Leaders: Alan Coles, Frank Goodykoontz
The previous time I had led these 4 peaks we did the two hardest peaks, San Rafael and Thorn, on the first day and the easier ones the next. The result was a rushed march up Thorn with a return around dusk. Since Thorn is one of the nicest hikes on the list, I wanted to do it Sunday morning right from camp at Thorn Meadows CG. Logistically, this meant having to do additional driving up and down Grade Valley Rd as I also wanted to do the most difficult peak, San Rafael, first. Being on a semi-holiday weekend with good weather, it was important to arrive at Thorn Meadows CG early to secure a site. So I set the meeting time there at 7 am on Saturday morning. Most everyone drove up Friday night. George Schroedter and Southern Courtney arrived first and found the entire campground empty. Bill and Gisela Kluwin arrived shortly later followed by Bryce and Wilma Wheeler. I came next with Jean Hermansen (Janet had to stay home to study) followed much later (as always) by Frank, Hazel and Theresa Ebelling. Together, we occupied all 3 sites thus achieving one primary goal. The next morning the sleepy occupants of the cars awoke early in the morning with brilliant golden black oaks at the height of their autumnal splendor gracefully adorning the campground. It was cold but not freezing and the sky was mostly clear with a few scant clouds of no significance moving gracefully across it. Vic Henry and Sue Wyman drove in as we completed our breakfast making a reasonable size group of 12. After signing in we took off in 3 cars to the Mutau Flats trailhead where we met Don Tidwell, Cynthia Conant, Walia Ringeler and Mike Fredette. It was still cold when we eagerly started around 7:40 for San Rafael on the Johnston Ridge motorcycle trail. This former hiking trail was supposed to revert back to that status years ago as part of the implementation of the forest plan but the district ranger persuaded the forest supervisor to keep it open for motor vehicle use until passage of the wilderness bill. We followed it past the Snedden Ranch in Mutau Valley where OHV users have heavily vandalized the privately owned structures. There are several priceless Chumash pictographs on the rocks in the center of the valley that are threatened by this senseless violence. Further along after crossing dry Mutau Creek we entered a level forested plateau where the trail widened to nearly 4 car widths, caused by the same lack of respect for natural surroundings by these "forest users". Finally we came to the junction with the Little Mutau Trail where there is a massive steel structure to keep OHV's off this hiking trail. It had been wrenched out a few years ago but after constant pressure by the Sierra Club, the Forest Service reinstalled it. When we arrived, the wire fence on one side had been recently cut by a motorcyclist who successfully got through. We continued on up the Little Mutau Trail to the saddle working our way over switchbacks which were completely destroyed by the illegal riders. If anyone wonders why we need passage of the Condor Range and Rivers Protection Act, they need only visit this area to convince them. After a break at the saddle to remove layers of warm clothes we followed along the NE side of the ridge sometimes following tracks left by David Eisenberg's group. The temperature was just about perfect and the views in all directions were exceptionally clear. We had no major problems and successfully got around any brushy areas before joining the ridge and ascending the summit around 10:30. The group took a short lunch and surveyed the major canyon which Sespe Creek has been carving out. Just below the peak, the Sespe makes a major shift from following a fault zone east through a wide valley to a sudden and dramatic turn south across the grain of the Topatopa Mountains. The unique pinkish sandstone rocks found along the creek are part of the "Sespe" formation which was created by deposits in a large inland basin during the late Eocene to early Miocene eras. Faulting has pushed the formation into almost vertical positions which have eroded to form the unique shapes seen along the creek. From this nearly ideal vantage point one can see the extent of the proposed Sespe Wilderness which at nearly 220,000 acres will be the largest in Southern California. There is no other place so close to the large metropolitan areas in this region that is so wild and seldom visited. Twenty minutes later we retraced our steps back to our cars and had another short lunch break there. In typical HPS fashion, we drove over to the trailhead for the next peak which was Lockwood. We started hiking on the Yellow Jacket Motorcycle Trail around 2 and didn't encounter any vehicles along the way. The small meadows through which the trail passes have been rendered almost sterile and are to be restored once the trail gets re-routed to the south. We left it at the usual location and followed the use trail up the gully to the plateau. At this point Wilma Wheeler took over as leader to navigate the group around the brush to the top. This she did very well and in the process attained her 200th peak. Congratulations!
