Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hike 75: Mt. Pinos and Mt. Abel

With the heat on the way and clear skies in the forecast, I decided to make a return trip to Mt. Pinos. This time, it would be primarily for hiking, although I did toss my small, portable telescope in the trunk, just in case I decided to "do some astronomy" before heading back.

As noted last time, this trailhead is at the end of Mt. Pinos Road: I-5 north, exit at Frazier Park, follow the "main" road west for 21 miles, and you're there(My odometer said it was 20.5 miles from the Pilot gas station/truck stop 'til the end of the road)

Unlike last time, the parking lot was mostly empty when I arrived. Still, there were a few RVs that were going to stay another day, with telescopes waiting for nightfall.

The start of this trail (and, in fact, the whole part to Mt. Pinos) is on a dirt road. The sign (indicating 2 miles to Mount Pinos) is way at the south end of the lot, and you only see the sign if you're heading out of the parking lot. Within about 150 yards of the start of this trail was a locked gate that would keep any motorized vehicles from continuing. People, bikes, and horses could easily pass around the gate, however.

I'm not sure if it's ever unlocked any more, since on the few trip reports I have read, no one has reported it being open for several years.

Within another 150 yards or so of the gate, the road splits. I took the branch that headed left, as it was going uphill and appeared to be the more heavily traveled. There were signs at this junction, but none indicating the way to Mount Pinos. Both were just more of the cross-country ski route type I saw last time, with no indication of a destination. Nonetheless, my choice proved correct.

After maybe 1/2 mile in relatively thick forest, the trail/dirt road opened up into a more open, meadow-like environment. Hills were to the right, trees were to the left, and the trail continued straight ahead. There were a few spurs that branched off of this trail, but none were signed and none appeared to be pointing towards Mt. Pinos.

Finally, at the point where I thought to myself, "This must be about two miles by now," I saw a microwave transmission tower to the right. The main road continued past that hill, at which point a pair of tire tracks veered off towards the tower. Solar panels were just below the tower, as was a small structure.

I took this detour, and found a surveyor's landmark embedded in the ground near this tower, as well as a ring of rocks. I think this may be the official summit, since the monument said, "Mt. Pinos."

But this wasn't what the pictures of the summit I had seen looked like, so I went back to the main trail. About 1/4 of a mile later, the main trail flattened out into what is or used to be a parking lot. Room for about ten cars was here. Signs indicating this was the wildlife viewing area were around the parking lot. To the east were a pair of benches, looking out over the Los Padres National Forest. An interpretive sign was also here.

The views from here (and from the microwave tower) were expansive. To the north, I saw white, which might have been snow on top of the southern Sierra, or clouds. I couldn't tell. To the far east and south, I saw a lot of barren dirt, no doubt parts of the forest that burned two seasons ago, when it seemed like the whole of Ventura County was going to burn.

The summit of Mt. Pinos is 8,831 feet above sea level. The altitude of the ski hut parking lot is given as 8,340, for a net gain of about 500 feet. Although the sign says it's two miles from the lot, other sources give the distance as 3 miles roundtrip. That may be just to the radio tower, so once you add the distance from there to the wildlife viewing area, it probably would be pretty close to two miles each way. Either way, it's a pretty gentle climb, and at least part of it is shaded. Also, the altitude means that, while it was in the 100 degree range back in the San Gabriel Valley, it probably stayed in the 80s where I was.

From the wildlife viewing area, the dirt road ends, and the Vincent Tumamait trail begins. A sign indicated it was 2 miles to trail 22W02, 4 miles to trail 22W21, and 4.5 miles to Cerro Noreste, also known as Mt. Abel. Another sign indicates you're heading into the Chumash Wilderness (a larger sign is a bit down the trail).

The trail from the wildlife viewing area begins decending relatively slowly. Just a few hundred yards from the top, there's a spur that runs to an old table, which, I suppose, would be perfect for mounting a spotting scope to look for California Condors (This is the area where they were first reintroduced into the wild, although, alas, I didn't see any this day).

After the table, the trail begins a series of long switchbacks. I was expecting this, although it did occur to me as I switchbacked down the trail that if I was purely in it for the hike (and not for the astronomy in the Mt Pinos parking lot after dark), doing this trail in the opposite direction would make a lot more sense. Further on down the trail, in the midst of a VERY long descent, I thought of this, again.

