Sunday, July 5, 2009

Slate Creek & Ward Road

Watching the weather reports for the holiday weekend we didn’t see the temperatures reaching north of tolerable heat really. We’ve got a trip to the high country coming up so we wanted to go someplace that would give us some fairly stout uphill, but still be mostly in the shade. Last week when it was really hot we hiked at Sanborn which fit the bill nicely, but this week had cooled down quite a bit so we decided to go down to 400 feet at Portola State Park and hike up the Slate Creek trail to Ward Road which would take us up to the BART at Skyline. We could have saved some time and carbon credits by making this an inverse hike using one of the trailheads up on Skyline, but it’s always much nicer have a downhill return. And with Ward Road being mostly exposed on its top section you have to wonder how accurate weather reports can be. It is summer now. A nice cool alternative I was thinking about was to do the Peter’s Creek loop, but I’ll save that for later in the year.

It was sunny up on Skyline in the car, but we could see low coastal fog below. When we got to the headquarters complex at Portola, it was encouraging to see the “Campgrounds Full” signs displayed. At least this is still a popular place on the 4th of July. Hiking out on the Slate Creek trail we could hear lots of gleeful activity in the campground down below and the smoke odor was drifting up for about the first half mile or so, but after making the turn at the first junction we had left all that behind. It was a pleasant morning even though it was a little foggy. After an initial easy climb, this trail is virtually flat all the way to the trail camp allowing for a leisurely ramble perfect for savoring the forest. Sue was spotting lots of interesting and easy to miss plants. We saw some Spotted Coral Root which I am told is in the orchid family. We also found some Shinleaf which is a type of Wintergreen, California Milkwort, and some interesting fungi. It was so nice having the trail to ourselves all morning. An occupied campsite at the Slate Creek trail camp represented the only signs of other humans. The section beyond the trail camp that runs down by the creek bed has a fairy tail like quality with the thick overhead tree canopy providing a deeply refreshing cool breeze, carpets of sorrel, ferns, and other lush green ground cover, and a classic babbling rocky creek (check out the video below) . Old redwood stumps bear witness to some past logging which always prompts me to try to imagine what this place would look like if it were really pristine, but overall, I rate this trail as underappreciated. Not that I’m complaining about the peace and quiet.

When you reach the bend at the creek crossing the trail begins climbing. You still have lots of tree cover, but some sections are steep leading up to the junction with Ward Road. There are fairly good markings, but they are getting somewhat overgrown, so keep your eye out if unfamiliar. You don’t get a break after reaching Ward Road. Some sections of the road are even steeper than the single track you just left. We chose this hike because we wanted some altitude change, but after about a mile or so the trail levels out for awhile. There are a few redwoods along here, but most of the tall conifers you see are Douglas firs with lots of Christmas tree like offspring. Some buckeyes are still at the end of their bloom cycle and you can still pick up the fragrance. Soon you begin climbing again and begin to move out into much more open grassy terrain. This would be a difficult section in really hot sunshine. After passing through a gate you cross into Long Ridge OSP. On this section of Ward Road, I can now see that the Midpeninsula Open Space District has begun using the “swale” technique for water runoff in more places. They basically use a small bulldozer to gouge out huge trenches in the surface in an attempt to control erosion without having to come back every year to clean out the conventional water bars. It’s a lot less work, but I still think it does more damage to the trail than years of normal erosion would have done. I first noticed this technique on the Black Mountain Trail in Rancho San Antonio. I really hate the swails, but if it saves time and labor, I suppose it makes sense from a maintenance point of view. I was pleasantly surprised to find one sunny section of Ward Road where there are still some really nice white mariposa lilies blooming. I was especially glad to see they weren’t obliterated by the bulldozer when they cut the swales.

Up on the Skyline trail we found some nice spreading shady oaks along the ridge, and decided to rest there and have some lunch with a view out to Butano Ridge to the west. We were getting some nice breezes from the coast, so it really was not as warm as we expected. There were a lot of large turkey vultures flying around possibly indicating some sort of nearby predation, but we weren’t about to go looking for it. I got picture of one vulture sitting in a dead tree that was maybe even large enough to be mistaken for a condor if it stayed in that position. It even has a reddish colored head like a condor. We were seeing people up here closely to the trailheads along the highway, mostly mountain bikers, but hiking back down we were alone again until we got close to Portola HQ. The proverbial beaten track successfully avoided again we had a really nice day and still got some decent leg-burn in.

Click here to see my photos on flickr.
Click the play button on the image below to see a short video of Slate Creek.
(be sure to turn on your sound)

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