Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sitting on the Devil's Throne

Snow Dusted San Gabriel Mountains Towering Over the Devil's Punchbowl
The sky was a steely gray and the wind was gusting as I jumped into the car and started for the Devil's Punchbowl on the high-desert, not really knowing whether it was a good idea or not. Getting out was a good idea, of course, but given the darkening skies and the winds buffeting my car, I was having reservations about site selection as I made my way up the Antelope Valley Freeway.

But as I crested Soledad Pass and veered east onto the Pearblossom Highway, the clouds broke, the winds mellowed, the outside temps stabilized in the mid-50s, and conditions became optimal for a day in the devil's playground. Arriving at the parking area, it was evident that lots of other folks thought the conditions perfect as well for the lot was completely full except for one last spot that I was fortunate to nab before the other folks right behind me could.

I didn't really have an objective in mind other than to see and experience this place. So with that non-plan as a starting point, I began up the dirt road the leads to the junction of the Burkhart and High Desert Trails. Along the way I passed crimson-barked mazanita that was as beautiful, healthy-looking, full, and luxuriant as any I have ever seen in the San Gabriels.  

About 0.9 miles up the road, the path split, the east branch going to the Devil's Chair and beyond, the west branch ascending to Burkhart Saddle and then, ultimately, to Buckhorn Campground along the ACH. Here, my natural, sinful state took over and I instinctively went east along the High Desert Trail toward El Diablo's throne.

From the trail junction to the spur to the Devil's Chair is about 2.6 miles along a very scenic, well-maintained, easy-to-navigate, and relatively flat trail. To the north are expansive views of the high desert; to the immediate south, is the oftentimes dramatic northern escarpment of the San Gabriel Range. Of particular note is rugged Holcomb Canyon which climbs steeply and dramatically up the back side of Mt. Williamson.

I'll refrain from giving a further blow-by-blow and just let the images speak for themselves. But I will say this about about the whole area. Going in, I had preconceived ideas about what this side of the San Gabriel range was and wasn't. Those preconceived ideas involved mostly juniper, sage, and other assorted lowland scrub. They did not include much in the way of flora and geography that is typical of a more mountainous, higher-alpine environment. And while the area does have many of the attributes of a transition zone between desert and mountains, it also offers snow-dusted peaks, fragrant evergreens, narrow, shaded canyons, and streams playing lovely water music. It's enough to make me want to drink from Satan's punchbowl again and again. And I will.

Ascending the Burkhart Trail
High Desert Views from the High Desert Trail
Looking Toward Big Pines from the High Desert Trail
View North Across the High Desert
Rugged Holcomb Canyon
Fenced Devil's Chair
Sitting on the Devil's Throne
Light, Shadows, Color
Alpine Scenery
Water Trickling Down Punchbowl Canyon
The Devil's Funhouse
Last Look

Monday, January 18, 2016

Del Norte-Navy Road Loop, East Santa Cruz Island

Prisoner's Harbor
Back to work for the week and I was headed for the mid-week doldrums when my daughter decided to take a day trip to Santa Cruz Island and asked if I could come along. Hell yeah! Fortunately, my schedule was accommodating, so I quickly put things in order at the office, got the blessing from the big man in charge, and off we went.

The original plan, if it could even be called that (it was more like a thought), was to go to Scorpion Anchorage and climb to the high point along Monta├▒on Ridge. But the sea was a bit angry on the day we went with high surf and big swells, so the concessionaire that runs the boats out to the islands (Island Packers) made the decision we were all going to Prisoner's Harbor where the pier is more protected and de-boating was less hazardous. Taking a quick look at our options out of Prisoner's, we decided to make a run out to the Del Norte trail camp instead of joining the NPS-led hike to Pelican Bay on the Nature Conservancy side of the island. Having done that hike previously, we already knew the terrain, but also knew the pace would be slower than we were hoping for. We wanted new and were hoping for something slightly more robust. 

Out of Ventura Harbor, the ocean was indeed impressive with huge waves crashing against the shore and big swells tossing us about. As a result, the concessionaire forbade us all from standing along the rail at the front of the boat. But once beyond the breakwater and into the channel, things calmed considerably and it was smooth sailing all the way out to the island. Despite the bumpy start, it was a perfect day to be on the water. The sky was blue, the ocean was bluer, and migrating Humpback and Gray Whales made themselves at home in the channel.

Platform Gilda in the Santa Barbara Channel
Migrating Humpback Whale
Migrating Gray Whales Near Santa Cruz Island
Gray Whale
Gray Whale Fluke
Upon arriving at Prisoner's Harbor, the boat captain announced that the boat would be leaving for the mainland at 2:45 p.m, He then reiterated: at 15 minutes to 3 p.m., the boat would be leaving; if you wanted a ride off the island, you needed to be back at the pier no later than 14:45; at 3/4 of an hour after 2 p.m., the boat would be leaving; be back to the pier no later than 1/4 hour before before 3 p.m. unless you're prepared to spend the night on the island. Being the astute and perceptive folks that we are, we surmised from this cluster of announcements that we should probably be back to the pier at least 1 hour before  3:45 p.m. to make sure we got back to Ventura that night.

