Category Archives: trees

Spring Fever Running the Phantom Loop in Malibu Creek State Park

Coast live oak along the Talepop Trail. Photography by Gary Valle'

One of the e-mountain bikers commented, “That’s a lot of water!”

The three of us had arrived at the bank of Malibu Creek at the same time. There was a lot of water. The crossing must have been a real monster during some of this year’s storms, but this morning the creek was slow-moving and maybe 30-40 yards across. The main concern getting across would be slipping on the algae-covered rocks along the bottom and taking an unintended bath. I waded in.

Crags Road Trail crossing of Malibu Creek - March 2024 (thumbnail)
Malibu Creek – the trail continues on the other side.

How did I find myself wading across Malibu Creek on this brisk March morning? I was doing a convoluted variation of the Phantom Loop, enjoying the Spring scenery, and going where the trails and terrain took me.

What is the Phantom loop? For me, it’s any loop that starts at the Cistern Trailhead on Mulholland Highway and ends at the Phantom Trailhead on the other side of the highway. Or vice versa. And since it’s a loop, it could start/end at any trailhead on or near the loop.

There are many ways to complete this loop. Here’s an interactive 3D-terrain view of the shortest version I’ve done (7.3 miles), and here is a longer variation (24 miles).

Rising sun on the Lake Vista Trail in Malibu Creek State Park. (thumbnail)
Lake Vista Trail

My run started on the Cistern Trail shortly after dawn. I’d run through Reagan Ranch and then up the Lake Vista Trail to the overlook for an early morning view of Malibou Lake. From the overlook, I’d continued east on the Lake Vista and Deer Leg Trails, enjoying the blooms of the Ceanothus, Hummingbird Sage, and bush poppy along the way.

Just before the Deer Leg Trail descends from the crest, I stopped at another overlook to take in Malibu Creek’s stunning terrain. From the viewpoint, I could see the coast redwoods along Century Lake. A few of the tall trees survived the 2011-205 drought and the 2018 Woolsey Fire, including one young naturally germinated tree. Now we’re in a rare wet cycle. The past two years are among the wettest on record for Los Angeles — good news for the remaining trees!

From the overlook of Malibu Creek, I ran down to the Yearling Trail, turned right (east), and in about a hundred yards was at the top of the Cage Creek Trail. I followed this short trail down to Crags Road and Malibu Creek.

Improvised bridge across Malibu Creek. (thumbnail)
Runner crossing a makeshift bridge across Malibu Creek.

I thought there was a chance the seasonal bridge on the way to the M*A*S*H site might have already been reinstalled. It hadn’t, but a pile of limbs and logs spanned the gap across the creek.

From the matchstick bridge, I turned around and ran east on Crags Road, past the Cage Creek Trail and Century Lake, and then down the road to the junction of High Road and Crags Road.

When doing the Phantom Loop, I usually continue east under the oaks on High Road to the Grassland Trail. But this morning, in keeping with today’s theme, I headed across the bridge — in the direction of the Visitor Center — and looked for a sign marking the start of the Chaparral Trail.

Goat Buttes and Planet of the Apes Wall from the Chaparral Trail. (thumbnail)
Goat Buttes and Planet of the Apes Wall from the Chaparral Trail.

Only about a half-mile long, this obscure trail starts about 60-70 yards northeast of the Visitor Center and links to Mott Road/Century Mtwy, near Crags Road. It has unique views of Planet of the Apes Wall, Malibu Creek, and Goat Buttes. When I reached the trail’s end, I turned left on the road and followed it to the flooded crossing on Crags Road.

Wading into a stream is always a bit awkward. I decided to follow a rocky shoal where the water was about calf deep. As expected, the rocks were rounded and slimy. I didn’t have poles and the footing wasn’t the best, but I managed to get across without incident.

In a few steps, I was headed east and back on the route of the “standard” Phantom Loop. In about a tenth of a mile, I forked left off the main road and onto the Grasslands Trail.

I’m always surprised how quickly the squishiness of wet running shoes and socks goes away. (Today, I was running in Hoka Challenger ATR 7s with Injinji socks.) By the time I reached Mulholland Highway, my shoes and socks had air-dried and felt more or less normal. Crossing Mulholland Highway, I walked east a few yards and continued north on the North Grasslands Trail to the Liberty Canyon Trail.

I hadn’t run far in Liberty Canyon when I came to the Talepop Trail. It had been a long time since I had done the Talepop – Grasslands (Las Virgenes Fire Road) Loop. The hills were green, the sun shining, and the temperature perfect for running. What better time than now to get on it again? With the cool conditions, I had plenty of water to do the extra three to four miles and wouldn’t have to make a side trip to De Anza Park.

