18 January 2013

Alejandro Trail

Los Padres National Forest

Locate the trail head.

I've been pondering some areas up north for hiking because I really haven't tested those rocks quite enough. I saw a report that Colson was open, at least to one perfectly suitable trail head, and in shape for travel by the average car, so I headed out to it. On the way, I did check out the Paradise area for roads heading northward (none), see a great blue heron, plenty of deer, and a rafter of turkey, all without any fear of cars, and get caught waiting for some construction while there. Once getting on to the purpose of heading up Colson and finding a trail to hike. A sign near the beginning reaffirmed that the forest gate was open. I found that the road fords the creek many times, especially near the start before getting into the forest, but they are not difficult to navigate. Eventually I came to a spot that looked a bit like a trail head, although no road signs to say so, then a road to the left which seemed likely to be the campground although again without any road signs to say so. From there, I quickly came to a saddle at another junction. To the left, a road closed to the public leads up to a quarry. To the right, a road that hasn't been open to the public for a while leads down the next canyon to the north fork of La Brea Creek. It is adorned with a cattle guard and two locked gates, closed due to "recent" wildfires. I decided to head down Alejandro Trail based on it allowing for a loop that was a little shorter, finishes along a lot of good road (so says the map), and happened to start right next to where I was already parked.

Alejandro trail head sign
The start of Alejandro Trail: 3 miles to Alejandro Camp and 5 miles to La Brea Canyon Road.

"Down" the trail turned out to actually be up, at least at first. The trail climbs up past some huge manzanita trees, one at least 10 inches in diameter, to the ridge above near a saddle with the next canyon over on a nice tread. At the saddle, it meets an old fuel break. The left looked like it was being kept open by mountain bike use but turned out to be the trail as well. The right could be hiked with minimal discomfort up to higher peaks. After trying to go for a phantom trail cut I'd seen from the peak, I checked the map and decided to follow the mountain bike tracks along the ridge.

bee on manzanita flowers
The higher up manzanita were covered in flowers and the bees were enjoying it greatly.

Colsom Canyon and campground
A look out over Colson Canyon. The campground is visible as a loop of road left of center.

Alejandro Canyon, the one just south of Rattlesnake
A bit of Alejandro Canyon, the canyon just south of the one the road goes down.

a bit of good road twisting along the side of Rattlesnake Canyon
Rattlesnake Canyon to La Brea, the canyon the road goes down. The trail follows the fuel break, which is kept wide by use.

Along the old fuel break, the trail is as wide as a road. Some of it is steep, some is ugly with erosion, but nothing is particularly worrisome. It bobs up and down along a couple more little peaks, then cuts down a ravine on a leafy and grassy but well established and easy to follow single track. The ridge was mildly warm, the ravine was pleasant and moist. I met the first of the ticks of the day in the higher, drier section. Soon, water joined from the right as the trail joined the larger canyon. The trail and stream flirt a little with a couple crossings, then pass side by side for a while. The stream made a pleasant sound track to walking along the raspberry strewn canyon.

a wide 2 foot cliff with a bit of water flowing over into a shallow pool
A knee high waterfall with an ankle deep pool, about the best the stream has to offer for a swimming hole.

a bit of creek flowing along rock layers
Trickling along rock layers.

The creek came to a gravely and rather flat section and vanished, only to pop out again further along. It continued to play hide and seek for the rest of the way to the campground. Eventually, the canyon opens up as it passes under old oaks and young bay. The raspberries are replaced with grassy flats under widely spaced oaks. It looked like the perfect spot for a campground except the creek had been hiding for a while. Then, across a wide meadow, were the trappings of a campground.

oaks and raspberries and a trail through it all
The trail wanders under spreading oaks among the raspberries.

canyon walls sliding back quite far
The canyon walls spread out and the canyon is warmer under old oaks.

