22 April 2014

Hildreth Peak

Los Padres National Forest

Locate the trailhead.


It is surprising how few people have heard of Hildreth Peak considering its name graces the 7.5' quad directly north of the Carpinteria quad. It is also one of the shorter peaks on the Hundred Peaks List that the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club maintains. I decided to try to do it in a big loop, or really a dropped lollipop of a route using the Sierra Club's route 1 and the old jeepway. When the road was closed to Big Caliente last month, doing this loop did not add many miles to the climb, but I was feeling suspicious that I would meet a mountain lion on the route then. It can be easy to yield to unfounded suspicions when there are so many other hikes to try. With the suspicion fading and the temperatures threatening to go high soon, I decided it was time. I am not really feeling it is the day for a very long hike, but having gotten fixated on trying the old road, that is what I will try. The valley is a lake of cloud that is blowing over the lower passes in the stiff wind of a fizzling storm as I make my way along Camino Cielo. The drop when the pavement ends is getting a bit steep and the road down has some worrisome patches for the small car. Getting out next to the old Pendola Guard Station, I can hear a turkey making its funny noises and see a couple deer grazing. The turkey is strutting his stuff out by the parked trucks as I make my way along the last bit of road to Big Caliente.

deer in the field by Pendola
Deer at the Pendola Ranger Station.

The stroll is pleasant enough as the clouds burn off. There is a sign for the Pendola Debris Dam to the left when the dam itself is not visible, then the debris dam itself. The sign says this is one of three constructed after the Coyote Fire to keep Gibraltar Reservoir from filling with debris, but the other two I know about predate that substantially. This particular dam is just a very wide version of the check dams I have found so often in the Angeles National Forest, but done in a nice tan. The road fords the creek three times. The first two are a thin sheet of water, but the last, after Rock Camp (marked as Lower Caliente picnic area on the map), requires finding a path to the side to avoid wet feet. A passing hot spring user seems to take my thumb for "everything is great" rather than "how about a ride for the last mile?" He is, of course, nude and hosing off by the time I get to Big Caliente. Agua Caliente Hot Spring also has its own nudist sitting on the side and reading a book. It does not help to be a prude at the hot spring. From here, the road turns to trail although its history as a road is evident as it climbs toward the second debris dam. The trail is well established here, although can be hard to follow as it crosses at a turn in the creek.

Pendola Debris Dam sign
The clouds burning off already while passing the first debris dam.

Agua Caliente Dam
The depression era Agua Caliente debris dam is a much grander monstrosity. The third dam is at Mono and is a different design from the era of WWII, if I recall correctly.


After the dam, the trail pushes through a thick patch of poison oak and then winds its way over the debris that has been caught. Here, old tracks underneath the few downed trees are almost as obvious as the current one. "Cotton" from the cottonwoods is everywhere. The trail is more obvious through here than I remember, but then again, I know where it goes this time. Lighter tracks near the couple dry crossings show others have wandered along the creek instead of crossing it sometimes. The HPS site warns against accidentally going up Diablo Canyon, but it does not seem a likely mistake now. When there is water again, it is full of huge tadpoles. The trail is easy to follow as it wanders through the grasses.

rocky creek with a little water and lots of grasslands
Looking upstream along Agua Caliente toward one of the lines of red rocks.

California peony
A couple of the California peonies are in bloom.

many black spots with tails in a murky water
A rather densely populated edge of the creek.

faint trail in the somewhat green grass
The hills are ever so slightly green with tiny flowers and the trail follows faintly, but obviously, through them.

Since I managed to miss the camp on the way up the last time, I checked the Craig Carey's guide to help make sure I found it this time. He also talks about a little "oasis" along the way near the camp, so I noted that location too. Near the spot, the trail splits with one side following beside the creek and the other climbing past a spot of hard rock. I remember climbing before and select the low trail this time. It fades out before long and I have to make my own way. Shoe prints show I am not the only one to do so recently. At the edge of the pool, there is again plenty of evidence of people walking around. It is a delightful little spot, as advertised.

very short waterfall and reflecting pool
The little waterfall at the back of the "oasis".

