Monday, January 23, 2012

Ben Avery Trail, Eagletail Wilderness, AZ

Distance: 6 - 10 miles round trip depending on ending point (10-16 km)
Elevation: 1600-1800 feet (490 - 550 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: November to April

Located approximately 60 miles west of Phoenix in the Sonoran Desert, the 106,000 acre Eagletail Wilderness represents one of the finest examples of unspoiled desert landscapes in Western Arizona. This wilderness contains numerous petroglyphs, showing the vibrant native cultures that survived in this harsh landscape for thousands of years. To access the Eagletail Wilderness, take the Harquahala Valley exit off I-10 and drive south to Courthouse Road. Here, turn right and follow the wide dirt road west. At the first set of BLM signs, follow the road as it turns northwest and follow it for a ways until seeing a large BLM sign to the left. Follow this high-clearance road to the trailhead about 1.5 miles up near the base of the massive Courthouse Rock. 

A tarantula strolling across the wash

The route begins by following an old dirt track into the wilderness just above a deep wash. The trail will eventually descend into the wash itself. Here, turn right and follow the wash for the next 1/2 mile. You will encounter an old barbed wire gate, which you will need to pass through and then continue up as the wash narrows into a small canyon. Soon, the trail will turn left and climb out of the canyon following a side drainage that has been flattened and improved. Once out of the canyon, the trail continues along the top of sediments between the adjacent mountains. Looking across the basin, you can see some dark-colored cliffs about 1 mile in the distance. This is where the petroglyphs are.

The trail continues along until dropping into a wide arroyo. While the trail crosses and then parallels the wash, you can also just walk straight down the wash if you wish. Once you arrive at the dark brown to almost black cliffs, you will start to see some of the petroglyphs on the boulders on the slope. But, if you scramble up the slopes, you will see hundreds more on the cliffs themselves.

This site has significance because it was (and sort of still is) the site of a spring providing a critical source of water in the arid desert. This area only gets around 4" of rain per year, so this spring was basically the only way to survive out here. As you examine the petroglyphs, you will see the classic signs of corn fields aligned with solar angles to tell these ancient people when to plant and harvest their corn.

This site is called Indian Spring, and today it consists of a few mucky pools in potholes within the wash. In wetter times, such as it was 1000 years ago, this spring was probably more reliable than it is today. There is one way to evaluate the age of the petroglyphs by looking at how much of the desert varnish has formed over the surface of these markings. Desert varnish forms when bacteria that live within the rocks excrete minerals onto the surface of the rocks. When chipped into to form a petroglyph, the desert varnish will slowly reform, but it takes hundreds of years. Thus, when you see petroglyphs that have faded into dark brown with a thick layer of varnish, then you know they are really old.

Indian Springs Canyon

If you just go to the Petroglyphs and head back the way you came, the hike will be 6 miles roundtrip. However, the Indian Springs Wash heads off into a spectacular canyon at this point and it is most definitely worth wandering down. If you wander down the canyon, there are beautiful black and brown cliffs, thick stands of palo verde and ironwoods along the edges of the wash, and chuckwallas, tarantulas, and other desert species hiking amongst the rocks.

One of the pools of Indian Springs

The wash continues for about 1.5 miles until the landscape starts to flatten out. There is a tendency to think that the canyon will open up onto a flat bajada at any time, but instead the hills just soften. But, as the hills on each side of the wash flatten and the wash appears to finally be nearing its end, there is a great place to leave the wash to the left to climb about 80 feet up to the ridgetop. Once on top, there is a spectacular panoramic view of the landscape.

The unspoiled Eagletail Wilderness

From this viewpoint, there is not a single trace of human disturbance as far as the eye can see. In fact, for four blissful minutes, I could see or hear nothing of human influence. Until I heard an airplane flying overhead. Anyways, once you are done soaking it in, just retrace your steps and head back to the trailhead over 5 miles of beautiful desert canyons.

Sunrise on Courthouse Rock

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Garnet Peak, Laguna Mountains, San Diego County, CA

Distance: 4.4 miles round trip
Elevation: 5400 - 5880 feet
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Season: Any time (could be snow in winter and hot in summer)

Garnet Peak in the Laguna Mountains of San Diego County offers one of the most stunning and broadest panoramas I have ever seen. From it's summit, you can view the Pacific Ocean to the west and all the way across the Imperial Valley to Arizona to the east. You can see from the mountains in Mexico to the south all the way to the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles. This hike takes you right along the Laguna Mountains Escarpment that rises nearly 6000 feet above the surrounding deserts.

