Friday, October 3, 2014

Horse Thief Canyon and Environs

What a delicious day. Didn't feel that way when I woke up but man, what a great day this loop turned out to be. The Santa Ana winds were gusting out of the east, that strange quality of arid, lower latitude sky, the lengthening shadows of fall. All of it, combined with the terrain I chose to travel, made for a stunner of a day of off-trail antics.

Horse Thief Canyon drains off the eastern edge of the ridge on which Thorn Point sits. It twists and turns through eroded sandstone bluffs and feral meadows, eventually emptying into the southernmost part of Mutau Flat. The surrounding landscape is a confusing jumble of steep sided ridges, plunging gullies, sandstone cliffs, manzanita, and cedar, all overshadowed by the epic cliffs of Thorn Point. This area is one of the most dramatic landscapes in our forest, and one of my favorite places to roam.

Dropping off the other side of Thorn Meadow was like entering another world entirely.
The first falls I encountered (and below).

I took a very indirect route into Horse Thief, by design. An overview of the area directly east of Thorn Meadow (where I parked) shows a remarkable basin of steep drainages and deep washes. Some of these gullies have cut through bedrock resulting in dramatic waterfalls, seasonal and currently dry. I set out due east from Thorn, tracking up an old hunters route, climbing through loose soil and pines. Cresting on the ridge some 400ft above Thorn, the route faded, petering out into a thready animal track dominated by the paw prints of a passing cat. Rather than follow this ridge to a point where I might descend into Horse Thief I instead launched straight off the other side, carefully descending into a forested gully. Once reaching the floor of this mini-canyon I turned right (S) and back-tracked up the drainage a bit to a vertical dry falls. Done there I turned downstream and followed the gully roughly east encountering, a short time later, another hidden away falls draining in from the right. This was a very pretty hollow, shaded, framed by cedars, butterflies flitting here and there as they stooped to sip from a meager seep of water which eked out of the 30ft high falls. Ten minutes later I was again hanging a right, this time into a third branch gully. This was the one I'd come to see, a gracefully arcing amphitheater of cobbled sandstone, 40ft high and significantly overhung at it's deepest point. Climbing out and up above that dry falls led to a series of glaring white slabs  sculpted with shallow erosion channels. From here I connected a couple small ridges headed south, ultimately arriving at a photogenic overlook which provided keen views both up and down Horse Thief.

The second falls, the one with a hint of water (and following 2 photos).

The third falls hidden deep in an amphitheater (and below).
The slabs atop the third falls (and below).

With clear views into Horse Thief I decided to hook left on the ridge (E), paralleling the canyon from the ridge top.  Eventually I descended over a large butte of rock and dropped into a pretty meadow on the floor of the canyon. Here I continued east, following a deer track through dry grasses sprinkled with mature cedars. Lower down canyon I crossed the deeply cut wash, finding a tenuous animal track which climbed out the other side and up to another meadow. Blue jays squawked and a large squirrel bounded from tree to tree. This place had a primordial, untouched feel to it.  Really, I'd had that feeling ever since departing at Thorn, but this canyon felt truly wild. Needless to say I was enjoying myself immensely.

The first look up Horse Thief. Thorn Point dominates the skyline.
The meadows of lower Horse Thief Canyon.

On the canyon floor, untrodden meadows (and below).

Eventually I turned around and retraced my steps. I continued up the canyon past where I'd dropped in. The upper portion of Horse Thief narrowed considerably and gone were the broad meadows and open views. I was forced into the wash, wide and easily navigable. Later the wash started getting tight, and numerous smaller drainages had started showing up on the right and left. Manzanita and scrub oak started reaching into the drainage and I decided it was time to climb out of the canyon and exit the day. I picked a gully of crumbly gold sandstone that opened up after a hundred feet of brushy stuff, becoming a fun and semi-sketchy exit up to a point on the ridge where I could connect with my entry line and drop back into Thorn. 

Just had myself a super day out there. May you soon have the same.

A portion of my exit route.
A last look down Horse Thief Canyon.
And finally, looking down from the ridge into Thorn Meadow. The Mt Pinos ridge looms in the background.


  1. Looks like a great walk... stunning weather and clarity. Always been curious about that area. How were the temps?

  2. Hey Nick, was a beautiful day, somehow temps stayed in the mid-70's for the duration. Just a breeze in the pines. A little altitude makes a huge difference.

  3. Nice weather and beautiful scenery, it sounds like a great day. Your photos are really good David.