We celebrated with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and some tasty snacks while admiring the fine views to the north. The November sun, however, was fastly sinking in the west so we took off and returned back to the cars just as it passed over the horizon and sunk in a crimson sky. For once there were no dropouts and everyone returned back to the campground just as darkness was setting in finding Hazel and Bill (who had decided not to do Lockwood) comfortably resting in front of a large warm inferno. There was a generous supply of oak left by a previous camper which provided ample heat for a large contingent. The rest of us got cleaned up and began the process of feeding ourselves. I had planned for a community salad and nearly everyone complied making enough for all to have a generous portion. There was a lot of good food being passed around and in the darkness one never quite knew what one was eating. I had scooped a bowl of salad only to end up with just bell peppers! Frank was so slow getting out of his portable jacuzzi that he nearly missed the salad. After everyone had thoroughly stuffed themselves with the many exotic dishes that ranged from Thai style chicken to Indian Curry, the beckoning heat of a warm fire on a cold, still night drew them in a circle for a relaxing evening of conversation before turning into bed.
There was no need to hurry the next morning so we took our time eating breakfast and getting our packs ready. Around 7:40 we started our trek up to Thorn Pt by climbing the precariously built step ladders over the wire fence but after that we entered another world that was new to many hikers in the group. Startling images of bright, fiery black oaks set against a dramatic backdrop of rust colored rocks and cliffs with willows, wild roses, bracken ferns in yellow and green hues lying below towering Jeffery Pines and incense Cedars. The modest trail winds through this collage of colors taking the visitor through a land more reminiscent of Utah than Southern California. In one mile the trail leaves the canyon bottom and begins its ascent briefly through chaparral where we had a short break and then up into the conifer forest of Douglas Firs and Sugar Pines. In every direction there are sights over this fascinating landscape almost making it a crime to rush through it. We took another break halfway up at a prominent rock outcropping and admired the rock formations that bring to mind places like Bryce and Cedar Breaks. Further up we passed over rocks that contained millions of old shell fragments before reaching the small valley that hangs on a shoulder of the peak. All too quickly we gained the summit ridge and finally the peak with the lookout tower.
On a clear day it is hard to imagine a finer view than the one from this location. The ocean was covered with a cloud layer with the tops of the Channel Islands poking through. The impressive bluffs of the Topatopa Mountains to the south were flanked with fir trees and maples in fall colors down in the deep gullies. All around one saw only wilderness and the signs of man were few and far between.
We took a long break on top and some nervously climbed the steps up to the lookout. There was a cool, almost cold breeze but we stayed warm on the rocks below.
We left around 10:30 just as a few dark, puffy clouds began to appear over nearby peaks. There was that smell and feel in the air that seemed to announce the change in season. Bill and Gisela decided to sign out and stay back a little longer to enjoy the day. The rest of us continued down and back to camp.
Sue and Vic took off to do San Guillermo on their own while the rest of us had lunch and later drove up to Pine Spring CG in shifts in order to avoid dust. When Frank finally arrived around 1 we began hiking under cloudy skies making the shadeless route more pleasant. We met Vic and Sue as they were descending and they told us about their trip up with a route Vic remembered. It involved a more intimate experience with the scrub oak and ceanothus than the standard one we were on.
Within an hour we were on top and looking over the jagged canyons of the badlands to the NW. The Fishbowls fire had burned up to this point but the firefighters with heavy machinery contained it along the ridge. While many trees were saved, the ugly bulldozer scars will take generations to heal.
A short time later we were back at the cars and ready to head home. George, Frank and a few others were contemplating Frazier while the rest of us were content with the 4 peaks. Thanks to everyone, especially Frank, for making it a great weekend in the Sespe area.