Sunday, July 26, 2015

Walking with Ghosts, But Getting Spooked by Bears

The Los Angeles Basin from the Ramada at Inspiration Point
I spent a fair amount of my youth tramping through the mountains and canyons surrounding Salt Lake City. In the winter it was on a pair of skis. With 7 resorts within 30 minutes of where I grew up, it was easy. And the pull of the mountains was strong. In high school, I'd spend almost every Saturday and Sunday on the slopes of Park City or Snowbird. And because that just wasn't enough, during the week I'd forge my mom's signature on notes excusing me from class so that I could run to the mountains and work on my turns instead of my studies. It's a wonder I graduated high school. Back in those good old days, it wasn't unusual for my ski bum friends and me to get 50+ days of skiing in during a season.

In the summer, I'd hit the trails and explore all of the canyons along the east bench of the valley. Parley's, Lamb's, Millcreek, Neff's, Big Cottonwood, Little Cottonwood. I explored them all, sometime with a friend, but most of the time with just my dog Shadow. I got to see quite a bit of the Wasatch range during those outings, but I also left much undone. When I finally left Utah for the gold of the Golden State, I regretted that there were still many trails that I hadn't trod and a bunch of places that I hadn't seen. I felt that perhaps I didn't take full advantage of the opportunities that were right outside my front door. Looking back on it through the prism of time, it now seems that I spent far too little time in the mountains, not too much time.

If and when I finally leave this place, I don't want to feel that same regret. I don't want to look back on my time here and lament the fact that I didn't see, feel, smell, and fully experience my own backyard. So, as a hedge against those potential future feelings of regret, I committed to myself to see as much of the San Gabriels, the southern Los Padres, and the Santa Monicas as reasonably possible. Finding time to do that is more difficult now that the absolute freedom of youth is a thing of the past, and one could easily spend an entire lifetime trying, and yet failing to get intimate with every nook and cranny of just these three ranges. But I'm going to try.

One of the places I'd been wanting to get to was upper Eaton Canyon. Looking at my Tom Harrison map of the front range, the Idlehour Trail was a glaring gap in my previous outings. An experience gap that I wanted to fill. But being mostly a solo hiker, the logistics had always deterred me. I'd thought about starting at Red Box, ascending the Bill Reilly Trail, dropping down to the Markham Saddle, contouring around Mt. Lowe's east flank and down to the saddle near Mt. Lowe camp, and then connecting to the Idlehour Trail at its northern terminus. But that option eventually spit me out at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center meaning I'd need to rely upon someone else to shuttle me between the drop off and pick up points. I'd also looked at a loop route involving the Echo Mountain trail, Castle Canyon, the Idlehour Trail, and the Mt. Wilson Toll Road. But this option also involved a shuttle to avoid a road walk. The final option, an out-and-back, was to just power up the Mt. Wilson Toll Road to the Idlehour Trail junction above Henninger Flats, ascend upper Eaton Canyon to Inspiration Point, and then double-back and retrace my steps. Having gone up the uninteresting, south-facing Toll Road, that option seemed the least appealing even though it didn't require any shuttle.

Finally, the lure of the canyon became greater than concerns over potential inconvenience, so I persuaded my daughter to join me and we just went. Our route took us up the Echo Mountain Trail, through Castle Canyon to Inspiration Point, into Upper Eaton Canyon by way of the Idlehour Trail, down the Mt. Wilson Toll Road, and then back to the car on Lake Avenue in Altadena. If the app on my mobile device is to be believed, the total distance for this route ended up being just shy of 17 miles with approximately 4,700 feet of gain.

