Thursday, December 31, 2015

Still Life in Solstice Canyon

Solstice Canyon from the Sostomo Trail
Like most ranges, the Santa Monica Mountains harbor a fair number of secrets. Hidden pools. Lush grottos. Native midden sites hiding in plain view. Striking geologic formations. Rare and unique flora. Elusive and endangered fauna. And places where one can connect with the past and see and feel the fading remnants of those hardy and adventurous souls who came before us. These are the places we instinctively seek. These are the gems that make exploration of the physical land and the historical past so compelling and magical.

One of the worst kept secrets of the Santa Monicas is lovely Solstice Canyon whose mouth opens wide onto frenetic PCH at Corral Canyon Road in Malibu. Proximate, scenic, and readily accessible to 18 million locals, the canyon is popular with Angelenos and Malibuians (Malibuites?) alike who justifiably throng its cool and shaded canyon bottoms on weekends.

The canyon is significant and magnetic because it holds one of the few permanent water sources in the entire Santa Monica range which extends from Point Mugu east to the Hollywood Hills. Despite Southern California's dry Mediterranean climate and four plus years of severe drought, water still trickles out of the rocky canyon walls to form intermittent pools along the creek bed. As a result, the shaded canyon is cool, vibrant, and relatively lush, an attractive respite from the chaparral choked hillsides that otherwise dominates the landscape.

Lower Solstice Canyon with Peek-a-Boo View of Santa Catalina
Rising Sun Trail High Above Solstice Canyon
View Down Solstice Canyon
Solstice Creek Waterfall and Grotto
Still Life in Solstice Canyon
Solstice Creek Reflections
Cool and Color of Solstice Canyon
But the natural beauty of Solstice is not all it has to offer. Like us, our predecessors were also enamored of the place. Some so much so that they moved in with the intent to stay in the canyon permanently. Fortunately for the adventuring public, those efforts to privatize the canyon ultimately gave way to the destructive forces of mother nature, but evidence of those colonizing efforts can still be seen in the form of a number of ruins.

Most prominent among those ruins is Tropical Terrace, the former residence of Fred and Florence Roberts. Beginning in the 1930s, Fred Roberts, a successful Southern California grocer, began acquiring land in and around the canyon, ultimately amassing holdings approximating 1,000 acres. Then, in 1952, Roberts commissioned African-American architect Paul R. Williams to design a home for him in the canyon bottom near the creek. The home, which was previewed in Architectural Digest, and was built from stone, brick, and wood, blended natural features of the canyon into its design, including a number elements intended to protect the structure against wildfires. These elements, which included a series of pools and an elaborate pump system, were not maintained after Fred Roberts death and the home met its ultimate demise in the dramatic 1982 Dayton Canyon Fire. Today, what little remains of Tropical Terrace can be visited by making a 2 miles stroll up the road bed in the canyon bottom, or by following the more challenging Rising Sun Trail which contours the hillside high above the canyon before ultimately dropping back down to the creek in a series of short switch-backs.

Roberts House Placard
The Tropical Terrace
Roberts House Ruins 
Most folks make it to Tropical Terrace and then go no further. That's unfortunate because there is more to see in the upper stretches of the canyon where the path, now designated the Sostomo Trail, crosses and re-crosses pretty Solstice Canyon Creek as it climbs above the canyon floor. Along the way, the tread passes the ruins of at least two additional cabins, one which sits high on the hillside with panoramic views of the Pacific, and a second which sits deep in the forest along the now mostly dry creek. This second cabin made of stone is still fully intact and is in remarkably good condition. Ultimately, the Sostomo Trail intersects with the Deer Valley Loop Trail which meanders through chaparral and coastal sage scrub to the western ridge of Solstice Canyon where one is treated to panoramic ocean views.

Upper Solstice Canyon
Intermittent Pools Dot Upper Solstice Canyon
View Down Canyon from the Sostomo Trail
Headwall of Solstice Canyon
Looking Out the Window
Stone Cabin Ruins Along the Sostomo Trail
View from the Junction of the Sostomo and Deer Valley Loop Trail
If you're not burnt out on burnt out ruins, you can visit the remains of one more cabin as you make your way down the main canyon and back to the trail head. The Keller House, which is reputed to be the oldest existing stone building in Malibu, was originally built with wood by Henry Keller who thought Solstice Canyon had the best hunting and fishing in the Santa Monica Mountains. After wildfire destroyed the cabin in 1903, Keller committed to rebuild the structure in "stone and tin" as a hedge against future calamity. This strategy proved successful for a time as the rebuilt structure endured a number of additional wildfires. Ultimately, however, wood porches were added to the cabin which finally burned to the ground in the 2007 Corral Fire. Most of the stone walls, the foundation, and the chimney still survive, however, and can be seen in the lower canyon behind fencing which is intended to keep tagger and vandals at bay with marginal success.

