After climbing the western ridge route on Boney Mountain and scrambling over Tri Peaks, I was trying to run down the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail. Usually one of my favorite downhills, the trail was so glutted with the flower stalks of bleeding heart, it made running difficult. Here’s a video snapshot of one short section of trail.
During this second Spring following the Woolsey Fire, bleeding heart has become a predominant fire follower in the Boney Mountain Wilderness. Its rampant growth is reminiscent of the explosion of Poodle-dog bush in the San Gabriel Mountains the second Spring following the 2009 Station Fire.
With the reopening of trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, my list of “must do” trails is impossibly long. Today, I headed over to Malibu Creek State Park to do a variation of the popular Bulldog Loop, and catch-up on what was happening in the Park as it recovers from the Woolsey Fire.
As I ran along Crags Road toward the M*A*S*H site, I wondered how much water would be in Malibu Creek, and if the fallen tree used to cross the creek would still be there.
Since February 2019, hikers, runners, and riders doing the Bulldog Loop or headed to the M*A*S*H site have had to either get their feet wet or use a fallen tree to cross Malibu Creek. The concrete slab bridge is still there, but the stream now flows around the bridge, rendering it useless.
The bridge survived a canyon-wide flood in mid-February 2017. But two years later, and just 11 weeks after the Woolsey Fire, sediment-laden runoff from burned hillsides clogged the drainage pipes embedded in the bridge’s concrete slab. With nowhere to go, the stream simply circumvented the structure.
Nearly to the bridge, I turned right off of Crags Road and followed the well-trodden path along the creek for about 70 yards. The downed tree had not washed away. Not wanting to take an early morning bath, I carefully worked across the logs and limbs and then rejoined the Crags Road Trail, near a coast redwood.
Checking on the Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods
Whenever I do the Bulldog Loop, I usually stop by the Forest Trail and see how the 100+ year-old coast redwoods are doing. Several of the 16 or so redwoods were killed by the 2011-2015 drought, and virtually all the trees were scorched in the Woolsey fire.
I’d last checked on the redwoods at Christmas and had been encouraged by the condition of the remaining trees. In Los Angeles, three of the past four rain years have recorded average or above-average rainfall. This seems to have really helped the surviving redwoods.
There are five or six trees that are doing well. They’ve added a lot of new foliage and look healthy. I was excited to see that a young, naturally-germinated redwood was thriving. It was burned in the Woolsey Fire and lost most of its foliage.
Leaving the redwoods behind, I continued toward the M*A*S*H site and then up the Bulldog climb.
As I worked up the Bulldog fire road, I marveled at the number of live oaks sprouting new foliage on their burned trunks and limbs. On Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road, there is a grove of live oaks that used to provide welcome relief from the blazing-hot summer sun. On the crest of a ridge, the trees must have been fully-engulfed in fire when burned during Woolsey Fire. None the less, the trees are recovering. Compare this December 2018 photo of one of the larger live oaks, to what it looks like today. Incredible!
Cruising along Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road, I took an auditory double-take. What the heck was all the buzzing around me? That’s when I realized the loud, resonate buzz was from thousands and thousands of bees. I’d just run into a huge aggregation of digger bees.
I’ve encountered them before. Even though the males (reportedly) don’t have a stinger and the females (reportedly) aren’t usually aggressive, it was a little unnerving walking through so many active bees. Here’s a video snapshot of the bees.
Digger bees are not social in the same way as honeybees. Female digger bees build their individual brood cells in a communal area to efficiently reproduce. According to behavioral ecologist John Alcock, the males emerge slightly before the females and then fly low over the area, searching for females that are about to emerge. Using their antennae, the males can find the females in a burrow, before they emerge, gaining a competitive edge. For more info, see the article Desert Diggers, in Arizona State University School of Life Sciences’ Ask A Biologist web site.
Splendid Mariposa and Other Wildflowers
At first I ran past it. I was descending the Tapia Spur Trail and nearly to the gravel parking lot in Malibu Creek State Park when a flash of purple caught my eye. My thought was that it was a solitary farewell-to-spring (Clarkia). But something didn’t seem right, and it would be unusual to see just one farewell-to-spring. So I went back to take a look, and it turned out to be a splendid mariposa lily (Calochortus splendens). Although it is common in areas south of Los Angeles, it is the first I have photographed in the Santa Monica Mountains. This one was not quite so splendid as it might have been since a beetle had been feasting on its petals.
“Condor Peak-Elevation 5430 ft. – 1 Day By Vogel Canyon Trail. Drive Big Tujunga Canyon road to Vogel Flat Ranger Station and park auto. Hike trail starting opposite station for short distance up Vogel Canyon, then around mountain slope west of Big Tujunga Dam to summit of Condor Peak. Return by same route. Carry water and cold lunch. No fires permitted. Total hiking distance, 12 miles.”
The relocation of Big Tujunga Canyon Road in the 1950s shifted the starting point, and some other details have been updated, but the route from Vogel Flat to Condor Peak is pretty much the same as it was in 1934.
It’s telling that hikers of that era would have estimated the round-trip distance to Condor Peak at 12 miles. This was probably a “feels like” estimate of distance, based on time. The mileage in the description is far less than the presently accepted distance of 15.5-16.0 miles. Back then, the trail would have been relatively new and in better condition than it is now. Even so, they must have been fit and fast!
The “Vogel Flat” trailhead for the Condor Peak Trail is now a little to the east and above its original location, and is not obvious. If traveling up-canyon on Big Tujunga Canyon Road, it is just past Vogel Flat Road, directly across the highway from the second turnout on the right.
