Bought Land In Lone Pine

I’ve finally found a place where Amy and I can and want to build a home. It’s in the Alabama Hills below Mount Whitney in the high desert of the Eastern Sierra. Hollywood and I fell in love with this area because of the expansive views of the Eastern Sierra and the unusual boulders in the area. The rounded and peculiar boulders of the Alabama Hills give a good foreground for camera shots while the high Sierra rise 10,000 feet above this chunk of high desert.

We closed on the 2.68 acre lot today and paid $165,000 for it. We could have bought 5 acres nearby for $125,000, but it didn’t have the boulders and views that we now own. Amy is designing a beautiful home and we will start showing various professionals the plans soon. It will probably take us over a year to build our beautiful mountain home nestled in the boulders. The monumental challenge of building a home has scared me more than anything in a long time, but we’re committed to do it.  Check out these pictures to know why.

This is the front gate of the property. The previous owner was a wood carver and carved this cool old bird – probably a raven. This bird and two rocks give the property its name of the Bird House.
The FSBO sign didn’t have any contact information on it, so I had to call the county to find the owner. You can barely make out a road going up to the rocks – a clearing in the sage brush to the left of Amy. Our neighbor Yoost’s property is on the right with two new homes and Gill’s barn is right to the left of the bird totem.
Here’s the first draft of the layout of our house in the boulders. Amy is in the Master bedroom and there will be decks all around the property. Decks to the right and in front of the property and have amazing panoramic views while decks in the back will have serene views of the boulders.
Here’s a video I made by pointing my phone at Google Maps and walking around the property.

Why Lone Pine?

Here are the main reasons we chose Lone Pine:

It’s a much different landscape than Santa Barbara. The Sierra and desert are a great contrast to beautiful Santa Barbara with its coastal mountains and ocean. We’ll be living in the country here with horses and cows outnumbering our neighbors.

It’s much more affordable than Santa Barbara. It’s hard to find anything nice in SB for $800k, so we should be able to build a custom home for less than half that. The cost of living up here is pretty low too.

The scenery is wonderful!

This will mainly be a mountain vacation home. It gets very hot there in July and August and is pretty cold from November to March. Santa Barbara has some of the best weather in the world, so we’ll be in Santa Barbara if we don’t like the weather up here.

Hollywood started coming to the Alabama Hills in the 1920s to film epic westerns. The Western Film History Museum is in Lone Pine and many stars have filmed here from Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Lucille Ball and Hopalong Cassidy.  Many present movies have filmed here like scenes from Iron Man, Gladiator, Transformers, Lone Ranger, Godzilla, Django Unchained and Star Trek. They came here for the scenery and so have I.

See how hundreds of the movies were filmed here:

https://.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_shot_in_Lone_Pine

I first came through the area in 1986 when I was looking for a job. I had spent the summer working the snack bar in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park which is directly west of Lone Pine. When the season ended in October, I went to Yosemite to look for work, but they were shutting down for the season as well. I went to Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, but they wouldn’t open until they got some snow. People told me that Death Valley would have some work because they were opening for the winter, so I went through lonely Lone Pine on the way there. Lone Pine sits basically half way between Kings Canyon and Death Valley, the first two places I worked in California. Lone Pine is a remote town of only 2,000 people, and grew from 1,655 people in 2000.

Lone Pine sits at about 3,700’ in  the Owens Valley – the deepest valley in America. This rift valley is hemmed in by Sierra Nevada fourteeners to the west and the White Mountain with their own fourteeners to the northeast. To the south and east is the Mojave desert which contains Death Valley. From the dry valley floor to the highest mountains of the Sierra, Lone Pine Lone is the gateway to many outdoor activities.

Many people from LA drive through Lone Pine on their way to Mammoth Mountain ski resort or other areas north like Yosemite. The main attraction in Lone Pine is Mt. Whitney – the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Taller than any peak in Colorado, Whitney does not look particularly tall compared to other mountains in the area because it is a little farther east. Still, the beauty of Mt. Whitney and all its friends is right in our face on the property

At 12,944’, Lone Pine Peak looks taller than Mt. Whitney because it is several miles east and closer to the valley floor. The 3,000’ tall south face of Lone Pine Peak make it the tallest wall of granite outside of Yosemite Valley. The gray face of Lone Pine Peak is the spitting images of Half Dome or El Capitan that is only about 100 miles away as the crow flies.

Another Lone Pine oddity and attraction are the Alabama Hills – a collection of boulders and hills between Lone Pine and Mount Whitney. The Alabama Hills are made of the same granite as the Sierra, but these mountain tops have been eroded in a different way. The Alabama boulders and hills form precarious, interesting shapes that have rounded edges that contrast the sharp edges of the Sierra.

The boulders are rounded because they are eroded by spheroidal weathering. This chemical weathering pattern is also known as onion skin weathering, spherical weathering and woolsack weathering. Onion skin weathering is the easiest way for me to visualize the boulders because layers of rock often peel off and form rounded boxes, alcoves, arches and interesting, repeating patterns. The rocks are extraordinary and ended up being the reason why we bought property in the Alabama Hills.

