Red Hill P750

Mon, Oct 1, 2012
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Red Hill is the 5th most prominent summit in Merced County with 842ft. Add to that an elevation of barely over 2,400ft and it becomes clear there's not a whole lot going for it. I was unable to make it to the Sierra this week due to a busy family schedule, but I was still eager to get out to hike somewhere. It was already a few days past the full moon and I hated to let the month go by without a night hike, so I hastily arranged one for a Monday night. I was needed to coach practice for my wife's 7th grade volleyball team that evening until 7:30p, after which I rushed home, took a shower, tossed a few things in the car and took off. It took just over an hour to drive to the parking lot for the Upper Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area where I arrived at 9:30p.

I had actually stopped in the parking lot only a week earlier on my way back from the Sierra. There is little more than a brown sign indicating the turnoff when westbound on SR152 a few miles before Pacheco Pass. The turnoff goes only about 50yds into a parking lot area where a small kiosk provides maps and self-issue permits. I learned that the area, about 10sq miles in size, is primarily used for hunting during the late summer. Free to the public, it has a small network of roads and trails to provide access to the main canyon and various ridgelines. While hunting is not permitted at night, I saw nothing to indicate hiking or wildlife viewing was restricted at any time. What do you know? - some of the evening's route would actually be legal.

It was unseasonably warm this week all over California, the San Luis Reservoir area being no exception. With daytime temps over 95F, the nighttime temps would dip only to about 60F. It was probably at least 70F when I started and would remain fairly warm the whole night. The moon had risen about an hour earlier and was already high enough to light most of the hillsides and canyons. I would need a headlamp for some sidehilling on use trails, some cross-country travel and a few shady places in the canyon, but for the most part the moon was sufficient.

I passed through an opening in the fence on the SE side of the parking lot and followed a well-beaten path for about a quarter mile down a slope towards the main canyon. Passing through a second opening, the trail seemed to vanish in the tall, brown grass that grew almost waist high. Continuing cross-country down the slope was not difficult as I made my way down to a freshly graded road found at the bottom of the canyon. I followed the road and then a use trail north for perhaps half a mile before I spotted a steep trail climbing out of the canyon to the northeast. I made my way up this path, joining another road higher up, climing nearly 1,000ft to the northern boundary of the wildlife area at around 1,500ft.

At this point a fence marks the boundary between the wildlife area and adjacent ranches. The ground is remarkably telling - knee-high grass (all brown now) and thistles on the wildlife side, nearly bare earth on the other. By this time of year the cattle have mowed just about every edible bit from the ground leaving it starkly naked, even by moonlight. At least I wouldn't be getting any more thistles in my socks between here and the summit. I found my way to the dirt road that winds its way up to the main E-W ridgeline. There is some undulation and resulting loss of elevation, but not so bad. The road was wide and well-graded, holding few surprises (like rocks hiding in the shade of the occasional oak tree), allowing me to jog the downhills and watch the surrounding countryside on the uphills rather than concentrate on an uneven road. I paused at one point to take a long-exposure photograph of the scene behind me, the cars and trucks on SR152 zipping by in the background. The picture didn't do justice to the amazing visibility provided by the nearly full moon.

At the main ridge I turned right to follow along Red Mountain Rd (dirt, like the rest of them) towards the highpoint of the ridge another mile further. I met a handful of cattle along the way. Several were unnerved by my presence and took off while a few others didn't seem to care a hoot and continued with whatever they were doing (sleeping or eating, I couldn't tell) as if I wasn't there. A relay tower is located at a shallow saddle between the two highest points along the ridge. It was nice that they didn't place it at the highpoint. Like most of the area, the highest knoll was mowed over to nubbins and an easy hike off the road. I took some photos looking south to the reservoir and east to the Central Valley.

In heading back down, I intended to take the same route I had on the way up, but my curiousity got the best of me. I followed a secondary road down that I thought might lead directly to the main canyon, but it soon ended at a small pond, now mostly dry with a bit of mud. Rather than backtrack, I continued down the hillside, mostly open albeit steep, dropping some 800ft in about a mile. Along the way I passed once more into the wildlife area upon crossing a fence, picking up thistles and seeds in my socks once again on the other side. My biggest fright of the night came when I was only a few feet from stepping on a skunk that looked to be sleeping in the weeds. Luckily I had been using my headlamp to illuminate the uneven terrain ahead of me an jumped about three feet sideways when I spotted the skunk who also jumped up alert at the same time. I would have liked to get a picture, but I was afraid it might spray me if given half a chance and that would not have been all too pleasant. At the bottom of the hill I was happy to find a hunters' trail running along the streambed found in the canyon. It was bone-dry at this time of year, but a few green things managed to grow still. Fortunately I saw no poison oak to ruin my night. I eventually reconnected with the trails and roads I had taken coming in and found my way back to the parking lot at 12:30p - just about three hours even for an 8.5mi hike. The drive back was equally delightful with very little traffic at this time of night and with the top down on the convertible the temperatures were by now cool and relaxing...

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