The afternoon was full of Fall. Oak leaves danced in a cool breeze, their shadows producing a familiar speckled pattern of shadow and sun, shadow and sun.
I was running northeast along the margin of Lasky Mesa in Upper Las VIrgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, enjoying the Fall weather and smoke-free sky. I’d just passed a valley oak along the dirt road, when a thought bubbled up from my subconscious and asked, “Did you see what I saw in that tree?”
I stopped, turned around, and walked the few steps back to the oak tree.
Just feet from the road, partially camouflaged by oak leaves and shadows, was a red-tailed hawk. It seemed surprised, if not indignant, to have been discovered. I was equally astonished to have seen the bird.
The pattern of its plumage now made perfect sense. The hawk had been nearly invisible while feet away and in plain sight. I took one more photo, and then left the bird to its reverie.
Update November 14, 2020. Was near the spot where the encounter described above occurred and photographed a red-tailed hawk with a small rodent it had just killed. Since it’s in the same area, it may be the same bird.
It was a chilly 45°F as I crossed algae-covered Malibu Creek on a foot-worn log. Following a brutally hot Summer with temps in the West San Fernando Valley reaching 121°F, the chill of the cold air felt especially good.
The plan was to do the Phantom Loop, but first, I was going to run over to the Forest Trail. The side trip was not only to check on the coast redwoods along the trail but to enjoy the calm beauty of the area. To say 2020 has been unsettling is like saying a rattlesnake bite is a little annoying — and the year isn’t over yet.
Continuing along the Forest Trail toward Century Lake, I counted four healthy-appearing redwoods and two struggling trees. Redwoods sometimes grow in a group of two or mote trees, and these were counted as a single “tree.” Near the end of the trail is a naturally-germinated redwood that has grown to about 5.5 inches in diameter. Remarkably, this young tree survived the 2011-2015 drought and the 2018 Woolsey Fire, and appears healthy!
I had just finished photographing the young tree when a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk flew from a nearby oak and through the trees along the trail. It landed on the limb of an oak ahead of me but was in deep shade. In a much-enlarged image, the bird looks like a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but distinguishing the two species can be challenging.
A few yards down the trail, a much larger raptor — a Red-tailed hawk — was perched at the top of the tallest redwood. The huge bird had its wings pulled back to expose more of its body to the warming sun. It looked like a giant penguin sitting atop a tree. As I approached, it began to preen its feathers, comfortable with its lofty position.
With a sigh, I left the Forest Trail behind and returned to Malibu Creek. This time I crossed the creek on a plank near the washed-out bridge. This was a more direct route than the fallen tree upstream but only worked because the creek was low. At the crossing, a passing runner asked if he was on the Bulldog Loop. I assured him he was and was a little envious that he was getting to experience that excellent run for the first time.
In a few minutes, I’d reached Mulholland Highway and then followed the Grasslands Trail to the Liberty Canyon Trail. From Liberty Canyon, the Phantom Trail gains about 750′ in elevation over about 1.5 miles to a high point and ridgeline with excellent views of Saddleback Peak, Las Virgenes Canyon, Brents Mountain, Goat Buttes, Castro Peak, Ladyface, and Boney Mountain.
The air quality this morning hadn’t been too bad. From up on the ridge, I could see there was far less smoke to the west of Las Virgenes Canyon than to the east. Yesterday, I’d done a run in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains and had to cut the run short because of smoke. That wasn’t a problem today, and the run had been a good one.
For many that enjoy the outdoors, there is an insatiable desire to go where we have not been, learn what we do not know, and discover what we have not experienced.
Each time I’ve done the out and back trail run from Mt. Pinos to Mt. Abel, I’ve been curious about the Mesa Spring Trail. The trail leaves the Tumamait Trail at Puerto del Suelo, a saddle about 0.6 mile east of Mt. Abel Road, and descends to a campsite at a spring on the margin of San Emigdio Mesa. The mesa is the large alluvial fan shown on this Google Terrain Map overview.
The Mesa Spring Trail is part of an old trail shown on the USGS 1903 Mt. Pinos topo map. The old trail was part of a route that connected the Cuyama River to the historic El Camino Viejo a Los Ángeles. It followed Dry Canyon, went over Puerto del Suelo, and to the valley that is now the Pine Mountain Club. Like so many trails, it must have evolved from a hunting and trade route.
The Mesa Spring Trail is usually accessed from the West Tumamait Trailhead on Mt. Abel Road. But it occurred to me that starting at the East Tumamait Trailhead on Mt. Pinos might be an enjoyable way to do a longer out and back run. The Mesa Spring Trail looked like it might be similar to the North Fork Trail — a little less used and a bit more remote.
I left the Chula Vista parking area a little before 7:00 a.m. and started chugging up the road to the East Tumamait Trailhead at the Mt. Pinos Condor Observation Site. I planned to skip the usual side trips to Sawmill and Grouse. The spring was at a much lower elevation, and I wanted to get there before the temperature sizzled.
Once on the Vincent Tumamait Trail, it took a little over an hour to reach the top of the Mesa Spring Trail. The junction is marked with a new sign and tree branches on the ground. It is about 5.7 miles from the Mt. Pinos parking area.
