Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Nordhoff Peak the Easy Way - Howard Creek Trail

Nordhoff Peak from Howard Creek Trail-Nordhoff Ridge Road Junction
Looking at Tom Harrison's map of the Sespe, there are basically three established routes to the summit of Nordhoff Peak: the Pratt Trail, Gridley Canyon, and Howard Creek. The first two options begin low in the Ojai Valley and ascend the hot south side of the Nordhoff Ridge. The third option, Howard Creek, begins higher up (at roughly 3,500 feet) in Rose Valley and climbs the cooler north side of the ridge. This latter route is the shortest and most direct established path to the summit of Nordhoff Peak.

The trailhead for the Howard Creek Trail is located on the right (south) side of Rose Valley Road about 0.4 mile beyond the junction with Highway 33. The route begins on a gated fire road from which a foot-path subsequently branches left (east) approximately 0.2 from the obvious parking area. Although I had passed this trailhead numerous times on my way to Piedra Blanca, I had never stopped to explore it so Sunday I decided to give it a go.

Typical Trail Conditions on the North Side of Point 4677

Pond at Rancho Grande in Lower Howard Creek Canyon
Thorn Point and Piedra Blanca from the Howard Creek Trail
Based upon my past experiences on the south side of the Nordhoff Ridge, I was expecting Howard Creek to be a bit of a slog. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trail was well defined, easy to follow, and quite gentle (dare I say "easy?"). That last conclusion is probably a bit of an over-statement, but if a 50-something, desk-bound guy with a paunch can cover the 2.8 miles and 1,000 feet of gain from trailhead to ridgeline in an hour and fifteen (with stops along the way to smell the flowers), you youngsters ought to be able to blaze this trail in under an hour.

Speaking of flowers, I had thought spring had already sprung and the wildflowers had already done their thing. Not so. There were still plenty of active blooms on the north side of Nordhoff Ridge, including the spectacular Matilija Poppy which is currently in full display mode. Other flora is also exploding with shaggy exuberance onto and across the trail in places. But there is a dark side to this orgiastic blooming madness, a menace unseen within the creases and crevices of the foliage that will not be discovered until you get back to the trailhead and strip off shirt and socks: ticks. Despite wearing a long shirt, gloves, and high socks, I still managed to pick up two of the little bastards that may have given me Lyme Disease.

Beautiful and Delicate Matilija Poppy
Another Matilija Poppy
Unknown Yellow Beauties. These were everywhere.
Butterflies Getting it On (or battling, I couldn't tell to be honest)
Yucca About to Bust Out in Bloom
Invasive Yet Amazingly Pretty Thistle
The name of the trail is a bit of a misnomer in that it doesn't really ascend Howard Creek proper, at least not initially. Instead, the trail begins in the drainage immediately west of Howard Creek and then tacks in a generally southeast direction, crossing an unnamed (and dry) creek before contouring around a ridgeline and into the upper reaches of the Howard Creek drainage. The lower reaches of the trail initially pass through the scrub and sandstone which is typical of the area before beginning the ascent of the shaded north side of Point 4677. The upper portion of the trail which climbs due south to a low spot along the Nordhoff Ridge, is more exposed (read, less shady) and is thus a little warmer (and buggier).

The trail ultimately intersects with the Nordhoff Ridge fire road at a spot along the ridgeline that is not the pinnacle of back-country scenery. There are no views north into the Sespe from this location and the views south toward thee Ojai Valley and beyond are just average. Those views get appreciably better as you work your way west along the Nordhoff Ridge Road toward Nordhoff Peak a little over 2 miles distant. The trade-off is that you must first descend approximately 700 feet to Gridley Saddle (the Gridley Trail intersects the ridgeline from the south here) before reclaiming those same lost feet as you climb out of the saddle and up to the abandoned fire lookout that sits stop Nordhoff Peak's summit. You must repeat this same elevation loss-gain scenario on your way out which enhances the overall challenge of this hike.

View South from Trail Junction with Nordhoff Peak Fire Road

View Into Gridley Canyon. Note the Gridley Canyon Trail in the Foreground

The Nordhoff Peak Abandoned Fire Lookout from the Nordhoff Ridge Fire Road
Once atop Nordhoff Peak, you can savor the expansive 360 degree views and cool breezes from the platform of the abandoned fire lookout tower. The day I was there, I had the run of the place. Beneath the tower is a fire-ring and picnic table if you're inclined to spend the night and are appropriately provisioned. I imagine the views from the summit into the Ojai Valley on a cloudless night are quite special.

