One misty morning, I drove to the park from Santa Cruz on windy Highway 9. I turned one of the many blind corners and almost ran over a vagrant walking down the middle of the road (literally the middle of the road) pulling his rolling suitcase. Yikes. Luckily I was driving cautiously through here because when I drove into town the day before I couldn’t help but notice that the pullouts were polluted with groups of what I am going to call “car people” in various states of inebriation and agitation and ankle-deep in their own litter and debris. Yes, that was my off-putting experience with the “Santa Cruz city greeters.”
I thought early morning might be a good time to explore Henry Cowell State Park, avoid those car transients and the crowds in general. I was mostly correct.
The 4,650 acre park is best known for its 40-acre grove of towering old-growth redwood trees, but it also includes 3 other habitats (grasslands, river/riparian and sand hills). The redwoods here are said to have inspired some of California’s earliest redwood preservation efforts. The tallest tree in the park is ~277 feet tall, ~16 feet wide, and estimated to be ~1,500 years old. Some trails run alongside the Sans Lorenzo River and there’s even a swimming hole.
When I arrived, the parking lot was empty as were the trails. I just ran into a couple trail runners and dog walkers.
The .8 Redwood Grove Loop trail is, of course, a must do. I also did the Cowell Highlights Loop to the Observation Deck (the park’s highest point at a meager 805 feet) Overlook Bench, Cathedral Redwoods, and Cable Car Beach about 6 miles.
It was pleasant but I never felt I was away from civilization – one “trail” is a paved road and you can hear people at the campground from different points on the trails. It’s a good place for a quick leg stretch or trail run, family hiking and camping experience. If you’re a hard-core hiker, I’d say if you miss it, you won’t miss that much. If you get it on a clear day, you might be rewarded with spectacular views of Monterrey Bay. I wasn’t, but the Santa Cruz mountains views were certainly pleasant. By the time I finished my hike, the parking lot was full of people crowding onto the trails in hopes that the mist would clear for them. It may have, but I’m glad I got out of there when I did. Go early, if you want to avoid the crowds.
After 2 somewhat disappointing days in Santa Cruz, I headed south for adventures in Carmel and Monterrey. They did not disappoint.
So I asked my athletic beau, Ken, “How about we take our mountain bikes to Catalina and ride from Avalon to Two Harbors, hang out and ride around there for a day, and then ride back? What do you think? ”
“Sure, sounds good,” he replied without blinking an eye…This is where I should have pulled out the disclaimers about the ~1700 foot climbs (that’s plural) that we’d be doing from sea level over the course of ~21 mile traverse across steep, unforgiving fire roads, and the fact that he’d be carrying a heavier pack than I…
I did dig out my old map of the marathon route with its epic elevation gains and losses, but he didn’t give it a glance. I declared with my usual exuberance, “It’s going to be a tough one, but it will be a great adventure!” You see, back in 2000, (yes, nearly two decades ago), I ran the Catalina Marathon, which takes you across some of the same routes so I had a distant, but visceral memory of how “challenging” the climbs on the island can be. (Decades of trail running has also taught me that’s it far easier to run up hills than it is to bike up them, especially if you are on heavy, beater bikes lugging packs on your back.) Of course, I’m nearly 2 decades older now and should also mention that we don’t mountain bike much (our last MTB adventure was Noble Canyon and we all know how that went. My bruises have finally faded,)
Bottom line, we both try to maintain a moderately-high fitness level for our weekend warrior and extended escapades and active adventures…(I’ve been focusing on yoga, swimming, hiking and a weekly road bike and he’s been running, and joining me for swims and road bikes as his schedule allows.) Unfortunately, I can’t run any more due to literally running out of cartilage in both my knees. Ugh, I know! For some reason, I thought I would be ok on the mountain bike with the hills…
Catalina Island is a small (22 miles long & 8 miles at its widest point) rocky gem in the Pacific ~ 22 miles from Los Angeles, but thanks to nearly 50 years of the Catalina Islands Conservancy’s good work, it’s really worlds away! The island’s topography is a study in rugged beauty with steep cliffs and jagged coastline. Ninety percent of the island’s 4k population live in Avalon, which is also the Island’s major tourist destination with quaint shops, restaurants and bars. Yes, it has its charm, but you know by now that I’m more of a “wildlands” fan myself. That’s why we’re heading to the remote Westside of the island and staying in Two Harbors,
So I was wrong about that. Not long after the picture above was taken, 3/4 through the first climb from sea level up the airport road, I thought my knees were going to explode. No way I can make this, I thought. That’s when Ken pulled over and ordered me to empty everything heavy out of my pack and put it into his. I didn’t argue, toughing it out wasn’t an option if we were going to make it across. Yes, Ken is a stud and my hero! Wouldn’t have been able to make it without him taking on the extra poundage.
