Leaders: Alan Coles, Martin Feather
If you lead it they will come.
It doesn't seem to matter how many miles or feet of elevation gain is in the trip description, there will always be someone who will sign up. Sometimes I get the biggest response to the most challenging trip. In this instance of a 24 mile hike with 4500' gain there were over 25 people (I stopped counting) who expressed an interest in going.
By the day of the trip the reality of a 6 am meeting time at Dripping Springs C.G. near Temecula resulted in a few casualties. Showing up in the dark on a clear, windy winter day were several familiar faces and a few new ones: Betty & Austin Stirratt, Ron Zappen, George Thomas, Tom Moumblow, Elaine Gbur, Pete Doggett, Paula Peterson, Kevin Doyle, Gary Murta, Cristy Bird and at the last minute, Luella and Erich Fickle.
At 15 minutes after the promised starting time and with the hint of early morning light, we started from the parking lot near the entrance of the campground and walked to the far end giving campers on their way to perform necessary functions a chance to view a parade of polypropylene that would be the rage in Seattle. We passed a group of kids already up, signed the register at the start of the trail, then came to our first obstacle of the day, a treacherous crossing of the Arroyo Seco Creek which everyone survived. About 1/4 mile up the trail we came to the new junction with the Wild Horse Trail. With such a large group, I had planned on splitting in 2 although wilderness permits are no longer required for day use. Luella and Erich had agreed to take the other group up and back on the new trail and I would lead the others on a loop up the older Dripping Springs Trail and returning on the new one. But no one volunteered to go with them preferring to do the loop despite promises of "difficult" conditions along the way. So united, we put our feet in gear and began the long ascent up the mountain.
Before the trip I had talked with Norm Noyes, the wilderness/trail ranger on the Palomar Ranger District about conditions in the Agua Tibia Wilderness. The Vail fire of 1989 had burned most of the northern part of it including the trails that lead to Eagle Crag. The rapid brush growth and fallen trees have nearly obliterated the trails in many places and people have had problems staying on them. Fortunately for us fire crews had been working to clear the most difficult sections during the unusually dry weather periods in December and January. Norm told me that they were able to establish a track but that the trail was far from being in maintained condition. I asked and received permission to do minor trail work on the hike. While any trail work is welcomed, they do not want everyone to do it without permission since people unfamiliar with the proper route may accidentally cut off trail and lead people astray.
The Dripping Springs Trail starts off quite well for the first 3/4 mile but then gets a little overgrown in spots as it begins the long switchbacks up a ridge. The sun was just beginning to shine on the higher slopes and a blustery wind began to hit us as we alternated on opposite sides of the ridge. After 2 miles the trail surprisingly opened up on a newly reconstructed stretch that lasted for about 1 mile to where the it enters a plateau. After 1 1/2 hours we took our first break out of the wind in a small meadow surrounded by charred skeletons of 30' manzanitas.
After getting a good bite to eat, everyone was eager to push onwards. One could see how easy it would be to get off route in this maze of small hills and valleys. Those of us who had been on the trail before the fire remember seeing very little other than very high chaparral. It is like a whole new trail now. There were a few spots where we had to find the trail again but otherwise we were quite successful in staying on it and wasted little time in getting to the base of Agua Tibia Mountain and climbing the short switchbacks up the slopes to the saddle just west of the summit. With the few clippers we had, we concentrated our trail work on the faster growing ceanothus and scrub oak which had totally engulfed the trail in several places. It appeared that the fire crews had stopped about 1/2 mile before the saddle leaving us with several heavy brush spots to work on. We did what we could without significantly slowing our pace down. Finally after 3 1/2 hours and 7 miles we reached the junction with the old Palomar Magee Road (now a trail) and took our second break.
The fire had fortunately missed this enchanting spot with its oak and coulter pine trees. The sign was still there pointing the way to Eagle Crag. The wind, though, was howling with the fury of a hurricane creating the sound of a massive waterfall. Everyone threw on all the clothes they had and sat in patches of sun out of the wind. We didn't stay long.
