McDonald Peak HPS
Alamo Mountain P2K HPS
San Rafael Peak P750 HPS
Thorn Point P500 HPS
Escapula Peak P1K

Sat, Jun 13, 2009

With: Tom Becht
Matthew Holliman

McDonald Peak
Alamo Mountain
San Rafael Peak
Thorn Point
Escapula Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 Profiles: 1 2


I had found a small pullout just off Gold Hill Rd near Gorman to sleep for the night. Aside from a few stray trucks wandering into the OHV area of Hungry Valley, I was left undisturbed. I was up at 4:30a to get dressed and breakfast, Tom arriving within two minutes of our 5a meeting time. Among his many fine traits, the man is punctual.

I was surprised to learn that Matthew was going to be joining us as well. I hadn't even mentioned the outing to him, knowing his disdain for HPS peaks in general, and the ones planned for the day being some of the weakest among them. He had found the weather in the Sierra as distasteful as I had, and when Glenn had bowed out of the planned trip to Tehipite Dome, Matthew headed to Southern Californina. Glenn had told him that Tom and I were planning to hike in the Ventura area, so Matthew left a message on Tom's phone. Tom returned the call at 2:30a when he awoke, in turn waking Matthew up from a sound sleep in Lockwood Valley, and relayed the meeting time and place. And just after Tom finished relaying this story to me, Matthew's car pulls up. And so we were three.

We left two of the cars at the start of Gold Hill Rd and headed into Hungry Valley. There were actually four of us traveling in the Element as Tom had also brought his Dog Coco. This was the first time Matthew or I had met Coco and he made a very good impression - I couldn't imagine a more well-behaved pooch. She was excited to be going on a hike and would restlessly pace the back of the Element looking outside and waiting for the car to stop, signaling the start of the hike.

After some twenty minutes we reached the Pine Creek crossing and were abruptly stopped by a closed gate just before the creek. What?! We instantly had competing thoughts in our head, on one side the indignation that this road could be closed in summer, and on the other hand regret that we didn't think to check beforehand. This would certainly put a crimp on our plans. We got out to inspect the gate and the creek. While Tom fiddled with the chain and locks, I noted that the creek was no higher than when we had crossed it previously. What could be the reason? Tom then gave a small shout and having discovered the secret of the gate, proceeded to pull the chain out of its housing. It seems someone had cut the chain (half of a cut link was found nearby) and replaced it to look like it was still locked. Success! We drove through the gate then carefully replaced it similar to how we'd found it. Not too far up the road we found a downed tree blocking part of the road, but it was still possible to drive around it. That was the only obstacle we found on the roads that morning.

It was 6:15a before we pulled over in the vicinity of McDonald Peak. We didn't use either of the HPS THs described in the guide, but found a pullout about halfway in between the two that would cut the normal mile hike in half. This was not much of a peak, at least in terms of effort. We headed up a dry gully, evidence of the fires from 2007 evident all about us. The fires did not seem to consume the entire landscape, leaving a good many trees still standing and alive, even if the trunks had scorched. In other places the burn was more thorough. It was encouraging to see small seedlings making an effort to begin the restoration.

In the early morning hours we were well above the cloud and fog layer hovering around the 5,000-foot level to the south of us. This would change as the cloud level rose as the day warmed, along with weak thunderstorms developing overhead. It took less than 20 minutes to reach the summit of McDonald at 6,800ft. The views weren't much to look at with a combination of trees, fog, and haze blocking much of it. We signed into the HPS register found in a small cairn, and headed back a few minutes later. Ours were the first entries of the year, owing we presume, to the locked gate near the creek.

We were back at the car by 6:50a and after another 15 minutes of driving we were at the small saddle for approaching Alamo from the west described in the HPS guide. This was another easy summit that would take less than 20 minutes to reach the top. The going was cross-country up modest, grassy slopes in the forest understory. There were ducks and pink ribbons found periodically to mark the route, though they seemed unnecessary. I collected the pink ribbons when I found them and left the ducks unmolested.