Off to the left, I spotted some ropes that look like someone had a hammock hanging under a huge oak branch, but left the anchors. Behind it, a privacy screen for a biffy with the seat pulled out and full of dirt. Just past that to the right, a corral of barbed wire surrounds tables and grills but offers no entry point. At the far side of the fencing, the creek flows again having come out from hiding. I took advantage of the presence of tables for a nibble of food and to ponder why someone feels the tables might run off if they aren't enclosed. The only fully wooden table has been tilted up to land upside down and broken almost on top of the fence near the stream, maybe they're right. Two other tables remain in good repair. One grill has been flipped and loaded with its fire ring rocks, but that is simple to repair. The fencing even bears signs of repair work. Except for the barbs, this would make an excellent children's backpack especially if your children are a troop.

Alejandro Camp
Continuous barbed wire keeps the tables and grills of Alejandro Camp from escaping into the wilds.

ladybug beetles swarming on a twig and grass and bark
A swarm of invader ladybug beetles found along the trail out of camp.

After the campground, my map (Conant's San Rafael Wilderness 2008) indicates that the trail deteriorates. A slapstick marks the trail out to which someone added a bit of another one carved into an arrow leaning against the bottom. Routes, one for the arrow and one perpendicular to the sign, continued past it. I chose to go with the arrow and was rewarded with a fallen slapstick sign by the side of my route further on. I came to another fork and chose the left one through a pretty rising meadow, which turned out to be wrong. My route became obvious animal trail, although with what could be overgrown trail bed a short distance from it. Climbing up over a small bump, I found a definite people track crossing my path on the far side. It came to a crossing trail and left seemed like a silly switchback over flat. Just as I was about to choose right, I noticed a pink ribbon and started after it to the left. It was followed by another. The trail was easy to follow again for a moment, then pink ribbons lead it up a hillside that once had switchbacks. Maybe. With the climb, the views increase. As the land dried out, the ticks came back.

bit of trail going directly up a steep hill
Weave past the sages and straight up the hill as directed by some pink ribbons.

a secluded meadow along the way
A pretty little meadow tucked away in the hills.

little pink things
The only other flower I saw besides the manzanita although the promise of irises were popping up along this section of the trail.

Nearing the top of the hill, it turned very grassy again. Animal trails crossed everywhere and my trail didn't seem very certain. I followed the pink ribbons, even when a lower trail looked more promising than what seemed to be marked by a ribbon on a fallen branch. There was also a bit of "if I go thata way, I'll get there" to the navigation. Rounding through a shallow fold of land suspecting I'd lost the route, I found another couple ribbons and shortly after popped up on top of the ridge for a peak down into La Brea.

trunk full of woodpecker holes and a bit of the grassy meadow at the top
The grasslands at the top of the ridge and a woodpecker tree.

looking up the La Brea Creek North Fork
Looking up La Brea Creek's north fork.

Of course the flat grassy area had trails headed everywhere over it. I initially crossed it toward the opposite slope to find no trail down the other side. I consulted the map and it indicates a northwesterly route to join the end of a "dirt road trail". I started this way, but the road turns back soon after the join. Things weren't looking promising ahead and I didn't want to go too far along in case I missed the top, so I turned back but stayed lower. The slope below me got steeper, so with more indecisiveness about how to go, I turned back again, but when the slope mellowed and it became grassy, I dropped more determinedly. I spotted a cut below that looked more like an old bulldozer path than a road maintained for forestry use, but that was certain to be my road. Looking a little right, I even spotted a slapstick marked "trail". Coming to the sign, I could see the track of people heading down next to it. I was at the high end of Weber Trail.

After this junction, the map marks dirt road suitable for cars. What I saw was more of the same, but now with encroaching vegetation since it was maintained for no one. A thin trail winds down it as well. I decided to head down it and see if I could get to Difficult Spring, partly because I didn't want to go back up Rattlesnake Canyon in the warm sun. I passed a gate removed from any supports and tossed off to the side of the road. The road dropped into a small canyon full of oaks for a moment of deep shade. Eventually, just a few tens of feet off to the side, was a spring.

old red gates
Partly removed gates tossed onto the side of the road.

deer jawbone, perhaps
A bit of herbivore jawbone along the road.

