Black Cone

Thu, Nov 11, 2010
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Black Cone is one of the "Ventana 15", a list of the highest summits in the Ventana Wilderness first described in the Double Cone Quarterly. Nevermind that not all of the peaks on the list are actually in the Ventana Wilderness, or that some other unnamed summits have been left off, it was a list nonetheless and had stuck in my head for almost ten years. On and off during that time I've been able to visit most of them with the exception of Black Cone and Kandlbinder, neither particularly easy to reach. With fine Fall weather lingering over the state for much of the past week, it seemed a fine time to go after one of these. In doing some research ahead of time, I found an unnamed summit, White Cone, in the same vicinity and actually higher than Black Cone. Perhaps I could bag two peaks with one effort.

The quickest approach is probably from the end of Tassajara Rd, using the Pony and Marble Peak trails. I nixed this because of the long drive on the questionable road to get there. Another approach is from China Camp along Tassajara Rd, using the Pine Ridge and Black Cone Trails. This is certainly the quickest way to White Cone. But I decided to try the Marble Peak Trail out of Arroyo Seco, a route I'd never been on before, and reason enough to use it.

I was happy to find that the drive time from San Jose amounted to only 2hrs, and by 5:30a I had parked the car and was on my way. Signs indicated a $7 day use fee, but as I was carrying only $20 bills and was unaware of this ahead of time, I chanced it and went without the self-issue pass. The dirt Arroyo Seco Rd through the gorge was closed, so I had an extra two miles or so to hike starting from the locked gate near the Ranger Station inside the park area. It was just growing light out and I used my headlamp for all of about 15 minutes before putting it away.

I completely missed seeing the Arroyo Seco Gorge in the morning, but it was a nice hike along the road, eventually finding the Marble Peak TH in about 45 minutes. From there I hiked down to the river, across an impressive steel bridge and onto the trail heading up the Willow Creek Canyon. It was easy enough to follow the trail all the way to Strawberry Camp without a great deal of overgrowth along the route. The trail starts off on the south bank of the creek, high on the hillside for the first mile and a half, passing by the signed junction with the Horse Pasture Trail to Tassajara Hot Springs. The trail then drops down to the creek for the first of many crossings, all of them easy at this time of year with low water. At 7:30a I passed by the Pony Trail junction (labeled Hot Springs Trail on the topo map) and Willow Camp, and soon started the climb out of the canyon. The trail varied with the terrain, often overgrown with bramble along the creek, delightfully leaf-covered under the oaks, and then mildly brushy higher up where it goes through chaparral. There was a moderate amount of poison oak to be found all along the route, but it was easily avoidable thanks to the bright red leaves at this time of year.

It was 8:10a by the time I reached the saddle between the Willow Creek and Zigzag Creek drainages. Another hour followed as the trail contours around the south side of Black Cone to the junction with the South Fork Trail. There is a sign here, but I did not note the continuation of the Marble Peak Trail heading left. Of course I didn't really look very hard either as I was heading right to Strawberry Camp. The colorfully named site was little more than a semi-flat grassy area under some oaks with a firepit and rusty grill - not very inviting. This is also the junction with the Black Cone Trail, barely marked by an old wooden sign.

The South Fork Trail appears to be the more well-used route as the Black Cone Trail was hard to follow in places and often overgrown. I followed this latter trail as it heads north up Strawberry Valley, climbing higher onto the western flanks of Black Cone. My plan for the two peaks was somewhat speculative. I wanted to climb White Cone first, then traverse the ridgeline back south to Black Cone. About an hour out of Strawberry Camp the folly of this plan became more evident. I had followed the trail around to the northwest side of Black Cone where I got my first view of White Cone, downed trees slowing progress and the overgrowth on the trail becoming more problematic. I was still at least an hour from White Cone and from everything that I could see, the trail contours much too low around the ridgeline. It looked like an incredibly difficult bushwhack up to White Cone. And nothing that I could see on the northwest or north side of Black Cone offered a way up to that one, either. What to do?

Since I was more interested in Black Cone, I decided to cut my losses and save White Cone for another day. It seemed clear now that an approach from China Camp would be hours quicker. I backtracked on the trail to its highpoint on one of the western ridgelets dropping down from the main West Ridge. The south-facing slopes of this ridge were drier-looking and more reasonable for cross-country travel. Still, it would be no picnic to reach Black Cone in classic Ventana bushwhacking.

I'd brought a pair of clippers in case heavy resistance was encountered, and used these for the first quarter or so of the route to make it easier to get through. Mostly the clippers are helpful for those following, not so much for the person doing the clipping as it slows progress considerably. Eventually I abandoned their use and simply plowed my way along. I was clothed in long-sleeve pants and shirt along with leather work gloves. By taking my time, I found short sections of animal trails that could be linked together with short bursts of concentrated whacking. Travel along the boundaries between different shrub types often offered the least resistance upward. Though the distance was only about half a mile with 900ft of gain, it took an hour and a half of hard toil to reach the summit.

The top is marked by a small outcrop of rock with tall brush partially obscuring views. The best views are east, south and west, the north partially blocked by the brush. The summit area appears to have burned over in the 2008 fire, but new growth is vigorous and fully back in control. I did not find any sort of register anywhere about the summit. I briefly considered returning via a route off the south side of the summit in what I thought would be a shortcut of sorts, but the chaparral was covering this side too thickly to give it any serious consideration. Returning back via the route I'd come up took me only half as long to reach the Black Cone Trail thanks to the ability of gravity to help one down through a serious bushwhack.

Once back on the trail, it would take a bit less than four hours to return to Strawberry Camp and along the Marble Peak Trail to Arroyo Seco. I had crossed the bridge and reached the Arroyo Seco road high on the east side of the gorge about half an hour before sunset. This gave me an opportunity to take in the view of the gorge. Until then I had little idea how dramatic it was. So much so that I made a mental note to come back for another trip just to hike up the gorge for the several miles between the campground and the bridge on the Marble Peak Trail. There are many delightful pools and cascades and water year-round and would make a fine adventure.

I brushed off a total of six ticks during the day. I'm sure there were more than that as some undoubtedly got brushed back off. In fact I'm sure there's a direct correlation between how many ticks one has to brush off and how often one checks. It used to give me the creeps to find these critters, but now that I always wear long pants and shirts, I don't give them much thought. That is, until I get something like Lyme Disease from one of them.


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