We left Avalon after 1PM and we didn’t pass the halfway mark until 3PM with all my knee breaks so we were getting a little worried that we might not make it by dark. There were no hikers or bikers out except for us and only a few cars and Island Conservancy trucks passed us. We had decided not to camp as we’d be carrying the weight of sleeping bags and Thermarests and possibly a tent too. Instead, we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at the Banning House Lodge for both our recent birthdays. So instead of stopping and relaxing at one of these gorgeous deserted beaches we pushed on and on…
We came around a corner and a gorgeous Catalina Fox crossed in front of Ken. Unfortunately, my camera was in my backpack and getting it out would have scared it away so we both just sat still and watched in quiet wonder as the beautiful creature took 5 steps looked back at us, took five more, looked back again, and once more before disappearing into the roadside brush. As if to say, “Hey, I’m giving you guys plenty of photo ops, what’s your problem?” This would be the first of several fox sightings in which I would be camera cursed each time. (Luckily, we met a great couple from Carlsbad (John & Julie) who caught some great pics while we were having dinner together at Harbor Sands. Stay tuned.)
We would have one more notably larger critter encounter on our final climb out of Little Harbor, a brute of a buffalo was snorting and drooling his way up the hill. He was on the far right. We stayed as far left as we could.
About Catalina’s Wild Buffalo
In 1924, 14 buffalo were brought to the island for a movie shoot and the rest, they say, is history. The bison thrived here and at one point the herd grew to 600. Today, the Catalina Island Conservancy manages the population (via birth control) to about 150, thereby striking the balance between protecting the sensitive ecosystem and keeping the herd healthy.
The weather was perfect and the visibility out to the mainland was the best I’ve ever seen it. Unfortunately, camera didn’t quite capture it. (Wasn’t going to bring my heavy Nikon.)
We made it just in time for sunset and the splendid wine and cheese welcome at the charming Banning House Lodge (another 150 ft climb) just to add insult to injury.
Big sigh of relief after our full, half-day adventure – brutal workout, spectacular views, a studly boyfriend who’s a great sport, a hot shower and a comfy bed – now that’s a birthday to remember. Stay tuned for Part II & III. (If you’re a mountain bike legend fan, you’re never going to believe who we ran into in the middle of the island on our way back to Avalon…)
Was gunho to get away to somewhere new this weekend. Perhaps a little too gunho…Wasn’t quite as thorough with the research as I usually am, but had done enough to know that the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area is a great spot for mountain biking and enjoying great scenery as you traverse 3 ecosystems: mixed-conifer/black oak forest, alpine meadows and desert.
And it certainly served up some heavenly single track around Laguna Meadow and beyond.
I’d call it Bait & Switch Trail
Still blissful in the meadows
Sublime, right? And so it went for about 6 miles before things took a gnarly turn for the worse. Scattered rocks, became bulky blocks with jagged edges, boulders and ankle bashing bruisers galore. I didn’t get pictures of these tortuous areas because, I was too miserable fending off hordes of face flies while hike-a-biking my hefty 35 pound bike. Even if I’d had a Go Pro, you wouldn’t have been able to see beyond the blur of flies – that’s how bad it was. Brutal – yes.
We only saw 2 other mountain bikers on the rough lower portion. They were wearing completely padded body armor suits with full face helmets. Another clue that I was way out of my element…I’m tough, but I’m not technical and have horrible eyesight and depth perception so this it was more than a bit hazardous. I’m extremely lucky to have escaped with only a handful of bruises and scratches.
( I later discovered – post-research – that this area is notorious among mt.bikers and is affectionately called Stairway to Hell and Roman Road.)
Here are a couple links to youtube videos on the area.
We kept looking for a route that would loop us back as a couple people at the trail head had mentioned, but we never found it. And there was no way we were going back up the Stairway to Hell…I even thought of abandoning my beater mt. bike and hiking out even though I only had my bikes shoes.
Instead, we made it out to the Pine Valley picnic area and then out the road. Realizing then that we would have to ride up the mountain via Sunrise Highway. Not much of a shoulder there, but a lesser evil than Stairway to Hell. Climbing 8 miles and 3K feet back to the car after the tortuous Noble Canyon was its own purgatory, and certainly, I’ve learned my lesson about doing my research. Perhaps next time, my BF will read the links I send him prior to departure too. (Snarkyness aside – selfreliance is critical even when you’re with a partner. If we both had read the trail reports thoroughly, one of us likely would have retained which trail to loop back on – though we still might not have found it…)
This day certainly put us to the test. Even though we both keep a fairly high fitness level – it kicked our butts. And to both our credits, we didn’t bite each others heads off. I did come close to meltdown with the face flies on attack while I was hefting my bike over boulder after boulder, but I held it together. We both did, taking the punishment mostly in silent, focused suffering. What was going to be a pleasant morning adventure, ended up being a whole day ordeal. Great workout – not so fun.
