The Overlook Fire Road in Pt. Mugu State Park was nearly empty. I’d seen only two hikers between the top of the Fireline Trail and the top of the Wood Canyon Vista Trail. Maybe it was the wind. There had been 20-25 mph wind gusts much of the morning. Along the ridgelines, the gusts were even stronger.
According to the NPS website, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the world’s largest urban national park. Wildlife in the Park is affected by issues resulting from the proximity of urban and wild areas. Among the problems are poisoning from anticoagulant rodenticides, limited genetic diversity, and vehicular deaths. Only by studying Park wildlife can we better understand and manage these and other issues.
Because water is usually available at several spots in Sycamore Canyon, it’s a great place to do a self-supported ultra-length trail run.
So far, today’s run had taken me from Wendy Drive in Newbury Park to Serrano Valley via the Old Boney Trail. I’d circled past the old ranch in Serrano Valley and then descended the Serrano Canyon Trail to Sycamore Canyon. A short jog south in Sycamore Canyon put me at the bottom of the Fireline Trail, which I’d followed up to the Overlook fire road.
Next up was a scenic loop in La Jolla Valley. After that, I would work my way back to the Upper Sycamore Trail via Sycamore Canyon. From there, it would only be a few miles back to the Wendy Drive Trailhead.
The Santa Mountain Mountains Trails Council has been hard at work. Even though they can’t currently accept volunteer assistance, it looked like the Old Boney, Serrano Canyon, and Upper Sycamore Trails had been recently maintained.
I turned the corner, and about 60 yards away, a large, gray hawk was sitting on a fencepost. It looked like it might be a male northern harrier. I stopped and took a couple of photos. If it flew away, at least I might be able to confirm the ID.
In my experience, northern harriers are shy birds, and in most of my previous encounters, the birds have been on the wing. Moving closer, I walked a few steps, took a photo, walked a few more steps, then took another shot. Astonishingly, I was only about 20 yards from the bird, and it did not fly.
That’s when I heard the fast-paced footfalls of another runner approaching from behind. I held my breath and continued to photograph the harrier. Whether spooked by my presence or the approaching runner, the bird had had enough, and he finally took flight.
Northern harriers, and harriers in general, are unusual birds. They have evolved to subsist in open areas such as grasslands and marshes. Their physical features reflect the requirements of efficiently hunting in these habitats.
Northern harriers are adapted to use vision and sound to hunt their prey. Like owls, they have a facial ruff and asymmetric ears that are used to amplify and locate sounds made by prey. They also are reported to have feather adaptations for flying more quietly.
They are powerful, acrobatic birds. Their wings and tail are extraordinarily large for their body size. In aerodynamic terms, they use variable geometry to maximize lift or glide as needed. In slow flight, they can turn on a dime, leaving virtual skid marks in the sky. During strong Santa Ana winds, I’ve seen them dynamically soaring (like an albatross) on slightly-sloped Lasky Mesa.
One time I photographed a pair of northern harriers hunting on Lasky Mesa after sunset. It was a surreal experience to watch them in the diminishing light. They appeared to be working cooperatively, and their hunt was successful.
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.
The Chumash-Las Llajas Loop is a scenic 9.3 mile trail run in the eastern Simi Valley. Run counterclockwise, it combines a strenuous climb on a single-track trail and fire road with a fast-paced 4-mile downhill on a dirt road. The cumulative elevation gain/loss on the loop is about 1600′.
I like to do the loop starting at the Las Llajas Canyon trailhead on Evening Sky Drive. A short jog up Evening Sky Dr., then across a field, and you’re on your way up the Chumash Trail. From this point, it’s an approximately 1000′ climb over 2.7 miles of rocky trail to Rocky Peak fire road.
After turning left (north) on Rocky Peak fire road, a short downhill is followed by three-quarters of a mile of climbing to “Fossil Point.” A short detour off the main fire road leads to a cairn marking the high point. From here there is a panoramic view of Oat Mountain, San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains, Simi Valley, Boney Mountain, Channel Islands, and Ventura Mountains.
Exposures of fossil shells are found near the high point. According to the area’s Dibblee geology map, these may have been deposited in shallow marine lagoons a couple million years ago.
From the high point, the loop continues north on Rocky Peak Road. At first, it descends steeply, then climbs to a hilltop with a few valley oaks. Partway up the hill, a roadcut reveals the long roots of the chamise plants on the hillside.
Some of the wildlife, and not-so-wild animals, I’ve encountered on the loop include rattlesnakes and other snakes, deer, longhorn cattle, roadrunners, and a kangaroo rat. Although others have seen mountain lions in the area, I’ve only photographed their tracks.
The loop ends with a short, steep climb up a paved road. At the top of the hill, turn left to return to the trailhead.
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.