View South from the Echo Mountain Trail on the Ascent to Echo Mountain

Trail Conditions - Echo Mountain Trail

Making Our Way to the Echo Mountain House Ruins

Downtown Los Angeles and Beyond from Echo Mountain

Pasadena, the Verdugos, and the Valley from Echo Mountain

Obstructed View Atop Echo Mountain

Sacred Datura on the Summit of Echo Mountain

Bright Sunshine - Summer in the Front Range 
The first leg of our hike took us up the Echo Mountain Trail to the historic ruins of Echo Mountain House. The brainchild of Professor Thaddeus Lowe, Echo Mountain House (also known as the "White City" because it was visible from below for hundreds of square miles) was a popular four-story hotel that was constructed atop Echo Mountain in 1894. It was served by the Mt. Lowe Railway which brought guest from the Rubio Pavilion up the great Cable Incline by way of a funicular that deposited them at the hotel's doorstep. From there, guests could board a rail car on the railway's "Alpine Division" and continue to Ye Alpine Tavern, another of the Professor's hotels that sat at the base of Mt. Lowe. Echo Mountain House burned to the ground on February 5, 1900 in a blaze that that began in the hotel's kitchen. Ye Alpine Tavern, subsequently renamed "Mount Lowe Tavern," burned down in an electrical fire in September of 1936. The foundations and some other remnants of both hotels (as well as the railway that served them) are still visible today, and to visit feels very much like a walk back in time. You'll share the trail here with apparitions from the Great Hiking Era as well as a bunch of other real hikers as this was, and still is, a very popular destination.

The Trail Leading Into Castle Canyon

Deeper in Castle Canyon

Castle Canyon was Cool and Lush. There is Still Water in the Canyon Bottom.

Over the Shoulder View from Upper Castle Canyon

Switchback in Upper Castle Canyon

Beautiful Castle Canyon Flora

First View of the Ramada at Inspiration Point from the Castle Canyon Trail
From Echo Mountain, we cut into the cool depths of Castle Canyon and the crowds thinned considerably. A trickle of water, a wet miracle in these drought-stricken mountains, was still flowing in the canyon bottom and we were compelled to stop for a spell to listen to the water music and luxuriate in the shaded greenery of the dense forest canopy. Beyond that, the trail steepens as it winds its way into the upper recesses of Castle Canyon where it ultimately deposits hikers at the Ramada at famed Inspiration Point which boats a “world famous telescope view overlooking 3,000 square miles” and a collection of sighting tubes directed a various points of interest far below.

Like Echo Mountain, Inspiration Point has a rich history tied to Professor Lowe and others. The point, and the views it affords, was a popular objective for guests of the Mt. Lowe Tavern. It was also the terminus of the Ed Tobin's One Man and a Mule Railway which transported folks from Inspiration Point out to Panorama Point, another view point overlooking the San Gabriel Valley. So here, as at Echo Mountain, we felt a strong connection to the past and a kinship with those adventurous and durable souls who trod the trails a century or so before us.

Inspiration Point Ramada

View South from Inspiration Point - To Infinity and Beyond

Spotting Tubes at Inspiration Point

Spotting Tubes from the Other Side

Locating Los Angles

Locating Inspiration Point - There's a Joker in Every Crowd

Pretty Butterfly

Beautiful Buckwheat with a Different Pollinator
After a brief respite at Inspiration Point, we continued north a short distance to the junction at the base of Mount Lowe where the Sam Merrill Trail, the Idlehour Trail, the Mount Lowe East Trail, and the Mount Lowe fire road all converge. Here, we tacked southeast onto the Idlehour Trail and began our descent into seldom visited Upper Eaton Canyon where trail traffic thinned to the point of being non-existent. We had the next 4.5 mile stretch of canyon entirely to ourselves with one notable exception that I'll tell you about in a minute.

Given how little traffic the Idlehour Trail receives compared to the surrounding trails, I was anticipating some over-grown and washed-out stretches. But we were pleasantly surprised to find the trail in really great shape and clear of brush all the way to the Mr. Wilson Toll Road. I give much thanks to the trail crews that labor in obscurity under the hot sun and in thorny conditions to keep the local trails open and passable.

As we descended into the canyon, we could distinctly smell here and there what we thought were Apricot fruit roll-ups. After sniffing around a bit, it seemed to us that the fragrance was coming from some berries that were growing intermittently along the path, but we couldn't be certain because we found so few of them. A short while later, as the hillsides morphed from sunny chaparral into a darker evergreen and deciduous forest, our discussions turned to bears. When the topic arose, I confidently informed my daughter that I'd been roaming the Angeles and Los Padres National Forests since the early 1990s and had only caught the flash of a bear once on remote Monte Arido Road. I also told her that although black bears do in fact inhabit the Angeles National Forest, our chances of seeing one were almost zero.

As soon as those words came out of my mouth, we heard something big moving quickly and loudly through the brush about 50 yards in front of us. We stopped and listened and so apparently did "the thing" because the movement stopped as well. We looked at each other, decided there was no way in hell we were turning around to walk back out, and then starting whooping it up and loudly clapping our hands. At that, "the thing" which I am convinced was a bear began rapidly moving up the adjacent hillside crashing through the undergrowth and knocking boulders down the slope as it went.

