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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.