Sunday, November 20, 2016

Ambling Along the Dry Lakes Ridge

The First Dry Lake Along Dry Lake Ridge
You will follow me and we will ride to glory, way up, the middle of the air!
And I'll call down thunder and speak the same and my work fills the sky with flame
And might and glory gonna be my name and men gonna light my way.

Just out of Ojai and beyond the point where the Maricopa Highway squeezes through the slot of Wheeler Gorge, a high mountainous barrier towers above the roadway to the north. The unmistakable geologic feature with an east-west orientation is so impenetrable that the road-builders were to forced snake around it when the road (originally designated Highway 399, but now Highway 33) was surveyed and constructed in the early part of the last century. This imposing obstacle is Dry Lakes Ridge.

In my many forays into the Ventura County back-country, I've admired this ridge with wonder and awe. Based upon the many good trip reports published by my fellow wilderness travelers, I knew the ridge was comprised of a series of dry lakes or basins, and that the area atop the ridge was designated as a botanical area because of the unique flora that it harbors, but never having experienced it myself, I was left to imagine what it was like to travel along its spine.

Well, I now have to imagine no more. Last week, a friend and I decided to tackle the ridge in order to get a first hand look. Given its configuration, and depending upon your definition of the term, there really is no "easy" way to gain the ridge. There are only gradations of steepness. Stated differently, from a topographic perspective, the spread between the contour lines for the ridge range from almost non-existent in some areas to merely close together in other areas. Despite this, there is an obvious and traveled route to the top which involves ascending an old fire-break that runs down the eastern tongue of the ridge to intersect Highway 33 where it tops out near the Heliport benchmark at elevation 3736.

From the highway to the top of the ridge, the way forward is fairly obvious although there is no established trail. The initial climb is stout but it mellows some once you attain the ridge. There, you get nice looks at the Pine Mountain Ridge, the upper Sespe drainage, the Nordhoff ridge, Lake Casitas, and the coast. The track then continue upward, wending it's way through the ubiquitous manzanita to the high point and your first glimpse of the eastern-most dry lake.

The Pine Mountain Ridge

Piedra Blanca and the Upper Sespe Drainage
Zoom of Pine Mountain Ridge

The Abandoned Fire Lookout on Nordhoff Peak

Nordhoff Ridge, Lake Casitas, and the Channel Islands

Toward the Coast
Dropping into the first basin, the "correct" way to go became a bit muddled as various tracks zigzag through the manzanita, buckthorn, wild rose, yucca, and an assortment of other spiky flora that like to jab and grab. We veered left, aiming for an open spot in the sea of brush and what appeared to be "the path." As it turns out, this route terminated in a clump trees which we fought through, ending up in the first dry lake bed itself. We then did battle with the plentiful sage that populates the basin until we picked up the faint use path again on the western edge of the lake. Note to self: go right time.

Once we got back on track, we wandered through the second and third basins which are very similar in character to the first. Beyond the third lake, the path squeezed through some trees before cresting a small hill and revealing the big, open, grassy basin of the fourth lake below. We enthusiastically dropped into the lake bed aiming for the big evergreens in the middle. Here we found shade, a fallen log on which to enjoy lunch, and an old ice can stove, a remnant of a bygone trail camp. This is a really neat spot and we lingered here enjoying the solitude and the sound of the wind rustling through the grass.

Yellow - yes; Red - no

In the First Dry Lake
Looking Back Toward the Third Lake

The Fourth Dry Lake

In the Grassy Bed of the Fourth Lake

Looking Back at the "Trail" Into the Fourth Lake

Sitting in the Shade

Vestiges of the Old Trail Camp
Just beyond and west of the fourth lake, sits the tiny fifth lake. Had I spent more time studying my maps, I would have known this. But I didn't so I didn't. So instead of visiting this last dry lake while we were in the neighborhood, we instead turned tail here and retraced our steps back to Highway 33. Recognizing the error and stupidity of my ways back in the car, we headed for Institution Ale Company in Camarillo where I drowned my sorrows in a pint of Citra pale ale and planned a return to the ridge to pick up that last dry lake.  

Citra Pale Ale at Institution Ale Company. Go Here for the Best Beer Anywhere.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Falling Rock Canyon

Lower Falling Rock Canyon
Falling Rock Canyon is one of those places that I felt the entire local hiking community had visited except me. I had looked at it on maps and glanced at it numerous times on my way up Icehouse Canyon, but I had never ventured into its rugged and shady depths. Some other peak or destination always took precedence. So last weekend I decided to fill that embarrassing gap in my San Gabriel Mountains experience. There's a ton of good route descriptions on-line so I'll dispense with that. To paraphrase Cracker, what the world needs now is another route description, like I need a hole in my head.

