28 October 2016

Mission Pine Basin

Los Padres National Forest


I joined up with the "working vacation", the third of the year being put on by Los Padres Forest Association, for Monday through Friday. I had my fun planned for Saturday and more fun planned for next Saturday, so that is what I can fit. We hit Cachuma Saddle a little before sunrise to drive up the road to the trailhead. I jump in one of the more capable cars and watch the road as we go. There are a couple spots that look like they would be tough with the little car, then one that looks highly improbable. John says they brought out a jack hammer to this spot once to make it as passable as it is. He will be coming out on Sunday, but seems to be worried about all the things he has on his plate to do and is thinking about coming out on Friday with me. That would be great, because then I would have a ride out. Otherwise, I have to walk all the way out since right now, no one else is leaving that day.

We stop by McKinley Springs where the support stock are staying. Right now, that is two horses and a mule, but there were a few more mules on the weekend and they will be back for the haul out next weekend. We get them loaded up with whatever is still needed down at camp for the next few days. Mostly, that means beer and ice. There is space for some gear, so we lighten our packs a little. There is a lot more room, but we do not want to completely let go of our packs. Once the animals are loaded, we finish the drive and get started on the hike in.

McKinley Saddle
Looking back at McKinley Saddle as the stock start up it behind us.

McKinley Fire Trail
The McKinley Fire Trail snakes its way around the side of the next peak on its way to Santa Cruz Station.

The weather is superb today. The previous days have been variously a bit hot or a lot windy, but today is comfortable and the air is not making standing difficult. It would be hard to ask for a better day to be hiking in on.

Hurricane Deck
Hurricane Deck in the distance.

Santa Cruz Peak
Santa Cruz Peak and the ranches of the San Marcos Grant.

Cachuma Peak
Low Cachuma Peak is set off nicely by some clouds in the saddle.

John notes how much better this trail is looking just for having the stock walking over it this past week while everything was getting set up. It looks about how I remember it, so I am not certain what he means. We pass San Rafael Mountain, which I figure I will tag on the way out when I can spend as much time as I like without making anyone wait, then start the long and easy drop toward Mission Pine Spring.

San Rafael
Up around the many peaks of San Rafael.

Mission Pine Spring Trail
Manzanita and pine trees as we make our way down to the spring.

My early breakfast has caught up to me by the time we reach the spring. I am hungry and want to gobble a few things down. Seating around a fire and a picnic table make it a very nice place to do so. We have not been sitting for five minutes when we look over to see an antlered head staring at us and calculating how to get past to the water hole behind us. After a few pictures by those with cameras closer at hand, he runs off. Just give us another ten minutes and the place will be deserted again, young buck.

rocky spots
Continuing on our way.

Everyone keeps telling me this is the hardest bit of the hike. It rolls up and down over five (I am told) little ridges. They say you cannot get into a rhythm over it. I do not find it so bad, but then I am rarely in a hurry. Over the first little ridge is a second water source. The ferns around it are all brown, but the water is still here.

ferns by the second water source
The second moist spot just past the spring surprises me again. I seem to have forgotten it.

rolling landscape ahead
The rolling landscape ahead as I try to guess how many bumps before camp.

Bits of the trail have been lost and now follow drainages. Indeed, just one ridge from camp, I get to the bottom of one rocky run and look left to see a wide cairn that triggers a memory of stepping over them. Behind them is the vanishing trail that no one has been on in this last week. It is being replaced by another drainage.

West Big Pine
West Big Pine has been visible from time to time, but is most impressive as come over the last ridge to Mission Pine Basin.

The work for the day is already done as we arrive into camp. It was a rest day, really meaning a day for different kinds of work than lopping brush. Many people were hiking out and we met them sporadically as we came in. A couple left are sharpening tools and the rest are chatting. Camp is not at the official camp since the tree hazard there is still far too great. Some of the talk is about where the camp can be moved to although there will be no moving this trip. We new arrivals set up and then join in. Without a campfire, we do not last much past dark and cold before heading off to bed.


We wake surprisingly soggy, especially those couple people who took off their rain flys to look at the stunning stars in the evening. Apparently they did not stay that way, but we were all asleep by then. It is the first day of work for me, but others have been up here since Friday and the work did not begin then. We head out along a gully that is not marked as trail on the map, but has been used as such for years now. The map (USGS Big Pine Mountain 1995) shows a trail that is almost indistinguishable from a fuel break following ridge lines from Mission Pine Basin all the way to West Big Pine. It also seems to confuse the ranger district line with the trail line, so maybe it is all just generally confused. We make a few more turns in the gully before climbing very steeply under a couple oaks to get up on the ridge. Whatever once was the trail, it certainly was not what it is now.

manzanita covered hills
Climbing along the ridge to where the track is narrow between the manzanita.

