Category Archives: nature|wildfire

Trippet Ranch Loop After the Palisades Fire

Laurel sumac crown sprouting along Eagle Springs Fire Road
Laurel sumac crown sprouting along Eagle Springs Fire Road

The Palisades Fire began the evening of May 14, 2021 in Santa Ynez Canyon, near Michael Lane in Pacific Palisades. According to the Los Angeles Fire Department Palisades Fire incident page, 1202 acres were burned, one firefighter was injured, 710 structures were threatened, but no structures were damaged or destroyed. The fire was fully contained on May 26.

Most of Topanga State Park was closed as a result of the fire. The Park reopened, with restrictions, on June 11. On June 13, I found myself chugging up the Garapito Trail toward Eagle Rock, and wondering what I was going to find.

I was doing a variation of one of my favorite trail runs in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains — the Trippet Ranch Loop.

This trail run links together several single-track trails and fire roads between Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park (Top of Reseda) and Trippet Ranch. With the addition of an out and back segment on the the Santa Ynez Canyon Trail, the route included all the trails impacted by the fire.

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Some related posts: Palisades Fire Perimeter and Some Area Trails, Garapito Trail Runs, Trippet Ranch Loop Plus Temescal Peak

Windy Windy Gap and Sunny South Mt. Hawkins

As shown on fire maps, Windy Gap was not burned in the 2020 Bobcat Fire.
Windy Gap

There was hardly any wind on the drive out to Azusa, and I wondered if the offshore wind event forecast to peak this morning was going to happen. But after winding up Highway 39 to the Windy Gap Trailhead, all doubts vanished. The wind was blowing in powerful gusts that shook the car and my enthusiasm.

Morning light on Islip Ridge from low on the Windy Gap Trail in Crystal Lake basin
Morning light on Islip Ridge

Not only was it windy, it was cold. I briefly debated going down to warmer climes — temps were forecast to be in the 80s and 90s in the valleys — but decided to at least run up to Windy Gap and see what it was like there.

As is often the case, once I got moving, it wasn’t too bad on the Windy Gap Trail. It was very windy in some spots and nearly calm in others – just what you would expect on the lee size of a mountain ridge. One thing was consistent — there was almost no sunlight on the trail.

A ribbon of sunlight illuminates conifers along the Windy Gap Trail
Ribbon of sunlight on trees along the Windy Gap Trail.

I’d been curious to see how the run/hike to Windy Gap (7588′) from the Windy Gap Trailhead (5836′) in the Crystal Lake Recreation Area compared to starting at the Islip Saddle Trailhead (6650′) on Hwy 2. It turns out the distance using either approach is the same — a little over 2.5 miles. But, the Windy Gap Trailhead is lower, so starting there adds a little over 800′ of gain. Today, that extra gain was helping to keep me warm.

As I worked up the last long switchback I could see and hear the trees on the crest being buffeted by the wind. Reaching Windy Gap I’d was relieved to see that it looked the same as it always has. As shown on fire maps, Windy Gap was not burned in the Bobcat Fire.

Working up toward Windy Gap (7588') on the Windy Gap Trail
Mt. Islip (left) from the Windy Gap Trail

That relief was short-lived as I was just about knocked down by a gust of wind. I’ve passed by Windy Gap many times, and the wind this morning was the strongest I’ve experienced there.

Later I found that several gusts over 50 mph were recorded at Chilao that morning. Because of terrain effects, I would not be surprised if the gusts at Windy Gap were 60 mph or more. The gusts were “stop you in your tracks, blow you over” strong. And it was cold. The temperature sensor on my pack read 34°F.

Twin Peaks and Mt. Wilson from the South Mt. Hawkins Trail
Twin Peaks and Mt. Wilson from the South Mt. Hawkins Trail

Out of curiosity, I ran a short distance along the PCT to see if conditions improved. That was a bad idea. I turned around and got the heck off the crest.

Running back down the Windy Gap Trail, I wasn’t ready to call it a day. It occurred to me that I could run down to the South Mt. Hawkins Trail — the old South Hawkins Lookout service road — and then run up to South Mt. Hawkins. Maybe the old road would be more wind-protected than the Windy Gap Trail.

