Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Piru Creek, from Pyramid Lake to Lake Piru, 05/19&20/2012

 Let me just start by saying that this was one of coolest places I've visited in the Southern Los Padres. The Piru Creek drainage, between Pyramid Lake and Lake Piru is, with the exception of a few miles at either end of the route, as remote and untraveled as any place I've been through. I will do my best to give this place the respect it deserves. Piru Creek is an incredible journey.
Nico and I put in below Pyramid Lake at a pullout called Frenchman's Flat above Castaic. A decent use trail takes off from the parking area and this route aims directly at the Piru Canyon. We set off with a rising sun at our backs and transitioned into the canyon quickly. These early miles are an easy walk and the path quickly joins Piru Creek, moving  downstream through cottonwoods, willows, and easily avoidable poison oak. Several dirty and littered campsites dot this upper few miles of the creek, but after about an hour of walking we found that we'd descended into a rich, untrampled wilderness. 

Nico, using our preferred method of travel.
About the time Nico and I left the litter and unsanctioned fire pits of the first miles behind we were already happily sloshing through a narrowing canyon. By this time the use trails we'd been following had largely petered out, traveling through the creek itself was becoming more and more the most efficient way to travel. Remnants of trail can be found down this entire route, but we determined early on that any path off the creek has been commandeered for, and is maintained exclusively by bears. This was evident nearly every step of the day that we spent on the banks of  Piru Creek. Bear sign, prints, and scat were literally everywhere along this creek ( I do not exaggerate ).

The creek itself is generally shallow and broad, though in high water years this route would be incredibly difficult on foot. We enjoyed sloshing downstream as the temperature rose. Occasionally we were forced up out of the creek by a deeper pool or sections of bionic plant growth. After 3-4 miles in, the creek starts weaving back and forth, doubling back on itself entirely in places. In wider portions of the canyon the creek has created brushy plateaus on one side of the creek or the other, depending on which way the creek has turned. At these big bends in the creek we'd climb out of the water and into these areas which were characterized by rocky sandbars and profusions of brush. Most of the time this approach would shave some distance, meaning we could over-land until the next bend in the creek, at which point we'd either resume travel in the creek or cross to the other side and repeat the process. Often the cue to cross the creek presented in the form of  an impenetrable wall of reeds, or willow, or poison oak, but most often we were just able to sense that ahead was not the way and adjust accordingly.

One of a thousand brushy creek crossings.
The floor of this spectacular canyon is seldom wider than 200 feet and seemed, for the majority of the route, to average about a hundred feet wide. The creek frequently hugs one side of the canyon's deep walls. At one such spot I'd just rounded a corner and had started crossing water for the hundredth time that morning when I heard something snap off to my right. I glanced toward the source of the noise and said exactly these two words, "Holy shit...". I was being observed from about sixty feet away by a big ole bear. We locked eyes for just a second before he turned into the brush. I struggled to get my camera into play as the bear faded into the brush ( that's the best I got, below). Nico was only a few feet behind me and was able to catch up in time to see the bear casually retreating into the brush. We quickly crossed to the other side of the creek and hurried downstream a ways before the alarm bells were quieted. That was a big bear. I know that every bear is big in person, but this old boy with his mangy butt stood 4-4.5 feet tall at the shoulder. Big. We were happy to put some space between the two of us.

