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After a traffic-free drive from San Jose, I arrived at the Los Padres Dam TH near 6a and started off soon after. It was still quite dark, but a half moon was high overhead and it would soon start to grow light outside. I needed my headlamp only briefly to find my way across the dam and find the start of the Carmel River Trail. Just as I was starting up the trail from the dam I spotted a tiny light ahead of me that I mistook for a headlamp. It was an LED camp light left on outside a tent pitched just off the trail. A darkly silhouetted figure standing in the trail startled me as I approached, evidently an early riser. I initiated a brief conversation, but the unkempt man seemed little interested either through mistrust or bewilderment. He struck me more as a homeless character than a backpacker. I've run into a very wide assortment of odd characters in Ventana which seems to draw them in.
It was 7a when I reached the first crossing, this one over Danish creek just south of the reservoir's inlet. I took off my boots and socks in order to make the crossing even though I knew I would probably be crossing in my boots eventually. I'd been down this trail once before and found there were just too many river crossings to try and keep the feet dry. Just past a campsite located at this creek junction a pink ribbon helped me find the continuation of the trail. I followed the trail high on the western bank of the river for another mile until it dropped back down and I came across another campsite with a second creek crossing. I wasn't entirely sure where I was and paused to check my map. What I had forgotten was that the current trail does not follow at all what is shown on the map, at least for the first few miles to Carmel River Camp. The trail was rerouted sometime in the past, staying much higher out of the canyon for much of the way, whereas the map shows the trail following along the river with many more crossings.
I made the second crossing barefoot, but almost immediately spotted pink ribbons back on the west side of the river, just past a cliff that had forced the crossing. At this point I decided to just keep the boots on and splashed noisily back to the west bank. There were several ribbons along this side, but no trail that I could discern. I spotted additional ribbons on the east bank, realizing there were ribbons on both sides now. I had followed the wrong ones. Had I not made this third crossing I would have stumbled into Bluff Camp and then followed the trail as it climbs high on the east side of the canyon. Instead I continued heading south on the west back, not spotting a trail on either side for some half mile or so that I followed along, all the time wondering if the trail had been washed away. It was slow progress over boulders, through brambles, trying not to trip, all in wet boots. When I came to a creek junction that I guessed ought to be the Miller Fork, I decided I needed to reevaluate my plan. At the rate I was going, it would take a long time still to reach Sulpher Spring Camp where I originally expected to start the cross-country.
I turned west and started up the very steep bank to climb out of the canyon. Optimistically, I hoped I'd have better luck following the ridge than I was having in the canyon. The ridge I had planned to climb was 1.4mi long whereas the ridge I started up was 2.4mi long which may help explain why I had so much trouble with it. Things had started well enough - the steep slope was at least climbable with only modest brush to contend with. Once I reached the ridge proper, there was evidence the slope had burned over in the 2007 fire allowing modest progress. The main branches from the burned chaparral were still sticking out of the ground, surrounded by four years of new growth around the bases. For the most part the charred sticks could be bent aside or broken to allow passage between them, closely spaced as they were.
My initial optimism did not last long, however. Small vines had grown back, using the sticks for support and growing across from one branch to another. This had the effect of setting up trip wires that caught up my legs and feet regularly. I had to either break the vines with extra force or step high to avoid tripping. My legs were hardly used to such additional mobility and it did not take long to tire them accordingly. For further annoyance, the charred branches would often break as I bent them aside, sometimes snapping back to slap and poke my body. Shorter branches hidden by the new growth would stab me in the legs and shins. The soot was covering my clothes and the sharp stubs on the branches would tear at my clothes.
After about a third of a mile I decided to check out the north side of the ridge, hoping it might be easier. This side had not been burned in the same fire, or at least not to the same degree. Madrones and oaks spread a canopy over this shadier, wetter side. The canopy helped restrict growth on the ground some, but it was still relatively brushy. The deer have built a network of use trails on this side and with their help I was able to make better progress. These trails would stop, start and merge seemingly in a random pattern, but with careful study one could see that the most distinct trail sections were those that found their way through a particularly brushy area. Though the area is rife with poison oak, the leaves are all off the plants at this time of the year and it was impossible to identify. I had no doubt I was pushing through the stuff regularly. Though clothed in long pants and shirt, gloves and hat, I expected to start breaking out in rashes in a day or two. It was a problem I could mentally put off for the time being.