The highpoint wasn't immediately obvious as there are competing areas that look to be of similar height in the broad summit area. We got lucky in picking the rocky outcrop where we found the summit register nearby. Coco appeared disappointed that the hike was so short and looked about restlessly. We took a short break here in the sun, then headed back. It wasn't quite 8a when we'd finished the second peak, but we'd spent just as much time driving as we had hiking. And there was more driving up next.

We drove all the way back out to Gorman, picked up the other two cars and drove to Frazier Park. We dropped off Matthew's car and drove the other two out to Lockwood Valley and onto the Mutau Flat Rd. We left my van near the Pine Spring CG a few miles in, then together drove with Tom and Coco another ten miles of dirt road out to the Johnson Ridge TH near Mutau Flat. The only other car we came across that day happened to be nearly the same model and color as Tom's Element. All of this manuevering took more than two hours and it was after 10a before we were heading out for San Rafael Peak.

San Rafael offered more of a challenge, 10mi RT with about 2,400ft of gain. The route goes through a rugged and dry part of the Los Padre NF, having more in common with the HPS peaks around Santa Barbara than those closer to Frazier Park. We all agreed that it was a good hike, better than expected. The first mile goes down gently to Mutau Flat where there is some mild confusion as to where the trail goes, but by following the HPS guide we kept on the right path. We passed by the Sespe Wilderness sign and had some trouble crossing the creek. The water was low, but the area was swampy, and by some zigzag manuevers we managed our way across without getting our boots too wet.

One could tell that Coco has done many hikes like this. She likes to be in front, but will regularly stop to check that Tom is close behind. She rarely leaves the trail unless to explore something unusual (a dead bird got her attention at one point), but if Tom heads cross-country she will be bounding right behind him (or rather, in front of him). Matthew and I were not the same in her book, in fact we were as good as trees while we were hiking. Only Tom could provide her the necessary reassurance that all was good. As a result, we soon found that Tom had to either hike in front or some distance behind the two of us, to keep Coco from running back and forth across our path on the hike. But for the most part she was an excellent hiker and had no trouble at all keeping up with us, even at the end of the day when we'd finished nearly 20 miles.

The Wilderness sign should have marked the end of motorized traffic, but there were tire treads leading across the creek and continuing east along the trail. Even a motorcycle barricade at another trail junction did not deter at least a few cyclists. On one hand I could certainly sympathize with the cyclists because I know if I was in to that mode of recreation this trail would be very enticing. On the other hand the motorcycles do the trail no service - they chew up the ground to a sandy consistency much worse than do horses or mules. And on the switchbacks they are downright mean, roostering around the corners and tearing up the ground. Oh well. We saw no motorized traffic for the few hours we were on the trail, though evidently someone had gone by while we were on the cross-country portion since our boot prints were wiped out by fresh treads. Oddly, we never heard the passing motorcycle.

It took about an hour to reach the point where the trail goes over a small saddle northwest of the peak. Here we turned right and headed south up a faint use trail (better in some places) that roughly followed the Northwest Ridge of San Rafael. We went up and over several intermediate bumps, eventually finding ourselves enveloped in the clouds that came swirling up from the south. It was shortly after noon when we we finally reached the large cairn marking the summit. There wasn't a view to be had in any direction, though on a clear day this would probably have great views looking south. The register we found dated back to 1974. The first party listed from that year was a large HPS group taking three pages to hold all the signatures. We added our own, took a 15 minute break, then headed back down the same way. It was after 2p before we returned to the trailhead.

More driving. Back along Mutau Rd we went, over several creek crossings we had done earlier in the day. Two were trivial, but one was fairly deep with water splashing over the hood, the three of us nervously wondering if the Element could motor across the second time. It did. We reached the campground at the Thorn Point TH some twenty minutes later. We were the only occupants of this primative campground consisting of only a couple sites and a large turnaround area. Some searching ensued before we found the start of the trail at the campsite described in the HPS guide. There were no signs or kiosks to mark the spot.

