail early because it does get hot by midmorning during spring and summer.

The trail begins a gradual climb (around 400-500ft. per mile) with a few switchbacks and moves in and out of deciduous forests.  The acorns from the oak trees are among the largest I’ve ever seen.  Due to the weight of our packs, we would stop every mile or two for a break.

The first water source on Momyer is Alger Creek, about 3.8 miles up.   We climbed to 7,300 ft. before dropping into the canyon at Alger Creek Camp at 7,000 ft.  Prior to the creek, I noticed a brightly colored snake on the switchback below.  Knowing that it wasn’t a rattler and not poisonous, I slowly approached it.  It didn’t budge, so I gently coaxed it with my trekking pole and it slithered away.  Come to find out, it was a California King Snake.  The water flow was decent with several cascades nearby.  We dropped our packs, pulled our lunches out and enjoyed a break at one of the cascades.  Taking our shoes off, we dipped them into the  stream and laughed at how cold it was.  We would also spend some time doing our couples devotion.  It was time well spent.

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We noticed a Boy Scout troop pass by.  We would see them many more times throughout the weekend.   We packed up and began a steep climb out of Alger to the next checkpoint – Dobbs Camp junction.  We passed through an area of many fallen trees and a 500 yd. gauntlet of thorn bushes.  Long pants are advisable through here.

The trail changed from dirt to decomposed granite and became even more narrow as it passed through areas of talus and scree.  We encountered a volunteer trail crew pushing blow-downs off the trail.  The trail crew leader politely asked for our permit and I obliged.  Once he knew we were frequent hikers, he tried to recruit us.  We are thinking about doing some type of volunteer work for the Forest Service, but trail maintenance is tough.  🙂   The one bit of bad news they provided was that the large Boy Scout troop was heading to the camp we were shooting for.  Man, I wasn’t looking forward to camping near a bunch of kids, but knew that we could find another site in the forest.  It was slow going as we passed Dobbs Camp junction but the views of Little San Gorgonio and Mill Creek Canyon were getting better.  Momyer isn’t the most scenic of the trails around here, but is definitely less crowded.

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Alger Creek, a great source of water

We crossed another trickle of a stream before crossing a larger stream near our destination.  It ended up being 300-400 yards before our site.  As we neared Saxton Camp, I saw a clearing in the woods downhill.  We bushwhacked to the area and found a semi-level location.  There were some smaller widow-makers nearby, but the weather forecast was looking good, so it was a risk I was willing to take.   We pitched our tent and set up for the night after hiking 6-7 hours.  It was a long 7 miles today.

Next: Mount San Gorgonio- A Three Day Journey – Day 2: Lost Hiker!


San Gorgonio Wilderness – Vivian Creek Trail to High Creek Camp

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U.S.D.A. Identifier: Vivian Creek Trail, 1E08

Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil, rocks, pine straw

Distance as hiked: 10.8 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,500ft., Top of trail-9,200ft.

Temps: 60-70 degrees

Difficulty: moderate-strenuous

http://www.sgwa.org/trails2.htm

Did a spur of the moment hike back to San Gorgonio on a day off.   A couple of weeks ago we did the Lost Creek Trail and discovered the solitude of a little used trail that intersects a few others prior to the summit of San Gorgonio.  According to the San Gorgonio Wilderness website www.swga.org, the Vivian Creek Trail is the second busiest after the South Fork Trail.  On this weekday, I would come across 8-10 others and several more in the Halfway Camp.

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View in to Mill Creek Canyon from Vivian Creek Trail.

Pass through the little hamlet of Forest Falls and the road ends at a picnic area, which was still closed – perhaps to state budget cuts or an ongoing renovation.  You will need an Adventure Pass to park in the large parking lot on the left.  From there you can follow Mill Creek Wash east along the bank and you will see the trail sign come up on your right.  Otherwise, you can follow the paved road in the picnic area east and you will come to the same trail sign.

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This lizard has his own chunk of granite. Look how long the claws are.

The trail begins on an access or fire road for approximately .5-.7 miles and turns to the left where you are looking at Mill Creek Wash.  The wash is approximately 300 yards wide, full of boulders with Mill Creek running on the north side.  Today, the creek was barely two feet wide.  On the far side of the wash, there is another trail marker where you quickly gain elevation on steep, rocky switchbacks.  The gnats were annoying and continued to sporadically pester me for another mile.  Around 7,000 ft., they thinned out and the hike became more pleasant as the view opened up to Mill Creek Canyon and points farther south.

