Sat, Feb 2, 2013
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I dropped my son off in Monterey shortly before 7p, then spent more than an hour driving through Carmel Valley, over the 2,500-foot unnamed pass and down into the Paloma Creek drainage along G16. My ambitious targets were Ell Peak and Twin Peaks located in the Sierra de Salinas. Ell Peak is the second highest in the range and the third most prominent. Twin Peaks were just nearby gravy. The approach goes through ranch lands where at least one landowner was in residence judging from the satellite view. The range is heavily covered in chaparral on the southwest side, making cross-country travel all but impossible. I would need to use the existing roads. The roundtrip would be something like 12 miles so I figured a 2a start would get me back while it was still dark (that it was closer to 17 miles was just part of my brain's trickery). A half moon would be rising at 11:30p so I figured by 2a it would be high enough in the sky to navigate by. I parked outside a pair of ranch gates alongside the county road and went to sleep around 8:30p. There were only a few cars that came by during the evening - it's a pretty lonely stretch of road.
When the alarm went off at 1:50a I almost didn't get out of my cozy bed in the back of the van. I looked out to see the moon hazily showing through a thin layer of clouds. I was almost hoping the fog had moved in during the night in which case I'd just go back to sleep and skip this hike. But I knew I'd have regrets later (more brain trickery), so after a few minutes to contemplate things, I got up and dressed. I ate a banana and downed a can of iced coffee. Time to go. It was 39F outside, not so great, but better than the 23F from a few days earlier.
I hopped the gate and started up the road. There was some tree cover along the first part but I didn't need to use the headlamp. The road was well traveled much as I expected, probably daily. It was well-graded, making for minimal stumbling even in the dark. The occupied home was about two miles up the road, but about a mile from the gate I turned right at a junction, crossed Big Sand Creek and started up an older, far less traveled road. It would take me out of the way some, but it was worth the extra mile to be able to give the home a wide berth. The old road gave me extra comfort despite that fact that it was unlikely anyone would be driving on any of these roads at this time of night. The route circled around back to the east and started up a low ridge to place me south of the occupied home. I never did see the home, but I could see the access driveway off the main road in the small clearing below me to the north. My route crossed a property boundary and dropped south into the Tash Creek drainage, then turned east at a junction to start up the drainage. I passed by a large corral and several unoccupied cabins, possibly used by hunters in season. A rusting water tank was the last bit of civilization I saw before starting up the long ridge towards the crest. My plan for the evening was roughly three hours up, two hours down to get me back shortly after 7a. I did somewhat better than this. It took about two hours to hike to the crest of the range where my GPS proved most useful to get me to the top of Ell Peak. There are three places that looked to vie for the highpoint. The first was just south of Pt. 4,273ft where I first reached the crest. According to the GPS, it appears to be roughly the same elevation as the point marked as Ell Peak on the topo map. Both had roads going right over the top and were not hard to reach. The third point was a short distance south of Ell Peak and was definitely lower than the other two. I visited all of them just to be sure. The summit views take in the Santa Lucia Range to the southwest and the Salinas Valley to the east. The better view would be from Twin Peaks which was about a mile further east, but a few hundred feet lower. It was to the bonus peak I set off next.
I found the road leading down to the saddle between Ell and Twin Peaks, then took a right fork leading around the west side of the two summits before meeting with the road that goes over the summit just south of the highpoint. The south summit is the higher of the two by a small margin. Like Ell, there was nothing to mark the highpoint. The views here of the Salinas Valley were better, as expected. I could see the fog layer down below having creeped up a portion of the valley from the northwest. The fog layer was too thin to see directly and not sufficiently lighted by the moon from above (which was struggling to show through the high cloud layer), but the valley lights to the northeast were fuzzy through the fog layer while the ones to the east and southeast were brighter and more distinct. Because of the chest-high brush lining the summit road, there was nowhere to set the camera to take a picture towards the valley, so I simply took a picture of myself and set off for the north summit a few minutes away. There I found a solar installation and a small shed, which at least gave me something to take a picture of. Continuing north on the road brought be back around to the west and the saddle with Ell Peak and the beginning of my return.