Beginning of the Idlehour Trail - The Trail Was in Good Shape the Whole Way

Trailside Pipestem Clematis

The Trail Traverses a Burn Area

The Potential Source of the Apricot Fruit Roll-Up Aroma

The Trail Becomes More Shaded as You Lose Elevation

Pretty Little Dudleya Clinging to a Rock

Looking Down Upper Eaton Canyon - The Forested Flat in the Distance Sits Above the Mt. Wilson Toll Road

Looking Back Up Canyon Toward Mt. Lowe from the Same Spot

The Bottom of the Canyon was Luxuriant and Green

Forest Canopy from the Canyon Bottom

The Path Forward

Idlehour Trail Camp

The Trail as it Ascends Out of Eaton Canyon

Lateral Drainage Leading Into Eaton Canyon

Junction of the Idlehour Trail and the Mt. Wilson Toll Road
The remainder of the trail was scenic and beautiful but uneventful. We stopped at the Idlehour Trail Camp briefly to snoop around and then began the climb back out of Eaton Canyon. It was at this point that I foolishly told my daughter about the soda machine at Henninger Flats and how it was stocked with Orange and Grape Soda. From that point forward, in the mid-day sun, that damn soda machine became the object of our fixation. It was all we could think about and we rode our obsession hard into Henninger Flats in search of a fix.

Then, as we arrived at Henninger Flats, it hit me. The soda machine only took quarters. And I had no quarters. Deflated, we shuffled into the Visitor's Center and looked longingly at the soda machine, knowing that what was behind the plexiglass case inches away was unattainable. We resigned ourselves to be satisfied with what was left of our now warm water.

Just then, a lady and her daughter walked in looking for the attendant. She had lost her keys the previous week and was hoping that someone had returned them. After she and her daughter banged around the place a bit, opened and knocked on various doors, and generally made a racket, a gentlemen magically appeared from the inner sanctum of the building. After the lady told him what she was looking for, he went behind the door and disappeared for what seemed an eternity. He then suddenly re-appeared empty-handed and the keyless lady and her daughter moped away.

Since we were still milling about pretending to look at the dusty stuffed animals and counting the rings on the exhibit about the slice from the gigantic tree that was alive when the Magna Carta was signed (although, ironically, dead now because we chopped it down), he asked us if there was anything we needed. I pulled two crumpled dollar bills from my pocket a pleaded for quarters. At that, he produced a key, unlocked a drawer, pulled out a magic box containing a zillion shiny silver coins, and handed me 8 quarters. Quarters from heaven! I could have kissed the guy right then and there, but we hustled over to the soda machine instead and thirstily exchanged 3 quarters each for a cold can of 7-Up and Orange Soda. The guy behind the counter, probably amused at this stage by the whole pathetic display, then mentioned that Henninger was out of water. We knew and that was ok. We had carbonated nectar from the mountain Gods. We didn't need no stinkin' water.

Approaching Henninger Flats

The Lower Campground at Henninger Flats
With sodas in hand, we went outside to find a hot place to savor our cold drinks. There was no shortage of those, but we managed a place in the shade anyway. As we sat there enjoying the flies, and admiring the fine lower campground, some guy loitered nearby snorting phlegm from his nasal cavity and "hocking loogies" everywhere. Given the frequency with which he did this, we surmised it was a tic of sorts, but we were glad when he moved further afield anyway.

Drinks finished and snacks consumed, we started the dull descent down the Mt. Wilson Toll Road. It was mid-afternoon now and the sun beat down on us mercilessly. Eventually, we dragged ourselves across the Eaton Canyon bridge where the Altadena Crest trail picks up. Here our options were the Altadena Crest Trail or a long road-walk back to our starting point. My daughter wanted nothing to do with more climbing at this stage and I wasn't enthused about that prospect either if truth be told. So we hoofed it up to Pinecrest Drive, dropped down to Altadena Drive, followed it west for an eternity, then climbed Lake Avenue north back to the car for a total road walk of about 2.5 miles.

Luckily, we had parked immediately adjacent to Farnsworth Park (named after Gen. Charles S. Farnsworth who, in the early 1900s, championed use of the land as a public park) which has lots of grass, lots of trees, and a water fountain. We used the latter amenities to soak ourselves with warm water and then flopped down in the shade as one of Pasadena's finest eyed us with suspicion. In our sweaty and dirty condition, that was probably understandable, but he eventually left to monitor bigger and badder criminals. And we packed it up and headed home after a gratifying day in the historic San Gabriels.

