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 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.