Eventually growing tired of the north side, I tried moving back to the south side. I found myself crawling through very thick stands of manzanita, as much dead as alive, choking on the dust I was kicking up as I broke through the deadwood. It was a very slow and tiring 50yds that took me half an hour's time. Ever upward I went, ticking off the hours faster than I had hoped or expected. I had hoped the cross-country portion would take an hour (optimistically) or perhaps two (pessimistically). It took four hours to make that 2.4 miles. The last half mile went the easiest, thanks to some more open slopes on the south side and easier going under the trees near the summit - otherwise I could easily have taken another hour or more.
It was with much relief (but conscious I still had to get back down to the river) that I finally reached the small summit of Elephant Mtn around noon. There were bushes partially blocking the view to the north and east, but to the south and west there were fine views to be had of the higher peaks in the Ventana interior. I found no register, no cairn, no sign of previous humans, but I would be the last to claim this as a first. I'm sure there are plenty of nutty folks that have ventured here over the years. I don't think I spent more than a minute or two on the summit, anxious as I was about the time. I was far behind schedule now and would miss the basketball game by at least several hours. If I had as much trouble on the way down I might not even get back to the car before dark. It did not take much to decide on an alternate way back - I could hardly imagine it being worse. I'd only briefly considered going back by way of the Big Pine Trail - that would involve climbing up to Uncle Sam Mtn and then down to the trail to the west, but the view of the brush looking up from Elephant looked no better than I had recalled the previous year looking down from Uncle Sam. Instead, I would use the shorter ridgeline that I had intended from the start.
It was not altogether a simple matter to find the correct ridge as there were three branches leading off of the main branch southeast of Elephant. The brush along the ridgeline was generally too thick to negotiate, forcing me onto either the south-facing or north-facing slopes, each with similar characteristics to those I found on the ascent ridge. Gravity was making things marginally easier, but it was still slow and painful. When I was about halfway down along the ridge, I noticed the south-facing chaparral had given way to an area of bare earth and landslides. Perhaps a result of the fire, landslides had cleared most of the vegetation off this steep slope leading down to a side canyon off the Carmel River. With very little deliberation, I decided to ditch the ridgeline and start down this moderately dangerous slope. I would normally avoid such terrain where a slip might not be stoppable, but in light of the last five hours it seemed a far better choice.
The steep slope led into a dry gully that had little brush but a few tricky drops that had to be negotiated. This led down to a larger, wetter side canyon that flowed eastward to the Carmel River. It was lush and green along much of this small watercourse, newly fallen seeds coming to life and green new plants popping up. All in all, it was a much better route, taking only 45 minutes to descend off the ridge down to the river. I crossed the Carmel River and took my boots and socks off once again, this time to empty the detritus out and give them a quick washing. It was my first rest since I had checked the map down by the river many, many hours earlier. It felt good to sit there and let my feet be cooled by the rushing waters.
Once I had my boots back on, it was easy to find the trail again. I followed this to first Sulpher Spring Camp (there is a sulpherous spring nearby, but it only dribbles out through the vegetation and weakly smells of rotten eggs), then to the Bruce Fork junction with a campsite not marked on the map, then on to Carmel River Camp at the Miller Fork. Several river crossings along the way proved easy as pie with the boots on. They would be wet for the duration of the outing, but it mattered little and caused no discomfort. Just after the trail crosses to the north side of the Miller Fork there is a signed trail junction. From here the River Trail climbs high on the east side of the canyon before eventually dropping down half a mile later to Bluff Camp. This fine bit of trail was the section I had completely missed in the morning and might have saved me much time and effort.
By jogging the downhill sections, I was able to make it from the Miller Fork junction to the bridge over the Los Padres Dam spillway in almost exactly an hour, including the last two fords of the river. I spotted a pair of hikers about a quarter mile ahead along the dirt road leading back to the trailhead. As I drew nearer, I found the woman in the process of pulling up her pants either after, or while trying to take a roadside bathroom break. I put my head down to at least give her the illusion that I had not seen her attempting the business. She had her camera out as I walked by and said "Hi", in an effort to have me believe she was taking pictures instead. When I passed her male companion about five minutes later I wanted to relay the amusing story to him, but decided against it - no good purpose would be served in doing so. I was back at the TH at 3:45p, had stripped out of my clothes, rinsed, put on fresh clothes and driven away before the woman had joined her companion at their vehicle. I missed the basketball game by some two hours thanks to some weak planning and the extra hours spent on the ascent. I'll have to do better the next time I try something similar.
This page last updated: Sun Jan 30 10:08:31 2011
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