Sunday, March 9, 2014

Backpacking In Joshua Tree National Park

Day One 

Erik, my son, and I took this trip during the President's Holiday in February. He lives in San Diego and me in Santa Barbara so Joshua Tree National Park seemed like a perfect middle of the road point to meet up for some some camp time. At first glance, I found tons of information about hiking and camping in the Park, but had trouble understanding the size, complexity, and layout of the topography to select a destination easily. There are lots of choices, and all the trailheads are well marked and equipped with parking and a Registration Board. Let me emphasize registering because its the desert, and we all know how unforgiving it can be. I eventually settled on Juniper Flats with our destination to be just outside of the Stub Springs area, with a day hike to Quail Mountain and the Stub Spring loop scheduled for day 2.  We met up in the town of Joshua Tree, had lunch, then entered the Park. Our first surprise; no entrance fee in honor of our 1st President! We were on the trail by 2PM with 12 liters of water for 2 days. The second surprise was how well the Park is laid out, and the trails marked. The trail I selected is part of the California Hiking and Riding Trail that runs through the park, and is well marked with mileage markers and trail junction signs.

Selecting a Camp

The rules for selecting a campsite are very straightforward. Get at least one mile away from the road, then off the trail and out of site. No fires, or camping in day use and sensitive habitat areas. There was no rain the forecast, so I left the tent flys in the car and went with mesh only, using the Akto for Erik, and the Big Agnes Platinum Series for me. Cowboy camping is discouraged because of Rattle Snakes and Scorpions, none of which I saw the entire trip. After about 5 miles, we wandered off the trail and found an inviting spot for our base camp. After setting up, we explored our immediate surroundings, cooked a steak dinner with flour tortillas then settled in for the evening, all the while, enjoying the wonderful desert evening colors tinted by the setting sun and rising moon. The evening was mild and I sleeted comfortable in my summer sleeping bag.

Day two

This was our day to summit quail Mountain, the highest point in the park and easily seen from our camp. After a breakfast of oatmeal (packaged in wax bags I have been experimenting with) we set off cross country to the base of the mountain, traversing an area that burned extensively in the ninties, then picked a use trail that led up a canyon toward the top. An hour later, we were on the summit, inspecting wreckage from a plane crash, picture taking, and signing the summit register. We followed a different use trail down the mountain that seemed to be much easier than our route up. We were back in camp by early afternoon for lunch and a nap. After our quite time, we decided to check out the Stub Spring loop. This area was unaffected by the fire, and was a beautiful mix of pinion pine and Joshua Tree. The Spring was not much, just a wet area surrounded by some very thirsty bees, then another wet area surrounded by an impermeable stand of the highly invasive Spanish Broom, and lots of bones, including two Big Horn sheep skulls. We decided not to finish the loop since it was getting late in the afternoon and the winter days short. We had another wonderful dinner on chili and beans using cooked tri-tip that I dehydrated. This evening was much colder, and we both got cold in the summer bags.

Day three

This was our last day, so we had a leisurely breakfast, then broke camp and readied ourselves for the hike back to the car. Even though it was the same trail, the view was completely different and noticed vistas and details not seen on our way in. When we got back to the car, we exited the park via Twentynine Palms and stopped and enjoyed the many road side views. We also toured one of the large public campgrounds that are in the park. Because it was a holiday, they were packed and made me glad that we decided to backpack rather than car camp.

We saw lots of hikers and backpackers, but never got a feeling of overuse or loss of privacy. Even though it's a riding trail, we never saw anyone on horse back. Bicycles are not allowed on the trails.

Erik on the Quail Mountain summit with wonderful view on the San Jaquintos.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Little Pine Spring

One of the many aspects I like about the Santa Cruz Trail its scenic 3000 foot elevation gain up to Alexander Saddle below Happy Hollow. Great training for Sierra passes. Also let me mention, the trail is in great shape, thanks to the many volunteers who have been chipping away at it since the Zaca fire. Even the bicyclists have helped, since this is a very popular downhill single track run, and their presence has kept the encroaching chaparral at bay.

