Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Santa Paula Canyon: Be One With Nature

The Chapel Tower at Thomas Aquinas College
Just north of Steckel Park, where the locals gather on Sunday afternoons to bond and drink bad beer beneath the ancient Oaks and Sycamore that flank Highway 150, Santa Paula Creek spills into the flood plain from the remote depths of the Los Padres National Forest. Although the creek’s precise location is not immediately obvious to the casual observer, masked as it is by lush campus of Thomas Aquinas College, its existence, and the means to access it, are anything but a secret. In fact, it’s probably not too much of an over-statement to say that Santa Paula Canyon, and the creek that pulses through it, have attained almost legendary status amount Ventura County hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes.

Like other immensely popular destinations, water is the magnetic draw here. Not just water that trickles along a rocky streambed and collects in stagnant and ephemeral pools. But clear blue water that in the right season gushes forth from the folds and creases of the mountainside to furiously tumble and cascade over the stoney cliff faces into swimming pool-sized “punch bowls” below.
These punch bowls, and the falls that continually feed them, are very special and unique places in this otherwise arid, waterless landscape. But water, particularly if one can swim in it, is an attractive nuisance that always seems to draw a certain element. And that element always finds a way to make a complete mockery of the “leave no trace” ethos that the rest of us try damn hard to practice.

Santa Paula Creek Flowing Muddy Brown
Be One With Nature by Marking it Up
Trial Markings Just in Case You're Confused About the Way Forward Here
Reflections in a Trail-side Pool
The Forested Path Up the Canyon
Down Canyon
Up Canyon
These destructive folks about whom I speak know all about Santa Paula Creek. And they have memorialized their visits to this canyon in bright red, blue, green, and purple spray-paint that is visible on virtually every tree, branch, and rock along the trial that weaves its way up the creek bed to the lower falls. Most of the marks are just tags left by punks who feel the need to mark their territory like the animals that they are. Some of it, however, is more philosophical like the graffiti ironically urging others on the trail to “be one with nature.” The canyon walls beneath the pool at the first falls too are plastered with unsightly graffiti while beer bottles and other trash litter the canyon bottom. On the day I visited, I rounded a bend in the trail to come face-to-face with a “gentleman” whose shorts were around his ankles as he dropped a dookie trailside with absolutely no shame or regret.

But it is possible to look past the spray paint and the trash and the dookies and the words of the philosopher kings. And you should. Because despite all of it, this is still damn compelling and wild country that is worth the visit. There are very few local places that I can think of that rival it. Tar Creek before the Forest Service closed it off probably qualifies. Matilija Falls if you can get there without raising the ire of the cranky landowner over whose property the path supposedly crosses. Perhaps a few spots along the Sespe. Maybe the Fishbowls in a good water year before they silted up. But the list is short and the chance of reaching your desired destination can be dubious. So I’ll go to Santa Paula Canyon again despite the negatives. I’ll go to see the canyon. I’ll go to experience the blessed water while it’s still around. I’ll go to sit beneath the falls and feel the cool spray. I’ll go on an uncrowded day when the skies are threatening or the temperatures are cool to listen to the silence ricochet off of the walls of the gorge. And I’ll turn a blind eye and ear to the rest.

Canyon Art
Lower Falls
Lower Falls and Pool
Welcome to the Jungle

Saturday, March 5, 2016

No Thrill on Thrall: High Desert Trail to Burkhart Saddle

Looking Toward the Burkhart Saddle Up the Cruthers Creek Drainage
There are essentially two established routes to the summit of Will Thrall Peak: the Burkhart Trail from the south out of Buckhorn Campground (a variation of which involves dropping into Cooper Canyon on the PCT from Cloudburst Summit along the Angeles Crest Highway), and the High Desert Trail from the north out of the Devil’s Punchbowl. You can also get to Will Thrall from Mt. Williamson by way of a cross-country jaunt across Pleasant View Ridge to the summit of Pallet Mountain and then down to the Burkhart Saddle where all three of these routes intersect. And I just discovered courtesy of Cucamonga Man that you can also access Will Thrall by way of a cross-country route via Alimony Road (4N15) in Juniper Hills. Having previously experienced the cross-country route from Mt. Williamson with an exit at Buckhorn, a couple of friends and me decided last Sunday to make an early season attempt on Will Thrall by way of the High Desert route from the north.