After getting off the boat, we listened patiently as the NPS docent gave us the obligatory spiel: pack it in, pack it out; everything is protected down to the most insignificant stone; there is no food or water on the island so its entirely BYOB/BYOF; do not feed the wildlife; be back to the pier no later than 2:45 p.m. The docent then solicited questions and I contemplated asking what time the boat was leaving, but figured I'd check my smart mouth and spare my daughter the embarrassment. We were then finally released on our own recognizance and off we went up the Navy Road leaving our fellow boat-mates to their own devices.

Shortly up the road after a short but stout climb, the Del Norte Trail branches to the east. Here we jumped off the road and followed the wide trail as it dove into deep canyons only to reclaim the lost elevation on the other side of the V. To the north, the Santa Barbara Channel was a constant companion, framed by the the Santa Ynez Mountains far in the distance. Eventually the trail took us to empty Del Norte Trail Camp which sits high on the bluffs above the Pacific and affords magnificent vistas of what I imagine the coastal California landscape must have looked like before the Europeans invaded with their four-hoofed locusts.  Here, we spent entirely too much time soaking in the absolute silence, feasting on snacks, and being thoroughly entertained by several Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jays that are endemic to the islands and call the oaks surrounding the camp home.

View West from Navy Road
Beginning of the Del Norte Trail
The Santa Barbara Channel from the Del Norte Trail
Looking Back to Prisoner's Harbor from the Del Norte Trail
Del Norte Trail Camp
Endemic Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay
After a leisurely hour of loafing at Del Norte, we finally gathered ourselves and our gear together and made our way up to Navy Road which runs along the crest of the eastern side of the island. Upon reaching the road, we realized that we still had a 4 miles trek back to Prisoner's and only one hour to accomplish it. Remembering the dire and absolute warnings of the boat captain that we had scoffed at earlier, we began jogging back to Prisoner's in a bit of a panic. As it turned out, we arrived back at the pier with plenty of time to spare, even as we stopped to photograph rare island flora and fauna. But the whole episode was worth a minor, yet free adrenaline rush nonetheless. 

Campo Del Norte with Chinese Harbor in the Rearground
The Mountainous West Side Owned by the Nature Conservancy
Santa Cruz Island Coastline
Prisoner's Harbor Beach and Pier
Cliff Aster in Bloom
Endemic Island Fox
The "Beach" at Prisoner's Harbor
On the way back to the mainland, the orgy of migrating whales continued and the boat stopped for a decent amount of time for us to take photographs and otherwise satisfy our voyeuristic tendencies. During one of these stops, I overhead one of our boat-mates comment that we had seen more whales on our day trip then they had seen on a previous trip devoted exclusively to whale-watching. At that, we felt very fortunate to have made the trip when we did.

Back at Ventura, the ocean became more violent again and we rode the big swells into the harbor as the surf continued to pummel the coast. After landing, we rushed to the beach to catch one final glimpse of our islands as they slowly disappeared in the fading light of day. 

Anacapa Island from the Channel
Another Gray Whale Fluke
More Gray Whales
Migrating Gray Whales
Parting Shot - We Both Have Places to Be
The Ride Home
Sunset Over the Islands

Saturday, January 9, 2016

2015 Year in Review

Reflecting back on 2015, it seems I spent a bit more time than in previous years wandering around in my own backyard than traipsing off to the San Gabriels or the Sierra. I still got a couple of those trips in, but my agenda was more heavily tilted toward the Los Padres, the Santa Monicas, and the Santa Susanas. That wasn't necessarily a conscience thing. As Robbie Robertson said, "the wind just kind of pushed me this way." So I went. And took a couple of pics along the way. Here are some of them. Hope you like.

Have an adventurous 2016 everyone. See you on the trail

I have a friend who is fond of saying that I'm so cautious I probably wear multiple condoms while having sex. In a nod to that friend, I give you the following obligatory copyright disclaimer: This slide show is solely for the private enjoyment of my friends and me. When you watch, you are stopping by my virtual living room to see my pictures while simultaneously listening to music written by Oasis which is playing in the background on my virtual stereo system (does referencing a "stereo system" date me?). I gain no monetary benefit from this (I get no ad revenue from this blog) and want none. I do not possess, and claim no right, title, or interest in the music or lyrics that accompanying this slide show. Those rights are the exclusive intellectual property of the Beatles of my generation, the band Oasis, and/or its members and/or their label and/or ASCAP.