Category Archives: running|adventures

Bizarro Bulldog Loop

Bizarro Bulldog Loop

The rock and brush-choked gully was going to have to do. There was no “use trail” or other path that I could find. Just to be sure I wasn’t missing another route, I followed the overgrown dirt road past the power transmission tower to where it dead-ended at a wall of chaparral.

Returning to the gully, I looked up. A large boulder and some other debris were wedged against a tree, blocking its entrance. Knowing well the pitfalls, I carefully clambered over the aggregation and started up the congested channel.

Curiosity is an irresistible force for most that love the outdoors. It propels us to explore near and far, experiencing what we have not experienced before. It knows no geographic bounds, and can be equally strong a mile, or a hemisphere, from home.

In a sense this adventure began years ago, when I first noticed the power line service roads paralleling the Bulldog Mtwy fire road. Since then I’ve done the Bulldog loop many times. Each time I’ve looked over at those roads and wondered why they didn’t connect — and how difficult it would be to link the two.

That question might finally be answered today. The plan was to do a variation of the Bulldog Loop, finishing the climb to the crest using the power line service roads, rather than Bulldog Mtwy.

When I’d parked at the the Cistern trailhead on Mulholland the temperature had been a chilly 28 degF. A mile and a half into the run, down in the canyon along Malibu Creek, the Tempe sensor attached to my pack read 24 degF!

It was cold enough that the wind chill from running 4-5 mph was significant. I could feel the cold through my gloves and arm sleeves and my hands were getting cold. I flexed my hands as I ran, and from time to time would briefly walk to reduce the chill. Relief was only a couple of miles away — at the start of the Bulldog climb I would break into the sun.

Ah sun, glorious sun! There is nothing quite like the warmth of the morning sun following a cold dawn. It warms the body and imbibes the soul. It is something to relish and celebrate.

I’d reached that sun about 30 minutes ago. Now I was immersed in cool shade and working my way up the steep drainage through thick chaparral. The puzzle was not an easy one, and I’d almost turned around several times. To not make a foolish decision, it is necessary to be willing to turn around.

At one point the route up the gully appeared to be blocked. Looking for an alternative, I worked up a steep slope on the left, concentrating on the route-finding. It wasn’t going to go either. When I stopped to re-evaluate the route, I realized I was surrounded by a tangled thicket of just-sprouted poison oak.

Resigned that it was just going to be too ugly to continue, I returned to the gully, intending to follow it down. But then I muttered to myself, “I wonder…” and took a couple steps up the gully, and then a couple more. A route through the impasse revealed itself. Many times that’s all it takes — a step or two — to see a solution not seen before. I could continue.

Eventually the terrain forced me to the right of the gully, up along a sandstone rib, and toward a little outcrop. The rock quality was very poor. Fist-sized pieces of cobble embedded in the sandstone could be pulled out by hand and sound-appearing holds were easily broken.

With some careful route-finding I was soon on top of the sunlit rock. An island in a tumultuous ocean of chaparral, it gave me the first good view of my surroundings since I’d started up the gully. From the outcrop I could see why the roads didn’t connect. Partially hidden from view, a 50′ tall headwall completely blocked the drainage.

There was no way I was going to try and climb the headwall directly. Trying to force a line here would be a very bad idea. But there was a weakness on its right side that — if it wasn’t too steep and loose — might go.

And it did! Once on top of the headwall, only a bit of bush-whacking was necessary to get to the first tower on the upper service road. Freed from the tangle of chaparral, it didn’t take long to get up to Castro Peak Mtwy, and back onto the Bulldog loop.

I won’t be doing THAT route again, but did enjoy solving the puzzle — even if it was a bit bizarre. Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Red Rock Canyon from the Red Rock Trail

Red Rock Canyon from the Red Rock Trail

Nope, I wasn’t running near Las Vegas or north of Mojave, this Red Rock Canyon is in Old Topanga Canyon, southeast of Calabasas Peak.

Although there’s a trailhead off of Old Topanga Canyon Road, I usually access Red Rock Canyon from the top, using Calabasas Peak Mtwy and Red Rock Road.

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

Breakaway

Summit of Mugu Peak in Pt. Mugu State Park. Boney Mountain in the distance.

My legs hadn’t fully recovered from a bit-too-long training run a couple of weeks ago and I’d been looking to do a 4 to 5 hour trail run that didn’t involve a huge amount of elevation gain. In the areas of Southern California where I run, it’s tough to find a 20 mile trail run that isn’t hilly. With “only” about 3000′ of gain, I’d opted to do an out and back to Mugu Peak from from the Wendy Drive trailhead in Newbury Park.

La Jolla Valley Loop Trail and La Jolla Canyon, Pt. Mugu State Park.
La Jolla Valley Loop Trail and La Jolla Canyon. Click for larger image.

Mugu Peak is a very popular summit. With the La Jolla Canyon Trail still closed, most of the hikers doing the peak are now using the Chumash Trail as an alternate. Runners have more options and can reach the peak from the Ray Miller, Sycamore Canyon, and Wendy Drive trailheads.

At the moment I was about a mile north the Danielson Multi Use Area, running on a paved section of road in Big Sycamore Canyon. The Sin Nombre and Hidden Pond trails can be used to avoid this stretch of pavement, but at this point in a long run I usually just want to get to the Upper Sycamore Trail as quickly and easily as possible.

Pt. Mugu from Mugu Peak with Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands in the distance.
Pt. Mugu from Mugu Peak. Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands are in the distance. Click for larger image.