To get to the trailhead, drive on I-8 to exit 47 and follow the Sunrise Highway 14.6 miles to the Penny Pines Trailhead on right. You can get there from Julian by taking CA-79 south, turn left onto the Sunrise Highway and following it 9.2 miles. The trail begins by accessing the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican border, just a few miles to the south, all the way to the Canadian border in North Cascades National Park in Washington. To do the entire PCT as a "thru trip" requires you to hike 2663 miles starting in early spring in Southern California (to avoid the summer heat) and work your way up (but, not too fast or else you'll encounter deep snows in the Sierras and Cascades) arriving at the Canadian border around September.

Fire devastation from the 2003 Cuyamaca Burn

But, you need not do the entire PCT to enjoy certain of the most stunning segments of it. And this little 2-mile stretch of it certainly must be one of the highlights of the entire trail. The trail starts out following the edge of the escarpment with beautiful views out across the Anza Borrego Desert to the farmlands of the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, which are below sea level.
A first look out across to Whale Peak and the desert below

The 2003 Cuyamaca Fire, the largest in California history devastated this area, burning out large stands of Coulter and Jeffrey pines, as well as, oak woodlands. Some of the pines survived in the vacinity of Laguna Meadows, but there are not any along this hike, other than some burned tree trunks and small resprouting oaks and manzanitas. So, be prepared for lots of sun exposure. That's good in winter at this elevation, but not so much in the summer.
The first glimpse of Garnet Peak over a small grove of oaks that survived the fire

The trail continues along the edge of the escarpment where you can watch regeneration in action. Young chaparral shrubs, adapted to constant fires, are sprouting up everywhere. One thing the loss of the larger trees did was to expose the panoramic views to an even greater detail. The trail can be muddy in places where snow is melting in the sun, but there are enough rocks along the way to make the going not too sloppy.

After a small rocky summit with spectacular views, the first full on view of Garnet Peak comes into focus. It looks very rocky and intimidating, the but the trail will take you to the backside where the ascent is much more gradual.

The Pacific Crest trail on its way north to Canada

As you get onto the northwest side of the peak, a small way trail heads off to the right and is signed "Garnet Peak". From here the Pacific Crest Trail will continue its onward march toward Mount San Jacinto, the San Gabriel Mountains, and beyond to Canada. From the summit of Garnet Peak, you can essentially follow the topography of the landscape to see where it goes. Follow the way trail as it leads you higher and higher and offering even greater panoramic views of Southern California.

In the far distance, you can make out the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains, including 12,000 foot Mount San Gorgonio (the highest peak in Southern California). Those mountains are some 120 miles away. Closer in, you can see the outskirts of the town of Julian , the forested Banner Canyon that drops down from Julian which happens to contain the southernmost specimens of the Bigcone Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) in the world.

The view north with 11,000 foot Mount San Jacinto rising up above the Los Angeles Basin in the distance

Upon reaching the summit of Garnet Peak and incredible view in all directions beholds you. Looking out across the escarpment, you can easily see the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea off to the east. Mighty Whale Peak (the 5,300 foot desert island) suddenly doesn't look so large as you view down onto its summit dotted with pinyon pines.

Even more impressive perhaps, is the view of the Pacific Ocean from the summit. It's blue horizontal line and the glare of the sun off its waters reminds you that you are still in the coastal influences. You can even see San Clemente Island, of the Channel Islands offshore. One thing I will warn you about...If you get vertigo when exposed to heights, then the summit may be a difficult place or you. From the rocky top, there are sheer cliffs literally dropping 4000 feet down to the desert floor. The geology of this escarpment is fascinating.

A view out toward the ocean (faint horizontal line in distance)
The late afternoon lighting was not very good to get a clearer view
All in all, this is an easy hike that offers one of the most stunning views you will ever find. The ability to see ocean, mountains, and desert all in one spot is a combination hard to find outside of Southern California. If you are in the San Diego Area sometime, this is definitely a hike worth checking out.

Once you've had your fill from the summit, just retrace your steps back the way you came to the parking area. That is, unless you have decided to continue the next 2600 miles north to Canada...

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