Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Small Death In the Verdugo Mountains

How shall I describe the Verdugo Mountains.  As mountain chains go, the Verdugos aren't all that impressive.  They only rise to an altitude of around 3,000 feet; there are no imposing forests; in fact most of the vegetation is chaparral, the scrub that once covered all of Los Angeles.  And there it is.  What makes the Verdugos so interesting is that they rise up from the second largest metro area in the United States.  Surrounded by Burbank, Glendale, and Los Angeles, a dirt road along the crest, and radio antennas.  Also hawks, deer, coyotes, and the occasional mountain lion.  It's also the perfect place for southern California hikers and mountain bikers who don't have the time, or money, to go further afield than the city itself.

I was in the Verdugo Mountains this afternoon.  I started  from the northern side of the mountains, off La Tuna Canyon Road, walking one of the few true trails.  As I neared the crest, and the dirt access road used by  people who service the antennas,  fire fighters, and mountain bikers, I came across a small death.  A snake had struck at a lizard.  But the snake had made an error in it's search for food.  The lizard's lower jaw was in the snake's mouth, but the upper jaw had a firm grip on the snake's head.  I got down on my hands and knees to get a closer view.  There was a very small drop of blood where the snake's left eye had been.  The snake, for the most part, was absolutely still, while the lizard kept turning itself over, trying to free itself from his predator's grip.  I thought how easy it would be for me to save the lizard's life.  All I had to do was  reach behind the snake's jaws and apply enough pressure to force his mouth open, releasing the lizard.  But then I thought that, perhaps, without this meal, the snake might not have enough strength to save itself when another creature tried to eat the snake.  After about ten minutes, the snake lifted the front third of it's body off the ground, with the lizard still in it's mouth, and slithered off into the brush.  And that was it.  Game over, and another small death.




Friday, January 7, 2011

Cave Mountain in Pictures

The last picture in this group was taken just off of Basin Road, at the north end of Cave Mountain on the day after the other pictures.









































































Climbing Cave Mountain

Cave Mountain is the large pyramidal shaped peak about 30 miles north of Barstow, California on I-15. For those traveling north towards Las Vegas, it's easily seen, not as part of a chain of mountains, but as a solo mass just past the Afton Canyon exit.
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It had been at least 15 years since I had last scrambled to the top. I exited the Interstate at Afton Canyon, drove a half mile or so, and at the distinct turn off to the left near the high tension wires, parked the car. It was early in the morning and late December, and I knew that I would need most of the daylight to get to the top and back down again. It didn't help that I had pretty much forgotten the route I had used the last time I climbed Cave Mountain, and that I would have to spend valuable time in route finding.
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As I walked along the dirt route on the backside of the mountain (I thought of the side along the Interstate as the front side.) I scanned the ridge line looking for a good, safe route to the top. After having crossed a wash, as the road seemed to brake away from the mountain, I left the road and began working my way up hill. In a long angling walk, I made my way towards a distinct, sandy section on the ridge line. It was steep, and for every three steps in the sand, I slide back one, but in time I made it to the top. Between me and Cave Mountain, there was a steep walled canyon. And then it hit me; all those years ago I had stood on the exact same spot and looked down into the same canyon. What had seemed like the most direct route to the top 15 plus years earlier had led me to repeat a route I had forgotten. Looking to my right, I could see a flat area at the head of the canyon and I could see that after crossing that flat, I could get to a rocky, hand over hand section that I could use to get to the peak.
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The fact is, I would have been easy to follow along the ridge line and down to the flat, but instead, I reversed myself, slid down the sandy slope and took a route that followed along the side of the ridge, and then climbed up and over the ridge and on to the wide flat area. As I gained altitude, looking over my shoulder, I could see that if I had stayed on the dirt road that I had first used in my approach, I would have been able to avoid the sandy slope and ridge line altogether. Of course, I wouldn't have had the great view down into the canyon that separated that ridge from Cave Mountain, so I was quite happy with having left the road early.
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It was getting towards mid-day, and I was surprised that the fog that had been in Afton Canyon when I started in the morning was lifting rather than burning off, and that the peak was now somewhat obscured. I made sure that my handholds were solid and that my feet were on stable ground as I worked my way up the steep side of the mountain. Cave Mountain is not a technical climb and no ropes are needed , but I was very aware that if I tried to pull myself up on a loose piece of rock, it would be a long way before I'd come to a stop. As I made my way higher, the fog began to finally blow out, and I could see a cairn with a post sticking out of the top. It wasn't long before I reached it and gained the peak.
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The top of Cave Mountain isn't the classic, pointed peak, but a flattish, rocky area. While I assumed that the cairn was the true, highest point, I would have needed an altimeter to be sure. For the next hour, I enjoyed the views from the top. While climbing the backside of the mountain, all I could hear, other than my own footsteps, was the wind. Once on top, I could hear and see I-15 to the west. Beyond the interstate is Fort Irwin, an army base. It had rained for the better part of a week before my trip, and the Mojave River,that has been mostly dry since the building of Silverwood Lake Reservoir, (Afton Canyon is one of the few sections of the river that has running water year round.) was like a long ribbon of silver, as the sun reflected off all the water that meandered from side to side of the very wide river bed. The Mojave is a basin and range river, that runs from the San Bernardino mountains to the south, before sinking into the desert north of the canyon. What are usually dry lake beds were the water once evaporated in the desert heat were full, a very rare thing now. Clouds swirled up from the desert floor. There was also a USGS survey marker, dated 1929. Rather than being stamped Cave Mountain, it's stamped El Frio, the cold. The surveyors who climbed the peak all those years ago must have done so in the winter. It does snow in the desert from time to time.
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As much as I hated to leave the peak, it was soon time to head back down. I made for the road rather than repeating my cross country route. I like to use the BLM campground in Afton Canyon as a base for my high desert trips, but with all of the rain the previous week I had decided that I didn't want to risk getting bogged down, so I left the cabin tent at home, and once back at the car I prepared to bed down in the back of my Volvo station wagon. It was dark when I set up the camp stove and cooked dinner, and was quite surprised when the head lights of a pick-up truck, coming up from the canyon, lit up my camp sight. I grabbed a flash light and decided to walk down the road and see if it was safe to drive. There were some large pools of water, and I would not have risked driving down into the canyon, but it wasn't a problem to walk down to the river. The campground was deserted and the sound of the water was more like a cascading mountain stream than the slow trickle of a shallow desert river. I sat by the river, turned offthe flashlight and listened to the water. The night sky was clear, and stars could be seen from canyon side to canyon side. There is a railroad through the canyon. When a train went by, the engine cabin, the only thing with artificial light, seemed to move south, suspended in a dark landscape.
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Pictures to follow in a separate post.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Joshua Tree National Park