I’ve been looking for homes in the area around Lone Pine, Olancha and even as far away as Kennedy Meadows for decades. The land was much cheaper away from coastal California because it is fairly remote at about 200 miles from Los Angeles. Lone Pine offers a few restaurants, a market, repair shops and a hospital. Lone Pine mainly offers solitude and stunning views, so I bought into it.

Day 4 to Sespe Hot Springs: Bountiful Flowers and Lizards

I thought I might not have much to say about my final day hiking out, but then I looked at my photos and footage and knew I had a few things to show you. I was able to capture some lizard escorts and river crossings that came out great. See for yourself in this video.

I started the day getting up early after going to bed early. I was up with the sun and did some Qi Gong exercises. Qi is a Chinese concept of energy or vital energy while Gong means cultivation or mastery. So Qi Gong means cultivation and mastery of vital energy. In the video above, I do a couple minute routine where I breathe in and expand and breathe out and contract. It’s a simple process where I breathe in and move out and breathe out and contract in. I’ve written more about it here.

I hit the road pretty early for me at about 7:30. I wanted to get home and see Amy. I’d been texting her via my satellite transponder, but it’s not nearly the same as being there. It didn’t take long for me to get into the spirit of the trail. The shadows were out and the flowers were in full bloom on this spring day. It’s hard to capture the mood of a spring morning, but it was exhilirating!

Check out some of these pics:

Sunrise in my camp on the river.
Long shadows in the early morning.
A nice portrait mode shot of the prolific yellow flowers.
Golden rivers.
Bumblebee heaven!
More winding paths.
Those long claws work well on the rocks.
The lone hiker.
Happy camper.
Ceanothus in bloom with some Douglas Firs in the background.
I don’t know what happened to this little guy.

In the end, I hiked over 30 miles in 4 days. That might not sound like much, but with the river crossings and soggy boots for two days, it felt like just the right amount. I came off the trail invigorated and feeling good. I hope you have a chance to get out and feel some of the power of nature.

Day 3 to Sespe Hot Springs: Rattle Snakes and Horny Toads

I woke up on day three with little rest from the windstorm. I was tired as I walked out of camp, but the rattle snake I’d seen the day before woke me up. The rattler was headed toward the group of four Millenials in the campground, so I wanted to stop it in its track. I zoomed in with my iPhone and captured him relaxing in the grass until I got too close. Then he coiled up and started rattling. I made him retreat to the cactus, but he decided to go down into a deep hole. Quite a few ground squirrels live in the area, so he might have wanted an early lunch.

Here’s a video capture of the snake as he started to coil up. He had at least 11 rattles and was over 4′ long.

I can remember every time I’ve been rattled, it’s something I can’t forget:

  1. 1986 – Kings Canyon National Park when I was scrambling up a rock slide and it rattled right in my face. I couldn’t run away and it slid into the rocks before I did anything.
  2. 1992 – Buckhorn Road above Santa Barbara when I was riding a bike. I stopped and took his picture. I was impressed that he wouldn’t strike a stick that I poked at him. He knew the difference between my flesh and a stick.
  3. 2005 – Colorado Hills Open Space across near my house in Westminster, CO. I killed that rattler since a lot of hikers and dogs were out there. I threw rocks at it until I crushed it to death.
  4. April 21, 2020 – This rattler on the way into camp.
  5. April 22, 2020 – This rattler on the way out of camp.
  6. April 28, 2020 – Another rattler on the trail near Nira Campground. I walked right by it and then it jumped down on the trail in front of Amy rattling both of us. She ran down the trail and it scared her pretty good, but she did hike on.

I don’t like this trend. I hadn’t been rattled in 15 years and now three times in the last week. I hadn’t thought of rattlers in a while until my nephew Corey sent me a pic of a big one he just saw and heard. He said he’s been rattled 7 times in the last few months near Phoenix. I’m not in a competition with him and I hope neither of us see anymore.

After that, I ran into some horny toads and some frogs on an 8 mile hike. I crossed the streams multiple times, but took my boots off to cross in my light camp shoes. After the snake, it was an uneventful day of walking peacefully along the river. I could have spent the night at Willett hot springs, but I decided to have a peaceful night on the water by myself.

I set up camp in front of a lake on the river and sat back and watched the river and wildlife go by. It was very relaxing and I watched a mallard search for food on at least a half an hour. Bats and swifts flew by and ate many insects. Then the frogs came out to serenade me to sleep.

This little horny toad wouldn’t move until I poked him.
Ready to strike.
These succulents sprout flowers after a few years.
I haven’t seen these plants before.
Some interesting shale.
The Sespe River made easy work of carving through this sedimentary rock.

Day 2 To Sespe Hot Springs: Rattle Snakes, Big Horn Sheep and Sleeping Under the Stars

Day 2 started when a young Marine named Conrad walked near my camp while going to get some water. He said he’d been coming here for years and would like me to see his camp. Another solo camper and Eagle Scout named Cooper wanted to see the camp too, so we toured it together. I’d shared Cooper’s fire the night before and he was going to outdoor schools to learn to be a mountain guide. We kept our six foot distance at all times to avoid the coronavirus.

Conrad and his husky showed us around the old camp. The camp used to be used to be a base for hunting and fishing on the road to Sespe Hot Springs. Conrad and his girlfriend, who was exhausted and sleeping, were in the main cabin that had a bunkhouse. He showed us several other cabins, a vault and areas where hunters used to dress game.