At the beginning of my one week Christmas holiday vacation, I had a two day window of opportunity to get an overnighter in, and put some of my backpacking gear to use, especially the wood burning stove. I recently read that the side trail to Little Pine Spring had been cleaned up. I have never been able find it because the thick grass quickly overgrows the trail and the Zaca fire added to the chaotic appearance and weedy growth to the area. On my last attempt, I tried to cross the canyon bottom too soon, and an impermeable wall of oak sent me back to the main trail and on to Santa Cruz Station. 

After purchasing the Adventure Pass for my parking at the little kiosk before the river crossing, I was at the trail head (along with dozens of cyclists and boy scouts) and on my way, my pack weighing in at about 18 pounds. Nice and comfy for an overnighter. The trail was shaded as a result of the low winter sun angle so it started out rather chilly, enough to don a windbreaker which was soon shedded after the sun finally found the trail. 

As I reached the upper trail just below the saddle, the cyclists where on the trail after taking the road to Happy Hollow and on their downhill single track run back to the trial head at Upper Oso. After I crested the saddle, I had it all to myself. The trail on the backside was just reworked and in great shape, much better than it was on my last visit.

By mid afternoon, I found the Little Pine Spring campsite and settled in to its inviting fire ring, crickity table, and welcome seclusion.

I set up the tent (Big Agnes UL Fly Creek 2), first under the shade of a big Oak that survived the fire, then after a quick nap, moved it closer to the fire ring and table.

I quick exploration of the camp revealed the spring trough and remnants of an ice can style fire box that was the fire box of choice when these sites were first developed.

The weather was perfect, not a breath of wind, nor the incessant buzzing of gnats trying to fly into the facial orifaces.  Perfect for simply hanging out in camp and relaxing. Eventually I got around to breaking out the Bushbuddy wood stove. The fire restrictions had been lifted so time for some old fashion fire time!

I collected wood for the stove and the fire ring, making sure there was oak bark in the mix for the stove, since steak was on the menu for the evening supper.

A meaty filet mignon, flour tortilla, and a cup of green tea. I dubbed it my "LosPadres taco".
2nd course (not shown) was refried beans on another tortilla.

After I finished this wonderful meal I cleaned the fire soot from my pot using the nylon storage bag for the stove. As you rub the nylon over the bottom of the pot, the soot falls between the mesh and soon the bottom has a nice hardened black patina.

The evening fire helped with the cool chill of the evening, but it never got below freezing. In fact, I brought my Western Mountaineering Veralite bag and was almost too warm. I think I would have been just fine in the Valandre Mirage, my summer bag.

The next day was a carbon copy of the day before, the  wonderful  sun lit mountain air and a perfect stillness in the windless conditions. A perfect start to my Holiday and a nice way to end 2013.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Another Taboose Tale of Nameless Lakes

It's hard to go over Taboose Pass and not have some sort of memorable experience. Of course, that can be said for backpacking in general, the traveler can expect "the unexpected" and play it according to ability and luck. This trip was no exception. Oh sure, it had all the inspirational views that we come to expect, but this year mother nature combined all her furies to make sure I would remember this trip for all the weather and clouds, instead of the endless sun-drenched days and 14 inch Rainbows that we can expect in September.

Looking east from the unnamed lakes below Venacher Needle area.


I will start with the weather report for my week, beginning on Tuesday, the first day of my planned 6 day trip to include visiting the unnamed lakes below Venacher Col. The NWS chalk board report at the Visitors Center called for monsoon conditions ending Wednesday.

Thursday dawned cloudy, windless and ominous. The clouds and sky roiled all day, culminating in a late afternoon storm that went well into the evening. Each day, the clouds played the same scenario.

Camped at the unnamed lakes.


My well being? I felt great the first two days, full of optimism to visit nameless lakes in the Kings river drainage and catch trout. Those were the best days of the whole trip. Thereafter I my body felt like the boiling sky, unpleasant intestinal feelings washing in and out in varying degrees of intensity, but always there to remind me that I was not feeling at the top of my game, and a long way from home.

Patiently waiting for a break in the weather and intestinal rumblings to fish.