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Don’t forget the permit!

This trail is one of the shortest (and steepest) routes to the summit of San Gorgonio.  Today, I would do 5.5 miles of the roughly 9 mile hump to the summit.  Not yet a speed hiker, I enjoy the eye candy (the wilderness views) and took a steady pace with stops to snap pics.   Overall, the trail is single track and in good shape due to its’ frequent use.  It traverses a rocky wash with lots of shade from various conifers.   There are exposed areas with chaparral as well.  I crossed several areas with decent water flow, each several miles apart.  As always, recommend a filter to ward off the giardia and cryptosporidium.   Man, that last bug sounds nasty, doesn’t it?  I’ll talk about hydration in a future blog.

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Steller’s Jay, a frequent companion on my hikes.

I stopped at the spur to Halfway Camp and had lunch on a boulder.  No one in the camp yet, but people usually start settling in late afternoon.  I wonder if the feds have a mandatory check in time for these camps?  🙂 The trail breaks in and out of small flats with dry creek areas.  A mix of chaparral and deciduous trees slowly starts changing into mostly conifers.  The landscape in this area varies immensely between 6,000-8,000 ft.

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After I heard a rock slide, this guy showed up.

About two hours into the hike, I heard a rock slide that sounded like it was to my east, but the way sounds bounce off the canyon, wasn’t sure.  Within 30 minutes, a helicopter was flying around near Mill Creek but I never did find out what happened.  Not long after this trip, several guys from north county San Diego got lost off of Fish Creek Trail for a couple of days.  Seems that these “experienced” hikers got turned around after they traversed a snow-covered gully.  I will not make fun of them, it could happen to anyone, right?   Next time bring a map or GPS fellas.

After hitting 9,000 ft. and reaching High Camp, I decided to take a break and head back down.   Most of the time, I’ll take my shoes/socks off to air out before turning around.  On longer treks, it’s a good idea to do it a couple of times each day.  I’ve managed to avoid blisters with this regimen.  Gorgonio Peak is certainly do-able in one day via this trail with an early start for a determined hiker. Still some patches of snow above 7,000 ft. in early May.

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I heard quite the ruckus and peeked under this rock. Do you see what I see?

On the way down, I met a couple doing a 2 or 3 day trip to the peak.  You meet the nicest people on the trail.  Most are laid back and enjoy sharing their experiences with you.  I ended up jogging for three or more miles until I hit the rocky part of the trail near Mill Creek Canyon.  It was a good workout as my knees reminded me that I was no longer 18 years old.

This is a good trail if you are practicing for a High Sierra trip, as the elevation change and trail conditions are similar.


San Gorgonio Wilderness – The Lost Creek Trail

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U.S.D.A. Identifier: Lost Creek Trail, 1E09

Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.

Distance as hiked: 8.8 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,300ft., Top of trail-8,200ft.

Temps: 60-70 degrees

Difficulty: easy to moderate

http://www.sgwa.org/trails2.htm

Today, we would venture out farther from home and drive the 90+ miles to check out the trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness (SGW).  While a day hike to San Gorgonio Mountain is possible, it would be a very long day for us and is better attempted as an overnighter.  All trails in the SGW require the perfunctory wilderness permit, which can be obtained by stopping by in person at one of several ranger stations, via fax or by snail mail.  Follow the swa.org link above for permit directions.   I’ve become a bit of a purist and believe trail permits are government out of control, but  I am a rule follower.

We stopped in after noon to obtain our permit at Mill Creek Ranger station.  While inside, Mary met an old friend and insisted that I take their picture.

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Old friends since childhood.

From Mill Creek, follow SR38 to the South Fork Campground.  Parking for the trailhead is across the road from the campground and is co-located with the Santa Ana River Trail.  It is fairly well-marked and breaks off at a marker in the campground. The trail wastes no time gaining elevation over switchbacks that gain 400-500 ft.  The trail joins a fire road for a mile and changes to a wide creek bed laden with rocks before narrowing into a rutted single track.  Evidence of recent equestrians is scattered along the trail.

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A Steller’s Jay, a very social bird found throughout California mountains

This is one of the most interesting and diverse trails that we’ve been on in the San Bernardino National Forest.  We traversed areas with deciduous trees, rounded a corner and saw cactus on the verge of blooming.   As we crossed the top of a meadow, we saw an area of seasonal springs.  There were a few blow-downs and widow-makers throughout the hike.  At times, the trail became narrow with sheer drop-offs into the Santa Ana River canyon below.  Overall, the climb was gradual with few switchbacks and limited scree to slip on.  Pine straw does cover sections of the trail and is a bit slippery. On a side-note, the PCT skirts many of the trails in the San Bernardino Forest and is located less than 10 miles east of this trail.