Conrad’s husky was on a long leash attached to the cabin. Multiple buildings were still being used in Willet Hot Spring camp and a 2,000 sq ft foundation of a burnt down building was still there.
This stove had seen better days.

After the tour, I tried to pack my backpack and the side of my pack ripped out. I’d torn the backpack climbing through blown down trees on the previous trip and now the whole side panel ripped out. I could have tried to repair it with duct tape, but I just packed it so that nothing would fall out.

My boots weren’t dry from the day before, so I just kept trudging through the river crossings. I had to stop and drain my boots quite a few times with six river crossings in six miles. I just read that six Boy Scouts drowned on this river in 1969. I used my patented three legged down down to drain my boot to little avail.

Pouring water out of my book for the tenth time.

When I got near camp, the trail was overgrown and I walked into an overgrown section that fork. While I was deciding which fork to take, I heard the dreaded rattle of a rattlesnake. Hiking alone has it’s challenges, but getting bit by a poisonous snake is very painful. I did have my satellite texting device, but it could be a $100,000 bill if I had to get evacuated by a helicopter from this remote location. I’ve been rattled before and it’s usually so loud that I’ve know right where it was coming from. This rattle was kind of quiet though and I couldn’t echo locate it since the sound of a creek was almost as loud. I stood there and the rattle persisted.

I turned around to see if the sound was behind me, but the rattle faded. I turned back around and he kept rattling. I held my hiking pole out in front of me to see if I could locate him, but he didn’t rattle any louder. I had sunglasses on and was in the shade, so it was hard to see much detail. I finally located his dark, coiled shape in a path to my right were I wasn’t going. He was ready to strike if I came any closer. I took this picture and backed away.

This guy stopped me in my tracks. Luckily, he saw me first when I was about 10′ away. I’d see him again on my way out of camp.

I made it to camp about 1:00 and started looking for the hot springs. I dropped my pack at the only available campsite that I could find. The campsite had commanding views of the valley, but was rather exposed at the top of the hill. I’d talked to four guys on their way out earlier in the day and they said that the springs were far up the canyon. I went above my camp looking for the springs and couldn’t find them anywhere.

I eventually turned back around and ran into two couples who were staying for the week in the second campsite known as Palm Tree Camp. They were twenty somethings and one guy had long pony tails and the others looked like they might be camping out for quite a while. The leader of the camp was a friendly girl who had a nose ring. She showed me where the springs were and told me how they would be at the springs when the sun went down on the springs.

The sun was glaring down on me when I got in the hot springs. Copious amounts of 135 degree water flowed into the first tub and it was way too hot to lay in. I went to another rock bath where cold water was mixing with the extra-hot water. The pools were being baked by the sun at this time of the day.

The series of hot springs went from steeping hot on top to cold when the cold creek mixed to cool it off. I could only stay a few minutes before I was too hot to stay while the sun beat down. I joined the others in the hot springs once this fell into shade around 6:00.

I knew it wasn’t a good idea to boil in the hot springs in the direct sun for long. The air was probably 85 degrees and the direct sun made it feel like 105F. I only soaked in the 103F water for a few minutes before I was too hot. I went back up to my camp and laid in the shade watching the big horn sheep above camp. I ate some more Easter candy and gazed up at the sheep grazing a few hundred feet above me on steep cliffs.

The Bighorn Sheep used to live in this area until diseases from livestock killed them off around 1900. These sheep were reintroduced in
A Reeses Egg filled my mouth with some delicious sugar while I watched the big horn sheep graze on the cliffs above my camp. The sheep are perfectly camouflaged in the rocks, but it’s easier to see them in the video when they moved.

Late in the afternoon, the wind picked up and I looked for a less exposed campsite. The campsites were few and far between and I didn’t find one good enough to make me want to move. I should have taken a compromised one in a lower spot away from the wind, but I didn’t know there was going to be a major windstorm that night.

My tent is tall and makes a good sail, so I decided to sleep out under the stars that night instead of having my tent get blown down in the middle of the night. The tent also flaps in the wind like crazy, so I thought I’d sleep fine under the stars. I didn’t. After dark, the winds picked up and blew the ancient cottonwoods above my head. Many of the old limbs were dead and I feared one might fall on me.

As I lay there watching the big dipper rotate around the North Star, I could tell the time by its position. To quiet the gusty winds, I listened to Stephen Hawking’s book Brief Answers to Big Questions. The book is a very interesting read and better than his other book A Brief History of Time. Stephen talked about his personal life dealing with ALS and all the cool things he figured out and knew about black holes. I faded in and out all night, but never slept for more than an hour at a time. I wish I would have slept better, but I did the best I could.

I slept under the stars in the clearing on the left. I looked through the half-dead cottonwoods and worried that one of the dead branches might fall on me in the night. On top of that, I worried that the rattlesnake I saw would climb into my sleeping bag with me for some warmth. I should have been worried about the bugs that did crawl in and bit me all over.

Hiking Stats:

Day 2 to Sespe Hot Springs
Length6 Miles
Elevation Gain500′
Elevation Loss500′
NotesSix crossings of the creek kept my feet wet.