The return route followed the ascent almost directly, with a slight variation with about a mile and a half to go. My GPS showed another old road that I had not seen on the topo map or satellite view that looked to save maybe half a mile off the circuitous route I was using to get around the home. Unfortunately the road was not exactly located where depicted on the GPS and I spent maybe 20 minutes thrashing about needlessly through the brush. I thought it was funny how my brain was willing to accept the road's existence in the absence of real evidence to support it. I would see a small clearing through the brush and think, "Ah, the old road went through there" and did this repeatedly before concluding there was never any such road in the area I was thrashing through. Even with the use of my headlamp I could find no real traces of a track or road. I went back to the original road, followed it down a hundred yards to a dry creek channel, and found the road I was looking for. It was no longer a usable road, but there was a well-defined cow path through the brushy, oak forested understory that I followed down to Big Sand Creek and the main road. I was finally back at the gate by 6:45a, just ahead of schedule. It was starting to grow light out by now and the moon was completely obscured by the clouds. It had been a good transition from moonlight to daylight and aside from the recent thrashing on the wrong trail, very little headlamp was needed through the night.
I drove back west on G16, up and over the pass and down to the junction with Tassajara Rd. I took this and another road to the Los Padres Dam trailhead leading into the Ventana Wilderness and the Santa Lucia Range from the north. My next peak of interest was the highpoint of Blue Rock Ridge, a publicly accessible point just inside the Los Padres National Forest and Ventana Wilderness. It is located just off the Big Pines Trail that goes between Los Padres Dam and Big Pines Camp. I had been along this trail many years ago on a one-way hike to Bottchers Gap but had missed the highpoint. Mine was the only vehicle in the muddy trailhead lot when I started off at 7:30a.
I hiked over the bridge across the spillway, then up to the dam and along the trail/road that goes around the west side of the reservoir. The road was strewn with old leaves among which could be found banana slugs (easy to spot) and newts (not so easy). The newts would be a particular concern that kept my eye on the roads and trails for much of the day since they are slow moving and hard to notice unless looking for them. The idea of squishing one accidently was a bit disconcerting and I hoped I (and they) would not be so unfortunate. I found the old road I was looking for shortly before reaching the Big Pines Trail junction. The old road depicted on the topo map serves as a steep shortcut to Blue Rock Ridge. There was much leaf litter and some encroaching brush, but for the most part it was quite servicable though not maintained as a trail. It didn't follow the same path shown on the topo, but it did make for the steep shortcut I had expected.
It was about 8:30a when I met up with the Big Pines Trail on a subsidiary ridge about half a mile below Blue Rock Ridge. The tread was narrow, but compact and easy to follow. Some flagging along the route was not really helpful, but might be should the trail become overgrown. Upon reaching Blue Rock Ridge I continued along the trail now heading west, alert to the batches of poison oak growing alongside the trail. There were no leaves to be found, just the light brown colored branches sticking into the trail in a very innocuous manner. Contact was not entirely avoidable so I kept my hands raised and considered my pants and lower shirt to be contaminated. I would strip them off when I was done hiking and change into other clothes to keep from spreading the contamination. Just before 9a I came upon the namesake formation for which the ridge was named. More of a dark green color, Blue Rock sticks out in an obvious fashion, with almost no vegetation growing over the moderately-sized hump along the ridge. A very large manzanita tree grows on its SE side. There's no need to keep an eye out to find it as the trail goes right over it. Elephant and Uncle Sam Mtns are seen to advantage to the south from the top of Blue Rock.
Just past Blue Rock one crosses the forest & wilderness boundary. The sign is dilapidated. I picked up several pieces lying on the ground and fit them back together atop the post, if only temporarily. The highpoint of Blue Rock Ridge is found only a few minutes beyond the boundary at a nondescript point only a few minutes above the trail. There are views of the Santa Lucia Range in three directions, east towards Los Padres Dam, south to Uncle Sam, and west to Big Pines where one can see most of the dead ponderosa pine snags that were consumed in the 2008 fire that swept through the area. The view north is blocked by brush and trees. Back at Blue Rock, one can get a view north to Ponciano Ridge and the Pine Creek drainage.
