Sunday, April 03, 2011

Hike to Santa Paula Peak

Yesterday Trailhacker and I went with the Sierra Club to hike to Santa Paula Peak. The hike was a car shuttle and about 16 miles of hiking.

We started at St. Thomas Aquinas college and hiked along the creek, which was flowing strongly, keeping to the right of the creek the whole way until we reached some switchbacks that brought us up to a trash-filled awful campsite. I hadn't been on this trail since around 1999. It used to be a wide dirt road and now is an informal trail all along the creek and a narrow trail on the switchbacks.

The campsite was disgusting. How can people stand to camp like that, surrounded by other people's trash, garbage, crap-filled toilet paper, used condoms and other stuff? We hiked to an overlook, stepping over broken plastic bags and strewn wrappers, to where we could see the waterfall and the swimming holes called the Punchbowls. What I remember being a really pretty swimming hole was covered in graffiti. It was depressing.

We descended from the campsite to the creek and began hiking up the East Fork. The creek was pretty high and flowing fast. The water was cloudy and silty. It was rarely more than about knee deep so it was not impossible to negotiate. It wasn't even very cold.

We slogged up the creek for hours, sometimes tangling ourselves in the alders which would whip me in the face from time-to-time. I really wished I had some safety glasses to protect my eyes. The sky was cloudy and I could not see with my sunglasses on and so hiked with my eyes half shut to try and protect them. It was rough going and exhausting.

The creek itself was mildly treacherous. I am a creek crossing weenie and not being able to see the bottom had me moving slowly so that I would not fall. Many of the hills and benches we climbed over were slippery and crumbly. I was thinking I might poop out completely. Our leader was a bigger death marcher than I am and we were never allowed any break time at all.

Just when I thought I couldn't go any further, we stopped on a bench above the creek for a little rest while the leader and one of the other hikers scouted around for the "trail." The leader found it on the hillside above us. We then left the bench, which was a hangout for big banana slugs, and climbed steeply up the side of the hill to a "trail." The trail looked to me like a bear trail at the most.

It was good to be on a trail again. I was able to pick up my pace and keep up a lot better. The trail was faint but easy to follow. We winded up to a ridge and followed it through lovely oak forest with lots of duff. I really liked this section of the hike.

Next we followed the trail past some old wooden posts that must have marked something long ago and joined a slightly better trail. This trail was lined with rocks to better see it among all the fallen oak leaves. We followed it to a wonderful camp called Cienega. The area was full of huge oak trees, big cone spruce, primeval giant ferns and tiger lilies which weren't yet in bloom. We stopped for lunch at long last at the biggest picnic table in the world and sat on comfy reclining chairs made from enormous old logs.

After lunch we continued climbing along a very good trail up to the peak. Santa Paula peak once had a lookout tower but all that remained were burned posts where the structure had stood and melted glass. Fog covered the valleys but we could see Hines Peak, the Toptopas and even the snowy San Gabriels in the distance. It was an amazing and beautiful view.

After enjoying the summit, we headed down the trail. It was still 6 more miles to our cars at the end of the shuttle. We descended endlessly into the fog, switchback after tick-strewn switchback. Gratefully I was far to the rear of the pack where I picked up very few ticks.

We finally reached a grassy dirt road in the middle of a green grassy hillside with a few wildflowers popping up. We spent some time brushing ticks off and waiting for the hikers behind us to catch up. Then we were off down the road, chasing cows and trying to avoid stepping in mud or cowpies. We passed gorgeous oak trees and finally reached the avocados and lemons of the ranch that let us park on their property.

We drove back to Santa Barbara where I took all my clothes off to take a shower and do a tick check. One got me. Trailhacker tweezed it out of my skin. Today the bite feels like a painful bruise.

I didn't much care for the treacherous creek hopping, but the area climbing toward Cienega was wonderful. I would love to return to Cienega someday just to be around the giant old oaks and ferns.

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