Day 1 To Sespe Hot Springs: Swollen Rivers, Lizard Escorts and a Hot Tub

I last wrote to you about being in a snow, wind and rain storm in the mountains above Santa Barbara. That storm turned out to be a string of storms that lasted until the day I hit the trail again on Monday, April 20th, 2020. I got to the trailhead and talked to a woman about the hike and she warned me that “There’s a lot of water out there!”. She told me how the river was deeper than her waist and how she teabagged half of her pack in the deep Sespe river.

It didn’t take long to see what she was talking about because I had to cross multiple creeks within the first half mile. My waterproof boots were soon leaking after barely dipping my foot in a creek. When I came to another creek crossing where the water was about two feet deep, I had to make a decision. I could have taken my boots off and worn my camp shoes across, but I figured that would take too much time. There were many more crossings, so I bit the bullet and walked across with my boots on.

I hiked nine miles the first night from Piedra Blanca Trailhead to Willett Hot Springs. It was mostly downhill and would have been an easy hike except for the river crossings. The thick brown line shows the extent of the Sespe Wilderness Area and the light green light shows the extent of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary.

As I trudged across the knee-deep water, my size 14 boots filled with water and my feet were nicely chilled. I got out and leaned on a rock and lifted one foot over my knee to create a three legged down dog pose. The water poured down my leg and off my knee. I moved my foot around and squeezed more water out of the lining of my boot that was super-absorbent. The weight of my boot doubled with all of the excess water from less than a pound to over two pounds. Over nine miles, this extra weight would make a huge difference.

That’s a half a cup of water in the bottom of my boot. Much more water was absorbed in the spongy layer around the edge of my boot.
Wringing my wet socks out.

I should have checked the map before I jumped in the creek, because the next four miles didn’t have a creek crossing. I felt like Frankenstein walking around in lead boots. I stopped and took my boots off and squeezed my soggy socks out, but they were far from dry.

I entered the Sespe Wilderness – the largest wilderness area next to a major metropolitan area – Los Angeles. The Sespe Wilderness covers 219,000 acres in the Topa Topa mountains and most of the area south of the river was part of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary that was established in 1947. I was hoping to see one of these endangered, majestic vultures plying the air, but none appeared.

Wilderness Areas are designated by Congress and no roads can go through a Wilderness Area. Wilderness is defined as, “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” About 11 million acres or 4.5% of America is designated Wilderness.

After the cool river/creek crossings, I was walking in sage brush and green meadows. It was partly cloudy and only 75 degrees that day – possibly the last cool day of the season. The next day and for the foreseeable future, the temp would be in the upper 80s. I had to go now to avoid the 90 and 100 degree days that would soon be coming.

Besides feeling like Frankenstein hiking in lead boots, the next few miles went by well. I had to cross the creek five more times. Each time I got out, I’d feel the fresh water in my boots. I eventually took off my socks and my feet seemed to work fine without the extra cushion and sogginess of the socks.

Lizards were perched on rocks every few yards on the trail. I saw well over one hundred as the miles wore on. The funniest ones would walk on the trail in front of me. They would scurry at twice my speed ahead of me and stop to seemingly wait for me. As my shadow approached them, they would scurry farther down the trail. This repeated over and over as they escorted me down the trail for a hundred yards at a time. Finally, they would drop off the trail and into the scrub. Then another would jump on the trail and lead me to the promised land.

I took a few breaks and ate a lot of half-price Easter candy on the trail. My favorite was a foot-long, Nerd Rope. I ate the whole thing in one mouthful. For dinner, I had some delicious Three Cheese Mac and Cheese. I decided to hike up the hill for an all-natural dinner in the hot tub.

Here are a few pics from the trail.

Entering the Sespe Wilderness Area.
Some sweet river-carved rocks with the Topa Topa mountains rising in the background. I could see a few patches of snow on the hike in, but they were gone when I hiked out three days later.
Waving fields of grass blew in the wind. The grass will be brown in a few more weeks of sun and 90 degree weather.
Some of the last clouds on the 6,000′ mountains. The clouds were soon gone and summer kicked in.
The trail mainly followed the old road that went to Sespe Camp below Sespe Hot Springs. Since the road wasn’t maintained for about 50 years, most of it has been overgrown and eroded away. The first few miles were in pretty good shape.
Love thy enemy – that’s some shiny poison oak.
Some colorful clouds at sunset over the Topa Topa Mountains.
The Willett Hot Springs Tub at the end of the day. I ate my Three Cheese Mac and Cheese re-hydrated dinner in the tub by myself.

Day 4 From Mission Pine Basin: Rain, Wind and Snow for 13 Miles

We knew the storm was coming. We had weather forecasts from the day before and expected it to hit around noon. We had to hike 12.8 miles and planned to leave camp by 7:30 to miss the brunt of the storm. I woke up about 6am and heard the wind blowing in the pines and water dripping on the tent. When the moon set and the clouds rolled in, my tent got eerily dark.

The winds continued to increase and Chip and I yelled back and forth across the camp so that we could be ready at the same time. I packed my wet tent and we hit the road at 7:33. We were in the relative shelter of the pine-covered valley for the first half hour. As we rose above 6,000′, the light rain turned to snow. The snow was much preferred because it would bounce off of us instead of sticking to our raingear.

