Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Peter’s Creek Inverse

Conventional hiking wisdom says that the best way to plan a hike is to try to position your starting point so that you have a mostly downhill return. When you begin, your energy level is higher, but near the end of a hike when you may be more fatigued, downhill is good. Logical enough, but this isn’t always possible. Just ask anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon. Or for that matter ask anyone who’s ever hiked out of Henry Coe headquarters. If you begin on top of a ridge, you have to go downhill to get anywhere else. As the saying goes, “if it seems like it’s uphill in both directions, you must be at Coe”. But still; seasoned ramblers really love the place. Sometimes it’s nice to break away from conventional wisdom, and do a hike that’s a little bit of a challenge.

Portola State Park has a quiet little off-the-beaten-track area called the Peter’s Creek loop. Peter’s Creek is the same creek that runs right past park headquarters and under the road bridge to join Pescadero Creek. The loop trail is down in a little ravine where Bear Creek runs into Peter’s creek. The area is very moist with lots of ground water; perfect for sustaining tall redwoods. The thickly wooded terrain has a dense and very tall canopy making it cool and moist even on a hot day. The waters make a nice background music of murmuring and babbling sounds, and it’s very peaceful and green. One of my favorite locations.

There’s only one trail in or out, but there’s more than one way to get to Bear Creek Trail which will take you there. The most popular hike to Peter’s Creek is from Portola using the Slate Creek trail to Bear Creek Trail. It’s funny how so many of the trails here are named after creeks. There’s a lot of natural water here, so it’s really no wonder that it supports deep forests hosting lots of redwood. The old time loggers have made their mark here, but after long years of modern protection, the recovery is encouraging. The more of these mountain tracts that get protected the better. But I digress. I decided to hike to Peter’s Creek a different way last Sunday. To get some good leg burn in, and to satisfy my green fetish, I thought I would hike there from a trail head in Long Ridge along Skyline. What makes this route green is the fact that I would not have to drive all the way down to Portola at 400 feet, using up extra gas and carbon credits to get back out. The leg burn would come mostly on the way back up to the highway at about 2600 feet. And of course there’s that pesky 1600 foot Doherty Ridge to get over as well.

All the forecasts were for an offshore flow over the weekend. The unavoidable result of that is always much hotter weather in the bay area. But at least for the weekend the off shore flow was a no-show. Otherwise I probably would not have tried this hike. Ward Road Trail has some wicked steep sections up near the top which are mostly exposed, and the section of Hickory Oaks Trail used for this route is completely exposed while rolling up and up and up. At the end of the day this would be tortuous in the heat. But with mild temps, off I went. I paused at a high point along Hickory Oaks Trail to marvel at the vaporous fog furrowed in amongst the tall trees populating the ridges and valleys to the west. A sure sign of air movement ON-shore. The previous day my wife and I got up super early to hike Black Mountain, and be off the trail before noon. But while we were reaching to top we could see north past Russian Ridge where Pacific style semi-liquid fog was rolling over the hills. What weather reports?

I headed down Ward Road using my trekking poles to save my knees on the steep downhill. The lower sections of Ward Road are nicely wooded. There are two points where you make a turn to stay on the trail. The first turn is easy enough to spot. The second turn is where you transition onto the upper part of Slate Creek Trail. The markers are not well placed and hard to spot when heading in this direction, but there is usually a closed gate on the road which clues you in not to go that way. On this particular day it wasn’t closed, and had opened up by gravity into the brush disappearing from view. Not paying attention as much as should have I missed the cutoff. I was maybe half a mile into private property before noticing that I did not recognize the trail anymore, and realized I must be trespassing. Opps! Time to turn back. Lovely property down there. Too bad it’s not part of the park system or open space district. Beautiful redwoods and even some nice views.

Undaunted, I turned back uphill and found the cutoff. I tried to close the gate, but it just swung open again burring itself in the brush like before. It had been left unlocked. I checked the time and decided to continue down to Slate Creek and the trail camp where the Bear Creek Trail starts. At this point you have lost somewhere over 2000 feet of elevation, so what you have to do now is climb up Doherty Ridge. Then hike down some fairly steep sections all the way down to the junction of the two creeks. But it is a pretty hike. For the daring there is a large fallen tree solidly lodged into the hillsides providing a short cut over Bear Creek. This saves not quite half a mile if you choose to use it. The loop trail is in good shape, and the pleasant sense of isolation provided by this location is palpable, even though you are actually only about 2.5 miles as-the-crow-flies from park headquarters. You are however isolated by steep terrain and deep tree cover. Peter’s creek is still flowing enough to serenade wanderers even this late in the year. The area is festooned with lots of ferns, sorrel, mosses, and fungi. A delight for native plant hunters. It’s cool and fragrant, and I could swear the towering trees are whispering to themselves.