Geology is Cool
Keller House Placard
Eye See You
Keller House Ruins
In Through the Out Door
There are a number of different hiking options available for visiting Solstice Canyon, some easy, some moderate, none really long or difficult. My route took me up the Rising Sun Trail to Tropical Terrace, up the Sostomo Trail to the Deer Valley Loop Trail, and then back to the trail head through the wide canyon bottom. For whatever it's worth, my device measured this route at about 6.85 miles with approximately 1,700 feet of gain.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Towsley Canyon Exploratory

Towsley Canyon
I've probably driven I-5 north from Los Angeles to Santa Clarita and beyond hundreds of times in the past couple of years. On most of those occasions, I think I've probably also looked at the parking area on the west side of the freeway just off of Calgrove Boulevard and wondered about the local trails leading west from there. But wonder is all I ever did. I never actually stopped to explore because the hills seemed low, the topography uninteresting, and the trails excessively urban. To reinforce this feeling of apathy, just before the Calgrove Boulevard exit, there's a big sign on the side of the freeway telling you that Calgrove is the exit to take for the Michael D. Antonovich Open Space. I've been to the Michael D. Antonovich Regional Park at Joughin Ranch above Porter Ranch before and honestly it's not that swell. So I figured how much better could Michael Antonovich's Open Space be? The Angeles and Los Padres, both of which are nearby and easily accessibly, are far more worthy destinations. So even though I knew there were trails in the area, I never really felt any compulsion to stop and stay for awhile.

Then on Saturday, I found myself with a couple of hours from heaven so I decided to get out and go exploring. It was already past noon so it had to be local. But I didn't have an appetite for familiar local. I wanted new local.

As I started looking at maps, Towsley Canyon, the place I had dismissed and eschewed for all of these years, jumped out at me. It was local. It was new. And it was short. Bam! I grabbed my pack, jumped in the car, and headed out.

Towsley Canyon is one of several units that comprise the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park. The other component units are (1) Pico Canyon, (2) East and Rice Canyon, (3) the Michael D. Antonovich Open Space, and (4) O'Melveny Park.  In addition to a 6 mile loop trail, Towsley Canyon is home to Ed Davis Park and the Towsley Lodge, an old Spanish-style ranch house that can be reserved for private functions.

The trail through Towsley Canyon begins as a poor asphalt road in the parking area immediately off of The Old Road. Actually, that description is somewhat confusing as there are 3 parking areas immediately west of The Old Road: one along the shoulder of The Old Road, a larger and more official looking one just as you enter the park, and then a third small weird lot still further in. The first two parking areas are free; the third one costs $7. Unsurprisingly, no one parks in the small, weird area for which you have the privilege of paying $7 to avoid walking an extra 0.10 miles.

The road into the park leisurely winds its way through the canyon bottoms for about 0.50 miles to Ed Davis Park. There, the Don Mullally trails splits off from the main road, ascends the southern slope of the canyon, and then drops into adjacent Wiley Canyon.

Continuing up Towsley, the asphalt disappears and the road slowly begins to narrow eventually becoming a foot path. As the trail constricts so too do the canyon walls which began to close in around you. Here, you enter the Narrows where the geology becomes interesting as the trail passes through the Pico Anticline. The canyon is well shaded along this stretch and is bounded by intermittent Towsley Creek.

Towsley Canyon Narrows
Leaving the Narrows
View Back Through the Narrows
Beyond the Narrows, the canyon opens up considerably, the land spreads out, and the trail begins to climb the exposed southern slope to the ridge that separates Towsley and Wiley canyons. A fairly obvious, yet "unofficial" use path continues west along the creek allowing for additional exploration.

I stuck to the main trail this day, although the "unofficial" path looked intriguing. I'll have to save that option in my memory banks and return to have a look in the future. As for the official trail, it continues to switch-back up to the top of the ridge, passing a messy oil seep along the way and affording really nice views north to the Santa Clarita Valley and beyond. Once you achieve the ridge, there are a couple of places to put down for a bit while you admire the fine scenery, including a flat with a couple of majestic Coastal Live Oak trees.

Looking Into Towsley Canyon from the Don Mullally Trail
View Across Towsley Canyon from the Don Mullally Trail
View North from the Crest
Santa Clarita and Beyond
Coast Live Oak
Beyond the ridge, the trail starts an incremental descent into the cool and shade of Wiley Canyon. The day I was there, the look and feel of autumn was in the air. Once at the canyon bottom, the trail (which gradually widens into a fire road as you descend and track east) follows a creek bed that carries the occasional whiff of seeping oil. Further down canyon, the trail intersects the Don Mullally Trail that track north, crosses the ridge again, and deposits you back into Towsley Canyon at Ed Davis Park where an ample lawn and multiple picnic tables greet you. 