Above 6,000′, we were back in the snow and thick fog. Several inches of snow had melted over the last couple days, but it was building again. Two more feet of snow has fallen up here since we left.

My leather gloves were soaked with rain before we reached the top of the mountain. I had trouble snapping my hip belt shut and keeping my poncho straight in the wind and rain. The hike was quite a slog up the mountain, but at least we were warm and sheltered from most of the winds until we got on top. When we summited, the icy winds hit us right in the face. Where butterflies had flown a couple days earlier, the pine needles were now covered in ice.

The freezing rain turned into ice on the pine needles.

We couldn’t enjoy any of the views on top because we were in the clouds. We were on a death march and didn’t stop to eat or chat. We had a long time to go and we knew the storm would only get worse if we waited, so we marched on.

We thought that the winds would get less as we went down in elevation from 6,500′ to 3,000′, but the winds varied tremendously. Like on the way in, some times the wind would blow from the left or south on one ridge and from the right or north on another ridge. My poncho would blow off my back and Chip would help me get it straightened again.

The wind was often blowing up the hill and sideways. My poncho works well in an overhead rain, but it doesn’t work at all when the rain comes from below. It actually even captures some of rain on the inside and trapped it. Chip nor I had waterproof pants on, so my legs were soaking wet and water dripped down my leg and into my socks. My boots were soggy and I took my wet gloves off so I could hold my poncho down. The temperature was in the upper 30s to low 40s, so we kept walking to stay warm.

We stopped at McKinley Springs Campground to get some water, but other than that we didn’t even stop for lunch. We just hiked for almost 13 miles in the whipping winds and rain. The mud caked up on our boots and we had to scrape it off repeatedly. The downhill hike on the road would be enjoyable with views on most days, but we were unfortunately looking into clouds instead of panoramic 60 mile views.

We shifted the whole trip by a day to avoid this storm, but it came early and got us real good. We made it to my car at Cachuma Saddle at about 1:30, so we hiked over 2 mph for six hours – double the speed of the second day. We had three days of good weather and one day of bad. It’s rained in Santa Barbara every day since then and the weatherwoman said that they’ve gotten a couple feet of snow on the mountains since we left. I’m glad we went when we did and got out safely. Quite an expedition.

Here’s the video from the last day. I caught some pretty good pictures of the clouds and wind racing over the ridges we traversed.

Day 3 to Mission Pine Basin: Charred Forest, Big Cones and Bear Prints

I woke shivering about an hour after going to bed. The winds were blowing and my bag that was rated to 27F wasn’t working for some reason. The 40F winds must be stripping the heat away. I was using my down jacket as a pillow and moved the hood to my shoulder and the rest of the jacket covered my side to past my hips. I stayed warm after that, but I didn’t sleep well for the rest of the night.

The third day was our only relaxing day where we didn’t have to move camp. Instead of hauling a 30+ pound pack around, we did a good day hike with a possibly 10lb pack. We still hiked for four hours to get back and forth from Mission Pine Basin. On our hike through the forest, we saw some amazing charred pine trees. The trunks of the charred trees looked like modern sculptures that very few people get to see. We didn’t see anyone on day 3 or day 4 of the hike. The Los Padres is so rarely visited that I just don’t see anyone after just a few miles out. It’s a good place to practice extreme social distancing.

This charred tree trunk looked like a modern art sculpture.
Here’s a closer version of charred remains.
One more angle that shows the shiny surface reflecting the blue sky.

We got to see a few bear tracks on the hike. The bears like to use the same trails that we do and the tracks looked pretty fresh.

Chip pointing at a bear track. A raccoon or other critter track can be seen below the bear print.

When we finally got to our destination after hiking in and out and up and down some ridges, the forest was mainly burnt down. The devastating 2007 Zaca Fire had torn through this valley to devastating effect. The Zaca Fire started about 20 miles away from the basin, but it found plenty of fuel here. Thirteen years later, a thick set of trees had grown to about 8′ tall. The Friars who came to harvest the trees about 220 years ago would have had to gone to another grove to get the lumber for the missions.

This Ponderosa Pine is one of the few remaining trees in the area.
This pine has been pecked to death after it was already dead.
Here’s a close-up of some of the holes that have been filled with acorns.
Here’s a massive coulter pine cone – the largest cone of any species that can weigh over 10 pounds.
Tall sandstone formations rose above our campground.
A near full moon was rising above this decaying stump.
Chip surveying the high country of Santa Barbara. The forest had been burnt down around here.

We got back to camp at about 3:00 and I had a cup of coffee and laid around in the meadow near the natural spring. We knew a storm was coming, but there was no wind. We made a nice fire and we stayed up till 9:30 this night. We planned to get up early and head out at about 7:30am to ride the storm out.

Here’s a video from day 3.

Day 2 Mission Pine Springs: Migrating Butterflies, Snow and Sugar Pines

Day 2 started well after an 11-hour sleep. After being exhausted from hauling my pack through the fallen trees and up the mountain, I’d gone to sleep at 8:30 and gotten up about 7:30am. We took about an hour to get out of camp and had a 1,400′ elevation gain in the first 1.2 miles. That climb works out to over a 22% grade. That’s steep!

