There’s a reason that Skyline to the Sea is Pacific Coast Trail Run’s biggest event. Close your eyes and picture your ideal trail. The trail of your dreams might be hard-pressed to match the appeal of the Skyline to Sea Trail.
There is something magical about running in an old-growth redwood forest. Established in 1902, Big Basin Redwoods State Park was the first state park in California. It’s redwoods reach 2000 years in age, 328 feet in height and 18.5 feet in width!
The Skyline to the Sea Trail has a net elevation loss, but enough uphill to get your attention. Many miles of the trail are as smooth as a carpet, but some are rocky, root-strewn and technical. It is often cool under the dense forest canopy, but it can also be warm and humid. I was surprised to see an “Emergency Water” stash a mile before the last aid station. In some years it is well-used and much appreciated.
The Park supports a vast variety of animal and plant life. Some plant species can only be found in the Park and a seabird (Marbled Murrelet) nests in its old-growth conifers.
In some years one park species can add extra adrenaline to the race. This year Brett (my son) and I were counting down the miles to mile 4.0 of the Marathon. The R.D. had reported encounters with the beasts at that point of the 50K on Saturday. About 20 yards before mile 4.0 Brett saw what looked like a “cloud of dust” and shortly after that we heard agitated voices from the runners ahead.
In it for the full experience, we — and several other runners — plowed headlong into the cloud. The yellowjackets didn’t like that. A number of us were stung; some several times. The day before a runner in the 50K was stung 18 times.
Yellowjackets or not, running the Skyline to the Sea Marathon was like running a 26 mile nature trail and one of the finest courses I’ve done.
It’s been nine years since the Station Fire burned 160,577 acres in Angeles National Forest. The Red Box – Bear Canyon – Gabrielino loop is a long time favorite adventure run that I’ve enjoyed doing many years before and after that 2009 fire.
The loop was the first I did when the area reopened in May 2011. The trails were in poor shape — overgrown and damaged from flash floods. The notorious fire-follower Poodle-dog bush had flourished in the wake of the fire and was particularly bad along the Gabrielino Trail between Switzer’s and Red Box. Thinking I was “immune” to the plant, I brazenly plowed through it, and as a result spent several inflamed nights trying to sleep in a reclining chair.
Each year Bear Canyon and upper Arroyo Seco recover a little more. Poodle-dog bush is in decline and in many areas nearing the end of its life-cycle. The chaparral, bay trees and oaks are all recovering; and the bigcone Douglas-firs that survived the fire have become more fully-foliaged.
This year Bear Canyon was a little drier than last. The creek was a trickle, disappearing in the sand in some areas and creating small pools in others. The path in the upper part of the canyon, above Bear Canyon Camp, was better defined, but still tricky to follow in some spots.
With the dry conditions, most of the poison oak had already turned red. It was easy to spot, but difficult to avoid. The “stinging nettle” creek crossing higher in the canyon wasn’t as overgrown as last year, but I still managed to brush against a plant or two.
Bear Canyon ends at Arroyo Seco, downstream of Switzer Falls. After turning upstream on the Bear Canyon Trail, I hadn’t run far when I encountered a couple of mountain bikers. They asked me, “is this the trail to JPL?”
This wasn’t the first time that I’d encountered misplaced riders or hikers on this section of trail. Some get misplaced looking for the falls and others mistakenly follow the Bear Canyon Trail down into Arroyo Seco instead of continuing high in the canyon on the Gabrielino Trail. Because of the completion of the restoration of the Gabrielino Trail there were a few more riders on the trail than usual.
There seems to have been some carryover from the wet rainy season we had in 2016-17 to this year. The 2017-18 rain season was very dry — the third driest on record at Downtown Los Angeles — but seeps at Waterman Meadow, along the Burkhart Trail below Buckhorn were still wet. In general plant growth along trails has been more than I expected in such a dry year.
Wet and dry periods can be seen in the growth rings of the large Jeffrey pine along the Three Points – Mt. Waterman Trail just west of the Twin Peaks Trail junction. A more careful count of its rings totaled about 500. No matter how careful the count, because of the various anomalies that occur with tree rings, some form of crossdating is usually required to confidently assess the age of a tree. Even so, it is clear this was an old tree.
The first few miles of the loop were gloriously cool, but by the time I reached Cooper Canyon and was working up to Cloudburst Summit on the PCT, the sun beat down on me in a familiar refrain.
Given the choice of doing an out and a back run, or a loop, most of the time I’ll pick the loop. Loops encompass more terrain, incorporate more trails, offer more varied scenery, are more adventurous, and normally put you back where you started.
There are many excellent loops in the San Gabriel Mountains. Last week’s loop from Three Points around Mt. Waterman is a run I like to do a few times a year. Today’s run is another favorite — the Islip Saddle – South Fork – Mt. Baden-Powell loop.
This loop combines a demanding descent to the desert on the South Fork Trail with an arduous 5000′ ascent of Mt. Baden-Powell. From Baden-Powell the PCT is followed along the crest back to Islip Saddle. More info can be found in the related posts linked below.
The weather was surprisingly cool for a Memorial Day weekend in the San Gabriel Mountains. At Three Points (5925′) the temperature was a brisk 43°F when I started my run, and it remained in the 40s as I worked up the Three Points – Mt. Waterman Trail toward Twin Peaks and Mt. Waterman. The trail from Three Points is a long-time favorite and part of an adventurous — and scenic — 20 mile loop around Waterman Mountain.
In 2009 the Station Fire ran up the ribs and gullies of the south face of Mt. Waterman, ravaging some slopes, but leaving others untouched. Many trees were killed, including some old growth incense cedars and Jeffrey pines. On a run in March 2017 I counted more than 40 dead trees down on the trail. At that time a few trees had already been cleared from the trail and in the following months many more would be.
One particularly hard hit area is about a half-mile west of the Twin Peaks Trail junction. Last Summer dead trees blocked the trail in this area and in places were stacked one on top of another. The title photo is of the same area after the trail was cleared.
On this run the Three Points – Mt. Waterman Trail was almost entirely clear of trees and in the best condition I’ve seen since the Station Fire. Many thanks to Alan and the SoCal Hikers & Trail Builders for restoring this trail!