A crappy, on-the-fly shot of our bear.
A word about the brush situation...it's bad. This day of travel wasn't difficult in the classical sense, as in climbing a gnarly hill or pounding out massive miles. A good analogy might be to compare this to running up and down Matilija creek several times in a day. No two steps are alike. Step on a rock, step up to the next, down to the one after that, step sideways around a fallen branch, barrel through this plant, scramble over that boulder, and so on...and then there is the brush, which I'd describe as legendary. You have all the chaparral that we usually contend with on normal trails, but added to the mix are all the plants that dwell in the local creek bottoms, and these plants are healthy. Countless times Nico and I found ourselves thrashing through hundred foot sections of ridiculous, excessive growth. I was scratched and bleeding from a dozen cuts before noon. The combination of these two features, exuberant plant life and disorganized creek bed, made for consistently difficult travel. We stayed in the creek when possible, though that was frequently just as difficult given the mossy, unstable footing. We developed a kind of running joke in reference to the lack of any defined trail. When smack up against a towering wall of bullet-proof brush, and with no real indication of how to get through it, we'd resort to saying "Follow the bear!", which means that we'd resort to the Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer approach, a technique I refer to as the "brute-force ignorance method". I actually developed a technique that kind of worked in these situations, where I'd extend my arms out and coming together in a "V", trekking pole handles together as the point of this wedge, head down in the "V", apply full steam to the legs, and part the waters of this brush sea. Like I said, it kind of worked but really, nothing works as well in brush this dense as a good sense of humor.

The further we progressed into the canyon, the tighter it got. Nico working the brush.

How pretty is this? Loved it.
Nico eating brush, which builds strong bones and teeth. Part of any complete breakfast.

California Condor. We had several sightings of condors and saw one pair in flight.

Cobblestone Mountain from Piru Creek.

This watershed is very healthy. I mentioned that this place is owned by the bears, but let me expand on the local wildlife that we encountered. Let's start with the birds we saw: at least 60 ducks (mallards and two other species I haven't been able to ID), red tail hawks, harris hawk, a woodpecker, the biggest great blue heron I've ever seen, hummingbirds, quail and dove, and multiple sightings of california condors (singly and one pair), and a big horned owl flew overhead as I closed my eyes for the night. Aside from the squirrels and the bear, the only other mammalian interaction came on Sunday morning as we were packing up. A skunk came into our creek-side bivy after an all-nighter and, completely nonchalant about the humans in his house, crawled into a den under a big boulder near by. We saw enormous alligator lizards, horned toads, a big garter snake, and two rare reptiles: a five foot patch-nosed snake (gorgeous snake), and a beautiful western skink with it's electric blue tail. I get the sense that this canyon might be a last hold-out for other rarities such as the ring-tail cat (quatl) which I have only seen once in our neighborhood (that was in Tar Creek many years ago). Nico indicated that he'd like to again come this way for the sole purpose of wildlife observation and I agreed, it's that kind of place.

Big bear print. Click any image to enlarge.
Dead field mouse.
Dead crayfish.
I theorize that this beautiful CA King snake was killed by a bird. We hadn't run into people prints at that point, so I dont think this death was human related. I love king snakes so this was kinda sad.
Patch-nosed Snake

Long live the king.
Not my photo, but a very rare guy, a western skink.
A rare patch-nosed snake, about 5 ft' long. Very fast.

Large common garter snake.
CA Condors
A slightly better shot of the patch-nose.

At roughly the half way point between the two lakes, the creek enters a stunning gorge, the likes of which I have not traveled. Nico put it on a par with another place he's visited above Santa Barbara, but I've been through the Big Narrows on Agua Blanca, Devils Gate, Devils Gateway, Alder Creek and the Sespe Gorge, and I found that this mile long gorge diminished those other narrows in my eyes. The Piru Gorge travels, like I said, about a mile through a slot that isn't ever any wider than 50 feet and averages a width of 20-30 feet. The rock is mostly a conglomerate of colorful cobbles cemented into the boulders and walls of this stretch. The walls of the gorge are curvaceous, with numerous pockets and alcoves at the creek level. In one place a small spout of water spills into the creek from 40 feet overhead. This is a true slot canyon, very pretty, and worth every step it took to get there.

Piru Gorge

We spent some time appreciating the natural wonders of this remarkable gorge before continuing another mile further to the junction where Ruby Canyon drains into the Piru Creek. Ruby Canyon is rumored to have a couple waterfalls which wouldn't be in business now, at least there was no flow coming down the canyon. We did not investigate Ruby on this trip but I have a feeling I'll be headed up there at some later date.

