Category Archives: wildlife

Chumash-Las Llajas Loop

Rocky Peak Fire Road between the Chumash Trail and Fossil Point
Rocky Peak Fire Road between the Chumash Trail and Fossil Point

Update of a post from December 30, 2006.

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′.

View of Oat Mountain from near the top of the Chumash Trail.
Nearing the top of the Chumash Trail

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.

Road connecting Rocky Peak Road to Las Llajas Canyon.
Road connecting Rocky Peak Road to Las Llajas Canyon.

Following a short downhill, the road continues past a fallen valley oak that was killed by the 2011-2015 drought. There is a fork in the road here. The road connecting to Las Llajas Canyon goes up a short hill to an overlook of the canyon. From the top of the hill, there are more than 4 miles of downhill through the winding canyon. There used to be oil field equipment on the connector between Rocky Peak Rd. and Las Llajas Canyon, but it has been removed.

If the creek in the canyon is flowing, there are several places where the (usually) small stream crosses the road. In the Spring and early Summer, many species of wildflowers can be found in the canyon.

Cattle on the Las Llajas Loop
Cattle on the Las Llajas Loop

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.

Here’s a 3D, interactive view of a GPS trace of my usual route. (It is also possible to start the loop at the Chumash Trail trailhead at the end of Flanagan Dr.)

The title photo is a section of Rocky Peak fire road between the top of the Chumash Trail and Fossil Point. It is from a run on October 6, 2020.

Some related posts: Chumash Trail Rocks & Snow, Exploring Las Llajas, Marr Ranch WildflowersThings Found on the Chumash Trail

Redwoods, Raptors, and the Phantom Loop

Coast redwood near Century Lake in Malibu Creek State Park
A coast redwood stands above the other trees near Century Lake.

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.

Coast redwood near the Forest Trail and Crags Road junction in Malibu Creek State Park
Coast redwood near the Forest Trail and Crags Road junction

After crossing the creek, I stopped to photograph the redwood near the junction of the Forest Trail and Crags Road. The sun had just risen, and behind the tree, orange-tinted sunlight illuminated the rocky ridge above the M*A*S*H site.

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.

Red-tailed hawk atop a coast redwood in Malibu Creek State Park.
Red-tailed hawk atop a coast redwood.

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.

Morning view of Goat Buttes in Malibu Creek State Park
Morning view of Goat Butte and stream course of Malibu Creek

As usual, Crags Road and the High Road were busy thoroughfares. The easy running under the sprawling coast live oaks was pleasant, and the morning view of Malibu Creek and Goat Buttes outstanding.

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.

Some related posts: Coast Redwoods Along the Forest Trail, Urban Highlands, Saddle Peak from the Phantom Trail

Mt. Pinos Adventure Run to Mesa Spring

Mesa Spring Trail near the top of San Emigdio Mesa
Mesa Spring Trail near the top of San Emigdio Mesa.

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.

Google Terrain map showing San Emigdio Mesa and my route from Mt. Pinos
Google Terrain map showing San Emigdio Mesa and my route from Mt. Pinos

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.

Plant communities change dramatically with elevation.
Plant communities change dramatically with elevation. This Jeffrey pine forest is at about 7000′.

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 on the northern margin of San Emigdio Mesa.
Mesa Spring is on the northern margin of San Emigdio Mesa.

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.

With a stop at Sheep Camp, the run & hike worked out to about 20 miles, with an elevation gain of around 4700′. Here are a few photos taken along the way, and an interactive 3D view of the trail run.

Some related posts: Mt. Pinos to Mt. Abel Out & Back – Plus Sawmill Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Sheep Camp, Up, Down and Around on Mt. Pinos’ Tumamait and North Fork Trails

Red-tailed Hawk Encounter

The piercing gaze of a red-tailed hawk near the entrance to Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve
The piercing gaze of a red-tailed hawk.

Sometimes the behavior of wildlife is difficult to explain.

I’d just finished my run at Ahmanson (Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve) and was walking back to my car. I was about halfway between the dirt parking lot and entrance gate when suddenly, a large hawk swooped directly in front of me.