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Grinnell Campground

For the first couple of miles, Sugarloaf Peak to the north is the prominent land mass and the perspective changes as you pass through 7,000 ft.  Eventually, the path takes a 180 and you  head in an easterly direction with views of snow-covered peaks to the southwest.  For this area in southern California, I believe the best altitude for hiking is between 6-8,000 ft.  The temps are usually mild and the sub-alpine surroundings offer respite from the sun.  This trail is especially appealing due to the solitude.  We would run into only one other couple all day.

We stopped at Grinnell Campground, an open area with awesome views to the south-southwest.  It was peaceful and we enjoyed our hot tea.  When hiking 8-10 miles, it’s a good idea to cool your jets by removing shoes and socks to allow for some air to dry out those puppies.

Our descent was quick with minimal stops for photos.  Rounding a switchback, we did see this in the distance and like most hikers is one thing you don’t ever want to see.  Notice the smoke was blowing in our direction.

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Fawnskin fire, about 16-18 miles away.

A fire in the backcountry is a scary thing.  Fortunately, this one was far enough away and we were only a couple of miles from the trailhead.  Cal-Fire had it contained within a few days.  If you hike frequently in this region, you know how much fuel is on the ground. Fires can be swift and devastating.  It’s a good idea to talk about an escape plan and how you would deal with a fire when out on the trail.  Trail maps and/or knowledge of the local terrain is invaluable and can make the difference between life or death in a forest fire scenario.

Well enough of the gloom and doom.  We lived to see another beautiful day in southern California and have discovered an amazing array of trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area.   This will serve as our practice area for our section hike of the JMT this summer.  My parting advice this week:

– Take trail maps, GPS and discuss escape route options.  These Tom Harrison maps are the best: San Gorgonio Wilderness Map (2015) (Tom Harrison Maps Waterproof and Tear Resistant)

– In fire situations, avoid canyons and ravines as fires often ravage these areas.

– Consider a GPS locator for emergency situations.  I use a SPOT GPS Messenger.  SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange   While there is no guarantee that it works 100% of the time, it operates consistently if used properly.  There are other higher quality GPS locators out there.

– On day hikes, take extra water and snacks – just in case.  This week, several more novice hikers got lost in SoCal.  Fortunately, all were found quickly. None of them had water or food for their unplanned overnighters.

Use common sense out on the trail and enjoy the outdoors wherever you are.  Consider stocking up on a couple of pieces of survival gear including: Heavy-Duty Stainless Steel Camping Mirror – Personal Use, Emergency Signaling or this whistle: UST JetScream Whistle


Day Hiking the California Peninsular Mountain Range

Spitler Peak Trail in the fall.

We are coming up on three years since we’ve started day hiking in Southern California.  What originally started as a way to get in better shape has morphed into a love of the outdoors and appreciation for an awesome creation.

It is a blessing to live in an area surrounded by “hike-able” terrain. Between San Diego, Riverside,  and San Bernardino counties,  there are hundreds of trails to choose from.  From coastal strolls to desert jaunts and a trek into the mountains, we just about have it all out here. No doubt, we live in one of the wackiest and most heavily taxed states in the union.  A couple of  reasons people tolerate the craziness out here is the abundance of outdoor activities and the ability to get away from it all.

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The Peninsular Range of mountains in southern California runs  north-south.  From the San Jacinto’s to Baja California, they provide fantastic ocean and desert views.  The trails encompassing the Laguna Mountains in the south are sub-alpine with areas of chaparral.  They are often arid, with stiff, cold desert winds in the winter and hot, dry breezes in the summer.  The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds its’ way through the Peninsular Range from Campo down by the Mexican border to Mount San Jacinto in the north.  We’ve hiked a good bit of the PCT through here, 10 miles at a time.  I’ve even thought about becoming a trail angel to the PCT thru-hikers one year.

