Unlike most of the rainy season, March rainfall has generally been above average in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Last Saturday I’d enjoyed a run in Pt. Mugu State Park following a few days of wet weather, and today my outing would be in the wake of the strongest storm to affect the area since January.
The storm had been a warm one, with high snow levels, and I was surprised to find the morning temperature at Red Box in the mid-30s. The surface low and trough associated with the storm were still along the West Coast and the circulation was creating a strong southwesterly flow. This was pushing mostly benign mid-level clouds into the valleys and mountains. More picturesque than threatening, the clouds imparted a high mountain flavor to the surroundings.
Last year I’d done San Gabriel Peak first, so today I started with Strawberry. It’s the more difficult of the two peaks. The route to its summit is about a mile longer; it has a bit more elevation gain; and it includes a stretch on rough, steep, unmaintained trail. Of course, that’s part of its appeal.
The clouds were ever changing. While Strawberry Peak escaped most of the clouds, San Gabriel Peak was often obscured.
Once again Southern California is facing another very dry rain year. Since July 1, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) has recorded only 1.97 inches of rain. This is more than 8.5 inches below normal.
At this point it appears likely the rainfall recorded at Los Angeles from July 1 – February 28 will be the second driest for that period on record. If we don’t see some significant rain in March, we could be contending with 2006-2007 for the driest rain year on record.
Several weather models have been advertising a change to a wetter weather pattern for the West Coast and Southern California. At one point the ECMWF was forecasting several inches of rain in the Los Angeles area around March 1-2. This morning’s ECMWF run was far more stingy with the wet stuff, and precipitation completely disappeared from the GFS forecast for that period.
Never fear, these forecasts will likely change again. Model skill more than a few days out is very poor. Next week we should have a better idea if the pattern change is real, or just more model hype.
Update March 1, 2018. With only 1.99 inch of rain from July 1 to February 28, Downtown Los Angeles (USC) did end February with the second driest rain year to date. Depending on whether 1911-1912 is included in the ranking, the water year to-date, beginning October 1, is either the second or third most dry on record. Now all eyes turn to the storm that is forecast to move into the Los Angeles area this evening. This morning the CNRFC 72 hr. QPF for the Los Angeles area ranges from around 0.75 – 1.0 inch in the basin and valleys to around 1.5 – 1.75 inches in the mountains. Higher totals are forecast in the Ventura and Santa Barbara areas. Check with the NWS Forecast Office Los Angeles for the latest weather forecasts, advisories and warnings.
I looked at the mileage on my Garmin watch — 11.93 miles. I was at Kanan Dume Road and debating whether to make Kanan my turnaround point. My run had started at Malibu Canyon Rd. & Piuma Rd., where I’d picked up the Sean O’Brien Trail Runs course at around mile 2. After crossing Malibu Creek, the 100K, 50M, 50K and Marathon courses all follow the Backbone Trail westbound from Malibu Canyon.
The ground had been spotted with raindrops as I started the nearly 3 mile, 1500′ climb out of Malibu canyon. Subtropical moisture was streaming in from the southwest and there was a broad swath of clouds over Southern California. There were scattered showers, but most of the rain was evaporating before it reached the ground. The last time it had rained was more than a month ago, and the smell of rain was intoxicating.
Two weeks ago I’d done this climb as part of a “reverse” Bulldog loop. It hadn’t become any less steep. Most of the climb is on a fire road and some of it is runnable — just how runnable depends on your VO2max, determination and inclination. It was a relief to reach the top and start running downhill, even if another climb loomed just ahead.
From Corral Canyon the Backbone Trail drops into Upper Solstice Canyon. Today, the 16 crossings of the small creek in the canyon were all dry. Someone had provided log seats under a sprawling oak at “heart” meadow. I had to stop for a moment just to enjoy its tranquility. On a run here in January several years ago, the area was covered in ladybugs.
The high point of the 50K course follows the climb out of Upper Solstice Canyon and is near the saddle at Newton Mtwy. Back in the day the Bulldog 50K used to climb up and over the shoulder of Castro Peak from the top of Bulldog; then descend to this saddle and continue to Corral Canyon on the Upper Solstice Canyon Trail. This 2004 Los Angeles times article describes why the road is now gated and private.
The day was a little warmer than expected and the shaded sections of trail in Newton Canyon were refreshingly cool. The dried out stalks of last year’s hummingbird sage were common along the trail and given the lack of rain, I was very surprised to find a plant that was blooming.
The Sean O’Brien Marathon turns around at Kanan Dume Road, which is what I should have done. That would have resulted in a pleasant 24 mile training run with a bit over 5000′ of gain. Instead I decided to continue west on the Backbone Trail and “just run down to the bridge” to see if there was any water in Zuma Creek. There wasn’t. The bridge also would have been a perfectly good turnaround point that would have netted a 26 mile run.
But it was one of those rare, long run kind of days where the mind and legs are in sync and the miles almost didn’t matter. I reasoned that the Sean O’Brien 50K turnaround was “only” another mile and a half away, so why not continue. That way I’d have an even better idea of what to expect on race day.
I did continue, and with the exception of running low on water, everything went well. At Latigo Canyon several runners had just returned to their cars and I was able to fill up my Camelbak(R). Thanks Lou! And thanks to the other runners at the trailhead for their offers of gels, beer and salt!
I’ve run that section of the Backbone Trail several times, but never as an out and back. I now understand why the times for the Sean O’ Brien 50K are a little longer than the typical 50K. For one thing the course is about 1.5 mile longer than a 50K. For another, it has a TON of elevation gain. Using the elevation profile from my fenix 3 and a 1/3 arc-sec DEM from the USGS, the hand-calculated elevation gain worked out to be around 6000′. Tack on another 500′ of gain to account for the Tapia Spur Trail and the total gain for the Sean O’Brien 50K works out to a stout 6500′, give or take.
The sunlit hills are on the west side of the New Millennium Loop in Calabasas. The rocky peak in the background is Saddle Peak. The 68 mile Backbone Trail, which traverses the length of the Santa Monica Mountains, passes near the summit of Saddle Peak.