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The full moon was just rising over the eastern hills around Mt. Hamilton while I was leaving San Jose shortly after 6:30p. Even with the tail end of rush hour traffic, I managed the drive to Hollister, Paicines, Panoche and along New Idria Rd in almost exactly two hours. The only home in the area I saw with lights was about a quarter mile before the location I parked at, but it was around a small hill and my car lights would be unseen as I turned around and parked along a wide clearing off the road. It was a gorgeous evening with the temperature somewhere around 60F and it would remain fine all night. The moon by this time was very bright and high in the sky and my headlamp would go unneeded until the section of bushwhacking near the summit. The starting point was a valley called Vallecitos tucked into the hills at around the 2,000-foot elevation mark. New Idria Rd runs along the length of the valley for more than nine miles. Ironically, Vallecitos means "little valley" though it seems anything but. Mostly used for ranching but also possessing minor oil fields, in late October the valley and the surrounding hills are a golden brown, tired and worn from the long summer and grazed heavily by the cattle. The route I picked out from the satellite views crossed a number of property boundaries, following mostly along dirt roads but would involve some cross-country over a quarter mile section of brush that was the only real concern.
I hopped a gate and started off on a dirt road heading south into a small side canyon carved by Los Pinos Creek. Two thirds of a mile in, where a flimsy gate marks the entrance to the canyon, I turned right and started up the grassy slope. I was aiming for a long ridgeline that leads mostly southwest up towards Bucks' summit. I found the first of the old roads soon enough, quickly climbing up with a grand view of Vallecitos behind me. The lighting was quite good and there were few trees to cast shadows on the roads. Along the way I spotted a feral pig, a fox and a few unidentified animals that generally beat a hasty exit off the road when they sensed my approach. The only real danger I've come across on these night adventures is the unexpected surprise of a skunk. I found a defiant one on the road refusing to give way. Luckily I had spotted it even without a headlamp in time to keep from getting sprayed. The skunk stood facing me, giving ground only in inches when I tried to talk it away. Figuring it was a battle I could not really win, I made an arc through the grass to go around it, all the while the skunk turning to continue facing me. When I got back to the road and started to walk away, the skunk started chasing in my direction, apparently convinced it now had me on the run. I turned and shouted at it which got it to stop, but only for a moment. When it started trotting once again towards me, I raised my hands and shouted twice as loud, as though a bear. This made it think twice and it finally gave way. I've decided I hate skunks.
An hour and a half in, as I approached the highmark where the old ranch roads would carry me up the ridgeline, I could see Bucks Peak ahead on the right with a nice, grassy slope leading up from the south. In between was the quarter mile uncertainty of brushy non-goodness that I had expected from the satellite view. The big question would come down to how dense and nasty the stuff really was. It started off quite nicely, with a somewhat open path found along one side of the fence or the other that continued up the ridge while the road veered left on a traverse. I had simply to part the branches and walk through the brush upright. This lasted for all of about 50-70yds where I found a small rocky cliff face. The fence ended here (apparently the rancher wasn't concerned about the cattle's rock climbing skills), marked by an old bottle stuck on a branch. I had to move to the northwest side of the ridge where the brush was 15ft or more tall and looked very dense. I was starting to think I might be in trouble. By now I had gotten out the headlamp and gloves and was prepared for a bit of bushwhacking, but didn't want to be forcing my way through thick walls of the stuff. Luckily I didn't have to. I took my time, at first wandering back and forth through any opening I was able to find between the trees and bushes, even if they weren't in the right direction. After dropping perhaps 50ft off the ridgeline, I came across a very decent animal trail traversing in just the right direction. It wasn't the best one could hope for as I still found myself crawling on my knees in places and ducking almost continuously. It was probably made by pigs and other lower-profile mammals, but it worked, taking only about ten minutes to get through the thickets and back onto grassy slopes.
The top of Bucks Peak is found at the southern end of a summit ridgeline after climbing the steep southern slope. The highpoint is tucked in among some oaks, thickets, and a fence that runs along it. I found a road just west of the summit ridgeline and I followed this a short distance north to make sure there wasn't a higher point in that direction. This road appears to come up from somewhere to the west, not of much use for my eastern approach. There were some views to be had by walking around but none at the highpoint, so I simply took a picture of myself amongst the trees to call it good. At an elevation in excess of 4,100ft, I had thought I might be able to see lights in the Salinas Valley to the west, but as far as the eye could see was the mountains and valleys illuminated only by the moon. Even to the east, there were only a very few lights visible in the Central Valley. The scene felt peaceful and primitive - like the California before the coming of Western Civilization.
I took the ranch road off the summit heading south to see if I couldn't find an easier way back through the brushy section. As I expected, the road eventually veered off to the west and I had to tunnel my way once again through the understory brush to return to the easier terrain on the lower ridgeline. The GPS was quite helpful to get me back to the same spot along the fence where the bottle was located and from there a quick decent back to the ranch roads on the eastern flank of the mountain. I jogged most of the return, pausing to carefully walk the section where I'd encountered the skunk (it was nowhere to be found). The return took just over an hour, keeping the round trip time to just under the three hours I had hoped for ahead of time.
It had been a most enjoyable outing, despite the long drive. Even that was fairly pleasant, cruising much of the way on little-used paved roads through the Diablo Range over the 2,200-foot Panoche Summit, my main concern not to hit a deer on the way back (I saw two, hit none). The only downside from the whole evening came when I was taking a shower and discovered a tick embedded in my Adam's apple. I had to interupt the shower to extract it with some difficulty and it will probably bother me for a few days with minor discomfort. Not a bad price to pay for such a lovely evening!
This page last updated: Tue Oct 30 11:59:08 2012
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