So there you have it. Nordhoff Peak done easy. Approximately 10.5 miles round-trip with just over 3,000 of total gain.
The Topatopa Bluffs from Nordhoff Peak
Anacapa Island in the Santa Barbara Channel
Lake Casitas from Nordhoff Peak
Pine Mountain from Nordhoff Peak
View North Toward the Pine Mountain Ridge and the Sespe Wilderness

Sunday, April 19, 2015

3 Days Along the Gene Marshall National Recreation Trail

View North Down Beartrap Canyon from the Gene Marshall Trail
This was not what my fellow traveler Chris and I had in mind--a long weekend in the local forest. Instead, we had dreamed of spending a couple of days at 10,000 feet lounging along the shores of Lake Muir and exploring the Cottonwood Lakes Basin in the southern Sierra Nevadas. And we could perhaps be forgiven for naively thinking we could actually pull that off this early in the season given the paltry amount of snow California received this past "winter." But a last minute check with the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor's Center in Lone Pine forced us to scuttle those plans. Despite the absence of snow-pack, Inyo County, we were told, had yet to open the road to Horseshoe Meadows. Foiled again.

So we quickly re-configured and targeted the Gene Marshall National Recreation Trail (the "GMT") which cuts through the heart of the southern Los Padres National Forest. Beginning at its northern terminus near the Reyes Creek campground in the Lockwood Valley, and ending at Lion Campground along Sespe Creek, the GMT is a scenic 18 mile frolic through the riparian canyons and over the forested plateaus of the Pine Mountain ridge. It's not the Sierras, but defaulting to this option certainly wasn't settling for anything. It is a very worthy destination in its own right.

The Gene Marshall National Recreation Trail
Logistically, the GMT can be a bit of a challenge because of its out-of-the-way location and point-to-point configuration. Since we couldn't convince anyone to spend the better part of their day shuttling us to the trailhead, we needed two cars. Because the optimal way to walk the GMT is from north-to-south (the other direction involves a 3,000 foot ascent of the southern, sun exposed ramparts of the Pine Mountain ridge), we dropped a car Lion Campground where the Sespe Trail begins and then drove up the Maricopa Highway to the trailhead near Reyes Creek and Camp Scheideck. Along the way, a very healthy looking coyote and a couple of deer crossed our path. They would be the only wildlife we saw the entire trip.

The initial thought was to spend the first night at Haddock Trail Camp and the second night at Piedra Blanca. But at the recommendation of Los Padres explorer extraordinaire David Stillman, we decided instead to aim for Beartrap Trail Camp the first night and Pine Mountain Lodge the second. As it turned out, it was a good recommendation for a variety of reasons.

First Night's Destination

Second Night's Destination

End of the Trail :(
So on Friday afternoon, we departed the vacant parking area at the Reyes Creek trailhead and began our adventure. The GMT, which is well marked and well maintained here, tracks Reyes Creek as it gently climbs out of the Lockwood Valley foothills into the northern flanks of the Pine Mountain ridge. At an elevation of approximately 3,850, the landscape here was populated by sage, oak, ceanothus, and other flora typical of Southern California inland coastal valleys. Higher up and deeper into the more mountainous recesses of Pine Mountain, we could encounter stately cedars and magnificent ponderosa pine.

Trail View Along Lower Reyes Creek

Climbing Out of Lower Reyes Creek

View North Into Upper Reyes Creek
At about the 3 mile mark, we crested a small saddle and then gave up some elevation as we dropped into forested bowl in which Upper Reyes trail camp is located. The setting, adjacent to Reyes Creek where water was still flowing, is pleasant and scenic and would make a nice destination for a short overnight. The camp was empty except for a newer looking tent that was lying on the ground covered in pine bows and its tent poles. We saw no one around.

Reyes Creek

Tent Site at Upper Reyes Creek Trail Camp
Beyond Upper Reyes, the trail climbs again out of the bowl to another small saddle which separates the Reyes Creek drainage from the Beartrap Creek drainage. The trail then drops into lush Beartrap Canyon trail camp which is approximately 1.7 miles from Upper Reyes. The camp, which sits immediately adjacent to Beartrap Creek (which also had flowing water) and came equipped with a fairly elaborate fire rock ring, is flat, gorgeous, and damn luxurious. We were told this spot is quite popular with the scouts, but on this night, we had the run of the place. We quickly established camp and set about building a fire with left-over wood previous camp occupants had charitably left for us. The night was absolutely still and the sky sparkled. We then sat around the fire until the embers died sipping bourbon to stay warm as darkness took over and the temperatures dipped to a chilly 30 degrees.

A note about fires in the Los Padres: before we left, we checked with the forest service's Ojai District office about fires in the backcountry. We were told that for the weekend we were out, fires were permitted in established fire rings with a permit as were backcountry stoves. The permits are available on the forest service's website and can be pulled and printed out on-line. But just because you can have a fire, doesn't mean you should have a fire. On our second night out, the winds came up thus making an open fire a dangerous proposition, particularly in the drought conditions. Despite the cold, we therefore decided against another camp fire.