Don't ever let anyone tell you that it doesn't get cold in the desert.
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I saw on the news that it was National Parks week, and that admission to all the parks was free. Well, I've been fighting bankruptcy for the past several years, and I was tired of watching every penny so, a little late in the morning, I admit, I drove from Los Angeles to the desert, and Joshua Tree national park.
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After entering the park, I drove to the turn-off into Lost Horse Valley, and pulled into the Juniper Flats Trail Head parking area of the California Hiking and Riding Trail. With a week to go to May, a time of the year when it would normally be pretty warm in the desert, well, it wasn't. It was cloudy, the wind was blowing, and the temperature couldn't have been much over 50. Throw in the wind chill factor, which I can't explain, but I know it when I feel it, it was chilly. The shorts I was wearing weren't a problem, but I was lucky that I had decided to bring both a sweater and a jacket.
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A short spur, a hard right out of the parking area, soon had me on the California Hiking and Riding Trail. I made a left, and headed west on the trail. It's an easy start. The trail, while sandy, has good footing and the general climb for the next few miles isn't steep enough to present any problems. Hiking in the Angeles National Forest and the Santa Monica Mountains, while beautiful, it's often difficult to escape the city. There are lots of places where the sounds of the L.A. urban area can be avoided, but it's also true that after miles of walking, it's possible to turn a corner on the trail and come across graffiti. And as someone who enjoys hiking at night, that night time glow is hard to avoid. Joshua Tree is a whole other experience. While physically close to L.A., Palm Springs, and San Bernardino, the size of the park, the lightly used trails, and the Joshua Trees themselves, is a reminder that the United States was once a vast wilderness, seen by few people.
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One of the interesting features of the trial is the placement of mileage signs every mile. It's nice to know just how many miles walked, and it also makes it a bit easier to think ahead. Right past mile marker 20, (I picked up the trail a little past mid-point, and the first post I hit was mile marker 19.) there is a turn off to the Stubbe Springs Loop. I wouldn't trust that there will be water at Stubbe Springs. While I decided to stay on the trail, and not turn off, I have, in the past walked the loop, and never found the spring. With a detailed topo map, it might be easy to find water, but the trails in the Park are well maintained and simple to follow, so maps, beyond the one in the park brochure given out at the entrance gate, aren't all that necessary.
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In this section, the trail gains elevation along the side of a broad, desert valley. As I went along through this section, the batteries on the palm sized camera died, so I was freed from taking pictures, and things sped up a bit. Eventually it crests in a flattish section at the head of the valley, and then tops out at the edge of a canyon. I followed the trail down into the canyon, switch-backing a few times. As I dropped ever lower, I was finally shielded from the wind, and at last, I was able to take of a few layers. Too, I looked up and there was clear, blue skies above. A bit of a trick, since before going down into the canyon, I had seen dark, black clouds on the horizon line. At mile marker 25, on the bottom of the canyon, I took a break, and enjoyed the first real sun of the day.
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Of course, the ease of going into a canyon, is followed by the climb back out. The switch-backs make it a reasonable walk up. At the crest, I could see that the dark clouds had started to move in my direction, so I picked up the pace back to my car. The winds were getting stronger and the temperature was dropping. I remembered a few years earlier when what started out as a nice, winters walk, ended up in a snow storm. It may have been the desert, but I was slogging through ankle deep snow, by the time I got to the car. No snow on this trip, even though it felt cold enough for it. Just rain, a mile from my car.
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At the Stubbe Springs Trail Loop sign, there is also a mileage sign listing the distance back to the trail head as 1.5 miles. I walked five miles beyond that, so that gives a total distance of 6.5 miles one way, 13 round trip. The sign board at Juniper Flats lists the trail's length as 35 miles. Pictures to follow in the next post.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cross Country The Mojave National Preserve Photos

These photographs were taken over two different hikes. One in the spring and one during the autumn. It is possible to hike the desert during the summer, but I wouldn't recommend it. Take it from me, I know from experience.