Hiking back out is a nice aerobic climb back over the ridge to the trail camp. But if you’re doing the hike from headquarters, the rest of your return is an easy stroll through the forest. If you’re doing the inverse back to skyline, Doherty Ridge was just the warm-up. The trail along Slate Creek is serene and peaceful, but as soon as you cross the creek and head up, you immediately find an unrelenting steep slope. You still have tree cover though. A few sections level out somewhat, but it basically never stops climbing. When you finally hit Ward Road, another very steep section awaits. As you finally approach Long Ridge, and likely with tiring legs, the trail becomes mostly exposed, and the higher you get the farther away the patches of shade are. Buy the time you reach the BART again you will know you had a challenging hike. Oh, and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for reducing carbon. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Click here to see more pictures from this hike
Click here to see my Peter's Creek photos from 2007

Friday, September 11, 2009

Skyline to the Sea Trail

In 1976 a feat of fairly enormous proportions was accomplished by a loose knit alliance of highly spirited individuals in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Their efforts didn’t have any commercial, technological, or political value, so it didn’t get a lot of press. But the result of their combined enthusiasm and volunteerism was a gift of lasting value worthy of tribute from any rambling soul. So what am I talking about here? The 29.5 mile long Skyline to the Sea trail, which was completed all in one weekend during the inaugural year of the SCMTA. Other participating groups included the Sierra Club, and hundreds of local Boy Scouts. Portions of the trail were already there, but had never been connected. When I was a volunteer working with the SCMTA I spent many hours helping with maintenance and repair work on the Big Basin trail crew, and also the Skyline to the Sea crew. During that time I had become very familiar with the trail focusing on one small section at a time. I had also hiked the various sections time and time again both for enjoyment as well as trail reconnaissance. Discrete sections of it help facilitate some of my favorite hiking routes. But I had never hiked the entire distance of the trail all at once until Labor Day 2009. I was thinking about doing something kind of special for the holiday weekend so I decided that hiking the Skyline to the Sea would be a good personal tribute for Labor Day, and to finally add the full end to end trek to my trail log. There are other possible routes for getting out to the coast from skyline, but I wanted to stick to the official Skyline to the Sea Trail as my salute to the trail builders.

Many hikers do the trail as a backpacking trip. There are several trail camps along the way to facilitate that kind of hike. But if you want to hike the trail as a single day trek, you need to set up some kind of car shuttle, or arrange to be picked up. Since my wife was going to spend the day working on personal projects, I persuaded her to help me out. She would follow me to Waddell Beach so I could park my car, then shuttle me up to the trail head at Saratoga Gap. Of course this meant getting up at 5:00 am and driving for over 2 hours on a holiday morning. But she not only agreed to do it, but encouraged me. I knew there was a reason I married that woman. So we finally made it up to skyline, and I hit the trail at about 7:40 am.

I had hoped it would be cool, even foggy, but all indications were that it was a beautiful morning with clear skies, and potentially quite warm. I began hiking, already down to a single wicking layer even though the trail is under thick tree cover, but I was prepared for anything. I was feeling great and set my mind to savoring the day’s experience. My goal was to average at least 3 miles per hour including any resting time and lunch, and had planned to refill my water supply at Big Basin headquarters. As it turned out, it didn’t get very hot the whole day. Actually the weather couldn’t have been better. I was having fun just putting in trail miles, and checking out spots along the trail where I remembered doing repairs. It was great to see how well our sweat equity had held up over the years. Soon I came to the first good viewpoint at Sempervirens Point. This view out to Ben Lomond Ridge, and weather permitting, out to Monterey Bay, is great in the early morning. There are usually misty shrouds of fog furrowed amongst the tree lined ridges as the sun casts a subdued yellowish glow. There was no one there, and no cars passing on the highway to disturb the quiet display. I felt like it belonged to me.