Incredibly, I was looking down on the bird! Banked to the left, it was below waist-level and turned around me like I was a pylon at an air race. It was so close I felt I could have reached out and touched its wing.

Time slowed as the bird flew past. I was awed by its size and studied the pattern of highlight-tinged brown feathers across its wings and back.

It landed on a wall to my left, about 15 feet away. I slowly removed my camera from my pack and, holding my breath, took a few photos.

It looks like it might be the same red-tailed hawk that carried a gopher snake to the top of a light pole here in April 2019.

Update November 16, 2020. I’ve been encountering an unusual number of red-tailed hawks this Fall, or maybe encountering the same hawk several times. See Another Red-tailed Hawk Encounter for additional photos.

Update August 14, 2020. I’ve replayed this encounter a number of times, and think I have a plausible explanation. As events unfolded there was a bit of commotion behind me, and after the hawk landed, some cawing off to my right. I suspect the hawk was being chased by a crow, and I was a convenient shield that could be used to break up the chase.

Some related posts: The First Snakes of Spring, Kestrel Encounter, A Raven Story

Kestrel Encounter

American kestrel on Lasky Mesa in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch)
American kestrel on Lasky Mesa

My weekday runs at Ahmanson Ranch will frequently include a dirt road on the east side of Lasky Mesa that is part of the Mary Wiesbrock Loop. There is a fence line along the road, and almost without fail, I’ll see a bird or two on the fence.

The most common fence-sitting birds on this stretch of road have been the Say’s phoebe, western kingbird, mourning dove, and lark sparrow. Occasionally, I’ve also seen a kestrel or northern harrier taking in the view.

While phoebes and kingbirds sometimes play bird games, hop-scotching from fence post to fence post, raptors are exceptionally wary and fly away at the slightest provocation.

Today, I was running down the road and spotted a dove-sized bird sitting on a fence post. As I approached, I could see that it was a kestrel and expected it to make a quick exit.

Slowing to a walk, I stopped directly across the road from the small falcon. It was about 20′ away, and didn’t take flight.

The only camera I had was my iPhone, so it had to do. I slowly took the phone out of my pack and tapped a camera app. The bird cooperated, and I took a few photos. But I wasn’t close enough.

Had the kestrel flown? I selected the 2X view. Still there. I took a couple more photos.

Finally, the falcon became impatient, and in a characteristic motion, jumped into flight.

This year I’ve seen kestrels on Lasky Mesa frequently, and suspect the mesa is about the right size for a mated pair’s territory.

Update August 5, 2020. The kestrels have been very wary lately, flying away just when I get within camera range. Here’s a photo of the male kestrel from this afternoon’s run.

Update July 30, 2020. I’ve seen at least one of the Kestrels just about every time I run on Lasky Mesa, but have been unable to approach anywhere near as close as described above. Here’s a photo of one of them perched on a fence post on the south side of Lasky Mesa. It was taken with the equivalent of a 230 mm telephoto lens. Based on its coloration in flight, it appeared to be a female.

Some related posts: American Kestrel Pair, Under a Falcon’s Eye, Bird Games, Red-tailed Hawk Encounter

American Kestrel Pair in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

American Kestrel Pair in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Tuesday is usually a “short run day” for me. On Tuesdays, I usually run a mile or so west on East Las Virgenes Canyon fire road, and then fork left onto another dirt road that descends a short distance, and then climbs steeply up to Lasky Mesa. Once on Lasky Mesa, I check what’s blooming, crawling or flying in the area.

Today, as I was leaving Lasky Mesa, I scanned a grove of valley oaks for a pair of northern harriers I’ve been seeing on the mesa. I didn’t see the harriers, but another pair of much smaller raptors caught my eye.

The male and female American kestrels were perched at the top of a valley oak tree, about 25 yards away. At that distance, they were difficult to positively ID, and nearly beyond the reach of my compact camera.

Usually a kestrel will fly from a perch as soon as it spots me, but this time the pair cooperated. I stopped running, grabbed the camera from my pack, and took a couple of photos. The female kestrel is perched above the male.

Related post: Under a Falcon’s Eye