Tag Archives: backpacking

More backpacking: Point Mugu State Park

 

Looking out over the Pacific from Point Mugu

Looking out over the Pacific from Point Mugu

I probably shouldn’t have gone backpacking two weekends in a row, but I knew school was about to get hairy, so Amy and I decided to head out to the trail to squeeze in one last weekend trip before law school took over our lives again.  I actually had lots of work to do that weekend, and I’m still paying for going on the trip – work-wise and physically – but you know, sometimes “shit comes to light” and you gotta say, “Fuck it.”

 

This was only my second backpacking trip, one that was very different than the first.  Most importantly, there was very little danger of getting lost on this trail, which begins at the Ray Miller Trailhead off PCH in Ventura County and winds its way along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains to Point Mugu, then down into La Jolla Canyon on the other side of the mountains rising out of the ocean.  All the trails in the Santa Monica Mountains are well-worn and easy to navigate.  The prior weekend, there wasn’t really a “trail.”  The “trail” consisted of a number of canyons, which isn’t too hard to follow as long as you know when to cross over into what canyon at what mileage and what elevation.  In the desert, we never reached the campsite.  When the sun began to set on Mike and I in the desert, and we were nowhere close to where we needed to be, I feared breaking my ankle on a giant boulder, then falling uncontrollably into a razor-sharp cactus.  I imagined dragging myself through the scorching desert like Daniel Plainview in the beginning of There Will Be Blood.  

 

You can’t really imagine those kinds of situations in the Santa Monica Mountains because, frankly, someone – maybe a 5-year-old hiking with his family, or a helicopter flying overhead – would find you.  It’s not that there aren’t beautiful, secluded, wild places in the Santa Monicas – there are, and we saw them – but it’s not the desert.

 

The plan for Amy and I was to hike for three days at a relatively leisurely pace.  We started late on Saturday, probably around noon, zig-zagging along the western ridges to Point Mugu, the highest point in Point Mugu State Park.  As I expected, most of the people hiking the bottom part of this trail looked at us as if we were crazy.  Questions like, “Wow, how much does your pack weigh,” and “You guys are real troopers” were around every bend. 

 

 

Channel Islands, as seen from Mugu Peak

Channel Islands, as seen from Mugu Peak

Mugu Peak offered impressive views of the Pacific, with Malibu to the south and Port Hueneme to the north.  But there were still too many people, so we quickly moved on.  The descent from Mugu Peak into La Jolla Valley was the first highlight of the trip for me, with tall yellow grasses covering the entire valley, with a few groves of trees here and there, for a scene that looked straight out of Africa.

 

 

La Jolla Valley

La Jolla Valley

After about 7 miles, we reached La Jolla Campground and found a giant tree where we’d set up camp.  After we’d done everything to settle down, we began hearing loud voices through the trees, about a quarter mile off.  A group of men, yelling loudly in Spanish, suddenly turned what was sounded like angry bickering, began speaking in…tongues?

 

“Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh!!!  Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh!!!” 

 

I can live with coyotes yipping at night, or weird animals rustling in the nearby bushes when I’m camping in the wilderness.  But ultra-religious people speaking in tongues scare the SHIT out of me.  There’s a reason I think The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever made.  Dogma, when it takes hold of people and makes them speak in tongues, is a frightening thing.  When it’s happening right outside your tent, it’s more than just worrisome.  

 

But we proved to be lucky – the religious cult left after an hour of incomprehensible banter and we were left in relative quiet.  The coyotes started yipping, and I felt safe.  We built a great fire, watched the flames jump and tried to capture them on camera but failed, then waited for the flames to die down before retiring to the tent.

 

That night we slept longer than expected.  We would hike a good 12 miles that day, switching from the Backbone Trail, which snakes along a ridge that separates La Jolla Valley from Sycamore Canyon, to the Sycamore Canyon Trail, then back along the Backbone Trail again.  The morning was filled with dodging mountain bikers, who love to fly down the side of the mountain, and attempting not to pay attention to the fact that my feet – both of them – were killing me, especially when I stopped on ground that wasn’t level.  I need new trail shoes.

 

But the trail only got more scenic as we descended into Sycamore Canyon.  This was my favorite part of the trail, crossing several dry streams while never knowing what would appear around the bend.  More hikers, less bikers. 

 

The Sycamore Canyon Fire Road is a wide, easy road that tons of families from the West Valley use for day hikes.  This was the least enjoyable part of the hike because we had decided to find a good place for lunch once we hit the Fire Road, but as soon as we hit the Fire Road there were no good places to sit to be found.  Two miles later, we found a decent spot to stop for lunch and took a load off.