Looking out across the hillsides, it is easy to imagine many old trails along them. There seem to be lines in the vegetation. The closer ones are probably illusions due to rock layers or something like that, but further away, one line twists downward as the Coche Trail descends to Santa Cruz Station. We settle in at the edge of previous work on the manzanita that is encroaching on the trail and extend it.

wide cut
Wide spaces between the manzanita as we finish. This bit of trail will stay for a little while, at least.

We head out further for another section of trail that still needs some attention. There are brief spots that need some attention in between, but these are not as important as the long section of scrub oaks up ahead. The trail continues odd excursions that seem unlikely to be the original construction, yet somehow do generally agree with the map. We wander the bottoms of more gullies and right up the sides of more ridges as we go.

head stone
Faces in the rocks watch us from above.

The scrub oaks we are aiming at are a bit taller and more imposing to passage than the manzanita was. We get to work again clearing a nice, wide passage that will hopefully stay open for at least a few years before needing work again.

Before work, there is a passage wide enough to walk. It has not yet been a bit too long, but some spots are quite tight.

easily usable
After work, except for one brush pile still toward the end of view. This should stay open for a while.

We head back again after finishing with the scrub oaks, this time stopping at the little things here and there that could really use some attention. Tread work is done and the odd head high tree that failed to grow out of a wall is removed. The trail is much easier to pass as we make our way slowly back to camp.

tread work
Some worked tread on the way back to camp.


For today, we head back the way we came to clear the trail. Here, the coulter pine forest is growing up thick and ceanothus makes itself known in the spaces that have been left. Still in view of our camp, we get to work clearing the trail. Besides cutting back the new growing pines and spiny bushes, we need to clear out some stobs in the trail that were left from previous pine cuttings and are a danger to the feet of stock.

Mission Pine Basin
Mission Pine Basin from among the little pines.

cleared trail
Some mostly cleared trail.

We move through the pines to the top where they thin, but there are older ones that did not survive the fire. One of these is leaning over the trail, and though small, seems a good idea to remove. We continue on clearing the brush from the side of the trail until it is the end of work time and return to camp. Once back, we prepare for rain. It is expected to start tomorrow afternoon and nobody wants to be caught by it if it is early.

tarp over the kitchen
Managing to get a tarp set up over the kitchen to prepare for rain.

A couple of the guys that have been out since the start of the weekend go about finding a way to get a shower and I take off to the official campsite to see what it is like now. Not quite the same death trap as before. At least one of the trees has fallen to improve safety. It is still not a very welcome camp. Then we all battle the breezes to set one of the tarps over the kitchen so that cooking may happen rain or shine.


My original plan was to work on Thursday and then head out in the evening to find a camp a little closer to the car at Mission Pine Spring and hike out the rest on Friday. Today is another "rest day", which this time is translating into making sure camp is secure for the coming storm and then heading out to cut out a tree on the Coche Trail. There are enough for that without me, so I head out in hopes of getting to a camp before the rain starts. It is expected to start promptly at 1 PM.

Mission Pine Basin
A few figures fuss about camp making sure it is ready for the coming wet.

trail over hills
Looking back along the trail.

Travel sure is nice along the first section of trail that was worked. It gets a little spiny after that. Ceanothus is not the only thing reaching out to travelers, but it certainly is one that is remembered afterward. It is still dry and uneventful as I arrive at the camp at Mission Pine Spring. All the better to get settled in, so I go about setting up my shelter for the night.

rain over Santa Ynez Mountains
Rainy over the Santa Ynez Mountains, but not on them. Although it is thick with clouds above, the islands are clear to see today.

Hunger wins after the shelter is up and nothing else needs to be done before the rain arrives, so I sit and watch the rain over the Santa Ynez Mountains not quite getting to the ground and thinking about what the weather report we were given actually was. Although the rain will start soon, expected totals are not very high until the evening. What is coming our way certainly looks to be something mild, at least initially. I have little to do with the rest of the day, so hiking in sprinkles sounds better than waiting for rain. I pack it all up again and continue up the mountain. The rain is surprisingly prompt for weather, but far too little to bother about as expected.

