Category Archives: nature

San Bruno Mountain and Windy Hill Trail Runs

California bay trees in Windy Hill Open Space Preserve near the bottom of the Razorback Ridge Trail.
California bay – Windy Hill Open Space Preserve

With vaccinations on the increase and Covid on the decline, it was wonderful to once again be able to visit family.

As we always try to do, Brett and I got in a couple of runs. We usually do at least one run that is new to me, and there are certainly plenty from which to choose in the Bay Area.

Oxeye Daisy along the Old Ranch Trail in San Bruno Mountain Park
Oxeye Daisy along the Old Ranch Trail

Our first run was on San Bruno Mountain. We’d previously done the Ridge Trail, so this time opted to do a variation of the Summit Loop. The parking lot at the base was was closed, so we started the run using the Old Ranch Road Trail. This was a plus because it added a little mileage and there were a lot of wildflowers along the trail, including monkeyflower, iris, lupine, yellow paintbrush, daisy, and foxglove.

Brett running up the Summit Loop Trail on San Bruno Mountain
Summit Loop Trail, near the top.

It was an excellent run on single-track trail. As is the rule on San Bruno, it was a bit breezy, with hazy views of the surrounding communities and the Pacific. An island of open space in an urban sea, San Bruno Mountain is a miracle of land conservation, and an area to be relished. Here is a map of trails in the area.

The next day, after watching a spirited youth soccer match, we headed south on 280. On the way, Brett filled me in on the runs he likes to do in Windy Hill Open Space Preserve and Huddart Park. We couldn’t go wrong with either choice but finally decided to save Huddart Park for another day.

Brett running through thimbleberry on a lush section of the Razorback Ridge Trail
Razorback Ridge Trail

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve is on the northeast-facing slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Portola Valley. We parked near the Alpine Trailhead and ran up the road to the Eagle Trail. Corte Madera Creek was running, but low. Although the grasses along the trail were green and the undergrowth was relatively lush, I suspect the conditions were more like July than May. Open hillsides looked mid-Summer dry and the lichen on the trees was drab and desiccated.

Like the rest of California, the Santa Cruz Mountains have seen well below average precipitation this rain season. One station near Windy Hill, Woodside 3.4 S, recorded only about 28% (12″) of normal precipitation from October 1 to May 19. Another station, Skyline Ridge Preserve, recorded about 41%  of normal (16.5″) from October 1 to May 3.

Western columbine along the Lost Trail in Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
Western columbine

From the Eagle Trail/Private Road we turned onto the Razorback Ridge Trail. According to my Garmin track, the Razorback Ridge Trail gains 1000′ or so over 2.4 miles to its junction with the Lost Trail. It’s all runnable, switch-backing up a thimbleberry and fern-lined trail, shaded by California bay trees.

While the Razorback Ridge Trail continues up another 0.4 miles to Skyline Blvd., we turned right onto the Lost Trail. This trail parallels Skyline as it works in and out of the tributary ravines of Jones Gulch, on its way over to the Hamms Gulch Trail. Along the way there were views across the valley to Mt. Diablo, some 40 miles distant. Western columbine was blooming along the trail, its bright red color complimenting the green theme.

Large Douglas-fir along the Lost Trail in Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
Large Douglas-fir along the Lost Trail

At the top of Jones Gulch, there is an impressive, old-growth Douglas-fir. At chest height, it is about as wide as Brett is tall. This would put its diameter at over 72″ and its circumference at over 220″, suggesting an age in the neighborhood of 350 years.

The run down the Hamms Gulch Trail was as good as the run up Razorback Ridge. Given the weather was nearly perfect for a hike or run, we were surprised to see only a dozen or so people on the trail.

From where we were parked the run worked out to about 8 miles, with about 1500′ of gain/loss. Here is a trail map of the area, and here is an interactive, 3D terrain view of my GPS track of the loop. The interactive map can be zoomed, tilted, rotated, and panned. For help controlling the view, click/tap the “?” icon in the upper right corner of the screen.