Las Virgenes Fire Road Trail (thumbnail)
Las Virgenes Trai/Fire Road

The loop was as pretty as I remembered it. Initially following an undulating ridge, the Talepop Trail eventually winds down to the grassy valley to the east and intersects Las Virgenes Fire Road. A left (north) turn here goes to De Anza Park; a right turn traverses classic oak grassland and leads back to the southern end of the Liberty Canyon Trail.

After completing the Talepop Grasslands loop, the remainder of the run followed the usual route of the Phantom Loop. It continues about 1.5 miles north on the Liberty Canyon Trail, but before reaching the trailhead, it jogs left (west), goes over Liberty Creek, and around to a short trail that connects to the Phantom Trail at a group of eucalyptus trees. My route in this area can be viewed by using our high-resolution, interactive 3D viewer and zooming in on the area near the Liberty Canyon Trailhead.

Hillside covered in wildflowers in Malibu Creek State Park
Hillside covered in wildflowers

The Phantom Trail goes west up a canyon and then turns south, eventually reaching Mulholland Highway near the Cistern Trailhead. Once out of the canyon, the main trail crosses a use trail several times, so care must be taken to stay on route. The use trail more or less follows the ups and downs on the crest of the ridge, while the main trail switches from one side of the ridge to the other, avoiding unnecessary elevation gains.

The last time I ran this segment of trail — October 2023 — it was VERY overgrown (video). This time, thanks to the work of SMMTC volunteers, nearly all of the trail had been cleared. Many colorful wildflowers were in bloom on this stretch, including Ceanothus, Encelia, Wishbone bush, California poppy, owl’s clover, and paintbrush.

Here are a few photos (and notes) from the trail run, including some of the wildflowers seen along the trail.

Some related posts:
Bulldog Loop Plus the Phantom Loop
Redwoods, Raptors, and the Phantom Loop
Malibu Creek State Park Scenic Loop

Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Trailhead Valley Oak

Large valley oak near the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Trailhead of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch)

This large valley oak lives near the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Trailhead of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch). There used to be several large valley oaks near the trailhead, but they were killed in the 2018 Woolsey Fire.

The trunk of the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Trailhead valley oak.
The brim of the cap is about 7 inches wide.

This tree is as large as any of the valley oaks I see along the trails at Ahmanson. I estimate it’s diameter to be a little under four feet. That’s not large by Northern California standards, but it is still a sizable tree. Valley oaks have a tougher time here.

Along with coast live oak, the valley oak is one of the iconic species of oak-grasslands at Ahmanson Ranch. In the past 20 years, valley oaks at Ahmanson Ranch have been more severely impacted by drought, fire, and rising temperatures than live oaks. In the not too distant future, the valley oak may become a relic at Ahmanson, much like the blue oak that died earlier this year.

Some related posts: Ahmanson Valley Oaks Finally Get Their Leaves, Ahmanson Valley Oaks Battling Drought, Ahmanson Blue Oak Succumbs to Climate Change, and Many More

After the Bobcat and Station Fires: Three Points Loop Around Mt. Waterman (Slideshow, 3D Terrain Maps)

Mt. Waterman Trail

Most of the time, when I do a trail run in the San Gabriel Mountains, it starts from a trailhead along or near Highway 2 — Angeles Crest Highway.

There are many fine point-to-point and out-and-back runs along Hwy 2, but not very many loops. Of the handful of loops that are currently open and accessible, two start and end at Three Points.

One is the Three Points – Mt. Hillyer Loop and the other is the Three Points Loop around Mt. Waterman. The Three Points – Mt. Hillyer Loop was not affected by the Bobcat Fire and is described in this April 2021 post.

On the other hand, significant parts of the Three Points Loop around Mt. Waterman were burned in Bobcat Fire, and the trails that comprise the loop were closed until April of this year (2022).

A large area on Mt. Waterman was burned by both the Bobcat and Station Fires. This can be seen in this interactive, 3D terrain view of the area. The Bobcat Fire is yellow and the Station Fire is red. Where they overlap near Mt. Waterman is orange.

The Three Points Loop is the loop I do most often in the San Gabriel Mountains. The basic loop, not including the side trip to the summit of Mt. Waterman, is about 20 miles long and has about 4000′ of gain/loss. The terrain and trails are varied and interesting, and Buckhorn Campground is conveniently placed near the halfway point of the course. Water is USUALLY — BUT NOT ALWAYS — available when the campground is open.

Doing the side trip to Mt. Waterman adds about 1.7 miles and 350′ of elevation gain. The side trip to Cooper Canyon Falls is even shorter — only about a quarter-mile.

Fire perimeters and burn severity maps don’t tell the whole story, and I’ve been curious to see how the area was affected by the Bobcat Fire; how the Station Fire recovery is continuing; and how the area burned by both fires has fared.