We set up shop on about the only flat spot we could find that wasn't physically under water. It was a perfectly adequate place to call a halt. We'd been on the go since 04:30 due to the need for a car at either end of this route, and we'd been on the move for roughly 10 hours. Ruby Canyon on the Piru was a logical place to call it a day. As we each prepared our dinner du jour the sun had set, bringing forth a happy little cloud of bats, which are always entertaining to watch. I crawled in my bivy sac and thought about all we'd seen on this first of two days, and tried to put it to memory. It had been a big day filled with big adventure. 
Sunrise over Ruby Canyon.

Nico, back in the drink.

In the morning, after the coffee was drunk and the visit from the skunk, we saddled up and moved out. We were back in the creek, feet wet within 10 minutes, head deep in brush shortly after. We followed the circuitous turnings of the canyon, in and out of the creek, up and down over rocks, etc... After about an hour of this we rolled past an old bee keepers site called Ellis Apiary and soon we were able to pick up fragments of the old Jeep track that linked the apiary to Lake Piru below. We saw some old iron implements, the remains of  an ancient, rusted truck axle, and a battered gate circa 1940 that had been anchored into the rock of the canyon wall. We were now out of the brush and no longer near water. The road became a real road as we passed the entrance to Agua Blanca Canyon. Soon we rolled past the very pleasant Whitaker Ranch site and after that it was just a long, scorching walk out to the upper-most parking lot on the lake.

I can't say enough good things about this hike, but I am just about typed out here. Nico and I got along well on this trip, both relying on each other to find a way to get through this wilderness. I think I can speak for him when I say that this was one of those places that surpass all expectation. Just an awesome place.

On the drive out of the lake I experienced what I'm calling a "character building exercise". Both of us had driven up to the lake together, switched Nick's gear over to my truck, and drove back out. Entering the lake there is a kiosk which charges $13 for day use at the lake. After we'd dropped Nico's truck off we rolled back to the kiosk. I asked the really nice folks there if they'd mind refunding my $13 because all I'd done was drive in and back out. I explained what we were up to and they were happy to refund me. Now at the end of our trip and in Nico's truck, we drove out and he stopped at the kiosk. Nobody was in any hurry to come see what we were about so I suggested we keep driving. Nico took the high road and got out to talk to the folks at the kiosk. As he approached, a woman came out and shouted, "Are you my hikers?" and waved us through without charging us a second time. There's a lesson here and I suspect it's karmic in nature.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cobblestone Mountain & White Mountan, Southern Los Padres,05/14/12

Time to tick another one off the list, Cobblestone Mountain. For a guy who doesn't really classify himself as a "peakbagger" I sure seem to end up standing on top of a lot of mountains. For today's mission I was joined by Nico, a frequent commentator on this blog and a connoisseur of our local backcountry. This was our first time out as a team, a "getting to know you" trek. In the end, it was rough, hot, and prickly, but for all that, a supremely satisfying day. 

That's Cobblestone Mountain behind the sign.

Cobblestone Mountain is one of the more remote and challenging peaks in the Southern Los Padres (SLP). Tackling this peak is all-around difficult, starting with the drive to the trailhead. Nico and I met at my place in Ventura at 04:15, piled in the truck and sucked down coffee all the way up I-5 to the Gorman exit. We followed Gold Hill Rd through the Hungry Valley OHV area and eventually made our way up Alamo Mountain where the Buck Creek trailhead takes off. We made sure not to park in the handicapped slot at the end of this 17 mile 4WD road. 

The views from the parking area are impressive. I gazed east into the rising sun at the endlessly undulating White Mountain Ridge. Looming huge in the distance stood Cobblestone, an alarmingly large mountain. I could tell right then and there that we were in for it. It's rare to start a hike from a point at which you can visualize the majority of your route, and the more I looked at this ridge and that peak the harder it looked. Cobblestone has presence.