 

The second half of the hike that day was spent ascending the Backbone Trail to meet the Overlook Trail that would take us back to our camp at La Jolla Valley.  While my experience in the desert the prior week had taught me not to take 12 miles lightly, we strolled into our camp around before 3 pm, with several hours of daylight to spare.  This rest was welcomed, though, as I spent a good 45 minutes lying on the wooden bench at our camp with my shoes off, finally, and staring at the leaves above me.  Working hard has such rewards.  You don’t know relaxation unless you’ve had suffering.  I remember how good a Gatorade tasted after playing football for two hours without a water break.  I still remember that taste.  It’s never tasted as good since, because my body has never needed it as much.  I nearly fell asleep on the bench that afternoon, and the only thing that kept me up were the afternoon flies that buzzed around my face.

 

 

It's what the generations of man have strived for

It's what the generations of man have strived for

As the sun fell on another day, Amy and I walked through the savannah grasses in La Jolla Valley waiting for the sun to go down and experimenting with our cameras.  This was the best part of the trip (despite the shooting pain in my leg near my knee, which came as a result of stepping on my foot the wrong way to avoid the pain).

 

 

Again, we overslept and got a later start on Monday than we had planned.  But we knew the last leg of the trip was only about 5.5 miles, so it didn’t really matter what time we left.  Monday, unlike the first two days, brought cool weather and a little wind as we crossed back over to the western ridge of the mountains.  Although we made it back to the car by 11 am, this was the most painful day for me, since walking mostly downhill forced me to put a great deal of weight on my leg, causing shooting pains.  But it was a short day of hiking, so I tried to enjoy as much of it as I could, while looking forward to getting back to the car.

 

After 23.1 miles of hiking, we reached the car, satisfied with our trek.  Amy had bought a new 65 liter pack for the trip, and it had worked out really well.  I had pains in my legs, but it hadn’t ruined the trip.  Ultimately, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

 

 

She looks like she could go for a few more days

She looks like she could go for a few more days

We pulled into Neptune’s Net a few minutes before it opened, so we crossed the street and watched the hoardes of surfers fighting for waves.  We sat down at Neptune’s Net and had giant 22 ounce beers, relishing in a hike well-hiked, and maybe looking forward to our next one.

 

Backpacking through Rockhouse Canyon

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley

 

Well, I took my first backpacking trip.  I got my last piece of “necessary” gear – a packable stove – and I had a few days left of vacation, so there were no more excuses.  It was a success!  Mostly. 

Naturally, I chose Rockhouse Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park as my first destination.  For those of you who know me, I’m obsessed with the desert, and more specifically, the Anza Borrego desert.  I’ve gone there nearly a dozen times over the last six or seven years, and every time I discover something new.  This visit was no different.  I had been on Rockhouse Canyon Road before but had never taken it the full 9.6 miles to the junction between Rockhouse Canyon and Butler Canyon in the northeast corner of the park.

The challenge before Mike (my roommate) and I: finish the Rockhouse Canyon loop, measuring 24.7 miles, in two days.  Lowell and Diane Lindsay describe the trail in Backpacking California, a sizeable compendium of short backpacking hikes all over California put together by serious backpackers.  The Lindsays note that the trail should be completed in two to three days.  I only had two days to hike, so were left with little choice but to complete the hike in those two days. 

Mike and I arrived in Borrego Springs, the small town surrounded on all sides by state park, at 11:30 at night on Thursday, planning to pitch a tent at a primitive site near town.  Whenever I arrive in the desert this late, I always choose to camp at Yaqui Well, which lies at the intersection of S-2 and S-3, across the way from the more developed Tamarisk Grove campground.  Yaqui Well is a great place to pitch a quick tent at night because the ground is relatively flat.  It’s in a wash, so the dirt is soft to the touch.  And the vegetation is mostly friendly, with very little cactus in the area.  For people who have never been to the desert, Yaqui Well is a rehearsal for the real show.  It’s relatively close to the highway, so the desert silence is intermittent, as you’ll probably hear cars drive by in the night.  For some reason, I couldn’t sleep much that night.  Once I got it in my head that I couldn’t fall asleep, it was all over.  I was destined to toss and turn all night. 

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Friday morning came, and the first order of business was to grab a hearty breakfast at Kendall’s in The Mall.  We ordered Kendall’s Big Breakfasts, and big breakfasts are what we got – two pancakes, two eggs, hash browns, two sausages, two bacon and giant slab of ham.  We were done by 7:15, so we headed out to Rockhouse Canyon Road, about 5 miles northeast of town.  Traveling at a safe speed, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the junction of Butler and Rockhouse canyons.  You can either drive the next 3.1 miles if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, or you can hike it.  I was borrowing my dad’s SUV, so I decided not to risk breaking down in the middle of the desert from slashing a tire and damaging the undercarriage.

