Sat, Nov 27, 2010
It was cold all over California during the long Thanksgiving weekend, no less so in Southern California where I spent the holiday with family. It was 30F at 8a in Santa Clarita the morning the kids and I were scheduled to drive back to San Jose. Two hours later when we left, it had only warmed to 40F. I didn't want to subject the kids (nor myself) to hiking in such temperatures, so I figured I'd just "see what it was like" when we drove by the Templin Hwy Exit off Interstate 5. To my surprise it was 54F a few thousand feet higher where the TH is found just off the old Golden State Hwy west of the Interstate. A hike would work. Now I just needed to convince the kids.
Jackie took no convincing at all and was nearly as eager as me to get a hike in before heading for home. Ryan was a different story and could not believe I was proposing a hike of some nine miles. "Why can't we just go home?" If Jackie hadn't been game, that's what we'd have done, but since he was the only flat tire among us I gave him the choice of joining us or staying in the car. "How long will it take?" he asked, pleadingly. He didn't like the three hour estimate I gave him. "What am I going to do in the car for three hours?!" Not our problem. Seeing that he was rapidly losing this skirmish, he tried another tack. "Can't you find something easier?" No, this one would do just fine. In way of offering an incentive I told him he could choose our lunch place on the drive back if he got on board with the program. "Can I still choose if I stay in the car?" No, he couldn't. In the end Ryan decided not to join us, choosing to stick to his guns rather than give in. I didn't really care and apparently neither did his sister, so we happily put on our boots and took off.
The sign at the TH is a bit confusing. One side says 4 miles to Whitaker Peak, the other says 4 1/2 miles. The actual mileage is somewhere in between (4.25mi on TOPO). But as we found out later, this is the distance to the lower, southwestern summit where there used to be a lookout tower. The road is paved, but neglected for many years. Brush is still cleared from the sides occasionally to allow vehicles to pass. A gate at the start keeps all those without one of several access keys from driving on it. We followed the road south as it climbs the eastern side of a ridge, rising above the busy Interstate below us. The skies were partly cloudy but the air was very clear. As usual, my attention was on the surrounding peaks and ranges. The Liebre Range rose on the east side of the freeway with the San Gabriels, topped with a bit of snow, to the southeast across the Santa Clarita valley.
Jackie was more interested in things closer at hand. She has been working diligently on the Nature merit badge (nevermind that it's part of the Boys Scouts' advancement program and she happens to be a girl - that's another story) and was more interested in the plants and seeds, soil profiles, and animal tracks that we found along the way. Her biggest regret was that we didn't have plaster with us in order to cast the fine deer prints we found in the dirt portions of the road. She collected a sample of granite, picked up an acorn (and tossed it a minute later when the cap came off), and looked for other collectables. She astutely observed that there were very few trees in this National Forest. I pointed out a few hiding on the north side canyons and high on the ridges in the distance, but had to agree there was very little forest about this environment. There was evidence of the 2007 fire that had burned over the area, looking well on its way to recovery. I showed her how resilient the manzanita and other brushy plants were, new branches bunched up at the base of the larger burned ones.
After about a mile and half the road forks with our (left) branch headed west, away from the freeway. Views to the west were opened up, with a fine view of Cobblestone Mtn and White Mtn to the northwest. Between them and Whitaker is a 3,000ft drop to Piru Creek, perhaps the most picturesque gorge in the area. We took about an hour and 40 minutes to hike up to the end of the road where the old tower once stood. Nothing remains of it, not even the footings. There is a fine view of the Piru Creek drainage and its terminus at the Piru Reservoir about six miles to the south. Jackie had a chance to rest while I walked around the area to take in the views and snap some photos. Just northeast was a small communications tower atop a slightly higher hill. Behind it, about half a mile away was the higher northeast summit of Whitaker Peak that I planned to tag on the way back. There is no road or trail to its summit so I figured I'd not abuse Jackie by making her join me for the bushwhack.
Shortly after starting back, a small pack of four dogs came running up the road towards us. There were followed by a women jogging up the road for an afternoon workout. Contrary to our initial concern, they were all quite friendly. The road follows along the northwest side of Whitaker, and where it passes just below the saddle between the two summits, I decided it would be a good place to start the bushwhack up to the highpoint. I instructed Jackie to keep hiking down the road, telling her I'd join back up with her in fifteen minutes or so. It took only half that time to find my way along the ridgeline to the summit, taking advantage of an old use trail that had been cut through the brush some time in the past. There was an old wooden post, badly burned, that had been erected with guy wires at the top but now fallen over. Next to it was a benchmark that I dusted off before photographing. Not wanting to leave Jackie for too long, I left almost immediately.
I'd hoped to descend a ridge down the north side to intersect the road on that side, but there was too much brush and it looked too steep. On my own I might have gone down that way just to try it out, but in the interest of time I decided it would probably be faster just to go back the way I came. Jogging on the road once I reached it, I caught up with Jackie about twenty minutes after I'd left her. She was glad to see me, having started to worry a bit. A few minutes later we spotted a black and white sheriff's truck making its way along the road ahead of us. Jackie was instantly nervous and I had to admit I was a bit concerned. The only reasonable explanation I could think of was that either they didn't like that I'd left my son in the van, or he had done something to get in trouble outside of it. I couldn't remember leaving any matches in the car so I doubted he'd started a fire, but who knew - maybe he'd been creativel destructive. The vehicle stopped when we were about 50 yards away and it was then that I was sure they had driven up looking for us.
I expected one of the two officers inside to roll down a window as we approached to signal which one I was supposed to talk with. But no window came down as we got within a few yards and all we got was a friendly wave from the two. We passed by without exchanging a word. Now I was even more curious why they might have driven up that road (there is a locked gate at the start to which one has to have a key for one of the locks). Were they bored while patrolling the Interstate? Just wanted to come up for the view, perhaps? A gay tryst? I didn't mention the last possibility to Jackie and we concluded it must be that they were just driving up for the views. I explained to her how adults sometimes "screw off" at work. At some future date I will explain how many adults do so a lot. The truck would pass us again on its way back about twenty minutes later.
We got back to the TH shortly before 2p. No sign of Ryan outside. We found him curled up in the back fast asleep when we approached. He reported sleeping quite snugly, the sun warming the inside despite the 54F outside temperature and he didn't need to use the blanket stored inside. He also reported having gone outside to check things out and play a bit, but darting back to the car when the woman and her dogs came jogging back down the road. He spent time reading the owner's manual to the van before eventually deciding to nap. I thought he might be irritated with us for being gone so long, but he was really very good about it, his only question, "So, what's for lunch?"
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