Path through Jeffrey pine cones along the South Mt. Hawkins Trail/Road
Jeffrey pine cones along the South Mt. Hawkins Trail

And maybe not! Looking at the topography, I could not figure out why the wind on some sections of the South Mt. Hawkins road was so strong. Some gusts were as strong as at Windy Gap. The noise from the wind in the trees was deafening, and amplified my concern about falling trees and flying debris. I did not want to have a “Weather Channel” moment.

Although the wind was strong, the sun was now higher, and some sections of the road were warmed by the sun. This made a big difference. As I wound into and out of the side canyons, the temperature varied from the high 30s to the low 50s. In two places there were small, dirty patches of icy snow.

The old lookout service road follows a circuitous path to South Mt. Hawkins
South Mt. Hawkins

The South Mt. Hawkins Lookout was destroyed in the 2002 Curve Fire. Many, many thousands of trees were killed in that fire and the process of (natural) reforestation can be seen on the slopes above the road.

Ironically, the wind and temperature were relatively moderate on the summit of South Mt. Hawkins! After taking a few photos, I descended the “Ridge Trail” to the South Mt. Hawkins trail/road, and made my way back to the Windy Gap Trail and the trailhead.

Some related posts: Did Lightning Start the 2002 Curve Fire?, Crest of the Angeles

Three Points – Mt. Hillyer Loop

Trail runner on the Mt. Hillyer Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains
Mt. Hillyer Trail

Snow — if there has been snow — disappears quickly from the middle elevations of the San Gabriels this time of year. Activity increases with the rising snowline, as visitors eye their favorite trails and peaks.

I was driving up Hwy 2 to Three Points to do a run with Skye. In a normal year we would be doing the Three Points – Mt. Waterman Loop, but for the second time in 11 years, the trails in the Mt. Waterman area had been closed by a wildfire. In 2009, the Station Fire burned 160,557 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains, and just last year, the Bobcat Fire burned 115,796 acres. In several places, including Mt. Waterman, the Bobcat Fire burned terrain that had been burned in the Station Fire.

Coulter pine cone, heavy with resin
Coulter pine cone, heavy with resin

With entry prohibited in most of the Bobcat Fire burn area, the Three Points Loop around Mt. Waterman was out for now. Instead, we decided to do a segment of the traditional AC100 course from Three Points to Chilao, and then return to Three Points using the Silver Moccasin Trail.

Here’s an overview of both the Three Points – Mt. Hillyer Loop (yellow) and the Three Points – Mt. Waterman Loop (red). An overlay of the Bobcat Fire BAER Soil Burn Severity has ben added to the Google Earth image. The burn severity classes are high (red), moderate (yellow), low (light green), unburned/very low (dark green), and no data (black). Trail and placemark locations are approximate.

Trail runner on the PCT near Sulphur Springs Road
PCT near Sulphur Springs Road

On today’s run we followed the Pacific Crest Trail northbound from Three Points toward Sulphur Springs Trail Camp. Just before the camp, the PCT splits. We followed the left fork (uphill), and then around to the South Fork Little Rock Creek drainage and Sulphur Springs Road. The PCT parallels the road for about a half-mile, then crosses the road. At this point we left the PCT behind and continued up the road (5N04) to Alder Saddle and forest road 3N17. We continued left (south) on 3N17, bearing left on Santa Clara Divide Road at a fork, and going uphill to Rosenita Saddle.

At Rosenita Saddle we turned right (southwest) onto the Mt. Hillyer Trail. The trail starts at the back of a small parking area. The trail climbs to the high point of Mt. Hillyer, and then descends through large granite boulders in the Horse Flats bouldering area. (If you are a rock climber, bring your shoes!) The Mt. Hillyer Trail intersects the Silver Moccasin Trail near the Horse Flats Campground.

To add a little mileage and elevation gain, we turned right (south) on the Silver Moccasin Trail and continued to Chilao Campground. After saying hi to Chilao, we turned around and followed the Silver Moccasin Trail north, back to Three Points.