Difficult Spring
Difficult Spring proves to be easy to get to but not much to look at.

Difficult Spring has a bit of piping in one spot, a moist puddle, and a round spring box with a spot of mud. The piping has been destroyed at the spring, but used to go to three troughs placed in the bottom of the canyon further down the road. Having come down this far, I sort of decided to just keep on going. The road remains fairly level through a couple small canyons as I passed beside the troughs and then the second discarded gate. At the third gate, I noted a suspected people trail heading down from the track I was following. It seemed a bit late for going down to meet the top of Barrel Springs Campground below. I wasn't sure what they were up to and since there was only one road on my map, kept going along on the one I could see with intellect and instinct battling.

a bit of the view from the road
La Brea is hidden by closer hills.

Increasingly concerned that the road was not dropping like it should, I proceeded through the best crop of ticks of the day. Odds are this is where I found the one that managed to get under my shirt and dig its entire body into my skin slowly creating a sensation like a small but bad bruise. I couldn't remember running into any small but stout sticks, particularly not while going nearly backwards and yet there was this pain. It was a disgusting find. At one point, I wiped ticks off my pants, took two steps through the sages, then wiped another dozen off. Ignoring the ticks, the trail was great. Staying mostly level, it came out to dry sages, then in under oak forest, then with a quick switchback, popped out onto a saddle for a great view generally southward. Instinct was right, but maybe the detour was worth it.

western ridge from the saddle
Continuing along to the west looks like an easy project.

southward view over La Brea
Looking down La Brea with a low winter sun. A fence runs along the hill below maybe halfway down, the ranch that goes with it is visible down in the valley.

I turned back to retrace my steps to that last gate. The spur was a little under a mile of easy terrain, so I got there quickly. Ducking under a low oak branch, I found that the other route is just as much an old road cut as the one I'd continued along. The route drops quickly down into the canyon from this point. One fallen tree forced me to go around off the road, but generally the way was clear. It is often steeper than any road maintained for car travel but wouldn't worry a double low gear box delivering power to good tires. Fencing starts at the first switchback and continues along the downhill side until the bottom of the canyon. I found myself just inside LaBrea Ranch as I joined the road through the canyon, so exited the open gate. I was expecting the road to improve when I got into the canyon. I was sorely disappointed.

cow hanging out on the ranch
A greeter down on the flats at the bottom of the road just inside LaBrea Ranch.

The road was a wide path with shorter grass where I joined it. Heading out from the ranch, it was churned up by quite a few cattle, a couple shod horses, and one set of four gnarly tires rolling along on top of it all. It looked a bit like a dozen or so head had been taken to market and for this section, they were providing their own transportation. The road was fine for a few yards, then dropped into the creek bed (dry). I followed the tire marks across to more road. A tree had dropped a branch large enough to cover the road and the tires wandered around the other side of it and dropped into another creek crossing with more challenging edges. I got out of the sand and onto a section of good road with a bit of dirt. Buildings and signs on the left turned out to be Barrel Springs Campground, marked as a car campground. Maybe now the road gets better?

Barrel Springs Campground
Signs and biffy (nailed shut) at Barrel Springs Campground. There are also tables and grills for some six sites.

It was already twilight and I didn't have a lot of hope the road was actually going to improve past this camp. It's really a jeep camp with a jeep trail in. I certainly got my wish, I didn't have to climb the road in the afternoon sun. I decided not to have a look around for its spring. I didn't cross any stream of water where I should have as I left the camp, so it isn't very big. After some more easy walking on dirt, the road hit the sand and washouts of the dry creek bed again. A metal sign saying "trail" with an arrow and plenty of parking area indicated the bottom of Weber Trail to my left. After that, there was a lot more sand and crossings and rocks and sand.