The first couple of miles down from the junction, the trail more or less follows the drainage. About 10 minutes from the junction, a large pine tree had fallen and completely blocked the trail. I worked around the right (west) side of the tree, where some orange fence posts had been placed. A few minutes beyond the collapsed tree, the trail wandered around the right side of a pretty meadow and then back to the “V” of the dry stream.
For the next mile or so, the trail followed a typical down-canyon route. On the way down, there were some spots where I stopped, turned around, and made a mental note of what the trail did. It wasn’t so much a matter of getting lost, as it was not wasting time at an ambiguous spot on the way back.
About 2.3 miles down from the saddle, the trail climbed out of the canyon, taking a counterintuitive turn to the right. After reaching a ridgeline, the trail turned back left and continued downhill. But its wanderings were not over. The trail was working across the gullies at the top of the San Emigdio Mesa. It went up, down, and around, but eventually did go to Mesa Spring. There were “ducks” marking the route, but it really helped to have looked at a map and have a general idea of where the trail would go.
Mesa Spring is a pretty green spot in a group of pinyon pines. As I neared the spring, I saw some coyote-like ears bobbing through the sagebrush, and not long after that, a deer bounded through the trees. At the spring, a squirrel leaped from the edge of the water-filled cistern to a nearby tree and various birds flittered in the pines. I heard a trickle of water near the cistern’s base but planned to get water at Sheep Camp, later in the run.
With its bounty of pinyon pine nuts, acorns, juniper berries, game, and more, San Emigdio Mesa provided vital resources for the local Chumash.
Although the Mesa Spring Trail continues down the mesa, the spring was my turnaround point. I had waited for a day when the weather was better for this run. A weak low-pressure trough moving through to the north had stirred up a little wind and taken the edge off the recent heatwave. It had been cool on the crest, but at 6000′ it was already hot in the sun. It was time to get moving, and in a few minutes, I was retracing my steps and headed back to Mt. Pinos.
You know what they say about making assumptions. Did the Three Points loop around Mt. Waterman today (July 25), and assumed that water would be available at Buckhorn Campground. In a normal summer that would be a reasonable assumption, but this has been anything but a normal summer.
Running down through the campground, I thought it was strange that many of the spaces were empty. Following the signs that said, “Day Use Parking,” and then “Burkhart Trail,” I stopped at a spigot across from some restrooms.
Later, I talked to a ranger and learned that the campground had just reopened on Friday! He said routine tests on the water system had to be completed before the water could be deemed potable.
So I had a choice to make. I was doing the loop counterclockwise, which put Buckhorn at about mile 9 of a 20-mile loop. The second half of the loop — on the PCT — can bake on a hot day, with the climb out of Cooper Canyon being especially blistering.
So far, the run had gone well. The Mt. Waterman Trail between Three Points and the turn off to Twin Peaks had been in excellent shape. No trees had blocked the trail, and the wildflowers and ferns at Waterman Meadow had been extraordinary. Like last year, a rejuvenated spring about 0.5 mile west of the Twin Peaks junction had water. (Not aware of the situation at Buckhorn, I didn’t top off my water.)
As usual, the run down the Mt. Waterman Trail to Highway 2 was excellent. A lot of people were enjoying the hike to the peak, but no more than is typical for that trail in the summertime.
Which brings me back to Buckhorn and my water problem. I could have shortcut the loop by skipping Cooper Canyon and running directly to Cloudburst Summit on Highway 2. That would have shortened the loop by 5 miles. But the day wasn’t super-hot, and there were several places where water could be used for cooling — even if I couldn’t drink it.
Reconfirming how much water I had left, I squeezed the Camelbak(TM) in my pack, and then started running down the Burkhart Trail into Cooper Canyon.
By maintaining a comfortable pace, and using seeps for cooling, my water lasted until I was within sight of the Three Points parking lot. This probably wouldn’t have been the case on a hot day.
After so many years of doing the Angeles National Forest Trail Race, I’m not sure I even had a choice. At about 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 11, 2020, I found myself running down Mt. Wilson Road.
It was odd not to be surrounded by runners. Gary Hilliard had not done his one-of-a-kind pre-race briefing. There had been no hugs or handshakes at the start of the run. No runners commented on the temperature or talked about past or future races. Thanks to COVID-19, the 2020 ANFTR race had been canceled.
But the mountains and trails were still there, and by running the 25K course, I could get a good idea of what the 2020 race might have been like.
I was not racing the course. The forecast was — of course — for a hot day. And in these covid times, I was running solo. I was out to enjoy “being there” — seeing what I could see, learning what I could learn.
The single-track trail leads up to the Mt. Disappointment service road. The high point of the 60K, 50K and 25K courses — about 5780′ — is along this short stretch of road. For the 25K course it’s (almost) all downhill from here to West Fork. A winding, and usually dusty, single-track trail turns off the service road and leads down through scrub oaks to Mt. Wilson Road, just above Red Box.