Once on the old road there was a feeling of optimism that things would get better. This was once one of the nicest parts of the hike as the trail passes through a shady pine forest. However when trees burn they die and when they die they fall down. We crossed the first downed tree without much effort The second wasn't too bad. The third and forth were more problematic. As we continued on, each one became more difficult, like a puzzle in which you had to figure how to get through the tangled maze of branches. Trees had fallen on more trees creating stacks that were impossible to get through, so we had to work around the thick brush on the side. The logs were also loose, so one had to be very careful not to get pinned down. This was dangerous work and the strong wind made things worse. "I wonder if any of these trees have fallen down because of this wind?", Tom asked with impeccable timing. Just at that moment an 80' tree snapped in half and came crashing down about 100 yards away.
Besides the downed trees there was thick brush: Poodle Dog plants over 10' high, thickets of thorny raspberry bushes and more ceanothus. Pushing, crawling, cutting, clipping, we slowly worked our way around the mountain to the south side where things began to, literally, look brighter. South slopes have less trees, so less work was needed. We were already (at least those in the front) feeling tired and it was taking over an hour to go 1 mile. The trail was in much better shape as it began to turn east where we could finally see the summit of Eagle Crag.
A great burden had been lifted as we began the descent into Crosley Saddle. The fire had not burned very much in this region and the trail was in great shape. We finally reached the new signed junction with the Wild Horse Trail around 11:30 and took another well deserved break. It was good to know that we didn't have to go back the same way however the sign said it would be 10 miles back to Dripping Springs and we were still 1 1/2 miles from the summit.
After the break, we headed up the steep trail through more burned areas. Fortunately there were fewer trees and brush although our legs were feeling the effort of the climb. On the brighter side there were many new healthy coulter pine seedlings growing among the downed trees. Finally we reached The Spot and left the trail for the final ascent. The route is still there and, slowly we made our way along the ridge, through thick manzanita to the summit. The summit and the area around it did not burn though there are many dead trees (they died due to the drought and insect infestations). The register was found out on the rocks and we all signed in and had lunch about 10 minutes later than the estimated time of 12:30.
Twenty minutes later we left and retraced our steps back to the trail. Here Martin took over as leader as the long descent began. Everyone remarked about how much easier it was with Martin in the lead. We reached Crosley Saddle around 2 and turned onto the new trail. The wind had died down and it was finally possible to shed a few layers of clothing.
For the first 3 miles the trail follows the former Crosley Truck Trail down a nice canyon with shady oaks and a bubbling spring. As it begins to level out at the bottom of the canyon, it passes once again (and for most of the remaining part) through burned areas. It passes over a seasonal stream where we took a short break, then through a gate crossing a road that leads to private property in both directions. The property on the west was confiscated by federal officials when the owners (now in jail) were caught growing marijuana in the wilderness. One hopes that this nice grove of oaks in a small valley can be given to the national forest instead of selling it to the highest bidder.
We crossed the road (no noticeable use in some time) and met a very well defined cattle trail next to a stream. It is a confusing though very scenic spot but we knew that the trail had to go up hill and we followed it to where it joined a former road that passes around the private land. A half mile later we reached a small saddle where the new trail really began (or ends depending on your direction). From there it was seven long miles as the trail meandered up, down and around every ravine and gully on its long descent around Wild Horse Peak just west of Devils Hole, then along the south side of Arroyo Seco and back to the junction near the campground. Only 4 years old, it is already getting overgrown in places and may be impassable in a few years. It will take a lot of money and effort to keep it open, a route that is actually longer with more gain than the Dripping Springs Trail.
So the death march came to an end in total darkness as promised, about 12 hours after it began the same way. There was the stream crossing again and the very long walk through the campground back to the cars. I looked at the trail register again and noticed that the group of kids we saw in the morning, all 25 of them, were backpacking their way to Cutca Valley via the Dripping Springs Trail. I hope they had the good sense to turn back.
Many thanks to all participants who showed uncommon valor in face of adversity. Perhaps it can best be summed up by Betty Stirratt who said at the end of the hike, "I must not be in very good shape because I feel so tired".
We will be back in the wilderness again on April 23-24 and May 21-22 to work on the Cutca Trail. If all goes as planned, the Forest Service will provide transportation close to the trail. Please consider coming one or both days.