Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Descent of the West Fork of Piedra Blanca Creek

Jaw dropping.
5 Stars.
A virginal forest of arboreal delights.
I think I'm in love.
Can it get any better than this?

Click any image to enlarge it. I think you should.

This descent has been on my list for quite a while. For years I've not been shy about asserting that the Reyes Ridge hosts the best of our forest. There are beautiful places and hidden gems all over the place, but the high country between Pine Mountain and San Rafael Peak are where my heart lies. Cedars and pines and dark hidden places and moss lined creeks and rocky buttes and blue jays and bears... my kind of paradise.

In an enduring effort to know this region as well as anybody I've been eyeing a number of places that people just don't go, which leads to what went down on this day. Jack Elliott and I left the Sespe/Piedra Blanca trailhead on a crisp and clear sunrise. We burned up the miles through the Piedra Blanca and Twin Forks campsites, downshifted up the grinding climb out of the creek, and crested into Pine Mountain Lodge two and a half hours later. We stopped at the old campsite for a time, steam rising off our backs,  sweat turning to frosty wet in the forty degree air. After a bit of breakfast and some basking in the chill sun we tightened everything down for our real raison d'etre.  I had an inkling what this descent would be like, but in the end my own preconceived ideas fell far short of the gorgeous reality below.

We followed the sandy wash out of Pine Mtn Lodge, headed downstream and west. In short order we were oohing and aahing at the huge trees, shallow pools, and sculpted slabs framing either side of the creek. It seemed that we were instantly transported into a primordial forest of Disney-like character. I was just beaming inside. Oh hell yes. This place was a true beauty. We continued downstream through a subtle turn to the south, sunlight dappling through the forest canopy, water trickling beside us, and soon we reached a small branch coming in from the west. Here the creek was a shallow brook  turning back to the southeast, coursing through grasses, huge cedars, alder and spruce everywhere, massive boulders randomly parked along the stream. Heavenly. All through this uppermost portion of the creek we'd had little trouble, a well worn bear trail guiding the easiest path forward.

 Deeper into the southeast turn of the creek we emerged from this eden into a new iteration, a broad avenue of boulders framed by cedar forested slopes. Electric green moss grew on many of the larger boulders. Birds zipped through the trees. Gravelly sinks lay where water would pool in wetter years. We rock hopped along, pausing frequently to just take it all in. Occasionally a natural dam of deadfall wood presented a worthy obstacle but by and large we just bounced along unhindered. And it just kept going.

We gradually descended into another elevation of forest, a different stretch populated by old growth trees, alder, spruce, and cedar, but more densely spaced than in the previous mile. Again there was water in the creek. This was a magic mile which provoked many more exclamations of goodness. Somewhere in it I rounded a large tree and just 50ft away was a big ole bear (below). I hand signaled Jack and together we watched that bear for a while. He knew we were there and moved up the slope a bit, completely unalarmed by our presence. At one point he turned around to look straight into us for a good 15 seconds before vanishing into the forest. In the creek below, the water was muddied, and big wet paw prints revealed where he'd come from.


A bit later we encountered a fractured cliff face which was easy to descend. Water dripped from cracks all along the base of this falls, and lush ferns grew out of the rock on its shady side. In the center of the falls was a deep and mossy grotto. It was early afternoon by this time and we broke for a snack. I observed that this drainage just seemed to go on and on without end. Neither of us were disappointed by this, but we both knew that somewhere below, once we'd descended into the chaparral zone, things were bound to get ugly. An hour later we encountered a 30ft waterfall which was easily bypassed, but that falls seemed to be a message that the beautiful sights and scenes were about to come to an abrupt end. Indeed, soon after we were in a scrum of extraordinary proportions.

Somehow we prevailed over the forces of nature. Undoubtedly the prodigious use of profanity helped grease the way. Suffice it to say that the last hour before popping out at Twin Forks was unpleasant, wet, and tiring. I got garroted by a thorny vine, slapped in the eye by a tree branch, poked in the eye by another, and was totally ensnared in a brush trap which, while fighting out of it, rudely ejected me face first into a pool of water. Good times. A small price to pay however, considering the forested Disneyland we'd beheld.

*The terrain in this drainage is not technically all that difficult, but a good head for solving descent "puzzles" would be helpful in saving time and energy. That being said, this drainage feels long. Hell, it is long. We were both pretty worked by the time we popped back out onto the PB trail. There are consecutive miles of boulder hoping, scrambling, down climbing, up climbing, butt sliding, crab walking, elbow crawling, tree climbing, log walking, and brush fighting involved. Before we even entered the brush zone just the realities of this rocky descent had beaten us up but good. Given the nature of the terrain I would advise following parties to be on guard for that insidious sloppiness that comes with being tired, for there are one million and one ways to injure oneself in an environment such as this. But go, go and leave no trace. The beauty here rivals anything in our forest.


  1. Bugger! You guys beat me to it. This has been on my list as well.

    Looks amazing. You've confirmed my suspicions and motivated me to make a go of it.

  2. Derek, you're welcome. My pleasure (literally).

    Nick, it goes. Enjoy. We'll hit something soon.

  3. Another kick ass trip! Well done. I am envious of the bear encounter. That kind of benign event is exactly what I'd like to see, but I've yet to find more than prints. Of course, it could also go sideways, so maybe I should think twice about my wishes. Great photos as always.

  4. Great spot.
    Done this a few times and not for the casual hiker.
    Were the trout still hanging on in the upper pool?
    Mike B.

  5. Some of your best photos. Ever. And that's saying something. Great read, D.

  6. Craig, put this one on your short list. -DS

  7. you'd love this one, if your ever up Big Sur way, let me know...


  8. As a Boy Scout from Oxnard Twin Forks was a popular destination for us. My personal knowledge of the stream was limited to about a mile or so up from TF and about a mile down from PML. Your pictures are really nice and prove that canyon is as I dreamed it would be. In the late 60's and 70's that stream was absolutely loaded with native rainbows. I miss hiking....thanks for posting this.