Here’s a highlight reel of the day of hiking.
Day 1’s hike is shown by the light white line. Day 2 is the light blue line and I gained 2,700′ going from Big Cone Spruce Camp to the top of San Rafael Mountain.

The trail was clear and we hiked up the steep grade without much difficulty. When we got to the top, I dropped off my bear container in the bushes and some extra things since we didn’t think we’d run into any bears – we were wrong…

When we got to the road, we saw quite a bit of snow in the shadows at about a mile high. As we climbed more, we saw more and more snow. By the time we were over 6,000′, we were hiking more in the snow than on dirt. The snow remained because we were hiking in some shade on the north face of San Rafael Mountain – the second highest peak in Santa Barbara county at 6,593′. Only Big Pine Mountain is taller and we could see to the east at 6,827′.

Deep snow near the top of San Rafael Mountain. The pine trees in the distance are where we were headed.

The snow slowed us down quite a bit because we didn’t want to slide down the mountain. Hiking poles helped to keep us on the mountain.

As we were walking along the ridge, I kept seeing many butterflies rise over the ridge and fly down the other side. They just kept coming and coming for an hour as we walked along the ridge. Thousands of painted lady butterflies were migrating across the ridge for who knows how many hours. They looked like small monarch butterflies. I couldn’t get a picture of them because they would fly away when I got near, but I found a pic of one on the Internet.

Here’s a painted lady butterfly like the ones that were migrating over the ridge.

We summited San Rafael Peak and had great views to the Channel Islands about 60 miles away. I thought how Amy would be looking at the Channel Islands from our apartment and thought of her. If only I could contact her way out in what seemed to be nowhere. I turned airplane mode off and got a signal. I called her from on top of the mountain and we had a nice chat while she was making some crema de lemoncello. She was just a phone call away, but still a long ways away. I called my Aunt Marilyn later too.

We had another 1.9 miles away to our campsite from the top of San Rafael Mountain. We started hiking and got into the pine forest really quickly. While most people think of oak trees or the Moreton Bay Fig tree when they think of Santa Barbara, I think of the pine trees that grow on the tops of our mountains. Below you’ll see a picture of a 100′ tall mature cedar. Chip is dwarfed by it.

Here’s a lovely cedar tree.

The tree I like even better in this forest is the beautiful Sugar Pine. They grow over one hundred feet tall and have long graceful limbs. The limbs reach out and hold foot long pine cones on the end that dangle like a woman holding a handkerchief. I haven’t seen it happen, but they say that a strong wind can fling the pine cones hundreds of feet from the base of the tree. Since it usually grows in the mountains, the cone might bounce and roll hundreds of more feet to spread it’s seed.

That’s a sugar pine’s long, lovely arm that are probably 50′ long.
Here’s an unopened sugar pine cone and an opened one. These are fairly small, but can grow over a foot long.
Chip signing in at the registration desk.
From the top of the ridge, I could see the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara lies beyond the Santa Ynez Mountains that rise above the green fields. Lake Cachuma lies at the bottom of the Santa Ynez valley and supplies most of the water for Santa Barbara. It was pretty easy to see Lake Cachuma in person, but it might be hard to see in this picture.
When we made it to Mission Pine Basin Camp, someone had left a broken spork. I carved out a notch in a stick and put the spoon on it. Then I duct taped it and it worked pretty good until the tape got wet. I had to use my wooden spoon after that because I couldn’t get it to stay together.

We made 6 miles to camp in 6 hours after being slowed down by the snow and the steep climb. The wind was blowing and it was cold up at 5,863′. Chip made a fire, but the wind blew the heat away, so I went to sleep at 8:30 again.

Mission Pine Basin in 4 miles. That’s where we went the next day.

Day 1 Mission Pine Springs: Poison Oak, Broken Glasses and No Spoon

Poison Oak in the spring – nothing I hate more.
Here’s a video with a lot of captured videos about the first day on the trail.

My old college friend Chip Buckingham and I love to look at topographical maps of Los Padres National Forest and plan long backpacking trips. Santa Barbara county has extensive trails and some amazing mountains that rise above snowline. At about 4,000’, the forest supports large groves of pine trees that resemble the Sierra mountains. One of the most historic groves is Mission Pine Basin where pines were harvested around 1800 for constructing the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Missions. We would need to hike almost forty miles in four days to get to the Mission Pines. We created a four-day itinerary to do just that.

On our first day, we started hiking at Nira Campground and had about nine miles to hike to Big Cone Spruce camp. The first seven miles were up Manzana Creek and pretty easy because it is a heavily used trail. The trails are maintained by the Los Padres Forest Association (LPFA) and I volunteer to help make the trails better. The LPFA scheduled trail maintenance on the trail to Big Cone Spruce Camp where we were, but it was canceled because of the coronavirus. So when we left the main trail, the Big Cone Spruce Trail was drastically overgrown.

One of the first things we ran into was big patches of poison oak. My nemesis was thick and growing everywhere this spring! I was usually able to dodge the dreaded weed, but it was unavoidable in places – especially where some trees had blown down.  The blowndowns were one on top of the other and it was a struggle climbing through the limbs. I was already tired from the 8 miles of hiking, so climbing under, over and through the downed trees was exhausting. I grunted and groaned while climbing through the tangle of limbs and got caught on them many times. I found out later that the limbs ripped my pack and Chip’s in several places.

