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.