Tue, Nov 16, 2010
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From San Jose it is only a few minutes faster to reach Mercy Hot Springs via SR152 and I-5 than via SR25 and Panoche Rd. As the starting point I chose was a few miles north of Mercy Hot Springs, I chose the route via I-5 and made it in just over two hours. It was about 5:15p and just growing dark as the sun had set about half an hour earlier. I would be able to see details on the hills for another 15 minutes or so before the moonlight took over and the colors had faded to shades of gray.
I parked across the road from the first gate, hopped it, and jogged the first stretch to get me away from the road where I might be seen. Though two cars had gone by in the five minutes I took to get ready, I don't recall seeing another car go by the rest of the evening. I followed the road down and across Panoche Creek, then west for a mile to a fence marking the boundary of the Gun Club on the other side. There was a collection of trailers near where I started the hike out of Little Panoche Valley, but there were no lights or sounds coming from that direction (day-use only, probably).
The road, marked as a 4x4 road on the 7.5' topo, was as good as any of the other roads marked with double dashed lines on the map. It climbs steeply out of the broad valley, bypassing Pt. 1,510ft to the north, then leveling out as it turns southwest. At the far end of this high plateau, around 1,600ft, a third gate is encountered. The road then begins a long, steady climb up to Pt. 2,843ft after which it does some rolling up and down before resuming the climb to Cerro Colorado.
There are two summits to the broad hilltop, the lower east summit is enticing and seems the obvious choice. But staying on the road brings one to the shallow saddle between the two and the western summit become more obviously the higher of the two. A fourth fence is encountered here, after which it is an easy walk to the summit. There are oaks blocking views to the west, but those to the east are quite nice, even by moonlight. There were a scattering of rocks around the highpoint, but no benchmark or register or sign of human visitation other than the nearby roads.
It had taken just over two hours to reach the summit. By jogging back, I would take half that time for the return. The weather was quite fine, about 50F and perfect for hiking or jogging. I was back at the car by 8:15p and home before 10:30p. As trips go this one was a quickie, but it was very enjoyable. Some additional thoughts:
The moon was quite bright and blocked out half of the stars in the sky. I could look up periodically and see the lights of a passing plane overhead. Its contrail would light up faintly in the moonlight, then fade away, keeping only a mile or so trailing behind the plane. The surrounding hills and valleys were all quite visible. Higher up oaks and junipers dotted the landscape. I tried a few long exposures with my camera to see if I could capture the scenery, with some effect. Much better in person. So serene.
There were very few lights visible at all. The area of the Central Valley that could be seen has no towns of any size, mostly just farms with scatterings of lights. From the summit the brighter lights of Los Banos were visible about 30 miles away. The only light I saw outside of the Central Valley was a lone light about ten miles southeast around Panoche. I saw no lights at Mercy Hot Springs. On the drive back I saw only a single home lighted on the 12 miles along Little Panoche Rd back to Interstate 5. This is a very desolate area, indeed.
I haven't really worried too much about mountain lions in recent years, but the idea of one jumping out at me from under a juniper bush got into my head. I know there's probably only a single lion in any given 20-50 square miles, but that didn't quite squelch the pernicious idea rolling around in my cranium. On the way back I even went to the trouble of getting out my pepper spray and keeping it handy in my pocket. I figured my jogging down the trail might do more to garner a reaction than would just walking along. Becoming a meal for a family of hungry lions has some appeal if one has to go, but I wasn't yet ready to give up the fight. Of course, if I were attacked it would probably be from behind and silently, until its jaws were at my throat. By which time my hands would probably be unable to reach into a pocket, let alone take the safety off the device and aim it properly in the eyes of my assailant. Yet I felt better knowing it was there. Luckily no mountain lion showed itself this night and I didn't have to test my fighting instincts.
On the way back through the Gun Club gate, I heard the baying of coyotes off to the north. They sound very strange and eerie, as though the animals have gone insane. It would have been more disturbing if they had been closer at hand, but they were probably at least a mile off. And they're wimps compared to mountain lions.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cerro Colorado
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