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Northern Peninsular Range

The wildlife on the trails down here is sometimes sparse, but encounters are more frequent in the early morning hours and before dusk.  Deer are abundant as are wild turkeys and a host of reptiles.  Once the temps hit the 70’s, we occasionally run across two types of serpents – the Pacific and Diamondback rattlers.  Often sunning across or along the trail, they usually slither away, but sometimes need a little encouragement from a hiking pole.   Rarely will we find one coiled and ready to strike, but it has happened.   Woodpeckers are the most common woodland bird and the California Quail is the ground dweller that we most often see – and hear.   Red tail hawks frequently ride the afternoon drafts in their search for prey.  Huge white owls are an occasional sight in the deserts after the sun goes down.  We have yet to encounter a big cat on the trail, but we have seen a young mountain lion while driving out of San Jacinto.   Skunks, bobcats and a host of vermin travel the same trails that the humans do.

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A hawk on the hunt for vermin.

Hiking season is year round with summer hikes around 8-9,000 ft. and winter hikes at lower altitudes.  On one trip, we passed through a 106 deg desert climate and finished out at the snow-covered summit with temps in the 60’s.   Wind is usually a factor and its effects are  significant wind chills and increased dehydration.  It’s usually the reason we layer our clothing too.  Often, we are peeling layers off and putting them back on to stay comfortable.  We have been blessed with amazing weather but usually check the forecast before heading out.

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Marion Mountain Trail in the San Jacinto Wilderness

Our favorite trails are up in the San Jacinto area, the granite peaks provide majestic views, the Jeffrey pines provide ample shade for the rest breaks that you’ll need as you climb the 2-3000 ft. elevation changes, with the average hike above 6,000 ft.   If you seek solitude, hit the trail later in the day and you will run across few bipeds on your hike.  Bring a headlamp, and you will be rewarded with interesting descents through the forest as the sun drops behind adjacent peaks.  Many of the trails are comprised  of scree from decomposed granite and are slippery.  Trekking poles are  invaluable tools and have saved us from many a tumble.  Even more important, the poles are knee savers.   They will probably make  nice spears too.

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Clark Dry Lake bed near the Santa Rosa Mtns.

The easy to moderate trails in the Laguna Mountains are like casual strolls and make for a nice getaway from the suburbs.  Take a lunch and enjoy watching the waterfowl at Big Laguna Lake and be on the lookout for the foxes as they seek out the field mice in the meadows.  They’re watching you from a distance, but you can usually get a good photo with a zoom lens. This area is the best for an easy hike with mountains on one side and the desert on the other.  The colors at sunset are beautiful.

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Mount Laguna Recreation Area.

All in all, the Peninsular Range offers some of the best day hikes, all within 90 minutes of San Diego.  We are constantly on the lookout for those obscure trails less traveled and are often rewarded with solitude, awesome scenery and a decent workout.  Wherever you are my friends, just venture out and explore.


Anza Borrego – Calcite Mine and a Slot Canyon

Rock Formation - Calcite Mine

A desert landscape is one of the most beautiful sights that one will ever see.  The openness and feeling of adventure while backpacking the vast Colorado Desert  can be an amazing experience.  Wait a minute, Colorado Desert?  I thought you were talking about Anza-Borrego!  Actually, the Colorado Desert is part of the larger Sonoran Desert – over 7 million acres with some of the most unique plant and animal life ever.  Anza-Borrego is the name given to the state park that encompasses 3 California counties and is the second largest state park in the U.S.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorado_Desert, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anza-Borrego_Desert_State_Park)

In our opinion, the best time to hike here is during wildflower blooms in the spring.  However,  a winter day hike provides mild temps and relatively stable weather.  Winter is the rainy season is southern California, so you have to keep an eye out on the forecast to avoid dangerous flash flood conditions.   If you ever have the opportunity to hike near the palm oasis at the state park headquarters, you will see the results of a previous flash flood.  Palms over 4 feet wide were uprooted and washed away, boulders the size of cars were rolled around and thoughts of the great flood mentioned in the book of Genesis came to mind.

On this day, we would venture out approximately 20 miles east of the town of Borrego Springs on SR-22 to hike the Calcite Mine Trail.  We parked on the north side of SR-22  and walked to the trailhead that was about 100 yds. away.  You can actually park most vehicles in a dirt area by the trailhead.  At times, a popular area for jeeps and dirtbikes, the road up to the old mine is a challenge for a good driver in an off-road vehicle.  We would only see one vehicle coming down from the mine.

calcite mine trail - looking into anza borrego

The landscape here was so different from the area around Coyote Mountain to the west; that’s one of the things that we love about this desert.  The sandstone cliffs appear to be carved out of the ground by a majestic artist.  As the sun shifts and passes in and out of the clouds, the colors constantly change.  The contrast of the land with the sky and Salton Sea to the east present a palette for the amateur artist.