Running a couple of miles on pavement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Especially in Sycamore Canyon. The road is lined with sycamores and oaks and there is plenty of shade. The uniformity of the road is both good and bad. It’s good because the running is more automatic and bad for the same reason. It can be tedious — especially on tired legs at the tail end of a long run.

The traffic along the road is usually not an issue. Today, I had passed a couple of groups of hikers and been passed by a few mountain bikers. Most of the time the road was empty.

California bay along the Upper Sycamore Trail in Pt. Mugu State Park
California bay along the Upper Sycamore Trail. Click for larger image.

I first heard the sound some distance behind me. Hissing isn’t quite the right word. It was a synchronized blend of aerodynamic, mechanical and road noises and it was getting closer. At first I thought it might be a ranger’s truck, but it didn’t sound like a vehicle. I glanced behind me to see a mass of approaching cyclists, and wondered how many bikes there would be.

I heard a shout of “Right!” as the lead cyclist alerted the group, and in an instant the peloton began to sweep past. I felt a little like the breakaway racer that is inevitably consumed by the unrelenting pack. For a few moments I could feel the push of the peloton and then they were gone.

The lead group was followed by a second group, nearly as large, and then an assortment of riders that had been left behind. After they were past, I settled back into the run and soon saw the yellow “narrow bridge” sign near the start of the Upper Sycamore Trail. Turning onto the rocky, narrow trail, I switched back into trail mode. A little less than three miles to go…

Related posts: Busy Mugu Peak, Wendy Drive – Mugu Peak Challenge

Sean O’Brien 50K Training Run

Rock outcrops of the Sespe Formation along the Mesa Peak Mtwy segment of the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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.

Mesa Peak Mtwy segment of the Backbone Trail.
A short downhill on Mesa Peak Mtwy before the next climb.. Click for larger image.

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.

Rock gateway on the Backbone Trail east of Corral Canyon Rd.
Rock gateway on the Backbone Trail. Click for larger image.

Once to the top of this next climb, it is about a mile and a half to Corral Canyon. There are a couple of short ups and downs along the way and the rock formations become increasingly dramatic. Just east of Corral Canyon the Backbone Trail winds through a wonderland of rocks and pinnacles, climbing a steep sandstone ramp and passing through a rock gateway.

A tranquil spot along the Backbone Trail in Upper Solstice Canyon.
A tranquil spot along the Backbone Trail in Upper Solstice Canyon.

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.

Gate on Newton Mtwy on Castro Peak.
Gate on Newton Mtwy on Castro Peak. (Not on the Backbone Trail.)

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.

Hummingbird Sage along the Backbone Trail
Hummingbird Sage along the Backbone Trail

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.

Runners descending Mesa Peak Mtwy into Malibu Canyon.
Descending Mesa Peak Mtwy into Malibu Canyon.

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.

An End of Year Boney Mountain Adventure

Runners on Boney Mountain's western ridge

The last day of 2017 had been a near perfect day for a trail run. I’d started my adventure with an ascent of Boney Mountain’s western ridge, joining the Trail Runners Club for part of the climb. After reaching the top of Boney Mountain’s western ridge, I continued to Tri Peaks and Sandstone Peak, the highest peak in the Santa Monica Mountains. From Sandstone Peak, a few scenic miles were added by completing the Mishe Mokwa loop. This brought me back to the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail, headed west.

About a half-mile past the Backbone Trail’s western junction with the Tri Peaks Trail, the Backbone Trail begins a 4.7 mile, 2400′ descent to Sycamore Canyon. I had started this descent and was nearly down to Chamberlain Rock, when I heard voices on the trail ahead. They sounded like they were just around the next switchback. Slowing to a walk, I rounded the sharp corner. Three smiling hikers said hello, and I wished them a Happy New Year.

It’s a little unusual to see a group of hikers on this section and for a moment I wondered if they might be doing the full length of the 68 mile Backbone Trail. I asked how they were doing and one of them casually replied, “Doing great — we’re just headed down to the Sandstone Peak parking lot…”

Surprised by the answer, I asked, “The trailhead on Yerba Buena?” They were miles from where they thought they were and headed in the opposite direction they should be. Every step down the trail was taking them farther and farther away from their intended destination. They looked fit, experienced and well-prepared, but somewhere along the way, they had taken a very wrong turn.

From what I could determine they had intended to do the Mishe Mokwa – Sandstone Peak loop counterclockwise, or a variation that involved Tri Peaks. Apparently, at the top of the Mishe Mokwa Trail instead of continuing toward Sandstone Peak on the Backbone Trail, the hikers decided to take the Tri Peaks Trail. They followed the Tri Peaks Trail until it ended at the Chamberlain/Backbone Trail, about two miles west of Sandstone Peak.

At this point, to get back to Sandstone Peak (and their car), they needed to turn left (east). Instead, they turned right and headed down the Chamberlain Trail. One of the three hikers suspected they had gone in the wrong direction, but wasn’t able to convince the others.

The good news is they only had gone about a mile down Chamberlain from the Tri Peaks Trail junction. This put them about 2.5 miles from Sandstone Peak and about 4 miles from their car. It was around noon and the weather was good. If they had no route-finding issues on the way back they would probably still have time to do Sandstone Peak. They just would be doing more of an End of the Year adventure than they planned.

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Some related posts: Boney Mountain Western Ridge & Loop, Balance Rock, Misplaced on Mt. Wilson