Taking advantage of the shelf on the right side of the waterfall, I can climb up past it. There doesn't seem to be much evidence of people going this way, but the footsteps are here along with some bear prints. It is not very hard to find a way up onto the tiny ridge behind Upper Caliente Camp and then drop down into it. It looks like a could be a happening place, sometimes, having not just a table, but also benches for the campfire ring and grill. The guide only covers to this point on the trail, which I think is a great disservice to what was historically a heavily used route. There are reasons not to, I must admit.

bear print in the soft dirt
A bear print in the soft soil by the side of the creek.

a slot in hard rocks made by the creek
Looking back downstream from the crest of a tiny ridge near the camp and toward the little waterfall.

Upper Caliente
Upper Caliente, or perhaps just Caliente now that lower is renamed, Camp has a table and campfire benches and a lot of space.

I can see the trail coming back down from climbing over the rocks on the other side of the creek. A faint trail heads upstream from camp to meet it as it crosses the creek again. The trail seems a little disjointed for a short section and stacked cairns help to navigate a little. It still seems easier to follow than my last hike. At one point, I follow it to a short cliff, but I remember that there was a better way down a little way back down the trail because that is where I came up on the way back. The opposite side is also steep, but not too hard. A little further up, the trail seems to split into three and cairns seem to encourage the second path on the left. Eventually, I get to the spot I stopped before because things got confusing. I was deeply suspicious that the reason for that was the cross country travel of HPS people as soon as I found their Hildreth route description. It looks like as many people head up the edge of the ridge as continue along the creek. I pause for a moment pondering my old end point on the edge of the ridge before remembering I want to get a lot of water before leaving the creek and follow the trail just a little further to a crossing.

creek following rock layers
A section of the canyon that follows the rock layers.

light track in the grass climbs a short hill
The trail appears to just be headed toward Hildreth in the background. A couple trails break off to the left and are the usual routes while this one actually seems to climb while following the creek and may be an animal trail.

dry wash tributary
This tributary is dry today, but looks like it could be impressive when flowing.

plants in the creek
One last stop by the creek before leaving it for good.

The ridge is steep and soft, so climbing it is hard work with a fair bit of sliding back. It looks like someone has been along here recently as well. Below, the thin trail following the creek must have crossed back over quickly, or not actually crossed at all, as it is on the same side. I take note for a future trip because I want to try to hike this whole trail. The route gets up to local peaks, then jogs to the north to continue along the ridge line. The ridge there turns green with copper and is littered with purple wood. It looks like someone pushed a 'dozer line down it once. Again, it comes to a local peak, but this time I catch the shorter trail that heads around it to the north past a layer heavy in iron. Up above, I can see the cut of the abandoned jeepway. The ridge route is easy to follow until a section of burned tall brush.

looking down the edge of the ridge
A look back down the edge of the ridge to the creek below.

upstream view
The folds of the land in the upstream direction.

copper and grasses make the hills green
The hill green with grasses and tiny flowers leads down to a hill green with copper.

purple piece of wood
One of many pieces of wood strewn along the ridge that appears purple. I am stuck wondering if it is the copper that makes this color too.

The track I am following seems to vanish among the burned sticks and bush poppies, but it does not matter much. I can see where the road is, so I know where I need to be eventually. I just keep following the ridge along until I get there. The road is overgrown, but the track along it is well established with plenty of room to walk. It climbs more steeply than expected. Below, there is a single island of civilization in the form of Ogilvy Ranch. As I climb, vast potreros open up to the northwest in the same delicate green as the small meadows I have been walking through.

burned brush and bush poppies
A high flat returning to brush after the Zaca Fire reduced it to sticks. The background peak is just one to cross on the way to Hildreth.

