Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gene Marshall Trail 1 day. Tough.

This is my new favorite Los Padres trail of all time. The Gene Marshall trail, all 19 grueling miles of it, provides the most comprehensive exposure to the wonders of our region that can be crammed into a single route. This walk has it all: high cedar forests, creeks, meadows, valleys, wildlife, snow, desert, Chumash rock art, more than 30 creek crossings, very remote wilderness, ever present bear sign, cat tracks, epic vistas...about the only thing missing is a sulfury hot spring. 

 Above: The first cat prints of the day came early and often.

Cliff Griffiths and I met bumpers at the Deer Lodge on 33 at 05:00 on Sunday. From there, we dropped his truck at the Piedra Blanca trailhead and drove my pick-up over Pine Mountain and into Scheidek where we parked at the Reyes Creek trailhead. We saddled up and started walking in the frozen, pre-dawn light at 06:05. It was a great start to what turned out to be an truly amazing day.

I should get one disclaimer out of the way...this is not a day hike. I want to be clear that this is more than most people can do in a day, and careful consideration should go into attempting to do this route all at once. This is true wilderness, not the place for "scenic walk". Having said that,  if we look at the map, the numbers don't look too bad. That is a lie. The map suggests that the first 9 or so miles from Reyes Creek trailhead is a more or less gentle, but consistent climb of about 2,500', the high point being Haddock Camp at 6165'. The real story is this: the Gene Marshall basically transits through a series of small valleys. Every 2-3 miles the hiker has to descend into, cut through, and then climb out of a valley, clear a saddle, and repeat process. There is a lot of shifting gears between climbing and descending, and any experienced hiker can tell you that those change-ups tend to drain your batteries.

Our morning was cold and clear, the three-quarter moon hanging above Reyes Peak. We walked on the paths of the Old Ones. Many parts of this trail make almost too much sense, in terms of efficient travel. The route is obviously old, a highway connecting Rose Valley and the ocean to the coastal interior. We blazed through valleys full of cedar and poderosa, old oak forests waking to the birds greeting the dawn. High above our heads, arctic winds and scattered clouds frosted the Pine Mountain Ridge. Cliff and I wondered just how soon we'd be in that freezing mess, but we needn't have worried. The route stays low, sliding from one valley to the next. By mid-morning we were deep into the wilds.
Cliff and I both moved fairly quickly. The path is, in most cases, easy to follow. We had two moments of  route finding difficulty, quickly resolved.  The trail was largely smooth, and most of the day we walked on a springy loam of decomposing bio-mass (leaves). Crossing animal tracks and scat became routine. The place felt very wild, wildernessy. After the first mile we saw no tracks of man or horse for the next twelve. This is the high rugged country. Cliff remarked that it reminded him of the area around Bass Lake near Yosemite and I concurred. High and dry with the ever present scent of pine. We both agreed that, by the end of the day we had crossed over water at minimum, 35 times. This dry winter worked well for us yesterday, water levels were low and consequently we were able to keep "feet dry" all day. It was very pleasant to hear the bubbling sounds of a small creek nearby. No, I didn't eat shit in a creek, which is sort of my SOP.
Over the saddle from Reyes Canyon, headed down towards Beartrap.
Miles of cedar forest.
One of the nicer features along the stretch of this trail is the placement of campsites. We started comparing it to the California Mission System. From our direction we passed through: Reyes, Beartrap, Haddock, Three Mile, Pine Mtn Lodge, Twin Forks and Piedra Blanca camps. These camps are 2-5 miles apart and they became the next logical pit-stop as we trudged the long miles. 3 Mile camp is a pretty sweet little spot.

For miles, it seemed, the only evidence of man was an ancient trail shrouded in leaves.
Remarkably good signage along the route, though very few use the trail.
Cliff looked down and found this 1934 quarter at Haddock Camp.

Above and Below: Momma Lion and cub. Mom has a 5" foot which would probably put her at 100-115 lbs. Healthy. We followed her prints for over 6 miles. She would intermittently depart the trail but for the most part, we walked in her steps. We figured that she observed us. We also figured that she'd be making sure that we never saw her or her kitten. These tracks weren't new, but had definitely been made sometime in the last day. Mom's with kittens don't travel far unless they are driven from the den site. She was out there watching, somewhere. A surfer would say it felt "sharky".
Above: The Chumash pictographs of Piedra Blanca Creek. We added 45 minutes to the day to reach these.

Cliff, making it back into the sun. The day never did warm up.
0.8 miles from the truck. Then 45 minutes back to my truck. Then an hour and 15 to get home, except that right in front of me Cliff has stopped. This is because there are numerous emergency vehicles and a sheriff's department helicopter, rotor turning, stopped on Highway 33. We were told that a motorcyclist had just had a very bad day. I got the chopper on video, which I'll post soon.

This was one of the most fulfilling days I've experienced in the Los Padres. Not only was the journey long, the route tough, and the effort legit, but the route was beautiful, remote, rugged. Over every saddle lay a new valley, it's own distinct place. Different from the last, yet familiar. I felt like I was in an environment that required and rewarded the alert, and the watchful. The constant cat tracks and the copious piles of bear shit made daydreaming an activity for the foolish. The area had a vibe, ageless yet old.  For all this and everything I can't put into words, I rate this a 5 Star Trail. And a word of admiration for Cliff, the guy is fit and has the stamina to just go on. He don't quit easy. Comrade Cliff, a good one for the trail.  
Trip time with breaks: 9.5 hrs


  1. Timely post. A buddy and I were going to do the Gene Marshall as a day hike or a quick overnighter a couple of weeks back but got shut down by the (very) high wind forecasts. Ended up doing an overnighter into the Dick Smith from the Cuyama side instead.

    I've done sections of the trail but never done the whole thing as a thru. Definitely agree with you that it's a unique and favorite stretch of the southern LPNF.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Suicyco!

    I love it. That is worthy blog content a man can respect.

  3. Excellent day hike and adventure. Heading out that way tomorrow. Enjoyed the video too. Keep it coming.

  4. I think I should do this...this week maybe?