The Calcite Mine Trail, is an approximate 4 miles round trip.  It is an easy-moderate hike up the jeep trail and the elevation gain is around 500 ft.  Not much shade here, so hope for a cloudy day, bring lots of water, sunscreen and a nice hat.  As we made our way up the rocky road/trail, we scrambled up the side to peer down into one of many slot canyons.  Oh yeah, we just gotta check that out on the way down!

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If you’re thinking that the calcite mine is intact, you will be disappointed.  Filled in long ago, there are barely traces that it even existed.  There are shards and chunks of calcite, but like most other parks it is illegal to collect souvenirs.  An interesting mineral, it was actually used in Norden bombsight manufactured during WWII.  It’s quite possible that the bombsight used on the Enola Gay had calcite from this mine.  We would have lunch near the old mine marker, on a sandstone outcropping.  As is our new tradition, we would have hot tea.

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Having fun on the sandstone cliffs.

We enjoyed the solitude and the panoramic views from our lunch spot and began our way down to the slot canyon.  It was exciting to enter the canyon as the sandstone walls rose to over 75 ft.  Mary mentioned that this was not a good place to be during an earthquake.  Within a week of hiking this canyon, a 4.5 quake would hit near Anza, about 15-20 miles from here.  I checked the skies for signs of rain.  A storm to our north could bring flash floods that would make our fate like the dinosaurs of old.

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Mary really enjoyed navigating the narrow canyon.

We made our way down, the walls closing in and the path as little as several inches wide.  It was fun and one of the most unique experiences to date.  We would stop to examine the cliffs and formations carved from repeated water flows.  Sometimes, we would have to jump 5 feet or so to the next level.

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I was trying not to get my foot stuck. The slot canyons are not for the claustrophobic.

Eventually, we emerged from the slot canyon into Palm Wash, one of many that had its’ own ecosystem.  Other than birds, we would see mostly insects, beetles and huge colonies of ants.  One ant colony was carrying the blossoms from an adjacent bush to their queen.   Even in this sparse land, God sees fit for his creatures to survive.  We would encounter a few motorcyclists on their way back from exploring the nearby trails.

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This slot canyon opens up into a wash that goes on for miles.

As often is the case, I missed the turnoff if there even was one.  My GPS indicated that we were diverging from our original track to the mine.  A nearby cell tower was a good reference that indicated we were east of our goal.  We cut over a hill and headed west as the sun rapidly sank low in the horizon.  We were pushing 10 miles at this point, but the waypoint on my GPS indicated we were getting closer.  In my rush this morning, I didn’t print out a local map.  Duhh!   We were ok though, on day hikes, we tend to carry more than we need and are usually prepared in case we have to spend a night out.

The walkabout ended uneventfully and we chalked up another successful day in the wilderness.  I encourage you to get out my friends – regardless of where you live.  There is so much to see….


A Hike in the Snow – Spitler Peak

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Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.  That and about 18″ of snow.

Distance as hiked: 9.6 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-4,900ft., Top of trail-7,000ft.

Temps: 35-50deg

Difficulty: moderate to strenuous.

http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recreation/outdoorlearning/recarea/?recid=26509&actid=50

As a kid living in the northeast, I loved it when it snowed.  Enough of the white stuff meant a day off to play.   After you grow up and you have to shovel or scrape the ice off the car,  it isn’t so fun anymore.   Today, we would seek out a snowy trail south of the San Jacinto Wilderness.   I’ve been in this area a couple of other times and enjoyed the solitude and varied terrain.  We brought some friends with us today and I promised them a challenging hike with views of sub-alpine valleys and vast, arid Borrego Desert.

Within the past week, we’ve had our seasonal rains in San Diego County, so we hoped for a bit of snow above 5,000 ft. Just last weekend, we were on the beach roughing it in the RV.   The typical winter day near Oceanside was mid 60’s, great for walks on the shore watching the snowy plovers nesting.  Anyhow, there aren’t many places in this great country where you can go to the beach in shorts one day and hike in a foot of snow the next.

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Our friends asked if they should bring their gaiters and I’m glad I said yes.  The trailhead had about 6 inches of powdery snow which meant the higher elevations would definitely have more.   It was strange to see snow amongst the chaparral, cactus and agave.  The wind was gusting around 10-15 mph and the temps were around 45-50.  After a couple of miles of intermittent snow and dirt, the trail gradually changed to all snow.  Eventually, the only tracks were our own and the occasional cloven hooves of a deer.  As the trail wound its way toward Spitler Peak, the northern exposure provided us with increasing snow depths approaching 18 inches.  We probably could have used snow shoes at this point, but the powdery texture made it easy to follow the footprints of the first hiker.