The trail run was a little over 13 miles, with a cumulative elevation gain of about 2100′. The high point was about 6200′, on Mt. Hillyer. The route-finding on the loop can be a bit tricky the first time around.

Two Sides of Strawberry Peak – Spring 2021 Update

Josephine Peak and Mt. Lukens from the northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak
Josephine Peak and Mt. Lukens from the northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak

The photo above — of Josephine Peak — is the reciprocal view of this photo of Strawberry Peak. The photo of Strawberry from Josephine shows the dogleg approach along the ridge that connects Josephine Saddle to the northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

Strawberry has always been popular, but because of the Pandemic and fire closures, there has been an increase in the number of people doing the peak. Not having done the peak for a couple of years, I was curious to see if the condition of the use trail on Strawberry’s northwest ridge had changed.

Google Earth image of Strawberry Peak from Josephine Peak, with GPS track of route from Josephine Saddle to summit
Google Earth image of Strawberry Peak from Josephine Peak, with GPS track

Given my early start, I was surprised to find the small parking area for the Colby Canyon Trail nearly full. I don’t know where all those people went, because I passed only one small group on the way to Josephine Saddle, and I didn’t see anyone between Josephine Saddle and the summit. There was a group on the summit, but they had hiked the trail from Red Box.

The last time I did the loop over Strawberry was April 2019. At that time sections of the use trail along the ridge leading to the upper northwest ridge of Strawberry were badly overgrown. This time around, increased usage has generally improved the path along the approach ridge. Plus, there has been some work done on the section of trail that was the most overgrown. However, to benefit, you have to stay on the trail. It wanders all over the place, and if you get impatient, you’ll be fighting your way through thick, thorny brush.

Upper northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.
Upper northwest ridge of Strawberry Peak.

There was a little patchy snow on the steep, deeply shaded, north face of the peak. The snow was generally left of the normal rock climbing route up the northwest ridge. The patch or two on the route were easily avoided. Early or late season, this more technical section can be like a deep freezer. Today, it was cool, but comfortable. As mentioned in other posts, the steep, upper part of Strawberry’s northwest ridge requires good route-finding and some rock climbing skill. It is important to stay on route.

The steep section of the ridge ends a little below the top of Strawberry. I paused there for a moment to enjoy the view… Was that music I heard coming from the summit?

It was. The group that was on the summit was kind of encamped there. It looked like they might be a while, so I just said hi, and started down the east side of the peak.

I expected a lot of people to be on the trail up Strawberry from Red Box. It was busy, but seemed about normal for a Sunday in Spring with idyllic weather. There were fewer large groups coming up from Red Box than in April 2019.

Upper West Fork near Red Box following the Bobcat Fire
Upper West Fork near Red Box from the Strawberry Trail. Mt. Wilson is in the distance.

At Red Box I stopped to take a look at how the 2020 Bobcat Fire had impacted the upper part of the West Fork drainage. There was a substantial fire scar on the left side of the canyon, but the right side of the canyon looked better than I expected. An upcoming post will include an interactive 3D visualization of the Soil Burn Severity in the Bobcat Fire area, along with the GPS tracks of some popular trails.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t encounter any mountain bikers on the Gabrielino Trail between Red Box and Switzer’s. There were plenty of tire tracks, so I must have been between groups. I did encounter two misplaced hikers. They stopped me and asked how much farther it was to the falls. Unfortunately, they had gone the wrong direction on the trail from Switzer’s, and were several miles from Switzer Falls.

At Switzer’s, I chugged up the access road to Hwy 2, and then ran on the verge next to road back to the Colby Trailhead. Somehow, more cars were packed into the small parking area.

Starting and ending at the Colby Trailhead, the loop is a little over 12 miles with about 3200′ of elevation gain/loss. Starting at Clear Creek adds about a mile to the loop. Some prefer to do it as keyhole loop, returning to Josephine Saddle from Lawlor Saddle using the Strawberry and Colby Trails. I haven’t done it that way, but the mileage looks to be only slightly less than the full loop through Red Box.