San Rafael Mountain
The top of San Rafael Mountain.

There is a little bit of worry that thunder might start timed for my arrival at the top of San Rafael Mountain, but instead there is a little bit of sunlight. Just as I arrive, the area brightens up and becomes inviting. It goes well with my original plan to tag the peak on the way out.

burned range areas
Looking over the burned range areas. The rain is so light it barely hides the distant peaks.

rainbow on the mountain
The brief sunlight comes with a faint rainbow.

Lompoc and further
Incredible views out past Vandenberg on this misty afternoon.

After 15 minutes when I am ready to continue on, the sun vanishes again and takes the rainbow with it. I catch Bryan on his way into Mission Pine Basin a day early to make sure he can be there to organize bringing everyone out again. He is certain the rainbow is leaving because it does not like his singing, little knowing that the sun was only out so I could enjoy a moment on the peak. After a short chat, he gets back to racing the weather while I drop down to join the two at McKinley Spring without much weather pressure at all.

Back at the start of my hike, but not yet finished.

The group at the spring is just two, but they have also got a tarp up over their kitchen area. I pick a spot on the road that is flat and looks like it will not pool or run or generally be a nuisance in the night to get the shelter set up again. This time, everything else gets set up again. The heavy rain is not as punctual as the light rain was, but eventually it gets started and we settle in for the night.


The day starts early for me, waking for some lightning. At first the thunder is somehow muted, but as it rolls over us, that changes. Soon there is lightning closely followed by thunder, then it continues on its way. There were only a few clashes, but two right in the middle were especially impressive. As it leaves, I can hear wind gusts barreling down the hillside. They miss me until they do not and one takes out the most important stake at the top of my shelter. I pull the pole back upright and as long as I can hold the tent out, I have as much time as I need to prepare to go out there and fix things. My rain pants splash in a puddle as I try to pull them on in the dark. I did not put the camera into the dry bag in the evening and grab for it. It feels wet and dread falls. I grab for the light, which stays on just long enough to verify the camera will be fine. It needed a new battery last night, but I did not bother to change it. Mostly one handed and blind, I stuff the camera in the dry bag now and roll it closed again then get the battery changed and the rain gear on. I have lost three stakes. One at the back probably came out a while ago and I did not notice. It produced the puddle. A guy line that helps support the front pole probably came out when the pole came down. I can find an new good spot for the back and the guy line, but the front cannot reach good ground as is. I have to scrounge a bit of rope from the lantern last night to get it set again, then drop a rock on it for good measure. I adjust a couple more stakes to make sure everything is secure enough for the rest of the night then try to get a bit more sleep and a second, better start to the day.

The second start of the day takes a while, but there are no more problems with my shelter and a long night means plenty of time to get enough sleep no matter what happens to interrupt it. The rain is even less punctual about stopping in the morning. As it gets to mid-morning, I cannot keep waiting. The other two say they would not go out in this without some time pressure, but I have places to be tomorrow. I tuck everything into my pack and pull down the shelter and stuff it too, after a few shakes. I am off through the mud.

top of Big Cone Spruce
At the top of Big Cone Spruce. Today is not nearly so clear. Nothing to see here if it is more than 100 feet away.

picnic table
I remember that one table under the lone tree.

The mud is generally stable enough, but there are places where it is slick and thick and difficult to walk through. The trucks left at the top will not be driving out Sunday after this much rain and no sun to dry it before the next storm expected Sunday night. There have been fatalities in the storm overnight. I walk past four kangaroo rats that did not survive it and now rest, cold and wet, on the road.

nearly dry horse trough
In spite of a few inches of rain, the horse trough is still almost completely empty.

a little rainbow
Finally it is clearing a little and there is even a slight rainbow again.

As I near the end, so does the rain. It is finally clearing a little, or maybe I am finally below the clouds. Probably a little of both.

dirt winds
The road winds down to Cachuma Saddle where the car is parked.

I am parked with the edge of a big puddle behind me, but manage to get turned and leaving without actually entering it and whatever muck it is creating below. One way is two fords and a quarter mile of mud road, the other goes over the mountain with better chances for rock fall and blow downs. I try over the mountain and only need to dodge a few rocks. It looks like a lot of trees have been dealt with recently, but they may not have been from today.

©2016 Valerie Norton
Posted 7 November 2016

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Valerie - Thanks for coming on the Working Vacation and hope to see you out there next time. I enjoyed reading your report and especially some of the photos of the nice new trail. Thanks again........