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The chaparral gradually changed into mostly deciduous trees covered in a blanket of snow, which was falling on us.  The trees would continue their attack on us as the occasional gust would loosen clumps   As we neared the summit, the steepest part of the trail was also the deepest and the surroundings became more like an alpine wonderland.  We looked forward to the intersection of the Pacific Crest Trail where we would have lunch and some hot tea.

The 2,000 ft. of elevation gain was a challenge on any day.  Today, coupled with the snow it was slow going as the snow began to cling to our boots and gaiters.  Each step was a bit heavier, yep snowshoes would be good right about now.  We rounded the last switchback and the blue sky opened up as the trail marker for the PCT poked out through the rocks.  The desert vista to the east was beautiful as always.   Our shelter of trees gone, the wind chill made it feel like it was 30 degrees.

Lighting the small MSR Pocket Rocket stove proved to be difficult today.  The combination of wind, high altitude and low temps make these little stoves with the butane-propane a mediocre choice in these conditions.  Lesson learned-keep a small canister of fuel in my jacket to help the fuel condense.   The wind chill began to affect my dexterity too.   After 5 minutes or so, I finally got it lit, boiled our water and enjoyed a nice hot cup of Earl Grey.  It’s the little things…..

The trip down was much faster and a bit slippery.  The steady dose of sun created a frequent snow shower as we passed under the trees.  Mary put on some micro spikes and they really made a difference on the icy patches.

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As we descended through 5,500 ft, the trail became a mix of mud and slush.  I gave up my trekking poles so that my friends could have that extra “leg” on the way down.  I’ve developed some trail legs over the last few years and rarely stumble.  Besides, I’m short and don’t have far to fall.  The last couple of miles became a bit tedious as sloshed our way to the trailhead.  Fifteen minutes later, the Paradise Cafe  near the town of Anza awaited us with the promise of amazing baby-back ribs, flatiron steak and delicious burgers.  Yes, the best way to end an awesome hike is with a fantastic meal.


Boondocking and Levitation Photography in the Anza-Borrego Desert

Sunset in the Anza-Borrego Desert

Bloggers have various reasons they write.  For some, it is to share their thoughts.  For others, it is a release or an outlet for the passion that they may have for a particular activity.  Many are amateur photographers and enjoy posting their work.  This episode is dedicated to a recent overnight camping trip to one of my favorite places and a quirky area of photography that is fun.

Anza-Borrego State Park is about 75 miles from my home in North County San Diego.  From late fall to early spring it provides a variety of activities due to the milder weather.   This mid November day found us heading out to an area a few miles east of Borrego Springs to hike and camp.  One of the neat things about this state park is the freedom to move about and explore, including free camping.  Free? In a state park?  Sure, just stay outside the park campground and you can pretty much pitch a tent or park an RV without paying a dime.

The campsite

While researching camping in Anza-Borrego on the Internet, I stumbled on a blog that discussed “boondocking”.  A strange word, the last I heard anything close were the boondockers – black chukka boots that we had in the Navy.  However, boondocking is basically free camping in remote areas or private property – with the owner’s approval.  At times, there is probably a fine line between legal camping and trespassing, but I’ll only go where it is legit.

So a boondocking we went down Rockhouse Canyon Rd. near Clark Dry Lake.  It’s a nice valley located between two mountains – Coyote Mtn to the west and Villager Mtn to the east.   Rockhouse Canyon is a dirt road located approximately 5 miles east of Borrego Springs on SR22.  You can usually see a cluster of RV’s near the highway as most don’t venture too far down the sandy road.  During the week, you can drive a mile or two and find a secluded campsite.     There is one rule in the state park: you must use a metal container for fires.  However, we noticed there is an abundance of homemade fire rings throughout this area.    We pulled in, looked around and noticed the nearest neighbor was almost a 1/2 mile away.  Yes, this will work.

We would stay in the valley and hike north toward Clark Dry Lake on the jeep road.  Overall, the road was in good shape this time of year.  We ended up walking out on the lake bed, passing Coyote Mtn on the left and came up on a quarry.  It was a good opportunity to have fun with some levitation photos.