Some related posts: Breezy San Bruno Mountain Ridge, San Francisco Sights Trail Run, Miwok Wanderings

Palisades Fire Perimeter and Some Area Trails

Palisades Fire Perimeter and Some Area Trails

Update June 11, 2021. Topanga State Park was reopened with restrictions. See the Park website for details.

According to the Topanga State Park website, all but a small part of the Park is temporarily closed as a result of the Palisades Fire. With the closure of most of the Park, I’ve been curious to see which trails were affected by the fire.

Here’s an interactive, 3D terrain view of the Palisades Fire perimeter along with GPS tracks of some of the trails in the area. The scene can be zoomed, tilted, rotated and panned. Alternatively, here is a Google Earth image of the perimeter and trails.

The perimeter has a timestamp of 2021/05/20 08:36:18+00 and was downloaded from the National Interagency Fire Center(NIFC).

The locations of placemarks, trails, and other data is approximate and subject to error.

Return to Ross Mountain

South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell about a mile from Ross Mountain

When I started up the trail from Vincent Gap (6585′), the thermometer on my pack read 36°F. For the first few switchbacks, the trail was immersed in cloud. Beneath the tall conifers, the sandy soil was dotted with droplets of moisture extracted from the fog.

Google Earth image of GPS track down the South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell to Ross Mountain
Google Earth image of GPS track down the South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell to Ross Mountain

I was on my way to Ross Mountain (7402′), one of the most isolated peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains. At the end of a rugged, 3-mile ridge extending south from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell, the peak overlooks the vast canyons of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness.

This morning, the canyons were filled with a 7000′ deep layer of stratus clouds. With a weak upper low over the Southern Sierra, the question of the day was whether the cloud deck would work up the ridge from Ross Mountain and completely envelop Baden-Powell.

Summit of Mt. Baden-Powell. May 16, 2021.
Summit of Mt. Baden-Powell. May 16, 2021.

Well acquainted with the trail up Baden-Powell, a combination of fast-hiking and slow-jogging put me on top in a relatively comfortable 90 minutes. I’d tried not to overdo the pace, knowing from previous experience that the return from Ross Mountain would be the tough part of the day.

From the summit of Baden-Powell, I gazed across the sea of clouds to Mt. Baldy. There was almost no snow on its steep north face. San Gorgonio Mountain was visible in the haze to the left of Pine Mountain and San Jacinto Peak in the gap between Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy.

South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell with Ross Mountain partially visible in the clouds
South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell with Ross Mountain partially visible in the clouds

Walking a little down the south side of Baden-Powell, I got my first good look at the South Ridge. Ross Mountain was nearly covered in clouds. Guessing that the deck of clouds might deepen, and a few minutes might make the difference of being in the clouds or out, I started to jog-lope-shuffle down the initial steep slope.

The title photo was taken a bit past Peak 8375, about 1.7 miles from Baden-Powell and 1.2 miles from Ross Mountain. At that time the clouds were spilling over the ridge near Peak 7407 and Peak 7360+, and around Ross Mountain.

Just north of Peak 7407 on the South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell
Into the clouds near Peak 7407

The clouds added an aesthetic element to the adventure, as well as a little uncertainty. They accentuated and embellished the terrain, while threatening to make the conditions wet, cold and disorienting. Being familiar with the route helped me to enjoy the experience more than the concerns.

After navigating the false summits along the final stretch of ridge, I finally reached Ross. And, of course, it was in the clouds. That was the tradeoff for the spectacular views of the clouds along the ridge.

I didn’t spend much time on the summit. The more time I could spend out of the clouds, the more enjoyable would be the 2200’+ climb back to Baden-Powell.

It took a little over two hours for the clouds to chase me back up the ridge, but only an hour to run the four miles down from Baden-Powell to the foggy trailhead.

Related post: Excursion to Ross Mountain

A Hawkins Ridge Loop Adventure

Twin Peaks and Mt. Waterman from the Hawkins Ridge Trail on South Mt. Hawkins
Twin Peaks and Mt. Waterman from the Hawkins Ridge Trail

Don’t let there be a headwall… Don’t let there be a headwall… That’s what I kept muttering to myself as I climbed up the decomposing granodiorite rib. The topo map showed the rib connecting directly to the crest, but from my vantage point I couldn’t tell if that was actually going to happen.