We set off with the sun in our eyes, treading through golden grasses blushed by lupine, the shattered limbs of deadfall trees silhouetted by the rising sun. We didn't have much of a trail, even from the outset. We followed intermittent single track for a while, diverting frequently to skirt around countless fallen trees. This area had burned during the 2006 Day Fire and as we passed through blackened stands of lifeless pines I realized that only the south facing slopes of this east-west ridge had burned. I noted that the trail was really just a path within a bulldozer track now grown over. Within a mile we were approaching Sewart Mountain, which is at roughly the same elevation as the parking lot. On Sewart's bald summit is a small crag of granite in which we discovered yet another rotting and saturated summit log ( I refer to Haddock Peak).

A graveyard of giants.

ESE to White Mtn Ridge and Cobblestone Mtn, from Sewart.

Leaving Sewart our route began to descend sharply toward Buck Creek. This downhill grade is a beau coupe bummer, steep and brushy, characterized by fallen trees and over a thousand feet of elevation loss. Periodically the trail would evaporate into a huge patch of ceanothus or poodle-dog plant. We soon reached an unmarked junction between those peaks to the north (Snowy Pk and Black Mtn) and the ones on our agenda. At this point we stashed a good amount of water before traversing through a hellish expanse of overgrown ridge. In the case of this hike, what goes down must come up, and as we climbed out of the brush we became properly introduced to White Mountain Ridge.

Buck Creek Canyon, which clearly did not burn in 2006.

Interesting succulent, they were sparsely scattered across just the saddle between White Mtn Ridge and Cobblestone.

The nature of this route can be reduced to descending and re-ascending things in thousand foot increments. Nico and I understood all this going in, but I'll admit that I was impressed with the difficulty of the over-all day. While fighting with brush and struggling up frequent grades wasn't any fun at all, the rugged views and a cool breeze smoothed things out. We finally ascended White Mountain Ridge to a point directly north of Cobblestone. A thousand feet below us lay a narrow saddle which connects our ridge with Cobblestone. Just getting to the saddle below, and then ascending 1,500 feet up Cobblestone to the summit would be tough enough, not to mention the return trip. Somewhere in here the day got sporty.

At the saddle between White Mtn Ridge and Cobblestone.
The descent from White Mtn Ridge to the saddle was ugly. There is no trail and the best path of descent is to proceed straight down. This portion of the route is about 45 degrees steep, loose, and avoiding the profusion of  prickly plants is impossible. I ended up tearing a new pair of Columbias and pulling several yucca spines out of my leg (I found 5 more in the shower that evening).. Above me I could hear Nico dealing with the same discomforts. Finally we stood on the saddle which separates Fish Creek to the east and Agua Blanca creek to the west, with Cobblestone in our faces and the escape route up to White Mtn Ridge at our backs. Time to get to work.

Nico, grinding up Cobblestone.

Though long and steep, the route up to the summit of Cobblestone was obvious...do not look for trail, just go straight up from the saddle. This climb of roughly 1,500 feet is pretty straightforward and I didn't find it to be all that difficult. Nico stuck with me the whole way up and we hit the summit together. The view from Cobblestone is grand, expansive, and unique. All the peaks of the SLP are visible from this summit. On the summit itself is an aluminum Sierra Club summit log of the type seen on many Sierra peaks. To put Cobblestone's isolated remoteness into context, the summit journal was last dated in December of 2011, and summit entries date back as far as the mid 1980's. This peak sees little traffic.

White Mountain Ridge, Black Mountain in the rear, from Cobblestone.

Left to right: Mt Sewart, Snowy Peak, Black Mtn, White Mtn. Mt Pinos in the distance.

Nico, reading old summit entries on Cobblestone.
Cobblestone's summit register honoring Jack Cross.

White Mountain Ridge, taken while descending Cobblestone.