Agua Caliente and tributaries
Looking back down Agua Caliente, the abandoned jeepway making its way on the far right.

northerly past an old post to a potrero and Madulce Peak
Looking out from the ridge to one of the potreros with Madulce Peak, the name on the next quad, in the background.

easterly look
Looking toward Reyes Peak (Pine Mountain) with Hildreth still a mile distant on the far right.

The road turns east and drops and climbs and drops and climbs again to the final peak. The true peak is the second along to the left and many routes seem to clamber their way up toward it. Pink ribbons mark one. A big red bandanna also attracts attention. I cross those recent foot prints a few times as I choose my own way. A big, triangular rock tops it all off and at its base is a coffee can register painted red. I take a moment to find my way to the very top before perusing the register. The book has only a half dozen pages filled, but it goes back more than four years. The footprints were made exactly a week ago by a pair of hikers and the previous date is in November. One person seemed to be running his count up so that he could hit the peak with a large group on his 25th trek which included three trips up in the same week last March. (Some HPS people cause great head scratching. To paraphrase the BBC, "Other mountains are available.") Most do not note their route, but the one from Potrero Seco is considered the more popular. It amazes me how little traffic it takes to keep this route open and I wonder how few are traveling the proper trail up Agua Caliente.

grassy sections along the mountains
Looking toward the potreros to the northwest of the peak.

south all the way to Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Island is a faint and distant range from here.

easterly view
From below here, the road keeps going east to Three Sisters.

It is past time for heading down, which has a lot of up in it, when I get started. The road does not look any better traveled to the east as to the west. I turn back the way I came until the ridge, then keep to the road which follows another ridge. The road below is a little more brushy, but still has open tracks for easy walking. The animals are still using it and it is still in good repair. It is likely a bit narrow for a vehicle in a slide section and there are a few rocks on it, but it would otherwise be fairly passable. There are quite a few more ticks along the way than there were along the sections that were walked a week before. Unfortunately, my views down into Agua Caliente on the left and Mono on the right are quickly cut short by the setting sun.

bright bit of the last of the sun on a bush poppy
A low sun leaves the valleys deeply in shade behind this bush poppy.

brush and grasses along a narrowed section of road
A few rocks and some sliding may make the road hard to pass for vehicles, but it is still an easy walk for two legs, four legs, or two wheels.

The road continues to climb and drop as it makes its way along the ridge. Once in a while, there seems to be the suggestion of a bicycle tire in the dirt. It climbs up a particularly high spot and passes by a small depression, but there is no water in it now. From there, it makes a resolute turn to the west as I have to get out my light with a bit more than a mile of abandoned route to go. The road is generally a straight shot, drifting downward at a nice pace, from there, but I manage to make a turn and have to stop when things seem to suddenly get too steep. Climbing a few feet back to the ridge is enough to find it again. After that, I manage to stay on it until the new road from the ranch joins it. The abandoned track looks like it could be easy to miss as it splits from the regularly scraped roadway.

colors in the sky
The soft and deeply red light after sunset.

The maintained road seems to spend a lot of time either dropping steeply or climbing steeply. It is clear that the cross country route cuts off more than a few miles, it also cuts out a lot of work climbing and dropping, swapping some of it for the gentle climb along the creek. By this time, I am both physically and mentally exhausted and had I a blanket to pull out, I might just curl up on my pack out of the wind and not notice anything until morning, when I would be able to see the scenery I am walking through. Actually, I do have an emergency blanket, but I am not quite ready to pull it out, so I walk up and down and down and up and down and down. There is suddenly a very heavy gate in front of me. Below it, the road degrades a bit and I can hear frogs. The river, such as it is, is near. In another half mile, I can see the road sign next to P-Bar and make my way back to the car along the open road.




©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 26 April 2014

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey Valerie - great story, thanks for sharing. I agree about Agua Caliente being an unsung hero of a canyon. Good stuff is further up as well. See you around.