If you look up levitation photography, you will find some very creative shots of people seemingly flying or floating through the air.  I’m not very good at it, but it is fun to try and will make for a good laugh a few years from now.  The trick is having someone take the pics or to use a remote.  The auto settings on the DSLR usually work, but if the light is low, you may need to play around with the the shutter speed  and ISO to prevent blurring.  Anyhow, this is just another offshoot from being outdoors.  You see, hiking opens up all sorts of possibilities.  Just use common sense and don’t try levitating in front of a busy highway or railroad track. 🙂

Clark Dry Lake

My wife even got into the fun of levitation.

The real visual treat in the desert occurs after the sun sets.  You just have to experience it.  Tonight, it was nearly a new moon and the stars almost outnumbered the grains of sand on the beach.  Next time, I must bring a telescope.

The stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Anza-Borrego…

In my opinion, a campfire is an absolute necessity for a night in the desert and knocked the edge off the rapidly dropping temps.  The forecast called for 43 degrees, but we came prepared with several layers of clothes and some 3 season sleeping bags.  By the morning, it would drop to 33 degrees.   The animals were most active around sunset and we observed many jackrabbits.  Several desert foxes ventured within 20 ft. of the campsite – curious little creatures with bushy tales.  The coyotes began their yelps and would call out from the east and west.  Once in the tent, the silence of the desert lulled us into a gradual sleep as I dreamt of the Bighorn Sheep jumping over Coyote Mountain.

An Anza-Borrego Desert sunrise.

Huddled in our sleeping bags, the dawn began to faintly illuminate the tent.  I scrambled out and encouraged my wife to come out to see the sunrise.  The air was dry and cold, but the sky was beginning to blossom with various hues of light.  After watching an amazing display, we made our hot chocolate and enjoyed a nice, hot breakfast.  My wife’s first car camping experience turned out very well.  I think that she might try it again.  Hopefully, next time it will be a little warmer at night.  I encourage you to try camping in the desert – it will be a real treat.

Up, up and away.


Spitler Peak Trail – Just Listen

Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.

Distance as hiked: 9.6 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-4,900ft., Top of trail-7,000ft.

Temps: 60-75 deg

Difficulty: moderate to strenuous.

http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recreation/outdoorlearning/recarea/?recid=26509&actid=50

Autumn is a great time to hike in the San Bernardino National Forest.  The cool mornings and eastern winds from the Anza-Borrego make for great trekking weather.    There are many trails that intersect the Pacific Crest Trail in southern California.  Today, I would do a solo hike on Spitler Peak Trail, a 10 mile out-and-back near Lake Hemet.

While I prefer to hike with my wife, occasionally I venture out alone when she is working.  It really is a different experience when one can get away from the hustle and bustle to soak up some nature.    Hiking gives you the opportunity to use all of your senses.  In my previous career, I was an airborne sonar operator in the Navy.  I spent countless hours listening to the underwater sounds and tuned my hearing to pick out the manmade noise from the ambient and biologic sounds.  Often, I would close my eyes to “see” what I was hearing.  On this trek, I focused on the sounds on the trail.

Wind blowing through conifers is distinct sound.  Comforting during the day and eerie at night.   The same wind through deciduous trees like oak has a lower frequency and often sounds like rushing water.    Speaking of water,  it was interesting to see a trickling stream up here this late in the year.  Crossing the gurgling stream several times on the trail, it would eventually disappear underground as it descended into the canyon.

This trail is a gradual ascent and is spread out over 4 miles to the top.  Like so many others, the grade sharply increases for the last mile.  The quail were clucking out their warning calls to each other as I passed by.     The bushes rustled a few feet off the path and I stopped.  After so many miles on the trail, a shuffle in the brush still makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.  No snakes today, hopefully they have settled in for the season.

Nearing the summit, you begin to see blue skies through the foliage.  This particular trail intersects the PCT just north of Spitler Peak.  The trail signs have recently been replaced.

At the top of the trail, you are rewarded with awesome views of the Palm Desert.  To the left, you can see what may be the outer limits of Palm Springs.  To the right, about 40-45 miles away, the Salton Sea.  But, you really notice the silence.  Other than the occasional wisp of the air through the foliage, it is amazingly quiet.  The serene surrounding is part of the reason I put myself through a little pain and sweat.

Sitting on the garnet colored boulders, my head began to clear.  This is a snippet of the backcountry experience, one where you get away from the sounds of civilization.   Even the absence of sound is welcome.  Oh well, enough of this peaceful stuff.  This late in the year, the days are shorter and I knew that I wanted to be back to the car by dusk.