On the way back I stopped a few times to marvel at the madrone forests growing on the north side of the ridge and a few stately oaks that can be found on the ridge itself. On the return I utilized the Big Pines Trail for its entire length, finding it clearer of both poison oak branches and the hard-to-spot newts. On the lower part of the trail I met up with a solo backpacker on his way to Big Pines. The lower trail also offers a good view back at Blue Rock Ridge. I came upon a burned signpost at the junction for Danish Creek Camp. Someone had scratched the various routes into the post to make up for the sign which was no longer there. I got back to the junction with the Carmel River Trail just after 10a and back to the trailhead half an hour later. There were another 3-4 parties out for hikes around and below the dam, all of them with dogs that were friendly enough.
I spent about 40 minutes driving back out to G16 and through Carmel Valley to a trailhead for the Garland Ranch Regional Park on the south side of the valley. My original plan called for climbing two peaks starting from this park, Pinyon Peak and Vasquez Knob. The totals for the two peaks was something like 10-12 miles with more than 4,000ft of gain. It was 11a before I was starting and it seemed unlikely I'd get both done before I needed to start home by 2p. This is a very popular park. There were several folks at the trailhead and many more on the various trails I plied, many out with their dogs. The park is open to hiking and equestrians, but no bikes. Most of the trails are old ranching roads and the ones that go to the summit ridges are steep with few switchbacks. I followed the Mesa Trail to start, missing a turn onto the Oakview Trail at a junction a quarter mile from the TH. This took me over the Mesa area on the north side of the ridge, past a pond and some circuitous wandering before finding the Sky Trail, an alternate route to the summit ridge.
It was noon when I reached a junction atop Snivley's Ridge. This ridge runs for almost 4 miles NW to SE and has some fine views of the Monterey area. Clouds and coastal fog obscured the views some today, but on a clear day it would be superb. I followed the crest heading northwest, shortly picking up a use trail runing up the east ridge of the highpoint of Snively's Ridge found northeast of Pinyon Peak. There is a fine view of Pinyon Peak from this open grassy highpoint where I could see a thin use trail running up the connecting ridgeline between the two points. This was just what I was hoping to find. Pinyon Peak turns out to be outside the regional park, but the good use trail does a great job of connecting it up with only a bit of elevation loss to the adjoining saddle. The trail weaves along the northside of the ridgeline for much of it and makes for a rather fun half mile adventure hike.
I reached the summit of Pinyon Peak around 12:20p. There is an old, boarded up lookout atop the flat, grassy summit. A memorial plaque at the base dedicates the tower to a Sidney Ormsbee, a forester who roamed these parts almost 100 years ago. A few picnic benches add a nice touch to the fabulous views. The highpoint is actually found about 50 yards to the southwest and I wandered over there to see if there was anything else of interest. There wasn't. To the southwest is another access road to the peak, but it goes through a high-end gated community and is closed to the public. This in fact would be the easiest way to get to the summit if someone were to either ride a bike or hike the road, though cover of night might be necessary. I also found a pretty good view to Vasquez Knob to the east. The connecting route with the least elevation loss goes through the private community and was pretty much out of the question. I'd have to go back down to the canyon between the two peaks and climb another 2,000ft up to Vasquez Knob. There was no way I was going to do it with a little more than 1.5hrs remaining so I had to give it up. I would be back in the area again in future months to drop my son off again, so I'll just save it for then.
I returned via the use trail to Snivley's Ridge, then took it all the way down to the Oakview Trail and eventually back to the trailhead I'd started at. It had been a good day and a long one, too. I didn't make the 10,000ft of gain or 40 miles that would have required an ascent of Vasquez Knob, but it was still a pretty good workout. The highlight turned out to be the Garland Ranch park that I knew nothing about just a few days ago and gave me a new appreciation for the beautiful country in the northern part of the Santa Lucia Range.
This page last updated: Sat Mar 30 12:06:52 2013
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