Now that I've been to Towsley Canyon, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. It's kind of a cool place. For an urban hike, it offers much more than I expected and certainly more than its unattractive location immediately off the I-5 would suggest.

Fall Colors in Wiley Canyon
Interesting Rock Formations in Wiley Canyon
View Into Towsley Canyon from the Bill Mulally Connector Trail
Ed Davis Park in Lower Towsley Canyon
Man that's a dry and clinical write-up. Apologies. I'll try to do better next time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Divide Peak: To Infinity and Beyond

Mouth of North Fork Matilija Canyon 
A recent trip report by David R reminded me that it had been years since I'd been up beautiful Murietta Canyon just north of Ojai. I used to ride this canyon on a fairly regular basis when I lived in Ventura, but after moving further east in 1998, I hadn't been back and it was bumming me out. So on Sunday morning, I  made a return visit to my old stomping grounds to get reacquainted with this magical place.

My objective for the day was Divide Peak, a 4,707' bump along the Santa Ynez Mountains that separates the Ojai Valley from the coast and affords incredible views of the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands. From road's end in Matilija Canyon, the route is about a 4.5 mile road walk up scenic Murietta Canyon, a steep 1.5 mile scramble up the Monte Arido Trail, and then a 0.8 mile amble along Divide Peak Road to the summit. You can avoid some of the road walk (and shave a bit of mileage) in lower Murietta Canyon by taking a foot-path that leads to Murietta Trail Camp and then rejoins the main fire road at 34.498565, -119.402450. 

North Fork Matilija Canyon

View Down Matilija Canyon from Murietta Road

Scenic Murietta Canyon
The day was unusually warm for late November and the road felt steeper than it should have felt. I wore a halo of flies as I made my way up Murietta Canyon, grateful that I had grabbed my bug net at the last moment before leaving the house. But the canyon was quiet, colorful, and completely vacant. I had the run of the place.

The walk up Murietta Canyon is pretty straightforward. Get on the road and walk uphill. The road up the canyon climbs gently at first but steepens further up as you approach the saddle. There, you have options. You can tack right and continue north up to Old Man Mountain and beyond on the Monte Arido Fire Road. You can continue west on the fire road which descends into Juncal Canyon and into the upper Santa Ynez River drainage. Or you can turn south and ascend 1,200 feet on the Monte Arido Trail to the Divide Peak Fire Road and the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Jameson Reservoir from the Monte Arido Trail
Juncal Canyon from Upper Monte Arido Trail

Murietta Trail from Upper Monte Arido Trail

Old Man Mountain and Monte Arido

The path for this latter option is not immediately obvious, but it is not difficult to find. Simply scale the southern embankment just beyond where the Monte Arido Fire Road joins the saddle and the way forward will come into focus. Initially, the trail follows what appears to be an abandoned road bed and the going is easy. Eventually, however, that road bed peters out at which stage the trail climbs steeply and directly up the spine of the ridge. Not being in prime adventuring condition, I struggled here, but the expanding views into Juncal and Murietta Canyons distracted me and pushed me forward. I took a breather at flat spot along the ridgeline straddling the two canyons that would make a very fine spot to spend the night.

After a final stiff climb, the Monte Arido Trail intersects the Divide Peak Fire Road. You'll know you're done with the climb when you arrive at a large sandstone boulder with a cairn atop it. To get to Divide Peak, turn right and follow the sandy and relatively flat road for approximately 0.8 miles. The summit can be attained by climbing steeply up very loose rogue motorcycle trails that scar Divide's north-eastern flank. The easier and less frustrating alternative, however, is to wrap around Divide's northern side on the fire road and then come back at the summit from the west.

As far as summits go, Divide's is somewhat underwhelming. It's basically broad, flat, and exposed humpback. But the views of the Santa Barbara Channel and the Oxnard Plain are unmatched. On the day I was there, I could clearly see Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa Islands. I could also plainly see Santa Catalina Island floating in the Pacific almost 100 miles away.   

The trail register is located in a water-bottle canister tucked into a rock-pile just northeast of Divide's high-point. I could not located a benchmark. I sat on the rock pile for a spell enjoying a burrito and the sound of the breeze. 

Back at the Monte Arido Trail junction, I contemplated attacking the Santa Ynez Mountains high point which sits at 4,864' and approximately 3/4 mile east of the junction. But that is all I did. I knew I didn't have enough gas in the tank or water in my bottles so I began the long walk back and committed to return to explore this area on another day.   

Divide Peak Summit Canister. Big Ass Ham.

View South from Divide Peak

Oil Platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel

Anacapa Island from Divide Peak

To Infinity and Beyond

Lake Casitas from Divide Peak. This Drought is Real Yo.