Looking back on the lower lake


The upper lake below Venacher Col. These lakes are fishless.


My wilderness skills? I survived all the rain in a new tent setup dry enough, but made the mistake of leaving camp in an excited state to go fishing for Goldens, and not covering my gear for the rain. Before I knew it, I was in the Upper Basin, no windbreaker, sky boiling, and me with thoughts of a downpour onto my sleeping bag and clothes airing on the rocks at camp. Fortunately, I made it back just in time, gathered my stuff back into the tent to wait out the shower.

The evening sky reloading for the finale.


Stripped Mountain reflecting the red sky sunset.

Wandering the Upper Basin



Best tree of the trip, every trip has it's standout. This one was in the Upper Basin on the JMT.

The weather never really let up and the fishing was mostly 6" Goldens (not complaining!), but the rain really settled the dust cleared up the air, and I actually enjoyed the windless Monsoon conditions and stillness. Not pictured is how the foliage really perked up from the rains. The native grasses were at their best, with stalks of seed-heads shooting up and shimmering in the breeze. For me, this area is one huge and unending Zen Garden.

A High Sierra Topix member siting! On my last day, I met Tomba, lithely bounding up the eastern side of Taboose, on his way to the Upper Crossing and points beyond. The weather had a few surprise nuggets for him as well!


Bend your barbs!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Discovery on San Miquel Island

San Miguel Island is a Channel Islands National Park destination that is a rare bird of sorts. It's considered one of the outer islands, along with Santa Rosa, and getting there involves a long boat ride that crosses some of the roughest seas on the west coast. This trip was no exception.

Even at check-in they were telling us that we might not get there, and to please consider alternatives. Even as we unloaded campers onto Santa Rosa, the skipper was hedging his bets.  After consulting his charts and reports, the decision was to give it the 'ol college try. I was impressed with his skills to handle the large craft in 10 foot seas without too much sea sickness discomfort to the passengers. Even after all that, and we were safe in Cuyler harbor, he was now telling us that the skiff may not be able to safely land us onto the beach through the surf. The final landing turned out to be a piece of cake, since there was no ground swell that would cause dangerous shore break, only wind chop. So all us campers were safely on the island, and commenced that steep hike up to the camp ground after our Volunteer Ranger orientation.

 Unlike Santa Rosa, travel on this island is regulated. Cuyler harbor is just about the only place a hiker can go unescorted or without permission. All other destinations require Ranger accompaniment. Luckily, the Rangers are very accommodating, and offered our group ample opportunities to hike everyday of the trip. There was no obligation to go, one can find plenty to  do and see within the boundaries outlined by the Ranger. On one of the days I did just that, and made some wonderful discoveries, all within bounds. The first was at the Cabrillo Monument. During the obligitory picture shoot of the Monument, and trying to get a different view point, I noticed at the Monument base, a large Chumash grinding stone.
 Just below that stone, was a small round stone, that looked like the grinder that complimented the larger stone, so I put them together, then contemplated the odds of the monument erectors actually knew what they had used.

The center piece of any visit to this island, is the hike out to Bennett Point to view the California Sea Lion breeding colony.This was our destination on day two.
 Right next to our viewing location was a huge Chumash midden, loaded with perfect ancient abalone shells.

On another organized hike, we visited a large Elephant Seal breeding area and witnessed this interesting standoff between two bulls. Please note the disinterested females.

Later the same day, I took a solo hike to the tide pools on the southern reach of Cuyler Harbor. The day was cloudy, but the tide pool life remained colorful and abundant.

 Our final day on the island had the best weather, in fact, it was the first windless day in months on San Miguel Island!
Looking toward Santa Rosa Island.
Surf rolling onto one on the many point-bay setups on this island. No crowds except the body surfing pinnipeds.
This weather held for the rest of the trip, and the return voyage was smooth as silk. These conditions made for perfect and abundant viewing of marine wildlife to keep us on our toes until we were on the Ventura Flats. What started as a wild roller coaster boat ride, ended as a relaxed sundrenched afternoon filled with easy conversation and Micro brew beers to wash down the grit of the previous windy island days.