I’ve reread some of the trail reports and it sounds like there are other options if you want to avoid the burly section of Noble Canyon. I may be back, but need a cooling off period and time for my bruises to heal first.
Where: 40 minutes from downtown San Diego, near Pine Valley, off of Pine Creek Road North of I8 or off of Sunrise Highway to go top to bottom
What: Noble Canyon Trail, Laguna Mountain Recreation Area
Distance: 19.9 Miles out & back
Elevation gain/loss: 3,346
Rating: For hiking: Moderate. For Mt. biking: Advanced+++
Notes: Adventure Pass required.
Tip: Bring bug spray and plenty of water. Consider a car shuttle for a 10 mile option. Given that it’s single track and a mountain biker destination, it’s not the most peaceful option for hikers…The trail head maps aren’t great, do your research first. ; )
Have you had any small adventures turn into challenging ordeals? Do tell.
Trillium Lake Loop Trail, a place for quick reflection
Location: Near Government Camp, ~40 miles southeast of Portland southeast via Highway 26
Distance: ~ 2 miles
This lovely little lake is a man-made gem formed by a dam at the headwaters of Mud Creek, tributary to the Salmon River in 1960. Local lore has it that the lake was created for President Roosevelt because he was so fond of lakes and would be able to see it when he visited Timberline Lodge. Nice story, but President Roosevelt dedicated the Timberline Lodge in 1937 and died in 1945. Anyway it’s a great spot for a reflection photo and Timberline Lodge is a my top pick for a great spot a getaway.
The Trillium Lake Trail
The loop circles the lake via a series of pine needle paths that meander through a plentiful variety of trees with boardwalks that cross boggy marshland and a meadow via the boardwalks. Yes, you get all that and more in under 2 easy miles.
As you can tell from my feature photo, this is a great spot to get that quintessential Mt. Hood postcard reflection shot.
Tip: In the summer, you’ll want to go early to avoid the crowds, or you may find yourself among SUP paddlers, canoers, boaters, inner tubers, kayakers, and people swimming and fishing – your reflection and solitude could be marred by the minions – but the beauty should provide some solace.
Looking for an idyllic hike that will take you away from the maddening crowds? Try Paradise Loop at Mount Hood.
$ From May 15th – October 1st there’s a $5 day-use fee (Northwest Forest Passes don’t count. )
Winter fun: Apparently the roads around the lake are groomed for cross-country skiers.
If you live in the San Diego area or have visited, you’ve no doubt driven by picturesque San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve countless times via the coast road or the freeway. Perhaps you’ve ventured on trails as well. I have, dozens of times for a run or stroll and I thought I knew all the trails there. (Pretty, but mostly flat and easy fare.) I hadn’t heard about Annie’s Canyon until someone asked me about it. Of course I had to investigate…
But first a couple words about these coastal wetlands. The reserve spans 1000 acres with a total of 7 miles of trails that connect the varied habitats from salt marsh to freshwater marsh areas to coastal sage and chaparral. Wedged between the freeway and the coast highway and surrounded on all sides by Solana Beach, Cardiff and Rancho Santa Fe, the lagoon remains home to more than 1,000 species of plants and animals – many endangered. Despite all the encroachment, it’s still a nice spot to savor nature and take in lagoon and ocean views.
Now for the unexpected delight of Annie’s Canyon. After a short, easy, less than mile hike to the canyon (look for signs), you’ll find yourself transported to a miniature canyon-land experience. Sure doesn’t feel like Southern California anymore, more like the slot canyons of Utah or Arizona. While it’s narrow, footing is fairly easy and there’s a steel ladder at the very top. Nothing treacherous here – just fun. It’s a super quickie (5 minutes), but super cool. What a great place to take young kids for a mini adventure with a little supervision and assistance. I know this kid at heart had some fun.
The view from the top. And no, it’s not a nudist colony, my hottie BF is wearing pants. ; )
Dog friendly in the lagoon – not so much for the canyon unless, they are trick pups trained to go up narrow steel ladders
There’s a bunch of construction underway as part of the highway and rail improvements program in the North Coast Corridor. Click here for trail closure updates before you go.
Apparently this spot was previously vandalized and closed and has only recently reopened, which explains why I didn’t know about it. Please enjoy, respect and protect the nature around you.
There are a number of entrances to the lagoon. Here’s ine
Solana Hills trail head address is 450 Solana Hills Drive, Solana Beach. From I-5, take the Lomas Santa Fe Drive exit (exit 37) West. At 0.2 mile turn right onto Solana Hills Drive for 0.3 mile. Park along the dead end street. There’s also a great nature center on the Cardiff-by-the-Sea side, which is quite nice and you can rent it for private events.