05 April 2014

Tule Creek

Los Padres National Forest

Locate the trailhead.

I think Tule Creek first came to my attention while perusing my father's 1967 Los Padres visitor map, which may be falling apart at the seams, but is still bright and clear between the folds. I knew of it and had even checked the area for parking by the time I noticed it was included in Craig Carey's guidebook. I had not actually hiked it since it appears on very few other maps. The state of the trail is given as "passable to difficult". Still, inclusion in the guide is more than can be said for Gato Trail, which should run south from Camino Cielo near Broadcast Peak and currently does so for no more than 40 feet, from what I can ascertain from internet searches having not even seen it while walking past. The plan is to take Tule Creek up to Dry Lakes Ridge, then finish that trail to the west, and maybe even climb north on Ortega a little way before turning around and retracing my steps. Clouds appear to be overflowing from north of Pine Mountain, but otherwise the sky is blue. A cold wind blows off it, too, so I pull on my sleeves for brush protection earlier than planned. The guidebook says the trailhead is at the southwest end of the bridge and far too many details to remember to help keep on the trail, so gets stuffed in for later consultation. I also have the relevant portion of the Wheeler Springs quad with a hand drawn line which can only be thought of as "very approximate". Packed up, I cross the Tule Creek bridge over a lovely little flow of water to what looks like it could have, once, been a marked trailhead.

looking up the stretch of Tule Creek
Tule Creek from near the bridge at the mouth of the canyon. Dry Lakes Ridge is to the left.

A track follows a gentle slope downward to beside the creek among some rose. On the other side of a pool of knee high water, it clearly climbs back up the creek bank. There are no rocks for crossing in sight. A couple depressions in the muck might bear witness to the passage of a previous trail user. As I stand pondering if I will get my shoes wet or take the time to remove them or just look for a way in from the other side of the bridge, a couple of birds start grabbing quick drinks as they flutter around. Having not actually tested these shoes in water, the plunge becomes the answer. They are slow to take on water and the shower curtain gaiters actually do a good job of keeping it from flowing in the top, but they are a little heavier after four steps through the pool. Just a little way into the brush, a track leads off to the right toward the other side of the bridge.

bird in flight over the creek pool
One of the little birds dancing in the air over the pool in Tule Creek.

The trail starts off clear and the track of use can be seen easily, just as promised. Travel is open with views through areas of scrub sage, then through canyons carved through ceanothus. In spite of the early meeting with rose, patches of it are few and far between. Tule reeds are in thin patches among the sage and thicker patches without sage where it is more moist. The trail fades for a moment as people walk along a sloped edge of sandstone near the creek. Crumbled shale follows this and an obvious track avoids willow by climbing up it a few feet. Past this, the track either dumps into shallow and generally dry tributary streams or takes an acute angle around a point of shale. Poking around in the creek bed just leads to back tracking for my first route finding failure.

thorny tangle of dead branches
Live and dead branches of ceanothus make a thorny wall along some well established tread.

slope of sandstone beside the creek
Looking back as the trail edges along the sandstone close to Tule Creek.

Climbing around the edge of the shale point shows a little bit more track heading out into a wide and open rocky bottom of a tributary, then nothing. Making my way, there is soon an opening in the sages on the other side, so I aim at that. The trail is indistinct at first, but grows as a few other routes that went a few feet further up the tributary join it. Sparing a moment's thought to ticks means noticing that there are a dozen brown ones all making their way up my trouser legs. Flicking those off and taking three steps in the sage means a dozen more all climbing just as ferociously. The path through the tick infested sage passes a very decidedly machete sliced bush and dumps me into a red ribbon of water and another tule reed patch. It is not so bad as meadows for trail, but blundering ever forward along the hole through the middle of the reeds comes to a tangle of low trees with no way out. Another route finding failure.

rock outcrop to the south
Pockets of trees and random rock outcrops mark the south side of the canyon.

dry expanse of a tributary
A wide flat to the north of the creek with evidence of running water and plenty of room to wander aimlessly.

red water with grasses growing
The streak of red as seen later in the day.

Backtracking to the hacked tree just confirms, with some uncertainty, that I started on the correct trail. It is very clear across the little red creek and into the tule reeds, but then extra routes appear. One heads back a little way, but then dissipates. One between plunges toward the same trees, but this time with a route through them down to the edge of the creek. This time there are a set of rocks suitable for hopping and a second set a little way upstream to where the trail climbs the other bank. As quickly as I entered thick trees, I am back into dry sages. This time, a faint trail in the rock is visible, but the land lends itself to many routes. I decide to climb a small hill to the right and the trail seems to agree. The way the creek is curving, it looks like a shallower track is also possible. This drops again and I can see a few trails heading my way. I pick one and go with it, not getting too close to the creek until forced to.

the rocky valley from above
Looking back down Tule Creek from the low hills.

looking upstream along Tule Creek
The line of trees shows the course of water upstream along Tule Creek.

slow section of Tule Creek
Coming back to Tule Creek where there is still good flow.

