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Cutca Valley Trail

19 November 1994 (Agua Tibia trail work)

By: Alan Coles

Leaders: Alan Coles, Charlie Knapke

This trip had a very rocky start. I called our contact with the Cleveland National Forest, Norm Noyes, about a month before the trip to work out the arrangements. We weren't able to do our previous trip in April the way we had planned because the lower portion of the Cutca Trail in the Agua Tibia Wilderness was not flagged according to Norm and we couldn't work on it until the Forest Service marked the path. Norm didn't sound too positive about being able to do it before this trip. Not wanting to wait another year while the brush gets even worse, I decided to call on Ken Croker, the Sierra Club leader (and HPS member) who has been building trails in the Santa Ana Mountains (part of Cleveland N.F.) for 20 years.

Ken told me there was a chance he might come on our trip. About a week before the trip I called Norm back and asked him if Ken could flag the trail. Norm knows Ken and thinks highly of him. He gave us a tentative "yes" if he could find someone in the Forest Service to go out with us. About 3 days before the trip he called me and said that Joe Raynoha would accompany us on the first day.

On a very cold and clear morning at 7:30, 8 people met at Dripping Springs Campground. Ken was there with Charlie Ambier, an experienced trail builder who often works with him. Gail Hanna from San Diego did a great job of getting 3 people to come: Chris Harrison, Tom Cowen and Stace Beriulieu. We consolidated into 2 cars and drove up the High Point Road to the Cutca Trailhead where we met Joe who was wearing camouflage pants with a machete type knife attached, smoking one of these long thin cigarettes. We loaded tools from the truck, put on our packs then headed down the trail.

I had told everyone that I was fairly certain that we would find water in Cutca Valley where we planned to camp but suggested that they may wish to carry all their water for the weekend. Only Gail did so making her pack the heaviest. After crossing bone dry Cottonwood Creek, I felt a little apprehensive since Norm wasn't sure we would find any back there.

The trail was in great shape and the cool weather made walking easy. We had great views of the San Gabriel, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto ranges which were all covered with a fresh coat of snow from a freak storm the day before (there was snow in the Santa Ana Mountains down to the 2500' level). As we continued though the many enchanting oak shaded valleys, no water was in sight. After a little over 2 hours we reached the valley and were welcomed by the sound of a gushing stream.

The devastating Vail file of 1989 burned this valley and almost the entire southern part of the wilderness but in a testament to nature's rebirth, everything looked remarkably well. Nearly every oak tree survived the fire and many new Coulter Pines were sprouting, some almost 15' tell. We crossed the stream and put down our packs in a wide clearing next to oak and sycamore trees whose leaves were a bright golden color. Ken, Charlie A. and Joe had to return that day and quickly set off up the road to the wilderness trail. I caught up with them and we quickly reached the old trail junction where the sign was lying down but still intact. We put it back up and quickly found our route.

During the fire which lasted over a week, the Forest Service brought in every piece of machinery it could get. Crews came from as far as Arkansas. Everyone was worried about the observatory so special permission was given to bring trucks and bulldozers into the wilderness. Ridge lines and canyon bottoms were torn up in the process. There is considerable controversy whether this did any good or made matters worse, but the Cutca Trail suffered tremendously. The first 200 yards of the trail were bulldozed into oblivion. We found a fairly well defined path that follows several dozer lines. It does not follow the original route but it is close and it led to the first of many blue ribbons Joe had placed there (apparently unknown to Norm) 3 years ago. Once we found it and the next, that was enough for Joe who had to be back to his truck before darkness. Ken and I pushed on marking the trail route while Charlie A. began swinging the mattock he carried to take out stumps.

This was Ken's first time on the trail but with his years of experience he was quickly able to find remnants of the old trail. We cut brush in places to clarify the route and placed candy-stripe flags about every 50'. The ceanothus had grown back very heavily in places and it continued to get thicker the more we headed into the canyon. We had to cut our way though to place the flags. After making very slow progress we finally reached a fairly large clearing where the canyon makes a bend. This is a very scenic spot of large spruce and oak trees next to a cold and clear stream running well so late in the season. Ken placed the last flags near some fallen trees and turned back. We reunited with the group just a short distance from the mouth of the canyon. With Ken and Charlie A. gone, the rest of us continued clipping for another hour before returning to our camp just after 4.

The sun had already descended below the hill and the temperature dropped like a rock over a cliff. We quickly got dinner started with our community salad. By 5 it was dark and I brought out the one luxury I brought, my Peak 1 gas lantern, which was very useful. Everyone turned in early.

The next morning we got started early with freezing temperatures and a clear sky prompting us to get moving. The progress slowed considerably due to the thicker brush in the canyon and having 2 less (and very valuable) people. It was necessary to clear a wide path since the long thin ceanothus branches would bend over the trail after the winter storms. We cleared the trail a few hundred yards past the former first bridge but far short of where Ken and I had turned back the previous day. Still by any measure, it was a very successful day.

I told everyone to be back to the camp by noon and we would pack out by 1. Chris and Tom didn't want to stop so soon and returned about an hour later. The leaders were certainly grateful for the slight disobedience.

It was much warmer on our return, almost perfect hiking weather. The walk out always seems longer and we finally ascended the big hill at the end by 3. We returned to Dripping Springs by 4 and left the tools there (as per Joe's instructions).

This was our best and most successful trip thus far and everyone did an incredible job. We plan on leading 2 more trips in spring, April 8-9 and May 6-7 to finish the job. We will need to clear another 3/4 to 1 mile. For those who want to climb Eagle Crag by this route, experienced hikers can probably make it all the way through by following the blue flags in areas that haven't been cleared yet. Please consider coming on one or both of these trips and make a lasting contribution to our local wilderness.

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