Nico and I spent 40 minutes atop Cobblestone, each consumed with our own summit rituals. Rested, we turned down Cobblestone and descended back to the saddle. The climb from the saddle up to White Mountain Ridge is the toughest portion of this long and strenuous route, nothing comes easy. This 1,00ft climb is impossible to accomplish without getting scratched up by brush and tagged by yuccas. In addition to that unpleasantness, this 40 degree uphill is fully exposed to the noon sun. Frankly, this climb out of the Cobblestone Saddle sucks. I was pretty happy to regain the ridge above, with it's grassy shade and cool breeze. We took a decent break in the shadow of  some pines, assessed our water situation which was right on the margins of  barely enough, and proceeded to move east toward the summit of White Mountain .
Nico, staring at the hardest climb of the day, back from Cobblestone and up to White Mtn Ridge. There is no trail and the best approach is straight up. 

White Mountain Ridge is very pretty, well worth the hike.

Enjoying a nice view during a time-out.

Nico, consulting the oracle.

I really enjoyed this portion of the day, the trip over to White. What path remains travels over several small small hillocks and through a couple sections of brush, but the route is high and grassy with pines and 360 views. After a bit of this rambling we bashed through a last bit of brush to arrive on the summit of White Mountain (Los Padres), which is remarkably similar to the summit of Hines Pk in that it is a collection of sticks and stones with a coffee can register. There is no USGS marker and the last entry in the summit log was dated October 2011. We were getting skosh on water levels and Nico, especially, was getting concerned. I admit that I was getting down to not wanting to know what was left in my reservoir but knew I'd be alright. Nico, on the other hand, made sure to let me know that he overheats fairly easily. He'd started with an appropriate amount of water but I could tell that he was struggling with the heat, which I'd say was at least in the upper 80's. I kept a pretty good eye on him as we started our return trip.

White Mountain's summit register. There is no USGS marker.
Skeletons of the Forest.

We reversed our course from White Mountain and headed west on this remarkable ridge. I ended up putting Nico in front for much of this stretch, letting him set a pace he could live with. After a while I was noticing some subtle indications that he was headed for trouble. Though most of this ridge is wide open, some sections are brushy and route finding in these areas is problematic. About the third time Nico steered us the wrong way I took over the lead, but kept our pace slow. I also curtailed my water intake in case he ended up needing mine. I knew I'd be fine but was a bit worried about Nico. The guy is built like an ox, but in this heat his gait was getting sloppy and he was flushed, panting. We slowed it way down when the White Mtn Ridge ceded to the flank of Sewart Mtn. We reached our water cache, four liters of the stuff, none too soon.
Me, Cobblestone Mountain.

Nico, headed west on White Mtn ridge.

Nico, navigating an area of deadfalls.

Skeleton Forest.

Upon reaching the water stash I gave Nico about 400cc's of gatoraid and we went through a good portion of the rest of it. After a few minutes we got going again, but I still kept the pace slow for the climb up Sewart and the last mile to the truck. Nico was looking quite a bit better by the time we rolled past Sewart and was back to normal by the time we hit the truck. 

Old ammo, dropped a long time ago. Remington 700 Mag

So, the first time out with Nico had it's issues but he's the first to admit that he doesn't do real well in the heat. Aside from that he is solid, experienced, and generally knows what he's about. We're headed out again this coming weekend but this trip is on the water so we should be good.

As for the day, I give Cobblestone high marks for the toughness of the climb and it's remote location. The views from the summit are remarkable, unique. My favorite portion of this route is the White Mtn Ridge, which is reminiscent of Reyes Peak Ridge and other high and piney parts of our region. I'd like to come back to the area and tag a few of the other near-by peaks, but I think it'll have to wait until things cool down. All in all, this is a tough one, nothing for free.
Nico figured out the math on our route:
13-14 miles
 6-7,000 feet of elevation gain
 roughly 10 hours (too long, but a good day)

Nico, headed for home.

To see me dig a festering Cobblestone yucca needle out of my knee (and do a somewhat professional job at it) click this link