We set out for the hike at about 8:30 am at the canyon junction (elevation 1200 feet), eager to knock out a good number of miles before we broke for lunch.  I put my pack on for the first time since I backpacked through Europe and my back was aching within 5 minutes!  I almost panicked before I adjusted the waist straps so that most of the weight was sitting on my hips.  Much better. 

The first 3.1 miles are kind of drab, following vehicle tracks to the beginning of the canyon.  At 3.6 miles we reached Hidden Springs, which is kind of a misnomer.  Yes, it is hidden, because it barely exists.  But that means it’s not hidden because it’s not there in the first place.  How about “Springs Just Kidding,” or “Bet Your Guidebook Says There Are Springs Here.”  Just as another blogger had warned, the only water at Hidden Springs was indeed hidden behind foot-long reeds but contained only about two cups of water.  But we didn’t come here for no water!  After all, we had packed 5 gallons of water for two days, and it was already taking its toll on our backs, legs and waists.

 

The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The real treasures of Rockhouse Canyon lay beyond Hidden Springs, where the canyon begins to narrow, and giant boulders of all types of rock are strewn in different formations across the shaded canyon floor.  The guidebook instructed us to hop a few boulders about 15 yards before a huge granitic barrier blocks the way up the canyon.  It took us about 15 minutes to figure out how we were supposed to get up, but we eventually spotted a few ducks left by previous hikers and scrambled our way up the canyon. 

Rockhouse Canyon eventually opens up to the Mojave Valley, which houses several Indian rock house ruins.  These rectangular rock houses sit on a small ridge in the middle of the valley and consist of rocks stacked about 3 to 4 feet high.  Some people set up camp inside the houses, but we were only halfway, with several miles to go, so we moved on. 

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

Following the banks of the wash on the western edge of the valley, we reached Alder Canyon, which held even more impressive rock formations.  You never know what the desert holds beyond the bend.  Bland desert landscapes can suddenly turn into gorgeous ridges of sprawling ocotillos, otherwordly wind caves, or narrow canyons littered with fallen boulders.  Like I said, I always find something new in Anza Borrego, and I’m sure the same will be true for my next trip.

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

At 2800 feet in elevation and well into Alder Canyon, we reached a meeting point between Alder and Nicholias canyons.  Of course, the book told us this (well, not exactly), and the elevation listed in the book was almost accurate with my GPS, but seeing as how there were three 10 foot dry waterfalls that we needed to pull ourselves over in order to get into Nicholias Canyon, we figured that it couldn’t be the way.  An hour and a half later, the sun dipping behind the mountains and our chances at reaching Cottonwood Bench Camp at 4800 feet slipping away, we ended up a few hundred feet farther than the point at which we began to doubt ourselves.  We had tried to backtrack to a point where we could scramble up the side of the eastern side of the canyon, walk along the ridge toward the junction, and figure out which way Nicholias Canyon bent.  But the only thing the ridge was good for was cactus pricks, slippery rocks, and virtually no way of moving around at a decent pace.  By 4:15 we were finally in Nicholias Canyon, beyond the waterfalls, but in no mood or position to go any further.  We pitched the tent in the only clearing around, surrounded by cactus.  The wind would be rough that night, and the cold was bitter (at least by my standards).  Mike built a fire while I cooked up some steak and potato soup and dehydrated Mexican chicken and rice (not half bad). 

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

So we had reached 4000 feet in elevation where we had set a goal to reach 4800 feet, but I wasn’t too upset.  I knew that I would get back here again and understand how to complete the loop.  Here, we only had two days, so we knew our only choice was to head back down from the camp in the morning.  The wind was relentless that night, but I wouldn’t know because I had a few shots of whiskey and a Tylenol PM that knocked me right out.  I needed the sleep, because I had only gotten a couple hours the night before.

After making a tasteless meal of oatmeal mixed with some leftover trail mix, and a good cup of coffee, we set out for Day 2.  The soreness was evident from the beginning but nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and of course our pace was much faster going downhill.  Ultimately, we were back at the car by 2:30 in the afternoon, and though our feet were killing us for the last three miles, it was generally a relaxing hike (with no fear of getting lost).

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Back in town, for lunch we headed to the Red Ocotillo at the Palms Hotel and sat poolside with Bud Lights.  The other patrons must have thought we were bums.  We limped to our table, scruffy beards and all, unashamed that we smelled.  A good beer, a great sandwich, and the satisfaction that we had just hiked 25 miles out of shape.  Next time, I’ll finish the loop.

Back at the car, after 25 miles

Back at the car, after 25 miles