Category Archives: wildfire

An ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 2020 Adventure

Mt. Markham, from Mt. Lowe fire road, near Eaton Saddle
Mt. Markham

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.

into the canyon of the West Fork San Gabriel River from Mt. Wilson Road
View into the canyon of the West Fork San Gabriel River from Mt. Wilson Road.

Mt. Wilson road is exceptionally scenic, and on the way down to Eaton Saddle, I stopped several times to take photos. The canyon of the West Fork San Gabriel River is spectacular. It’s a long way down to the bottom, and I always marvel at its depth. The 2600′ climb out of that canyon is the crux of all the ANFTR courses, and as I would later discover, would be especially challenging today.

Rugged San Gabriel Peak marked the turn onto Mt. Lowe fire road at Eaton Saddle. From here, the course follows the fire road through Mueller Tunnel and up to the saddle between Mt. Markham and San Gabriel Peak. The first significant climb of the course begins here. Much of the 650′ climb up the single-track trail is in the shade. If it’s already warm here…

Looking back at San Gabriel Peak from near the top of the Lower San Gabriel Peak/Bill Reilly Trail.
Looking back at San Gabriel Peak from near the top of the Lower San Gabriel Peak/Bill Reilly Trail.

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.

In the actual event, runners doing the 50K and 60K turn left onto the Gabrielino Trail at Red Box and do a 15+ mile circuit around Strawberry Peak. Runners doing the 25K turn right and continue down Rincon – Red Box Road to West Fork.

Spanish broom along Rincon - Red Box Road near Valley Forge Campground.
Spanish broom along Rincon – Red Box Road near Valley Forge Campground.

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.

Gabrielino Trail at West Fork
Gabrielino Trail at West Fork

There was no shower setup at West Fork this morning, but the water flowing from the spring was clear and cold. I filled my Camelbak to the brim and then gulped some more. I felt good and thought I might try to push the pace a bit going up to Wilson.

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.

Mass of trees down on the Gabrielino Trail. July 11, 2020.
Mass of trees down on the Gabrielino Trail.

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.

Trees down on the Kenyon Devore Trail. July 11, 2020.
Trees down on the Kenyon Devore Trail.

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.

The highest temperature recorded at Clear Creek on the day of the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races for 2005-2020. The 2020 race was canceled.
The highest temperature recorded at Clear Creek on the day of the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races for 2005-2020. The 2020 race was canceled.

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 average hourly temperatures as high as 96°F and average hourly fuel temps as high as 121°F.

See the ANFTR web site, Facebook page and Facebook group for more info. All the results for the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment races since 2005 can be found on Ultrasignup.com.

Some related posts: ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 2019, Another Scorching Angeles National Forest/Mt. Disappointment Trail Race, Record Heat for the 2017 Mt. Disappointment 50K & 25K

Too Many Flowers on the Chamberlain Trail

Flower stalks of bleeding heart on the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail
Flower stalks of bleeding heart on the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail

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.

Plummer's mariposa lily along the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail
Plummer’s mariposa lily

Sticky snapdragon is another fire follower that has become especially prevalent this Spring. It is truly sticky, with rose-purple-colored flowers along a long stalk.

Other wildflowers seen along the way included Humboldt lily, yellow mariposa lily, Plummer’s mariposa lily, slender tarweed, and scarlet larkspur.

Some related posts: Fire Followers Along the Backbone Trail (May 2019); Wildflowers, a Waterfall, and Recovering from the Woolsey Fire (March 2019); Boney Mountain and Pt. Mugu State Park (December 2018)

Trees, Bees, and a Washed-Out Footbridge on the Bulldog Loop in Malibu Creek State Park

Looking along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from near the top of the Bulldog fire road.
View east of the Santa Monica Mountains from near the top of the Bulldog fire road.

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.

The route I was running starts at the Cistern Trail trailhead on Mulholland and descends to Crags Road using the Lookout and Cage Creek Trails. After a side trip on the Forest Trail to see the coast redwoods, it continues counterclockwise around the regular Bulldog Loop. Here’s an interactive, 3D view of the approximately 17-mile variation of the Bulldog Loop.

Crossing Malibu Creek

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.

Washed-out footbridge on Malibu Creek
Washed-out footbridge on Malibu Creek

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.

New growth on a young redwood in Malibu Creek State Park
New growth on a young redwood burned 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.

Coast Live Oak Recovery

Live oaks are amazingly resilient. Oaks, more or less as we know them, have been around for millions of years. According to Cal Poly’s PolyLand web site, 25 myr-old fossils of coast live oak have been found in the Pacific Northwest. This suggests an exceptionally adaptable species.

Epicormic sprouting of a coast live oak burned in the Woolsey Fire
Recovering coast live oak

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!

Digger Bees

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.

Digger bees in Malibu Creek State Park
Digger bees along Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road

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
Splendid mariposa lily in Malibu Creek State Park
Splendid mariposa lily

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.

Here are a few other flowers seen along the way:

Filaments of spider silk on Indian pink (Silene laciniata)
Indian pink

Indian Pink (Silene laciniata)

Wild morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia)

Canyon Sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides)

Bleeding heart (Ehrendorferia ochroleuca)

Large-flowered phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora)

Some related posts: After the Woolsey Fire: Bulldog Loop, After the Woolsey Fire: Malibu Creek State Park March 2019, Malibu Creek Flooding, Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods: Fighting the Drought

Condor Peak Out and Back Adventure Run

East Ridge of Condor Peak
East Ridge of Condor Peak

“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.”

— Trails Magazine, VOL 1 NO. 4, Trail Trips, Autumn 1934

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.

Here’s a 3D Cesium interactive view that shows a GPS track of my route up and down the Condor Peak Trail to Condor Peak. The view can be zoomed, tilted, rotated, and panned. Placemark and track locations are approximate and subject to errors.

And here are a few photos taken along the way.

Some related posts: Condor Peak Trail Run, Back to the Stone Canyon Trail

Back to the Stone Canyon Trail

Top of the Stone Canyon Trail on Mt. Lukens
Top of the Stone Canyon Trail and the summit of Mt. Lukens.

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.

Chaparral whitethorn along the Stone Canyon Trail
Chaparral whitethorn

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.

Stone Canyon from the Stone Canyon Trail
Stone Canyon

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.

Remnants of scrub oak burned in the 2009 Station Fire
Remnants of scrub oak burned in the 2009 Station Fire

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.

Prickly phlox along the Stone Canyon Trail
Prickly phlox

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.

Here’s a 3D Cesium interactive view that shows a GPS track of the route up and down the Stone Canyon Trail on Mt. Lukens. The view can be zoomed, tilted, rotated, and panned. Placemark and track locations are approximate and subject to errors.

Related post: Mt. Lukens, Then and Now

Ladyface After the Woolsey Fire

Northeast ridge of Ladyface mountain

In January, on my way to do a run on the Backbone Trail, I stopped for a moment along Kanan Road to see if the ridges on the east side of Ladyface peak were still accessible. I didn’t see any obvious access issues and made a mental note to get back and do the peak soon.

“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.

Bush sunflower along the northeast ridge of Ladyface
Bush sunflower along the northeast ridge of Ladyface

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.

East/Southeast Ridge of Ladyface mountain
Click for a larger image and more info.
East/Southeast ridge of Ladyface mountain.
Click for a larger image and more info.

The loop packs a lot of adventure into its 2.5 miles!

Some related posts: Ladyface Loop, Ladyface the Long Way