Monday, November 15, 2010

The Big Narrows, Los Padres NF, 10/14/2010

Another of life's big questions is now resolved...I know what the hell the Big Narrows is! It's a big, narrow gorge. Knowing the answer to that particular riddle helps me sleep better, except for the poison oak reaction I'm enjoying. Speaking of poison oak, a disclaimer; I'm writing under the influence of my patented poison oak pharmaceutical cocktail: Atarax, Solu-cortef, Valium, Zyrtec, Zantac, Benadryl and Vicodin. So if this entry seems a little hazy, I beg your pardon.

This last weekend I went up into the Los Padres on a recon, the purpose being to unravel the mystery of the Big Narrows, a place about which nothing has been written since the early 70's, no pictures, no trip reports, nuthin'. There once was a trail down Agua Blanca Creek but that has long been lost and forgotten. Every inch of the Southern Los Padres is straight up, straight down, and mean, but a such an impressive collection of topo lines is suggestive of a significant gorge (well, that and the fact that the place has a name but nobody knows what's there). Obviously the place needed to be rediscovered, if only briefly.
I set off Friday morning from Squaw Flat in the company of Eric & Frank of Ventura County Canyoneering Club. The grade climbing out of Squaw Flat ain't fun but we blasted through it in just two hours to the Alder/Ant Camp junction, after which we knee-banged down the hideous slope into Ant, arriving in about three hours from leaving the truck.

The last time I visited Ant Camp I was 12 years old, 26 years ago. Not much has changed in that time. The mighty oaks in the vale still stand tall, massive, and proud. The grassy meadow is a little slice of pastoral heaven, and the place just has an all-around good vibe. Very quiet and peaceful. The nearby Agua Blanca is the water source for the camp and it's waters are as pure and sweet as any I've had.
After getting settled Frank dug up some horseshoes and posts that had been left at the site. This was an interesting diversion, but as the sun set, the dinner stuff came out. Grilled animal (brats with mustard and sourkraut in my case) and a conspicuous consumption of coffee and firewood sealed the deal. We sacked out to the owl hoot, crickets, and the rustling of various critters that inhabit the night. In other words, I got the best sleep in weeks.
I stayed in the sack until the sunlight convinced me it was warm enough to venture forth. Coffeed up, apple in hand, I threw together a kit for the day's struggles. I had no illusions about how overgrown and unpleasant the lonesome Agua Blanca Creek would be. Any place that has been that abandoned for that long was bound to be a hideous trek and knowing that, I came prepared for a struggle.
Our pleasant jaunt in the creek turned evil in about 10 minutes after leaving camp. A rock shifted under me and I ate shit into a bunch of brush... an inauspicious start to the day, but the tough get going. We picked our way down the canyon looking for the first point of interest, the Tin Can Camp. This was a cabin constructed long ago using pounded out water barrels for siding. Eric showed me a USFS report that slated the cabin for removal in 1974 and indeed, for once our local boys in brown seem to have done what they said because we could find no sign of the place.
The farther downstream we progressed, the longer forward progression seemed to take. There were remnants of trail that had been commandeered by wildlife for travel purposes of their own, and therefore we spent alot of time meandering into and out of the brush choked, deadfall ridden creek. At one point we encountered the deer remains of a mountain lion kill, and ran across plenty of bear sign.
Route finding on the way to the Narrows was a joke and try as we might we couldn't avoid scrambling, burrowing, and crashing through miles of goatf**k brush. At around 4-5 miles of this (my estimate) we started entering an area of progressively tighter gorge, the walls of which rose an estimated 500 feet from the creek. The actual Narrows was long, I would say about 3/10's of a mile of twisting, turning ancient gorge. Spectacular yes, worth getting there? If it weren't for the venomous oak, that deciduous plant that's so difficult to ID this time of year after the leaves have shed, I'd say you'd have to have a burr up your ass to attempt it.
As for the question of which way to approach the Big Narrows, having done the Devil's gateway route from the Lake Piru side just this year, I'd suggest taking the downstream from Ant Camp route, especially if you're brave enough to through-hike the Agua Blanca to Piru Lake.

Somehow we were able to return upstream to Ant Camp in almost half the time it took us to get down to the Narrows. By this time we had gotten a feel for how the creek worked and our route finding improved dramatically. Sometimes things just work out.
So, to recap, the trip down to Ant Camp is no big deal (though the hike out is a calf burner). The scramble to the Narrows is poison oak city, overgrown, and generally unpleasant. But do-able. I would question my motives before heading down there, unless, of course, I just had to see a remote, off-trail place that you know ahead of time will suck to get to.
Despite the discomforts I had a great weekend, enjoyed the company, ate great food, and really enjoyed the Ant Camp valley. Follow up with the vccanyoneeringclub for more info on this trip.
Above: A brand I left on the picinic table at Ant Camp (that's a "three peaks" sigyl)
Below: Somebody else's clever "dino-rock" campsite art.


  1. Nice TR Dave, the pics look great too. Sorry to hear bout the PO though.

  2. Awesome write-up, that PO's an evil weed.

  3. More pictures from this trip here:

  4. Sucks about the Poison Oak. Hope you recover quickly. Nice pictures you took. Thanks for inviting us along.

  5. Hey guys, the VCCC link dosnt work.

  6. I do the agua blanca/lake piru through hike every year with my dad and siblings!! the narrows are completely phenomenal...I started going on this trip when I was ten and used to think they were magic or something :D but a tip: if you are going to find the narrows, (which in my opinion are the best part) go in late june/early july. the weather can be rather brutal, but there are really cool pools and waterfalls in the narrows that aren't safe unless the water is lower and also it is simply less scathing to swim in water that isn't freezing cold!! I have done it six times since then (16 now) and i still think the narrows are exceptional. :)

  7. Strong work Lacey & Co.! One of these days I'll start up at Cove Camp and follow the route all the way out to Piru. It IS a magic place back there. -DS

  8. Just hiked the Big Narrows starting at Lake Piru following the Pot Holes Trail to Agua Blanca Creek just 2 days after the shortest day of the year in 2016. The creek was cold and flowing well... the bushwhack is legendary and no easier than the last time I hiked it a few years back. We stopped at Devils Gate and each of the campgrounds checking out the historical sites, massive mushroom patches and random footprints. We paid for this by navigating the creek and intermittent trails for the last two hours before arriving at Ant Camp after 8PM. Lost my glasses on the bushwhack and did not realize they were gone for over an hour. Poison Oak got the best of one in our group and my ankle took a wrong turn... Overall great trip and we continued our hike to a camp less than a mile from Piedra Blanca the next day. My intention was to continue for another 5 days but we had a ride out that allowed us to heal our wounds and come back another day...