The trail starts off roughly with a quick rollercoaster up and down steep embankments to get one across the creek, then it continues for a mile along a gentle, surprisingly lush route following a stream in a southwesterly direction. About the time one begins to wonder if this is the right trail, it starts to climb out of the forested canyon and onto the chaparral covered hillsides above. One has to marvel some at the engineering of the trail as it twists and turns around side canyons and across narrow connecting saddles, then up through an impressive cliff band found on the north side of Thorn Point. Eventually the cliffs ease as the last part of the trail is once again under forest cover as it makes its way to the 6,900-foot summit. In all we spent just under an hour and a half on the four mile trail, about par for the course.

The top is crowned by a large lookout tower built in the 1930's. It has been years since it was last maintained, but it still stands erect and receives many visitors. A register and sign stand below the tower, and we left Coco here to pine for us (Ok, for Tom) as we went up the steep stairs to view the cab. The deck around the cab was made of wood and looked old enough to collapse under our weight, but it held nicely. Still, we were nervous walking about the outside. Inside was a mess with some semblence of order - cabinets had odds and ends, a few supplies, a geocache, maps and other things of modest interest.

Unlike San Rafael, the sun was shining and we had great views looking off the north towards Mt. Pinos and Frazier Mtn. To the south was the wall of clouds that had not dissipated. A breeze was now blowing out of the north and it combined with the fog for an odd effect - the rising fog from the south would be caught by the wind as it cleared the ridgeline, causing it to rise further and be blown backwards, giving it the look of a wildfire. We stayed about 10 minutes before heading back down, much to Coco's relief.

Tom put vibram pads on Coco's feet to help keep them from further wear on what was turning out to be a long day. She had some trouble with these however, causing here to lose her footing at one place on the trail, so Tom ended up removing them. She was a fine soldier and finished the trek without complaining, despite a slightly bloody foot from her slip on the trail.

We were back at the campground around 5:15p. After a break to cool down, we all piled back in the Element (Coco didn't take long to fall asleep) for the ride back. Neither Matthew nor Tom were interested in hiking the two remaining HPS peaks near where my van was parked. Fortunately I had done them on a previous trip or I would have been out after dark chasing these two by myself. But I was still interested in Escapula Peak, the only named peak in the San Emigdio Mtns that I had yet to climb. It was a silly reason to climb a peak, but it was an easy one and I figured I could fit it in well enough before the drive back home. Neither of the others could be talked into joining me.

So we parted ways on Mutau Rd, Tom driving Matthew back to his car at Frazier Park. I drove north out of Lockwood Valley, then west through Cuddy Valley and the Forest Road leading to Escapula and Tecuya Ridge. The road was in good enough shape for the van, though steep - the wheels slipped a few times trying to gain traction at the toughest sections. I parked at a turnout on the road where the 7.5' topo map indicated there was a 4x4 road leading to the summit of Escapula.

Instead of a 4x4 road, I found a fence, but behind this I soon came across the remnants of the old road. Most of it was still in pretty good shape, but the only traffic it has seen for years has been the occasional ATV or motorcycle. As I hiked the route, little more than a mile to the summit, I noticed clouds overhead. The higher summits of the San Emigdios had developed some weak thunderstorms, but these never produced any rain that I could discern, just a darkening cloud layer. I got a bit of drizzle on the way back, but nothing much to be concerned about. The summit itself was unsatisfying, a rounded lump amid the pines that cover this area. There was no register to be found, just some half-buried trash that someone thought could be conveniently tucked under a rock. Not a good mark for the OHV folks.

Upon my return I treated myself to a warm shower using the solar-powered bladder I had left on the dash most of the day. Despite the coolish 50F degree temperature at 7:30p, it was delightful. What a difference it makes for the 4hr drive to have the salt and sweat washed off. I should have thought of this years ago...

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