Sunday, March 28, 2010

La Jolla Canyon Loop, Point Mugu State Park, California

Distance: 8.0 mile loop (12.9 km)
Elevation: 25 - 1150 feet (7 - 350 meters)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: September - May (way too hot in summer)

Located at the western edge of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is Point Mugu State Park. This rugged, rocky, arid landscape contains some beautiful examples of the various chaparral types including coastal sage scrub, ceonothus-chamise shrublands, coast live oak/laurel sumac thickets, and riparian stands of sycamores and ash. In addition, there are some magnificent examples of the stalked giant coreopsis growing in the canyon bottom.

This hike takes you up a beautiful canyon past a waterfall, up through the riparian and shady shrub thickets, up onto the higher grassy slopes, and then up to the ridgetop providing spectacular views panoramic views of the Santa Monica and Santa Susana Mountains and across the beautiful blue waters of the Pacific Ocean over to the Channel Islands offshore.

Point Magu State Park is located about 17 miles west of Malibu and 17 miles east of Ventura off CA Hwy 1. Pull into the La Jolla Canyon day use parking area to access the trailhead.

The loop can be done in either direction. But, to use to the sun's direction to your advantage in the panoramic views, I recommend following the bottom of La Jolla Canyon (to main trail past the gate to the left) rather than the steep and exposed Ray Miller Trail to the right.

Near the beginning of the trail

The La Jolla Canyon trail starts by following above the sycamore-lined creek and in 0.8 miles arrives at the small waterfall. After crossing the creek, the trail continues following the canyon. Keep an eye out for plentiful poison oak along the trail, ticks dangling from overhanging grass, and a surprising number of very pesky large black mosquitoes. That potent triple combo can make this initial segment less than enjoyable.

The former pastureland known affectionately as "Tickville"

At 1.2 miles, a trail branches off to the left, but stay straight ahead. At 2.1 miles, the La Jolla Group Camp trail branches off also to the left. Based on my experience at this spot, you better have deet if you are going to camp here. For the loop, stay right and at 2.4 miles the trail emerges in an open grassland that was former pasture land. Here, the trail arrives at the "Overlook Fire Road". Get onto the fire road heading right and upslope. Soon there will be a 4 way intersection of fire roads, turn right continuing on the "Overlook Fire Road".

The view from the "Overlook Fire Road"

This fire road slowly climbs up the slope offering ever expanding panoramic views of the region. At the top of the ridge, you are now at 1150 feet in elevation with speactular views across all of the mountains and to the Channel Islands offshore. While the mosquito assault has diminished greatly, the are countless tiny and seemingly harmless flies that will cover your legs. The fire road continues along the ridgeline toward the sea. Watch for mountain bikers going in both directions on the fire road, especially on weekends.

Boney Mountain with Sycamore Canyon at its base

Because the sun has moved more to the west by the time you make it to this ridgeline, the lighting on the 2860 foot Boney Mountain Wilderness becomes more and more spectacular. Down at the bottom of the drainage is Sycamore Canyon, aptly named due to the large sycamores that line the bottom.

Notice the Channel Islands offshore?

As the fire road approaches the ocean's edge, there is the intersection with the Ray Miller Trail. If you continued on the fire road, it will descend down to the bottom of Sycamore Canyon and a parking area at the bottom. But, instead turn right onto the Ray Miller Trail.

The Ray Miller Trail is a winding 2.4 mile, 1000 foot descend through a beautiful and aromatic coastal sage scrub habitat, with nearly undescribable views of the ocean, Channel Islands, and coastline of the Santa Monica Mountains. You can even see way off in the distance the Santa Ana Mountains south of Los Angeles.

The trail's surface is quite good, despite the constant descent. Usually, I prefer the ascent the steeper sections and descend the more gradial routes to take the pressure off my knees. But, this is the rare case where in the hot mid-afternoon sun, I was glad I was going down this way. Also, the wildflowers in spring make this an absolutely incredible time to do this trail.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Backbone Trail - Santa Monica Mountains Nat. Rec. Area, California

Distance: 6.0 miles (10 km) One Way
Elevation: 2300-2800 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: September to May (avoid heat in summer)

The Backbone Trail follows the high ridges and summits of the Santa Monica Mountains from Los Angeles to the end of the range near Point Magu. It is 68 miles in length and is a spectacular area of chaparral covered slopes bursting in amazing wildflowers and offering spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, Channel Islands, and San Gabriel Mountains.

Late March and April is an excellent time to hike this area because of the amazing wildflowers that are bursting out into this recovering burn zone and the still moderate temperatures. It is also a great escape from the craziness and traffic of Los Angeles and a way to get above the smog line.

While the Backbone Trail runs for 68 miles in length, we decided to do a segment that ran from Casto Crest to Malibu Canyon. This was a truly beautiful stretch and well worth checking out. Since it is a one-way route, you can basically follow the ridgeline as far as you would like to go and then turn around. But, if you do need to turn around, the spot that is best to do so (which will be discussed below) will be about 4 miles out, so plan for a 8 mile roundtrip.

To get to the trailhead, look for Corral Canyon Road just a few miles west of downtown Malibu. Drive up Corral Canyon Road all the way to the trailhead at the top (5 miles up). The road is very narrow and twisting. Along the way, you will pass $1-2 million dollar homes and their associated Ferrari's hanging from the cliffs.

The road is paved all the way up and then will end at dirt parking lot with two fire roads leaving in opposite directions. At the trailhead, you will see some interesting sandstone rock formations to the right (east), just follow the trail up onto those rocks, look around a bit, and then descend down to the fire road below you.