This route starts from the parking lot for the Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area which is managed by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. From here, the trail (which initially follows a fire road) climbs gently south for approximately ¾ mile where it intersects with the High Desert Trail which runs in an east-west orientation along the northern foothills of the Pleasant View Ridge. Going east here will take you out to the Devil’s Chair and ultimately South Fork Campground. Traveling west will take you to Cruthers Creek which drains the narrow canyon leading to the Burkhart Saddle.

We tacked west here and began the 3 mile walk toward the mouth of Cruthers Creek Canyon enjoying the shade, the Mojave views, and the gigantic Manzanita along the way. The terrain here is mellow and trekking is easy, primarily because you’re continually losing elevation all the way to Cruthers Creek. You’ll realize just how much elevation you’re losing on your way back out.

The High Desert Trail Just Beyond the Split from Devil's Punchbowl
The High Desert from the High Desert Trail
Descending Into Cruthers Creek
Signage at the Base of  Cruthers Creek
Colorful Rock Formations
At Cruthers Creek, the track turns south, crosses the stream (where we found water flowing), and begins the steady climb toward Burkhart Saddle some 3+ miles up the canyon. A dirt road from the north intersects the trail in the canyon bottom here, but it traverses private property and is secured by a locked gate. That is unfortunate because the road provides direct access to the canyon and would trim some miles off the overall trip if it was available for use by hiker trash. Not that miles are necessarily a bad thing, but whether having to traipse them is desirable or not I suppose depends upon your objective.

Out of the canyon, the trail initially climbs northward up the exposed western slope of the canyon before switching back south at a point along an obvious ridge. The ascent here would be uncomfortably warm on a mid-summer day. Shortly beyond this point, the trail crosses back over to the western slope of the canyon and then continues south well below the ascending ridgeline. Mileage markers, which I understand to be measured from Buckhorn Campground, dot the trail which is useful in terms of tracking your progress.

Cool Cruthers Creek
Climbing Out of the Canyon
Looking Back 
Desert View from Higher Up
From Cruthers Creek all the way to the Burkhart Saddle is a sustained climb. This climb is never steep, but it is unrelenting with few level stretches and fewer suitable spots to pitch a tent for the night. If I was a PCT through-hikers who opted for this official detour around the Williamson Rock closure area, I would probably try to plan my route to avoid spending the night along this stretch of trail.

As the path climbs deeper into the canyon and the air thins, the character of the surroundings changes. The canyon narrows, the slopes steepen considerably, and the flora thins. Manzanita, sage, and chaparral give way to evergreens. In several places, the track crosses scree slopes which could be dicey in winter conditions, but on our visit, the path was devoid of snow for most of way and trail conditions were excellent. Tip of the hat to the fine folks who maintain our trails and keep them passable.

Trail Ascending the Steep Western Wall of the Canyon
Trail Conditions
The path wasn't bereft of snow the entire way, however. At approximately the 6,000 foot level, roughly 1/2 mile from Burkhart Saddle (between mileage markers 6 and 5) we encountered snow where the path takes a hard bend and tacks east. It wasn't much snow, but it covered ice and sat on an off-camber stretch of the trail that was exposed. A tumble here could definitely get you a helicopter ride out of the canyon. My friend gingerly attempted to start across the snowy section and immediately slipped in his trail runners. We then tested the shoulder and it promptly gave way. Finally, we attempted to skirt this section of the trail by going high, but the slope was so steep and loose, and the rock so crumbly, that ultimately we abandoned that option as folly. So we contended ourselves with sitting on a nearby log in the snow, having a bite to eat, enjoying the amazing moment, and living another day to tell the story.

Dangerous Patch
Your Fate if You Slip Here
The Sketchy Part of the Trail from Down Canyon
After absorbing as much of the mountains as we could, we turned tail and retraced our steps back to Devil's Punchbowl. As mentioned, the return trip is all downhill except for the climb back out of Cruthers Creek which my device measured at roughly 800 feet from the creek-bottom to the high point along the High Desert Trail. My device measured total mileage and gain for the day at roughly 13.9 miles and 3,750 feet of elevation gain.

As for my hoped-for date with Will Thrall, it was disappointing that it was cancelled, but it will happen at some stage. In the meantime, this was a really nice tease by a less visited section of the San Gabriels that just enhanced the attractiveness of the object of my mountainous desires.

Almost Back to Devil's Punchbowl
The Punchbowl