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.
I can remember every time I’ve been rattled, it’s something I can’t forget:
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.
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.
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.
April 21, 2020 – This rattler on the way into camp.
April 22, 2020 – This rattler on the way out of camp.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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′.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.