Not lingering too long I continued on making up time on the mostly downhill section. The entire upper section stays pretty close to the road. It is after all the state owned easement for the highway that made it possible to build the trail. Most of the property along here is privately owned. The trail stays far enough from the road so it doesn’t become a constant distraction though. At several points the trail crosses the highway, and is sometimes above, and sometimes below it. There is still one short section, maybe less than ¼ of a mile, where you have to hike along the paved highway to the next gate. After passing Waterman Gap you begin gradually climbing uphill and the whole section between there and China Grade is mostly uphill, and still in close proximity to the road. There is one curving switchback along this section where I remembered spending almost an entire day manicuring the trail tread to running standards, and carefully grading to the recommended 7 degrees of slope for runoff. I made me proud to see my handiwork still holding up and in good shape. I hiked up and over China Grade Road and headed down toward park headquarters. I still had not seen any other hikers until then. A little ways down I passed some people hiking up, and happened to recognize someone; none other than Al Lisin of the SCMTA. Al is the crew leader of the Skyline to the Sea Trail volunteer crew, and a member of SCMTA since the 60s. I spoke with him, his wife, and a companion for a little while before continuing on, and like a dummy, forgetting to take a photo. Another great view opportunity is available along this section of trail before you descend into the tall conifers you pass along a lot of sandstone slick-rock and outcroppings which provide a nice vantage point through the sparse knobcone pines. If you have some binoculars you can pick out features like Eagle Peak along Ben Lomond Ridge. Once under the thick canopy of the basin you keep descending all the way down to Opal Creek. In springtime you can find lots of Tiger Lilies along this creek, but it’s really pretty any time. I began to encounter lots of people as I was approaching park headquarters, but this is normal for such a nice day.

I refilled my water supply even though I was not using as much as I anticipated. Bought a chocolate protein shake at the store and ate some lunch relaxing in the shade. I was right on schedule but still didn’t want to waste much time, so off I went at about 1:10 pm headed up to Middle Ridge. This trail had been blocked last winter, but repairs have been carried out. Really the whole trail has been surprisingly free of problems. The volunteer trail crew has been doing a fantastic job even though the parks budget is in constant peril. This is the last uphill section except for incidental nuances in the trail, and it passes by some really awesome ancient trees. After the crossing at the fire road it’s back to downhill for the run down along Kelly Creek and West Waddell Creek. Countless people have picked this section of Big Basin as the best hike in the Bay Area, and I have to agree. With the hillsides thick with ferns, sorrel, and assorted green ground cover, the awesome trees, murmuring creeks, and cool moist air, it’s very storybook like. When the falls are running that’s a huge bonus too, but this late in the year it’s just a trickle. The rest of the way out to the coast seemed really long as I began to feel my legs and feet beginning to tire. I began slowing my pace a little, but was still making enough headway to be within my schedule. I wanted to reach Waddell by no later than 5:00, and I just did make under that. There were a lot of people on the beach flying kites and a few windsurfers out. I was really tempted to jump in the water, but wasn’t sure I had enough energy left.

Clich here to see my pictures on flickr

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hiking a-Fair

I’ve been to a lot of local art fairs. It seems that many localities have a version of it these days. Sometimes it’s combined with wine tasting, or food festivals, or may be connected to a holiday or some ethnic traditions. And sometimes they can all seem like clones of each other when they are strewn about on hot city streets. But there’s a special appeal when artists show their wares in a mountain air setting, and even more enjoyable if it’s literally under the trees complete with a light fog drip. The King’s Mountain Art Fair is held over Labor Day weekend, and is designed to benefit the local fire brigade, and local schools. The whole thing is put on by volunteers, and exhibitors are selected by jury, so it has an interesting sort of ambiance. This was my first visit to this particular fair, but my brother-in-law Dave had an idea for Saturday to combine a hike in Huddart County Park and Phleger Estate with a visit to the fair which made it seem more interesting. And of course hiking to it from below means not having the hassle of parking along skyline road and having to use a shuttle.

Huddart is mostly a popular place for picnicking and large outdoor type gatherings, but it does have a thickly wooded and versatile trail system. Hikes of almost any distance can originate from here, from short hikes with toddlers of no more than a mile, to longer treks reaching beyond the boundaries that connect with other properties and the Skyline Trail. We hiked up the Campground Trail to the Crystal Springs Trail. This route was mostly single track trail under thick cover, and the higher we got the more noticeable the morning fog became. Up on Skyline there was a light drip as the fog condensed in the trees, but it only seemed to add to the mountain ambiance.

When we got to the fair area around the King’s Mountain Community Center there were already cars lined up and down highway 37 with some of the vehicles parked in very irregular positions. One poor woman in a Prius had dumped one rear wheel completely off the road into a gully and was stuck. Someone else with a late model Jeep had parked at about a 60 degree angle to get off the road. Sue found lots of exhibits that peaked her interest, which was kind of funny because she was not really enthusiastic about the fair before we got there. We found a unique bell maker from Half Moon Bay, and I was amused as I watched Sue circulate around his space ringing every one of his bells like a kid. I think we spent about an hour or so before we hit the trail again. We used the Lonely Trail to take us back down into Phleger Estate, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, for a gentle return through its fragrant woods. Labor Day weekend provides this opportunity to enjoy a relaxing hike in the wooded hills above Woodside with this interesting little distraction in the middle of the day. A perfect excuse not to sit at home.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr
(Added) Click here to see Dave's photos of this hike