Heading down, my thoughts turned to the sounds.  In my experience, other than the shuffling of my feet, the animals on the trail make most of the noise.  The chatter of the various birds, the occasional hawk and if you really listen, the rare hoot of an owl who is waking up.  The ground squirrels and chipmunks who sometimes fuss as you stroll by.  At the end of the day, the steady symphony of the crickets remind you of the cool night that is soon to arrive.

Next time on the trail, slow down, stop and listen.  What you hear may just surprise you.


Mt. Baldy – Baldy Bowl Trail to Devil’s Backbone

San Antonio Canyon from Baldy Bowl Trail

Type of trail: Loop.

Composition: sand, decomposed granite, scree.

Distance as hiked: 11.2 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-6,000ft., Top of summit- 10,094 ft.

Temps: 58-70 deg

Located just north of the town of Upland is Mt. Baldy, one of several 10,000 ft. plus peaks in southern California.  Part of the Angeles Forest and San Gabriel Mountains, the views all around this area are nothing short of phenomenal.  I actually took a day off work to hike up here with my favorite hiking partner (my wife).  Fall and early winter are good times to hike in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, especially before there is significant snow.  Milder temps, no thunderstorms and gentle cool breezes are the norm.  Of course, the weather can turn sour anytime up here, some come prepared.

We started at the Baldy Bowl Trailhead near Manker Flats Campground and quickly discovered that hiking in the middle of the week up here is so much better than the weekends.  This trail is probably one of the most popular in the San Gabriel chain.   The trail starts out as a paved road with a decent incline and makes a sharp right where  you have a view of San Antonio Falls.  This time of the year the water volume is near its’ lowest, but still streaming down.  The road changes to a dirt/gravel fire road and proceeds up Manker Canyon.  The trail sneaks up on your left with a small trail marker.  About 50 ft. up the path is a metal box with a trail journal – nice.

The trail wastes no time ascending the 4,000 ft. you will need to gain to reach the summit.  It is a well established and maintained trail that is mostly single track.  The flora is an interesting mix of chaparral and pines at the lower levels.  Huffing our way up  2,200 ft with a few rest breaks, we noticed the Ski Hut.

http://angeles.sierraclub.org/lodges/sanantonioskihut.html

There is also a privy nearby in case you prefer to not do what the bears do.   We had the area all to ourselves and had lunch on a picnic table complete with stools made of cut logs.  We returned to the trail, crossed the spring that supplies most of the flow for the falls and transitioned into an area with plenty of talus from a major slide.  This area is directly under Baldy Bowl and marked with cairns left by previous hikers.

After some minor bouldering, the terrain changes again with switchbacks in a sub-alpine setting.  The trail begins to get steep between 8,400 and 9,000 ft is a mix of talus and sand.  It is a calf and quad burning extravaganza.  Hiking poles make the climb much easier as you dig them in and push your way up.

Chipmunks and ground squirrels were busy gathering food for winter as the woodpeckers were chattering overhead.   We broke out into the open as our heading turned north.  The craggy outcroppings at the top of Baldy Bowl loomed ahead.  I ventured off the path and was rewarded with an awe-inspiring view to the south.

As we neared the summit, the trees thinned out and the sky seemed even more blue.  The top of the mountain seems like the moon, barren and rocky.  The panoramic views are stunning.   San Gorgonio and San Jacinto to the east/ southeast, the Mojave Desert to the north and Angeles Forest to the  west.   There are circular rock walls built to protect against the common stiff winds up here.   We ran into the only other hiker, a 74-year-old Korean immigrant who was very friendly and quite chatty.  Seeking solitude we decided to head down Devil’s Backbone, a ridge on the eastern side of the peak.  The angled switchbacks within a large talus field are a bit precarious and require focus.  We quickly descended 700 ft. and followed the single track which at times would drop off on both sides.  For two miles, the trail is an interesting and challenging trek with views of the high desert to the left and Manker Canyon to the right.

Manker Canyon from Devil’s Backbone

Nearing Mt. Baldy Notch, there is a small ski lift that runs during the winter.  Today, it was idle and reminded me of a carnival ride.  Making our way down a wide service path, we broke out at the ski resort.  The access and fire road is between the ski school and rental building.  It is a 2.7 mile road carved out of the mountain.  The sun was fading quickly and we picked up the pace to make it back to the car by dark.  We broke out the headlamps just in case darkness snuck up on us.  We passed the Baldy Bowl trailhead and completed the loop.  Reaching the blacktop, the crickets began their serenade.  Man, that was a great 11.2 mile hike.