So far the the difficulties had been manageable. The route had been steep and loose, but for the most part it was at an angle that probably wouldn’t result in a long fall or slide. Probably. But if it got any steeper it could be a problem, and I really didn’t want to downclimb 1200′ of crumbly rock and loose debris.

Working up the rib I had gone from “secure spot to secure spot,” trying to minimize my exposure in between. In a few places a climbing move had been required to avoid disturbing fractured or delicately balanced rocks. On one section it had been necessary to crawl through a mountain mahogany, its stiff limbs poking fun at my route-finding. Higher up, the solid handholds of a massive gray boulder had helped to ascend a particularly loose section.

Crystal Lake Recreation Area from the crest near Peak 8426
Crystal Lake Recreation Area from the crest near Peak 8426

As I climbed, I considered alternative routes, surveying the terrain to my left, right, and along the crest. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better line. But I needed to be patient. The rib was working and I just needed to stay on it.

I tried to recall if I’d ever been on anything like this. I’d certainly done a  few class 2 descents on Sierra peaks that were loose. The closest comparison might be some of the “knapsack passes” in the Sierra. These are usually class 2 or class 3 routes that go over notches and connect one high basin to another. They are often steep, loose and wet, and can hold snow or ice throughout the Summer.

And then suddenly I was on top. There was no more rib to climb. While I enjoyed the problem solving, it’s not a climbing route I would recommend, and I probably won’t repeat it.

South Mt. Hawkins and Sadie Hawkins from the Hawkins Ridge Trail
South Mt. Hawkins and Sadie Hawkins from the Hawkins Ridge Trail

Climbing the rib was my overly-creative way of doing a loop that included the Hawkins Ridge Trail. I’d done Middle Hawkins (Peak 8505′) as a side trip on a run from Islip Saddle to Baden-Powell, but had not gone down the ridge as far as Sadie Hawkins (Peak 8047′).

It was the perfect day to be running the Ridge Trail. The weather was far better than during my last run in the area. Temps were about 20 degrees warmer, and while it was still breezy, the wind was nowhere near the strength of a couple weeks ago. A sea of marine layer stratus filled the valleys and extended into San Gabriel Canyon, providing an “above the clouds” backdrop befitting of a mountain trail.

Pines on Hawkins Ridge that survived the 2002 Curve Fire
Pines on Hawkins Ridge that survived the 2002 Curve Fire

It didn’t take long to get down to Sadie Hawkins and to follow a use trail to its rounded top. From the top, Mt. Islip and Windy Gap could be seen to the northwest, and Mt. Wilson area peaks to the southwest. On the south-facing slopes below Sadie Hawkins there was a stunning number of young pine trees — a veritable tree farm of regrowth from the 2002 Curve Fire.

Winding down the use trail from Sadie Hawkins, I rejoined the main Hawkins Ridge Trail and followed it down to the saddle between Sadie Hawkins and South Mt. Hawkins. Two weeks ago, I’d followed the road up to South Hawkins and then descended the north ridge directly. This time I ascended the Hawkins Ridge Trail, carefully following the trail. I was surprised to find it didn’t ascend the north ridge directly, but wrapped around the west side of the peak.

Later, as I ran down South Mt. Hawkins Trail/Road, I thought about the amount of rocky debris along and on the road. It emphasized the friable nature of the rock above, and how often there are larger rockslides. When I reached the point on the road where I could see the route I’d climbed, I just shook my head. Who the heck would want to go up there?

Related post: Windy Windy Gap and Sunny South Mt. Hawkins

Modelo Mustard

Mustard flowering in Cheeseboro Canyon reveals the underlying structure of a hill.

Mustard flowering in Cheeseboro Canyon reveals the underlying structure of a hill.

According to the Dibblee geologic map of the area, the strata are part of the Modelo Formation. And… the Modelo Trail passes directly over the top of the hill.

The photo was taken on a run from the Victory Trailhead of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve to the Cheeseboro Ridge Trail and back.