Trail as it Drops Into Beartrap Canyon

View North Into Beartrap Canyon

Beartrap Trail Camp - Home for the Night
The following morning was glorious as the sun bathed the area in light and warmth. We made coffee, had some grub, and then packed up camp. Beyond camp, the trail ascends Beartrap Canyon following the creek a good portion of the way before stiffly climbing to a saddle that deposits you into the upper Piedra Blanca watershed and the headwaters of Piedra Blanca Creek. Before reaching the saddle, the trail crosses and re-crosses Beartrap Creek a number of times as it winds its way up the canyon under a shady, riparian canopy. As you near the head of the canyon, the character of the landscape changes perceptibly as it becomes dominated by rock formations and evergreens. This is wild and rugged landscape that provides as much quiet and solitude as you can handle. True wilderness.

Breaking Camp at Beartrap
Upper Beartrap Creek

Petrified Wood Along Beartrap Creek

Shady Rest Spot in Upper Beartrap Canyon

Over-the-Shoulder View North Back Into Beartrap Canyon
From the divide separating Beartrap Canyon from the upper Piedra Blanca watershed, the trail roller-coasters through a series of valleys for approximately 4 miles until you reach the Pine Mountain Lodge trail camp (which means you're gaining and losing elevation constantly). Along the way, the trail passes through two additional trail camps that provide other over-night options. The first is Haddock camp which sits in a broad meadow adjacent to Piedra Blanca Creek. The second, called Three Mile, is two miles further along and is the more attractive of the two. Sitting immediately adjacent to Piedra Blanca Creek, it is equipped with a picnic table (quite the luxury this far out), a fire ring, shade, and plenty of flat spots for a tent. Easily one of the nicest trail camps I have come across.

Here, we ran into a couple of young fellows who were making their way to Reyes Peak. They had started the morning before a Dough Flat near Fillmore and had spent the night near Piedra Blanca trail camp. They were going to exist at Reyes Peak although it wasn't exactly clear how they were going to accomplish that given the fact that Pine Mountain Road is still closed. Either way, by my reckoning, their first day had to be 25+ miles through some very remote and difficult terrain. Their second day had to involve about 18+ miles with substantial elevation gains. Oh to be young again.

One of the Sites at Haddock Trail Camp

Trail Through the Pines
Trail Signage at Three Mile Trail Camp

Three Mile Trail Camp - Super Deluxe

Making Our Way Toward Pine Mountain Lodge
Pine Mountain Lodge is another 1.8 miles further. It is a small camp that sits adjacent to Piedra Blanca Creek about a half mile from where the GMT spills into Piedra Blanca Canyon before dropping 3,000 in 3 miles or so into the lower canyon where Twin Forks and Piedra Blanca trail camps are located. Apparently, there is another Pine Mountain Lodge, the "real" Pine Mountain Lodge, located in a forested bowl just south of the official trail camp. Not knowing exactly where that was, we opted for the official camp which once again we had completely to ourselves. We sipped more bourbon as the sun vanished from view, the temperature dropped, and the winds came up then retreated to our tents for the evening.   
Pine Mountain Lodge Trail Camp - Night No. 2

Approaching the Trail Crest Above Piedra Blanca Canyon

View South Into Piedra Blanca Drainage
The next morning, we broke camp as the sun rose so that we could get an early start to avoid the inevitable heat of the Sespe. From Pine Mountain Lodge, the GMT meanders through one last stretch of forest before cresting the ridge and dropping precipitously down Piedra Blanca Canyon. The hills, with their southern exposure, are dry here and are covered with chaparral. That changes dramatically when the trail hits the canyon bottom and begins tracking Piedra Blanca Creek which was flowing quite nicely. Here, in the cool and shaded recesses of the canyon, the foliage is thick and poison oak abounds. Avoiding the stuff was virtually impossible so appropriate dress is advisable.

Piedra Blanca Formation in the Distance
Piedra Blanca Creek was Flowing Nicely - Watch for the Plentiful Poison Oak

View Back up Piedra Blanca Canyon
At Piedra Blanca trail camp we encountered the first folks we had seen all weekend save the two youngsters we spoke to at Three Mile. We gave the campers a friendly nod as we passed. In return, some young ladies asked us if we had seen any rattlesnakes. Odd. We told them "no," we had not seen any snakes, just bears and mountain lions. Further down the trail, we had to make way for a herd of 17 day-hikers who were making their way to Piedra Blanca trail camp. That moment validated the choice to hike the GMT, and enjoy the solitude it affords, instead of going into the justly popular (and crowded) Sespe for the weekend.

Piedra Blanca Formation

Sespe Creek
Back at the car at Lion, Chris had stashed a cooler in the trunk with a couple of PBRs in it. Because the night-time temperatures had been low, the beers were miraculously still cool. We toasted the GMT and savored the memories of a weekend well spent before loading our gear into the car and making our way back to reality.

Post Adventure Refreshments at Lion Camp