Then, all you do is follow the fire road as far as you want to go. If you do not have a shuttle and need to backtrack to the parking lot, then the best place to turn around is when you reach the intersection of two fire roads (Mesa Peak and Puerco Canyon). Then, just a short ways downslope on the fire road Malibu Canyon becomes visible below, and the route begins a clearly obvious and steep descent down to the canyon bottom (about another 2 miles).

The view into Malibu Canyon from the turnaround spot

If that is your turn it would be about 4 miles back to the trailhead at Casto Crest. Or, you can split up and have one group descend to Malibu Canyon and the other go get the car and pick them up at the bottom.

But, however you wish to do it, the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area is a jewel of the National Park System located just 15 miles away from 15 million people, but which feels like 150 or more!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hellhole Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California

Distance: 6.0 miles (10 km) roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Easy for the first half, strenuous for the last 1 mile
Season: September - May

Hellhole Canyon is a spectacular canyon of granite boulders, multiple California fan palms, and a 20 foot waterfall drapped by maidenhair ferns. It is located just 1/2 mile away from the Anza Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center on the S22 heading toward Warner Springs.

The trail begins out on the flat alluvial fan well outside the canyon containing typical California desert vegetation of ocotillos, brittlebrush, chuparosas, and numberous wildflowers. The first 2 miles of the trail follows a wide flat sandy trail up the alluvial fan and into the canyon. The rocky walls close in slowly until it begins to confine the normally dry wash.

As you approach the canyon, the terrain gets rockier and numerous parallel trails begin to weave in and across the wash, all heading up canyon. Eventually, the trails turn to mostly dusty tracks between rocky piles. You have to start figuring out which route to take over the boulders and numerous creek crossings will be required. This section is only of moderate difficulty.

Once you reach the first set of palm trees, the grade goes from moderate to strenuous. Not only is the route difficult to follow, but the terrain gets very rough, and the vegetation turns into jungle-like thickets of palms, sycamores, canyon grape, and those pesky catclaw acacias.

The Maidenhair Falls is located at the 4th significant palm grove. So, keep count. It is not easy to get there, but keep pushing on. There is a "false" falls which is about 10 feet high at the 3rd grove. So, keep going to the next one.

Remember, that going up is always easier than getting down. So, be prepared to slither down boulders and navigate a different route that you took up. But, it is a beautiful hike to say the least.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Painted Gorge-Carrizo Mountain, Coyote Mountains BLM, Ocotillo, CA

Distance: 9.2 miles
Elevation: 500 – 2400 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous
Season: October – April

The Painted Gorge and Carrizo Mountain are located in the Coyote Mountains of extreme South-central California, just miles from the Mexican border. They rise above the Imperial Valley and form a dramatic example of an extreme desert mountain.

Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep occupy this range, which means the roads into it are closed from January 1st to June 30th every year during lambing season. This makes it a perfect time to visit the range, as you will be all by yourself on the rocky jeep trails having an amazing level of solitude. On this hike we saw every sign of those bighorn sheep, except the sheep themselves. We found their tracks, their droppings, and even their wool!

You can access this magnificent place by taking I-8 from San Diego or El Centro and taking the Ocotillo exit. Turn right onto the Imperial Highway (S2) toward Plaster City and El Centro. A few miles east of Ocotillo, look for Painted Gorge road to the left. This dirt road will drive past a myriad of old trailers and rickity shacks and then will head up into the Coyote Mountains. Eventually the road reaches a shot-up information board put up by the BLM. Here several dirt tracks depart in various directions. The most obvious track veers off slightly to the right. To get to the Painted Gorge gate, you can either follow this and then immediately turn left up the wash or follow the faint road straight ahead from the sign and into the same wash. Once in Painted Gorge wash, drive ½ mile to the gate.

From the gate, hike up Painted Gorge with its myriad of colors, ranging from purple, to burgandy, yellow, beige and white. The geology is extremely complex in here, with volcanic, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks all mixed together in an astonding diversity I have never seen before.

The route continues 1.4 miles up Painted Gorge wash and then a jeep track heads up the slope to the right. If you continue up the gorge, it will dead end in about ¼ of a mile. The jeep track then begins a relentless climb nearly 2000 feet to the top of Carrizo Mountain. The landscape constantly changes as you climb. At first you will be looking directly down into the gorge. Then, views across the Imperial Valley open up. Ocotillos and brittle brush begins to dominate the vegetation.

There will be a number of side roads that branch in all directions, but just stay on the main track as it continues to climb. In about 1 mile you will enter a bowl where the fascinating “raspberry” cactus begin to appear. Officially they are called the many-headed barrel cactus (E. polycephalus), but to us, they are the “raspberry cactus” because in the distance, these red conglomeration of those heads looks like a raspberry.

The trail will continue to climb through several geologic layers including sparkly mica-filled metamophic rocks, red and yellow granites, and white sandstones. At 3.2 miles you will reach a basin of sorts full of wonderful campsite opportunities. The summit of the mountain will now be visible in the distance. You will soon encounter two major intersections. At the first intersection, stay right on the main track. Then, later when the main track appears to veer right 180 degrees, stay straight on the fainter track. At 4.5 miles you will reach the end of the road.

At the end of the road, it is a short 500 foot scramble to the summit of the mountain. At the summit, the entire Anza Borrego Desert State Park comes into view. You can see the Salton Sea (150 feet below sea level) to the northeast, the snow-capped Santa Rosa and San Jacinto ranges to the north, Whale Peak to the northwest, the 6000 foot escarpment of the Laguna Mountains to the west, Mexico to the south, and the Imperial valley to the east.

There may be no better way to explore the California desert in such solitude than to explore Painted Gorge and Carrizo Mountain during lambing season!

Carrizo Badlands from the Summit

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