Windy Windy Gap and Sunny South Mt. Hawkins

As shown on fire maps, Windy Gap was not burned in the 2020 Bobcat Fire.
Windy Gap

There was hardly any wind on the drive out to Azusa, and I wondered if the offshore wind event forecast to peak this morning was going to happen. But after winding up Highway 39 to the Windy Gap Trailhead, all doubts vanished. The wind was blowing in powerful gusts that shook the car and my enthusiasm.

Morning light on Islip Ridge from low on the Windy Gap Trail in Crystal Lake basin
Morning light on Islip Ridge

Not only was it windy, it was cold. I briefly debated going down to warmer climes — temps were forecast to be in the 80s and 90s in the valleys — but decided to at least run up to Windy Gap and see what it was like there.

As is often the case, once I got moving, it wasn’t too bad on the Windy Gap Trail. It was very windy in some spots and nearly calm in others – just what you would expect on the lee size of a mountain ridge. One thing was consistent — there was almost no sunlight on the trail.

A ribbon of sunlight illuminates conifers along the Windy Gap Trail
Ribbon of sunlight on trees along the Windy Gap Trail.

I’d been curious to see how the run/hike to Windy Gap (7588′) from the Windy Gap Trailhead (5836′) in the Crystal Lake Recreation Area compared to starting at the Islip Saddle Trailhead (6650′) on Hwy 2. It turns out the distance using either approach is the same — a little over 2.5 miles. But, the Windy Gap Trailhead is lower, so starting there adds a little over 800′ of gain. Today, that extra gain was helping to keep me warm.

As I worked up the last long switchback I could see and hear the trees on the crest being buffeted by the wind. Reaching Windy Gap I’d was relieved to see that it looked the same as it always has. As shown on fire maps, Windy Gap was not burned in the Bobcat Fire.

Working up toward Windy Gap (7588') on the Windy Gap Trail
Mt. Islip (left) from the Windy Gap Trail

That relief was short-lived as I was just about knocked down by a gust of wind. I’ve passed by Windy Gap many times, and the wind this morning was the strongest I’ve experienced there.

Later I found that several gusts over 50 mph were recorded at Chilao that morning. Because of terrain effects, I would not be surprised if the gusts at Windy Gap were 60 mph or more. The gusts were “stop you in your tracks, blow you over” strong. And it was cold. The temperature sensor on my pack read 34°F.

Twin Peaks and Mt. Wilson from the South Mt. Hawkins Trail
Twin Peaks and Mt. Wilson from the South Mt. Hawkins Trail

Out of curiosity, I ran a short distance along the PCT to see if conditions improved. That was a bad idea. I turned around and got the heck off the crest.

Running back down the Windy Gap Trail, I wasn’t ready to call it a day. It occurred to me that I could run down to the South Mt. Hawkins Trail — the old South Hawkins Lookout service road — and then run up to South Mt. Hawkins. Maybe the old road would be more wind-protected than the Windy Gap Trail.

Path through Jeffrey pine cones along the South Mt. Hawkins Trail/Road
Jeffrey pine cones along the South Mt. Hawkins Trail

And maybe not! Looking at the topography, I could not figure out why the wind on some sections of the South Mt. Hawkins road was so strong. Some gusts were as strong as at Windy Gap. The noise from the wind in the trees was deafening, and amplified my concern about falling trees and flying debris. I did not want to have a “Weather Channel” moment.

Although the wind was strong, the sun was now higher, and some sections of the road were warmed by the sun. This made a big difference. As I wound into and out of the side canyons, the temperature varied from the high 30s to the low 50s. In two places there were small, dirty patches of icy snow.

The old lookout service road follows a circuitous path to South Mt. Hawkins
South Mt. Hawkins

The South Mt. Hawkins Lookout was destroyed in the 2002 Curve Fire. Many, many thousands of trees were killed in that fire and the process of (natural) reforestation can be seen on the slopes above the road.

Ironically, the wind and temperature were relatively moderate on the summit of South Mt. Hawkins! After taking a few photos, I descended the “Ridge Trail” to the South Mt. Hawkins trail/road, and made my way back to the Windy Gap Trail and the trailhead.

Some related posts: Did Lightning Start the 2002 Curve Fire?, Crest of the Angeles