The time of day when you do the 5+ mile segment from Red Box to West Fork makes a huge difference. On hot race days, such as in 2012, 2017 and 2018, the road bakes and in-the-sun temps can reach well over 100 degrees. (This isn’t the only part of the 50K/60K course that can be hot!)
Because I was running the 25K course, I was on Red Box road relatively early. It was probably in the 90s in the direct sun, but there were still some cool stretches of shade. In years with average or above-average rainfall, there are usually a few little stream crossings where capfuls of water can be dumped on your head. They were flowing today. Usually at West Fork there is a hose/shower setup to use for cooling.
There was a collapsed sycamore on the trail near the spring, but it didn’t look like it was going to be much of a problem. On the run down to West Fork, I’d noticed an increasing number of trees on the road. About a mile from West Fork, a large oak had fallen down a road-cut, blocking the road and bringing with it a pile of debris.
Leaving West Fork on the Gabrielino Trail, I worked around the fallen sycamore and then continued up the trail. Within yards there was another fallen tree, then another, and another. The number of trees down on the trail was remarkable. Part of the reason is that the Forest Service isn’t currently allowing volunteer groups to do trail maintenance. I’m sure ANFTR R.D. / AC100 Trail Boss Gary Hilliard is going crazy not being able to work on the trails.
But I think there’s more to it than trail maintenance. There are far more trees down on the trail than I’ve seen in other years. The area is covered in scrub oaks and bay trees that were killed by the Station Fire. I suspect the same storms that broke and toppled trees in the San Gabriels high country over the Winter, toppled dead trees here as well.
It became a mantra — over, under, around or through? Over, under, around or through? Tree after tree. It was warming up, and the extra work of battling the trees added to the effort. On the Gabrielino segment of the route, trail users had trimmed some small limbs from a few of the trees, and that helped.
I thought that once I got out of the scrub oaks and into the forest proper, there wouldn’t be so many trees on the trail. That was mostly true, but there were still several tree challenges higher on the Kenyon Devore Trail. One large log was perched across the trail at the top of a steep gully. I didn’t want to slip and started to use the log for hand-holds. Bad idea! Who knew how little force would be required to dislodge the tree.
Eventually, I reached a point on the trail where I could just hike and didn’t have to climb over, under, around or through anything. What a relief!
It’s difficult to estimate just how many trees were down on the trail. Fifty? Sixty? I have no idea. There were many small trees I didn’t even think about, and there were multiple trees down in some spots. However many there are, if another Winter passes before the trails can be maintained, it will require a massive effort to get them cleared.
Based on the temperatures recorded at the Clear Creek RAWS, this would have been the #3 or #4 hottest of the ANF Trail Races. Compared to the other hot races, temps were a few degrees cooler early, but reached similar temperatures by mid-afternoon. The Clear Creek RAWS recorded hourly temperatures as high as 96°F and hourly fuel temps as high as 121°F.
The out and back to Mt. Baden-Powell from Islip Saddle has become a springtime running ritual for me. Sometime in April, May or June, I like to get back to the high country, and see what there is to see — including whether there’s any snow left on Baden-Powell or Mt. Baldy.
Sentinel satellite imagery showed a lot of snow along the crest at the end of April, but hot weather and dry winds in May accelerated the melt. By early June most of it was gone. It didn’t seem likely I would see any today.
I hadn’t seen any snow along the trail this morning. I’d run past Little Jimmy Camp, Windy Gap, Peak 8426, and was now at an elevation of about 8700′, near Mt. Hawkins. Above me, I could hear the excited voices of a couple of hikers near its summit. Thinking they might be part of a group, I looked up the trail toward the crest.
Something was missing… Where was it? Usually prominent on the skyline at this point, the “Mt. Hawkins Lightning Tree” was gone. I walked up the trail to look for the familiar landmark. The trunk of the lightning-scarred Jeffrey pine had been snapped like a twig. The crown of the tree lay 50 yards down the steep slope, jammed against two trees.
It must have been a hard Winter. Several other live trees along the crest between Mt. Hawkins and Mt. Baden-Powell were either blown down or broken in half. In some cases, the damaging winds appeared to be from the south side of the crest and in others from the north. December 2019 was stormy in Southern California, particularly around Christmas. Weather data suggests this might have been when most of the damage was done.
Today, only two large trees blocked the trail. One, on the west side of Mt. Burnham, was easy to go under or around, but the other, west of Throop Peak, was a bit more of a challenge. Given the brush on either side, climbing over the tree worked for me. Some others had detoured well above or below the tree.
Surprise, surprise! It turned out there were a couple of small patches of snow on the north side of the crest near Baden-Powell. These were the remnants of an area of wind-deposited snow on the lee (north) side of the crest between Mt. Baden-Powell and Mt. Burnham. Large drifts can collect here, and in a heavy snow year, can persist into July. The deposition area can be seen in the Sentinel satellite image.
With its long views, sub-alpine elevation, and weather-worn limber and lodgepole pines, Baden-Powell is a rewarding summit. Just a few miles to the southeast, Mt. Baldy looms above a mile-deep canyon. If the visibility is good, San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain can be seen beyond Mt. Baldy, many miles in the distance.