The worst part of the blowdowns is that there was no way around the downed trees because the undergrowth was so thick around the trees. At one point, I climbed on my hands and knees under the trunk of a fallen tree and came out in a patch of poison oak. I was exhausted and looking right at fresh poison oak sprouts. I used my hiking poles to push the poison oak away and did an army crawl over the poisonous plant. I managed to keep it off my face, but I got some on oak on my wrists and figured the oils were on my clothes and pack. When we finally made it to camp, I used Campsuds soap to wash my wrists and poles. I couldn’t wash my clothes and pack and have probably gotten the oils all over me. It would take a few days before the rash started.

Our camp at Big Cone Spruce was in an amazing grove of Douglas Firs, red firs and other big trees. Several creeks converge at out campsite and the creeks were flowing well from the recent rains. The wind was blowing the trees and the forest offered great shade. Check out some of my pictures of these massive trees.

Here’s my shadow in front of a tall pine tree that’s about 6′ in diameter.
I like how the sunlight lit up the grass here.
Chip balancing on rocks to get across Manzana Creek.
A sycamore holding a big rock.
Some massive acorns. It was odd that there weren’t any squirrels in this remote forest.

Then the problems really started. I took off my sunglasses and found out my normal glasses had broken in half – right at the nose piece. Not much of a problem for the MacGyver in me. I got out my duct tape and quickly repaired them.  I was officially a nerd! 

Then I go to make dinner and find out that I didn’t pack a spoon or anything to eat my dehydrated meals with. No problem, I’ll carve one out of a stick. First I tried to carve a big stick down, but I quickly realized that it would take a few hours to make something that worked. 

I had to find the perfect stick that was already spoon like.  Tons of branches and fallen trees were all over camp. I don’t know why so many downed trees were in the valley, but it looked like a major windstorm and landslides had blown many of the trees down. I scrounged around and found a broken limb with a knot in it.  All I had to do was carve out the knot and I would have a spoon.  After fifteen minutes with my swiss army knife, I had my spoon.

My wooden spoon came in handy.
The backside of my spoon looked like a face. The red color that looks like a mouth was naturally in the wood. The eye was made when I carved out a lump in the knot on the outside of the knot.

I made my chicken teriyaki dinner and had to open wide to get the big spoon in my big mouth. It went down well and we relaxed by the fire. I was exhausted and went to sleep at 8:30 when I usually go to bed at 11.  I slept for 11 hours and woke up feeling good for the second day. The second day was looking to be even harder with a 2,600’ elevation gain.  That’s my next story.

There’s a Moose in My Hot Spring!

You never know what you’re going to get when you go into the high Rockies. After a seven hour bushwhack through the most beautifully flowered mountains I’ve ever seen, we made it to Conundrum Hot Springs. I love hot springs and the bubbling hot spring felt amazing on my tired bones and body. After dinner, we were ready to get into the spring until the stars came out when a bull moose walked right into one of the three hot spring pools.

The bull moose was in the upper hot spring pool that was far enough away from us that we felt safe. Then he came closer.

Everyone in camp stopped to watch the moose. His legs were amazingly long and he waded into and drank from the hot spring pool. The upper pool was about 50 yards from the hottest, main pool where we were. We gawked at the huge beast and calmly took pictures from afar. After soaking his ankles for a good ten minutes, the bull walked right into a seemingly impenetrable patch of willows. The tall moose had no problem plowing through the dense vegetation and eating any willows that got in his way.

He’s got a mouthful of willow leaves here.

We made dinner in a clump of trees near the hot spring because our camp was almost a mile downstream. The moose continued eating in the willows and worked his way right into our picnic area where I took this picture.

He stared me down, but I felt pretty safe because I knew I could run around the trees faster than he could.

He eventually came out of the willows while happily chowing some leaves. Then he walked toward the main hot spring and out into the open. My friend Frank in the red jacket was initially behind me, but then the moose walked around us so that Frank was in between me and the moose. I took some video while Frank chewed gum and stared him down. The moose just kept meandering and got many warm drinks from the hot creek that flowed out of the pools.

This bull was a little close, but Frank kept his cool and had an escape plan. We thought the bull was a little more than a year old but it could have been two. His horns should start growing beyond the stubs in the next year or two. This is a Shiras’ Moose that were reintroduced to Colorado in 1978. They’re the smallest species of moose and have done well and about 1,000 live in Colorado now.

The moose had our full attention, but I felt relaxed enough to sit down and continue taking video. After 30 minutes, I started to get a little bored watching him nibble on grass and lick the mineral-encrusted rocks near the hot pools. I started doing time-lapse videos to speed his ramblings up. The problem was that he was starting to eat into our soaking time. We wanted to get in the tub, but we didn’t want to startle the moose either.

Dean was the first to break down and sneak into the main pool. Dean got into the hot pool and was looking right up at the bull. Dean was soaking a good ten minutes before Frank and Dean’s wife Amy joined him in the pool. They got in a good soak before the moose finally wandered back up the trail and right in front of the three soakers. I made this two-minute video of the whole experience.

https://youtu.be/YEhoryFALe4

Here’s the moose as he’s walking by the three soakers. Dean is on the left and his wife Amy is looking to the left between the moose’s legs. You can see Frank’s tan hat in front of the moose’s front legs.