On this steeper patch, the Indian paintbrush that I had seen in patches during most of this hike was blooming like crazy. I probably took thirty shots of just this half-mile section of trail where the flowers were blooming the strongest.

At about the time when I was thinking, "Surely I must have walked two miles by now," I reached the first signed junction, in a relatively flat, meadowy area. After a very brief climb, another steep descent followed. At the bottom of a saddle, a faint trail headed off to the left. A few pieces of wood that were probably the pole holding up a sign or two were on the ground. A large, shattered, and decomposing tree trunk laid on the ground, pretty much where I figure the sign used to be. The sign itself was nowhere to be found. Still, based on the trail signage, this should be about 4 miles from the Mt. Pinos wildlife viewing area, and about 6 miles from the start of my hike.

From here, it's the only significant, extended climb of this hike, steeply up towards Mt. Abel Road. At the top of this steep climb, you first pass a sign that welcomes folks heading the other way into the Chumahs Wilderness Area, then you hit a paved road. On the other side of the road is a sign indicating Campo Alto Camp is 1/2 mile to your right. Since that was uphill, I headed that way.

The road traces a long, looping path. After about 1/4 mile of walking, you realize you're about 200 yards above where you were when you reached the road. A decomposing ski hut is here, as is a decommissioned pit toilet and what looks like an old well. A bit past this, the road splits into a one-way loop in the campground. At this point, the heat and exertion of the hike started to hit me, so I sat down in the shade. I drank some and ate some. Then, to my surprise, my cell phone beeped, indicating a waiting voice message.

Since I REALLY needed a break, I checked my voice mail, made a few phone calls, and chatted for about 45 minutes. Purist would frown on this. But I probably did need the break, because when I hike alone I rarely stop. Besides, while talking to my wife, she mentioned that I sounded terrible, and I did notice my speech was a little slurred. Cooling down in the shade for an extended period was definitely a wise idea.

Not only was I cooling down, but the weather was starting to cool down, too. It was now approaching 4pm. Time to head back.

Approaching the point where the trail headed off from the road, I could just make out the microwave tower on the top of Mt. Pinos. Yeah, it did look to be about 4.5 miles away. :D

Down the steep path to the first junction, then a whole lot of climbing. It was largely shaded down there, so that was good.

I walked extremely slowly, took LOTS of pictures, and fiddled with my phone some on the way back, but I still made it to the parking lot by around 7:30pm. I could easily have done it 30 or 40 minutes quicker, but because I was planning to do some astronomy, there was no reason to hurry. I would need to wait until dark, anyway.

More cool drinks were in the cooler, so I drank some more. Then I plopped into the backseat of the car and rested. I doubt I slept, but I still felt a lot more refreshed after my rest than I had before.

Although I wasn't walking the whole time, I was gone from my car for about 9 hours (from a little after 10am - until a bit before 7:30pm). During that time, I did not see any other hikers on this trail until I was returning up the last switchbacks before the wildlife viewing area (a mom, a dad, and a young daughter). Two cars drove by me when I was up near Mt. Abel.

Meanwhile, in the parking lot of Mt. Pinos, there were three vehicles belonging to astronomers (Two couples in two RVs, and one guy in an SUV) and three that belonged to either hikers or mountain bikers (the last two mountain bikers came in, with their lights on their bikes on, well after sunset, but before things got really dark). Quite a contrast from what this places looks like on weekends.

Among the astronomers, I'm pretty sure I recognized the home-made Dobsonian telescope one of the couples had set up from a previous trip to Mt. Pinos. I let them know I'd be leaving relatively early and that I'd let them know when, in case they were going to do any astrophography. They weren't.

In the early summer, it doesn't really get dark up on Mt. Pinos until almost 9:30pm. With my little wide-field reflector, there are only a few things for me to look at. The one thing I really wanted to see, I forgot to bring a chart to help me fine. So I mostly just practiced finding some familiar targets (Ring Nebula, Dumbbell Nebula, M13, M22, M4, Swan Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula) and scanned the Milky Way around Sagittarious. Packed things up (it's quick when it's just the portable telescope), and drove off the parking lot around 10:30pm. Got home around midnight. Quite a long day.

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