A significant tributary came in from the left and it looked for a moment that the road headed that way. The route I was following started to feel rounded and narrow and a low branch ahead that would have been knocked off by a truck with gnarly tires made me decide it might be time to get out the lamp. I was on a piece of good trail. I was expecting to see a bit of trail near where I turn out of La Brea to climb up Rattlesnake. I did not want to go up it, but it would mean I had somehow missed the road. The good road that I knew was good because I could look at it from above and see that it was a nice ribbon of road and should be very hard to miss. Another option was I was on an animal trail or a use trail and should just get back to following intermittent jeep road.

I backtracked a little, checking carefully for a bit of road heading up canyon. I set the light low over the ground to see what tracks were there looking for the gnarly tires. (Once, for a weekend workshop at Camp Tecuya, we taught various survival skills to the younger Girl Scouts. I got to teach trail signs and "Hug a Tree", which is all about what to do if you get lost focusing on staying put so you can get found. We also had a talk from some folks from Ventura County Search and Rescue who mentioned putting the light low to really make the tracks easy to see.) The truck had been here, but I don't know that they left the canyon the same way I want to. I sat down with the map and GPS for a good study and decided I was still south of the junction. If I had missed the road, keeping to La Brea was worse than going up the trail. I kept to the creek bed with instinct battling intellect again. Intellect tried to calm instinct saying backtracking was always an option. I heard a bit of water off to my right, which made me happy to know it isn't all dry down here. I spotted a sign to the left which told me all the things I was legally required to have on my OHV, but didn't mention where I was. Further along, another sign on the left was completely blank and one on the right informed me that I must be street legal beyond this point. From there on, I had good road.

California Toad crawling through the leaves
A rustling in the leaves at my feet alerted me to the presence of a toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus?) crawling through the leaves.

With nothing left but to stroll up the road under the bright light of the (nearly) first quarter moon high in the sky, I turned left and started up the road. From time to time under the trees, I heard the sound of someone slowly getting out of the way of my feet. The toads were out. I kept an ear out for them to try not to step on any. The trees became quite rare and then I came upon a second animal, cattle. The couple on the road weren't comfortable with me and thundered their way toward the fence below the road. As I was thinking they must know where the hole in it is, I heard it ring as the larger one jumped it. They joined a herd that wasn't sure if it wanted to go left or right, but was certain about downhill. I saw a lot of cattle on my way up and all of them were just as flighty. The land was beautiful, laid out under the moonlight. The massive figure of Orion hung above in a sky that didn't show all that many stars although it was quite clear. The road was feeling soft in places from disuse. Only a few rocks were on it. A fellow with a shovel could have it ready for car use within an hour. I spotted the curve of peaks that I had followed on the fuel break part of the trail and traced them to the saddle I was parked at. It looked so close in the moonlight but was still two miles away. The drop on my left became very steep and I no longer had cattle running from me. Navigating around two locked gates and a cattle guard (which are also totally useless), I was back at the car.

©2013 Valerie Norton
Posted 20 Jan 2013


Steve C. said...

This is a great story and blog. Call me a fan!

Unknown said...

Hello Valerie: Last winter a friend and I cycled up Colson and down Rattlesnake with the intention of going towards Miranda Pine as far as we could. Going north on La Brea Cyn Rd. ended up being just a short (but fascinating) walk up the former road.

Yesterday on a whim (and a little late in the afternoon) I cycled solo up Colson and down Rattlesnake Cyn with the intention of cycling/walking to Barrel Springs. Same outcome this time. I could not ride more than 100 feet south on La Brea. When I started walking it became difficult in bike shoes. Because it was getting late I did not go far as I had the ride back up Rattlesnake looming.

I discovered your blog this morning. Your account of getting from Barrel Springs up to the La Brea/Rattlesnake junction confirmed my observation that the old road is gone - probably forever.

I just want to thank you for your great photos and trip account. I have already started lobbying my hiking friends to do a car camp at the Colson campground next winter. One day I would like to replicate your hike. The next day I would like to try to go up the Bear Cyn trial as far as possible.

Mark Dodge/San Diego