The moose came back the next morning and got another soak. He seems to like the soothing waters as much as I did!

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Logistics – if you want to know more.

This trip started for me when I reached out to my ultimate buddy Frank. Frank and I played on the Cal Poly Ultimate team and we reconnected when I ran the Cal Poly Alumni Association in Denver. I told Frank how I had a couple of weekends in August open for a backpacking trip. We tried to recruit some old ultimate buddies, but that failed. Then he reached out to his canyoneering friend Dean and he said we could join his party of four on this backpacking trip to Conundrum Hot Springs.

We didn’t have a permit at the very popular hot spring at first, but Frank ran across one in his office and Dean persisted and got one on the website. So we had, and needed, two campsites for the six of us because the sites turned out to be pretty small.

We met on a Friday at Dean and Amy’s house in Crested Butte. They had beds and bikes for each of us and we hit it off well. CB is a lovely ski/mountain biking town that I immediately fell in love with. Check out all the bikes in CB!

Crested Butte is full of bikes and has a great downtown. Budweiser painted the town blue for an advertisement and then painted it whatever color people wanted after that. They went for colorful.

We had a lovely dinner in downtown Crested Butte, got a good sleep and packed up the next morning. We had a long, late breakfast and then we shuttled Dean’s truck to Gothic where we would hike out. All six of us got in Amy’s truck and we drove to the Teocalli mountain bike trailhead. The road was a wreck of a 4WD road, but we made it to the trailhead around 1pm.

The six of us were a tight fit in the 4Runner, but Cameron sat on Rick’s lap on the bumpy 4WD road. From right to left, Scott, Cameron, Rick, Frank, Amy and Dean.

I like to hike in the afternoon and evening, so I was glad for the late start. We had trail for the first mile, but it faded to what Dean called a social trail. Most of the time it was a bushwhack up and through the flowery fields. It was usually easy going, but we’d run into a ravine like this several times.

We bushwhacked through this little gorge on the way up to Coffeepot Pass.

Without a trail, I had to watch each step and it took five hours to go four miles and up 1,400′ to get to a high camp above treeline at about 11,600′. We stayed up until the stars came out and the Milky Way swirled in the dark sky. The next morning we left camp about 9am and had to hike another 1,100′ up to Coffeepot Pass. The story is that some miner left his coffee pot up there and people are still searching for it.

Coffeepot Pass was pretty easy until we ran into some snow on the north side of the pass. Dean led us through a pretty loose talus field and across a little snowfield to get down the other side. The snow would have been a problem if we had gone even a few weeks earlier. The pass was probably snowed in for most of July. We went cross country without trail for another half a mile before catching the trail from Triangle Pass. From there, it was smooth hiking on the trail for another hour to the hot springs. Altogether, it took about seven hours of bushwhacking and an hour on the trail to get to Conundrum from the south. People usually hike to Conundrum via an 8-mile hike from the Aspen side of the mountain.

We were soon soaking in the hot spring and I slept well after the tough hikes on the first two days.

Here’s a view from the spring. Imagine seeing the moose from his knees up and looking down at this hot spring.

To get back to Crested Butte, we hiked over Triangle Pass that peaks out at 13,000′. We had to climb about 1,750′ with lighter packs after eating most of our food. Frank and I started at 10am while Dean, Amy Cameron and Rick started at 11. Frank and I took a casual walk and relaxed in the flower-filled meadows while waiting for them to catch up. It was another gorgeous day.

I think these are blue bells in full bloom.

Once they caught up, I had to pick up my pace. The winds picked up and we were rather exposed high above tree line on the thin, little goat trail that is rated a double black diamond because of the steep mountainsides that we hiked on. Everyone was strong hikers and we worked our way through some massive rubble fields and down a long hill. We got to the trailhead near Gothic after a seven hour hike that was mostly downhill. We got in the truck and went back to CB for pizza, beer and margaritas. Food and drink never tastes so good as after a great backpack!

After another night in CB and a good breakfast, Frank and I headed back to Salida. Dean had orchestrated a superbly executed trip with no drama and maximum fun! Dean and Amy liked it so much that they are doing it again this weekend!

Here are some other pics from the hike. The flowers were in full bloom in late August. Spring was still in the air up there, but it will soon start snowing. It’s a tough, but amazing life they live up there above tree-line.

Amy photobombed Frank and I in front of the voluminous lupine on the first day.
Cameron and Rick are newlyweds from Salt Lake City. They love canyoneering with Dean and Amy. Two fourteeners are directly behind them – Castle Peak at 14,265′ and Conundrum Peak at 14,022.
Dean was an excellent guide and told us all about the mountains and peaks around. Rick and him are pointing at some ridges on the way down from Coffeepot Pass that’s about 12,700′ high.
Here are some flowers in front of Dean and Amy’s garage in CB. The purple plant is lupine and you can see several poppies and a yellow lily in the background.
Dean is tending his prolific flower basket. I sat in that red chair quite a bit and enjoyed their garden and hot tub.