Note: Even in the best of circumstances, hiking, running, or riding a mountain trail involves risks. The nature of the terrain this trail navigates is such that the risk from falling while running, hiking or riding, crossing washouts, and from heat-related illness is high. There are some sketchy sections with large drop-offs. In particular, below Fox Mountain there was a very exposed washout at the top of a steep sandy chute that required extra care to cross.
As was the case last week on the Stone Canyon Trail, it looked like some sections of the Condor Peak Trail had been trimmed in the last year or two. And like the Stone Canyon Trail, the trailwork ended partway to the peak. In this case, it ended about two-thirds of the way to Condor Peak, as the trail turns northwest and contours around Fox Mountain. The bushwhacking wasn’t nearly as bad as on the Stone Canyon Trail, and things improved once up on Fox Divide.
Prior to this outing, I’d only attempted to do the peak in December and January. There is almost no shade, and the trail traverses several south and south-east facing canyons that act like solar ovens. The last time I did Condor Peak, in December 2007, the overnight low at Clear Creek had been 34 degrees and the high 52. That day was chilly in the shade, but about right in the sun. Today, the overnight low at Clear Creek was 63 degrees and the high 75. It was warm, but with an early morning start, was OK.
It was a relief to finally reach Fox Divide. In 2007 we climbed Fox Mountain from this point. Today I was running alone and thought the ascent of Fox, as short as it is, might result in me running short of water. I didn’t do Fox, and as things worked out, I finished the last of my water about a half-mile from the end of the run. (There is a spring, but the flow was just a trickle.)
I had not reread my notes from 2007 and had conveniently forgotten the nature of the final 1.5 miles between Fox Mountain and Condor Peak. I won’t spoil the adventure here.
There was a fairly well-defined path up the steep, east ridge of Condor Peak. As in 2007, the red register container was on the western summit. The eastern summit, marked by a robust yucca, is about the same height. Viewed from the summit of Condor Peak (5440+’), Mt. Lukens (5074′) was clearly lower in elevation.
Like last Sunday on the Stone Canyon Trail, I did not see anyone on the way up or down the Condor Peak Trail. Ironically, just a couple miles away, there were over a hundred cars parked along Big Tujunga Canyon Road at the Gold Canyon/Trail Canyon access.
At the deepest part of the creek, the cold water reached mid-thigh. I’d futzed around looking for a way to rock hop across Big Tujunga Creek, but didn’t find one.
With squishy shoes, I followed the trail eastward along the creek. A little past Stone Canyon wash, the trail turned toward Mt. Lukens and started to climb.
The Stone Canyon Trail is one of the trails on my list of trails less-traveled. Today, the trail choice had been between the Stone Canyon Trail and Condor Peak Trail. Recalling the difficulty of the Condor Peak Trail, I thought it would be better to do Mt. Lukens first, and save Condor Peak for later.
As I worked up the trail, I marveled at its condition. It was in surprisingly good shape! It had been groomed relatively recently, and I mentally thanked the person or group that had taken care of the trail. With a clear trail and cool morning temperature, it felt good to push the pace up the steep trail.
The last time I’d done this route was in November 2016. That outing followed five years of drought. With growth suppressed, the upper half of the trail was only moderately overgrown, and I did not see any poison oak. Ever the optimist, I thought today’s conditions might be even better.
Not this time. I don’t know if Winter rains or the pandemic had intervened, but about halfway up the peak, the trailwork abruptly ended. The upper half of the trail was badly overgrown, and at inconvenient times Spring-green poison oak lined the trail. In a few places, fallen scrub oak trees — burned in the Station Fire — were mixed in with the brush. Where the 2016 ascent had been after a drought, today’s followed a wet period in which three out of the past four years have had normal or above-normal rainfall.
With care, patience, and a bit of bushwhacking, I eventually reached the top of the Stone Canyon Trail and the old dirt road on the west side of the peak. A few minutes later I stood alone on the summit of Mt. Lukens. I had not seen anyone on the ascent and would not encounter anyone on the way down.
“Soon” turned out to be earlier this February. While the route and the climbing were about the same as the last time I did the Ladyface Loop, the mountain itself had changed dramatically.
Nearly all of the chaparral on the peak was incinerated by the Woolsey Fire. Compare the title photo above to this photo taken before the fire. Before the Woolsey Fire, the last time Ladyface was burned in a wildfire was in the October 1982 Dayton Canyon Fire — a span of 37 years.
Like other areas burned in the Woolsey Fire, Ladyface is recovering. It will just take time. December’s rains have turned the mountain green, laurel sumac and other chaparral plants are crown-sprouting, and the season’s first wildflowers are blooming along the sun-warmed ridges.
For those with appropriate skills and experience, Ladyface is a relatively straightforward and enjoyable climb. But some of the things that make it interesting are the very things that can make it sketchy.
Some climbing with the hands is necessary — and that includes going down the mountain as well as going up. The route-finding isn’t always obvious, and the rock isn’t always sound. The volcanic rock is sharp, and some sections of the trail on the east/southeast ridge are very slippery — especially if wearing smooth-soled shoes.
Below are a couple of photos of the east/southeast ridge.
The loop packs a lot of adventure into its 2.5 miles!
Several segments of the Backbone Trail are spectacular and have superb scenery, but one of my favorites is the stretch between the Encinal Canyon and Mishe Mokwa Trailheads. Accentuated by dramatic rock faces and outcrops, expansive mountain views are at every turn.
Done as an out and back run, the 21-mile route has a modest 2500′ of elevation gain. This translates to a relatively moderate and runnable course with more than 18 miles of single-track.
I had not run this stretch since the Woolsey Fire ravaged the Simi Hills and western Santa Monica Mountains, a little more than a year ago. While I was discouraged to see the burned limbs of what had been 8′-12′ tall red shanks, it was heartening to see that the area was recovering, and was no longer a barren and blackened “moonscape.”