Some related posts: Strawberry Peak

Skyline to the Sea – Fall 2018

Towering redwoods along the Skyline to the Sea Trail, Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Towering redwoods along the Skyline to the Sea Trail, Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Update July 20, 2020. Here’s a Google Earth image of a CZU August Lightning Complex Fire perimeter from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The date and time of the perimeter is indicated. My GPS track from the PCTR Skyline to the Sea Marathon in Castle Rock and Big Basin Redwoods State Parks is also shown. The locations of all placemarks and trails are approximate. For official information see the CAL FIRE CZU August Lightning Complex and InciWeb CZU August Lightning Complex incident pages.

There’s a reason that Skyline to the Sea is Pacific Coast Trail Run’s biggest event. Close your eyes and picture your ideal trail. The trail of your dreams might be hard-pressed to match the appeal of the Skyline to Sea Trail.

There is something magical about running in an old-growth redwood forest. Established in 1902, Big Basin Redwoods State Park was the first state park in California. It’s redwoods reach 2000 years in age, 328 feet in height and 18.5 feet in width!

The Skyline to the Sea Trail has a net elevation loss, but enough uphill to get your attention. Many miles of the trail are as smooth as a carpet, but some are rocky, root-strewn and technical. It is often cool under the dense forest canopy, but it can also be warm and humid. I was surprised to see an “Emergency Water” stash a mile before the last aid station. In some years it is well-used and much appreciated.

The Park supports a vast variety of animal and plant life. Some plant species can only be found in the Park and a seabird (Marbled Murrelet) nests in its old-growth conifers.

In some years one park species can add extra adrenaline to the race. This year Brett (my son) and I were counting down the miles to mile 4.0 of the Marathon. The R.D. had reported encounters with the beasts at that point of the 50K on Saturday. About 20 yards before mile 4.0 Brett saw what looked like a “cloud of dust” and shortly after that we heard agitated voices from the runners ahead.

In it for the full experience, we — and several other runners — plowed headlong into the cloud. The yellowjackets didn’t like that. A number of us were stung; some several times. The day before a runner in the 50K was stung 18 times.

Yellowjackets or not, running the Skyline to the Sea Marathon was like running a 26 mile nature trail and one of the finest courses I’ve done.

Many thanks to R.D. Greg Lanctot and Team PCTR and all the volunteers that helped with the event. For all the results and more info see the Ultrasignup event page, PCTR’s web site and Facebook page.

Here are a few photos taken along the way. Mileages specified are from my fenix 3 and are approximate.

Fallen Oak

A large valley oak along Rocky Peak fire road that toppled following five years of drought.

The valley oak pictured above — one of the larger oaks along Rocky Peak fire road — toppled over in the summer of 2016 following five years of drought.

Fire and drought are a natural part of the valley oak’s habitat and the trees have evolved to withstand ordinary variations in their environment. However, severe fires or extended droughts, or fire in combination with drought can overcome the tree’s defenses.

The drought may have been the culminating factor in the felling of this oak, but fire and other factors may have also played a role.

Base of large valley oak along Rocky Peak fire road that toppled following five years of drought.
Base of large valley oak that toppled following five years of drought. Click for larger image.

According to the Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), the heart-rot fungus Armillaria mellea is usually present in valley oaks and larger oaks tend to be hollow or rotten in the center. The toppled oak was hollow near its base and its interior appears to have been blackened by fire. The FEIS describes instances where the decaying wood in the interior of older valley oaks could ignite in a fire, but leave the exterior bark uncharred.

What fire might have burned the tree? There are two possibilities: the 2008 Sesnon Fire and the 2003 Simi Fire. It probably wasn’t the Sesnon Fire — this photo of the tree, taken about a month after the Sesnon fire, shows little impact. I couldn’t find a photo of the tree following the Simi Fire, but photos taken nearby show a severely burned landscape.

Ultimately, it appears fire and drought weakened the tree, accelerating its heart rot and weakening its roots to the point it could no longer support itself.

Photos of the fallen tree are from this morning’s foggy run along Rocky Peak fire road.

Related post: Chumash Trail – Sesnon & Simi Fires