I rolled into the parking lot at Icehouse late to find it packed to the gills as usual. To my great fortune, however, there was an open spot right of front which I dutifully snagged. A good omen. Out of the car and up the trail that was heavy with weekend warriors like myself, I broke ranks with the herd just beyond the first switch-back and dropped into the stream-bed. There I was compelled to pause for a moment to absorb the colorful foliage and listen to the water music from Icehouse Creek. Leaf litter littered the ground and obscured the faint path forward, so I just aimed for the obvious gash in the side of the canyon whose entrance was choked with fallen rocks. Yeah, this had to be the way.

Icehouse Canyon

Sunburst in the Forest

Entrance to Falling Rock Canyon
Once in the confines of the canyon, I quickly encountered the first and second dry waterfalls. After a false start that left me more exposed than I was comfortable with, I gingerly backtracked a bit, tacked left, and then ascended some scree before rejoining the canyon above the second falls. Here, the narrow canyon climbs steadily up before moderating some in its higher reaches. This is a really an enjoyable stretch, one of the nicer places I've been in the San Gabriels, so I slowed my pace here as I picked my way through the rocks. I was only going as far as Sugarloaf so there was really no need to rush things.

The route descriptions I had read told me that I would ultimately exit Falling Rock Canyon on the right at the first scree field. Cairns marked the spot I was told. In short order, I came upon a cairn at the base of a steep slope coming in from the right that I told myself could be characterized as a scree field. Looking at the hillside, it was evident that folks had either been up or had come down here so I surmised this was the exit point. Thus, I began to climb but with some uncertainty.

The sledding here was tough. The angle was very steep. The rock was loose and crumbly. And every two steps forward resulted in one step back. I soldered on for about 20 minutes and then stopped to take stock of the situation. This didn't feel right. Either everyone else is more capable than me (which I admit is a distinct possibility), or I had taken a wrong turn. So I slowly made my way back into the canyon bottom resigned to the possibility that I might not make it to Sugarloaf.

But the day was still relatively young, and I was already here, so I figured there was no harm in continuing up the canyon just to see what was there. After rock-hopping for a bit in the slowly narrowing canyon, a bigger and more defined scree field spilled in from the right. There was no cairn to mark the location, but looking up it appeared to top out at a saddle. With nothing to lose, and a new belief that this must be the place, I began picking my way up the rock pile.

As it turned out, this in fact was the place. After a relatively short but steep rock slog, I topped out at a saddle between Ontario Peak and Sugarloaf. Here, a distinct use trail veered northwest toward Sugarloaf and the southern ridge route to Ontario was in view. I stopped to take in water and peer into the deep recesses of Cherry Canyon.

Lower Falling Rock Canyon

Looking Down Falling Rock Canyon

The Correct Scree Field

Use Trail to Sugarloaf

The North Side of Ontario Peak

Mt. Baldy from the Saddle

View South Into Cherry Canyon
From the saddle, it was just a short hop, skip, and jump over a false bump or two to Sugarloaf. On the flat, rocky summit I found a well-maintained register which I dutifully signed. Flipping through the pages I saw several names I recognized. Hikerhodi was in there several times. Dima Kogan had logged in after scaling Ontario Peak from Cascade Canyon. Feeling inferior, I put the register back in its canister home and enjoyed the fine scenery that Sugarloaf affords. To the northeast, the 3 Ts were plainly in site. Telegraph Peak loomed particularly large. To the northwest across Icehouse Canyon, Mt. San Antonio dominated the skyline. And to the south, was a unique look at Ontario Peak.

After lazing about for awhile, I picked myself up and made my way back to the saddle. Then it was a quick scree-ski into the shade of Falling Rock Canyon and a rock-hop back to Icehouse. In the car and out of San Antonio Canyon, I realized the Claremont Craft Ales was conveniently and dangerously nearby. So of course I made a visit to sample their Grapefruit IPA before calling it a day. For you beer aficionados, Claremont's Grapefruit IPA is decent, but I'd personally use a lighter hand on the grapefruit if I was brewing. I did sample their Mosaic Dry IPA which I found to be exceptional. I'll probably order that on my next visit. Cheers!

Upper San Antonio Canyon
The 3 T's - Thunder, Telegraph, and Timber

Ontario's Peak's North Side

Mt. San Antonio, Up Close and Personal

Telegraph Peak 

Grapefruit IPA at Claremont Craft Ales