The book says not to cross for a while and there does not seem to be any trail on the other side of the creek. This side does not look much better, as there is only a narrow path climbing into decomposing shale. Deep deer tracks from the last user hint that it might really be the path of least resistance. It climbs higher along the outside of a curve in the creek that is producing a small cliff toward the bottom. Eventually, I must cross although I still have not seen the trail on the other side. There is a spot that looks like I can get to a clearer area behind the thick stream side vegetation, and with a little pushing it puts me on trail again. With a short bit of muddling, but no outright route finding failure, I am back at the creek. A thin layer of water is flowing over the dirt for a short distance on the other side, so this must be the seep mentioned. Mossy rocks just below the water offer the only crossing. My still moist shoes seem to wick the water in, especially climbing the rocks and dirt in the seep.

trail through the shale debris
Looking back at the track over the shale debris which climbs above some willows as it goes.

water seeping through the dirt
A rock dam serves as a crossing over the creek to where water seeps from the ground.

After the seep, there is not a lot of choice in route. There is a tunnel through the ceanothus which is often tall enough to crouch in, but requires crawling for a few feet repeatedly. It is probably a bad sign that I am not yet to the point where "the often-bloodletting trek" up the ridge starts and am already thinking about bailing down Dry Lakes Ridge. Just as I am thinking that I am certainly in a bear tunnel after all, there is an obvious cut branch to say otherwise. This tunnel gets to the edge of a drop off with the creek below, but continues through the ceanothus. After a couple windows with progressively safer descents, it drops again to a flat above the creek. It follows above the creek through sages for a while. The ticks have changed to predominantly ones that are red-brown with black in the middle. Then the clear trail proceeds for a little further into a wall of ceanothus. Sometimes one must be right at the foot of the bush to find the way through, but these do not want to yield. Another route finding failure.

not a bear tunnel through the ceanothus
Not quite just a crawlspace through the ceanothus that seems to get smaller as it goes. It is tempting to call this a bear tunnel, but the cut on the bush the the left hints otherwise.

a moment to stand and look out
One of the windows out into the canyon along the trail. It offers a chance to stand, but also a chance to fall.

water among rocks
Back to the creek, just about.

Settling down with the guide to see what it says, it describes braided streams. I do not see that, I see the creek. Perhaps this is still the part of working through the ceanothus. It occurs to me that a waypoint might be nice, so a little fiddling with the GPS has it set to the same format as the book, plug in "base of the ridge" press "go" and ... it is a little over 43 miles away. Trying UTM 10 instead of UTM 11 moves it to over 250 miles away. The seep is dead on my path right where I expect. The trail junction also looks about right. It is clearly the N coordinate that is the problem, so I try to work with that. I still need to go west a bit and probably a bit south. My plan now is to try to find the correct path as I work back toward the last known good point at the seep. If I make it there, I will take a moment for a scribble and try the Greek yogurt breakfast bar, then head back.

a wall of brush
The brush does not care.

The very local area provides many paths and a ring of ceanothus. Nothing seems to go through. I try to climb at spots repeatedly, but there is just more hard chaparral up there and nothing to see except the canyon below. It seems to be a lot longer back to the tunnel. Once in the tunnel, there are not chances to head off until just above the seep and this, too, is only a few tens of feet up before it stops. The strawberry Greek yogurt breakfast bar is not so good.

clouds coming from Pine Mountain
Looking down the canyon, I am now just high enough to see a little bit of Pine Mountain with its clouds pouring over.

After the moment sitting, it is time to make my way back down. At least someone has already brushed the trail a bit for ticks. Following the trail past where I joined it on this side of the creek, the path back down to the creek is not well defined, but a way is easy enough to pick out.

Humboldt lily just starting
The area Humboldt lilies seem to be just barely starting, so this may be a place to find them late in the season.

ticks climbing ever upward
A selection of ticks on my knee. While walking, the ticks seem prone to dropping off my nylon trousers, but stop and they will start climbing enthusiastically. While most the ticks I saw were adults, there were plenty of smaller nymphs among them.

My path does not quite line up with my route up, but it is close. I take a lower route past the hill with trail along it and end up doubling back to go over the creek crossing. There is trail up the bank on the far side that joins with my trail after stomping on some raspberries. After this, the route back is very simple.

downstream look, lined with trees
Back to the second crossing and looking downstream along the tree lined Tule Creek.

pool with roots dipping in
A ripple filled pool along the way.

closeup of tule reeds
Tule reeds.

highly decayed pieces of large bone
Two large pieces of bone that have decayed quite a lot.

creek over rocks with islands of dried grass
A slightly more animated section of the creek where tufts of dried grass dwell.

I can just spot the bridge through the brush as I near. I try the trail cut to the left to see how good it is, and it is quite nice. It passes some metal fence posts with barbed wire and then climbs much less delicately toward the road over large rocks to the far side of the guard rail that extends from the bridge. It is certainly a better choice than plunging into the creek.

metal post with barbed wire among the tule reeds
The first of the posts with the remains of a barbed wire fence. The rest extend toward the creek and the bridge.

When I mentioned to Craig (while picking up microtrash at Gold Hill) that I wanted to try Tule Creek, he said to go down it from Dry Lakes Ridge. This strikes me as a good way to get stuck or, without any familiarity with the trail, end up plodding the whole of the creek section in the creek for want of finding trail. He has said the same thing about Buck Creek. Perhaps I will have to take his advice next time. There is plenty of time to check out Rose Valley Falls afterward, but I as the upper falls comes into view, I can see that it is dry.

©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 7 April 2014

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