Our Path, the Road Less Traveled

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Three Beauties of Mill B South Fork: A Wasatch Classic

Jagged Sundial Peak Towering Over Lake Blanche
I was back in the motherland for a couple of days of R&R and the heat in the Salt Lake Valley was stultifying. It was time for a run into the Wasatch to cool the body and cleanse the soul. Or maybe that was just an excuse to get up the canyons and into the mountains where I spent a fair amount of time during my misspent youth. I don't know, I don't care, and it doesn't matter anyway because the end result was the same: cool gurgly streams, craggy peaks, exploding wildflowers, aspen tree jungles, and icy lakes.

But where to go? If you know Salt Lake, you know the possibilities are almost limitless. Choosing one trail from the gigantic list of really top-drawer options is a bit like buying beer these days. The choices are so numerous, and the quality so high, that the process can be paralyzing. So we opted for a Wasatch classic, the hiking equivalent of a Polygamy Porter, and headed for the Lake Blanche trailhead up Big Cottonwood Canyon.

As we drove up the canyon, the heat continued to hound us. Escape didn't really materialize, at least not as we envisioned. But the gushing voices of Big Cottonwood Creek and Mill B South Fork Creek sufficiently distracted us as we made the stiff ascent toward the high-alpine cirque which cradles the three beautiful ladies we had come to see: Lake Blanche, Lake Florence, and Lake Lillian.
Twin Peaks Wilderness Boundary Sign

Amazing Aspen Grove

Big Cottonwood Canyon Flora

View Down Mill B South Fork Canyon to Mt. Olympus

Outlet to Lake Lillian Spilling Into Mill B South Fork Canyon
When you live in the barren wasteland that Southern California has become as a result of the continuing drought, it's easy to forget rushing water and the color green. The Wasatch compels you to remember. Lake Lillian was spilling snow-melt into the creek bed which was furiously flowing. The canyon was an orgy of wildflowers, aspen groves, and luxuriant greenery. The scene was so compelling we had to stop several times to simply take it all in.

Lake Blanche with Sundial Peak as a Backdrop

Dromedary Peak from Lake Blanche

Sundial Peak

Lakes Florence and Lillian with Dromedary in the Background
Ultimately, we crested the rocky lip of the basin behind which hides stunningly delightful Lake Blanche. Standing sentinel above the lake is appropriately-named Sundial Peak. It's a scene of magnificent sublimity.

We plopped down in some like-side shade, had a snack, and immersed ourselves in the moment. When we couldn't take any more of Blanche's beauty, we wandered over to Lake Florence to see her and her sister Lillian. On the way, we stopped to admire the outflow from Lake Blanche which despite its somewhat low level was still coursing quite nicely.

My Better Half Admiring the Outlet from Lake Blanche

View Down Mill B South Fork Canyon

Beautiful Bloom Deep in Mill B South Fork Canyon

Getting Intoxicated on Aspen

Mill B South Fork Creek
I recall as a young lad that this and the other trails in the Wasatch were always uncrowded when I went out. Not so this trip. The parking lot at the trailhead was completely full when we arrived and we met lots of happy mountain peeps along the trail. Of all those hikers, the one that really stayed with me, the one I continue to think about, is an elderly lady that we saw up top and met on the descent. I'm guessing she was in her mid-70s. She was solo. She was struggling to walk, using here hiking sticks almost like crutches. But she was slowly, methodically, and doggedly making her way back down the canyon. I imagine her asking her similarly-aged friends if any of them wanted to go climb 3,000 feet to feel the sun, to hear the wind, to smell mountains, and to gaze upon Lake Blanche. When they all unsurprisingly declined her invitation, she said "fuck it, I'm going." And she did. God I want to be like her.

Afterwards, we stopped by the irreplaceable Cotton Bottom to get garlic burgers for perhaps the last time. Unless things have changed since I last heard, this wonderful refuge that breaks up the monotony of sedate Holladay, is slated to disappear only to be reincarnated as a fire station or park or some damn thing. That, coupled with the previous loss of Gepetto's, is an absolute travesty.

The Legendary Cotton Bottom

Cotton Bottom Bar Stools