Here is an interactive, 3D terrain view of the Three Points Loop. The map can be zoomed, tilted, rotated, and panned using the navigation control on the right. Track and placename locations are approximate and subject to errors. Poor weather and other conditions may make this route unsuitable for this activity.

This slideshow includes photos from the August 2022 run of the loop, as well as additional information.

Some related posts: Twin Peaks East, Plus Mt. Waterman; Three Points Loop Adventure – July 2020: Bobcat Fire Perimeter and Some Angeles National Forest Trails: 3D Terrain View of Bobcat Fire Soil Burn Severity and Some Angeles National Forest Trails

Regrowth of Trees Along the PCT Following the 2002 Curve Fire

Young pines along the PCT about five miles east of Islip Saddle in an area burned by the 2002 Curve Fire
Tree regrowth along the PCT about five miles east of Islip Saddle

The Curve Fire started on Labor Day Weekend 2002, along Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains. Between Mt. Islip and Throop Peak, the fire burned over the crest and down to Angeles Crest Highway. Between Throop Peak and Mt. Baden-Powell, the fire generally burned up to, but did not breach the crest.

Dead trees on a ridge west of Mt. Hawkins that were burned in the 2002 Curve Fire
Dead trees on a ridge west of Mt. Hawkins that were burned in the 2002 Curve Fire

The Curve Fire killed many trees, including some large, old-growth trees. The most common species along the trail between Mt. Islip and Throop Peak are white fir, Jeffrey pine, sugar pine, and lodgepole pine. Incense cedar also grows in the area, and limber pine is found on and to the east of Throop Peak. Here is a cross-section of a tree along the PCT about 3.0 miles from Islip Saddle. It is representative of the older trees killed in the Curve Fire.

Prior to the Curve Fire, the FRAP geodatabase of California fires has no record of a large fire that burned along the crest of the San Gabriels between Mt. Islip and Mt. Baden-Powell. The FRAP record extends back to the early 1900s, when the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve became Angeles National Forest. A study of mercury levels in Crystal Lake and newspaper accounts suggest the possibility that a large fire occurred in this area in 1878, or about 124 years before the Curve Fire.

I’ve run and hiked the PCT between Islip Saddle and Mt. Baden-Powell for many years, so have had the opportunity to follow the regrowth of conifers where the Curve Fire burned over the crest. Studying conifer regrowth in this area can provide insights into regrowth in the 2009 Station Fire and 2020 Bobcat Fire burn areas, and in areas burned by more than one of these fires.

The locations of the stands are shown in this Google Earth image, along with the areas burned by the Curve and Bobcat Fires. Of these four areas, Stand #1 is the only one burned by the Curve Fire and Bobcat Fire.

Stand #1

A June 2020 photo of conifer regrowth after the 2002 Curve Fire. These trees were obliterated by the Bobcat Fire.
A June 2020 photo of conifer regrowth after the 2002 Curve Fire. These trees were obliterated by the Bobcat Fire.

This stand of young Jeffrey pines looked very healthy in June 2020. The area is about 1.5 miles east of Islip Saddle on the PCT, at an elevation of about 7440 ft. At that time a tree adjacent to the trail stood well overhead.

I almost ran past this area in July 2022. I had to double-check the mileage on my watch. Where were the trees? Here is a comparison of the area before and after the Bobcat Fire.

The young trees were more vulnerable than the mature trees in the area. Eighteen years of Curve Fire regrowth were completely obliterated.

Stand #2

This area of young trees is between Windy Gap and Peak 8426, about 3.0 miles east of Islip Saddle on the PCT, at an elevation of about 7900 ft. Some old-growth Jeffrey pines were killed here. This is what the area looked like on May 30,  2010.

Now the size of the trees ranges from seedlings a few inches tall to this very robust Jeffrey pine that is well over head height.

Stand #3

An assortment of young conifers growing along the PCT west of Mt. Hawkins in an area burned by the 2002 Curve Fire
An assortment of young conifers growing along the PCT west of Mt. Hawkins

This area of young trees is on broad ridge, west of Mt. Hawkins, about 4.2 miles east of Islip Saddle on the PCT. The Curve Fire ran down the ridge to Hwy 2, killing hundreds of trees. The elevation at the PCT is about 8500 ft.

Stand #4

This area of young trees is on a south-facing slope, just west of Throop Peak, about 5.1 miles east of Islip Saddle on the PCT. The elevation is about 8900 ft. Because of its aspect, the new trees are taller than in the other areas photographed. Here’s what this area looked like in May 2012, June 2016, and July 2022.

Some related posts: Did Lightning Start the 2002 Curve Fire, 3D Terrain View of Bobcat Fire Soil Burn Severity and Some Angeles National Forest Trails