Sunday, November 29, 2020

Slickrock Foot Trail

La Sal Mountains rise above the Colorado River Canyonlands
2.5 miles loop, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

Slickrock Foot Trail is a short but enjoyable hike with views of Island in the Sky in the Needles District of Utah's Canyonlands National Park. The Needles District of Canyonlands sees far fewer visitors than the visitor areas closer to Moab but has plenty of gorgeous Canyonlands scenery. Although in the Needles District Slickrock Foot Trail does not approach the eponymous rock formations but offers views of the spires from a distance; instead, the hike delivers views over Big and Little Spring Canyons and of the high canyon walls that surrounds this area on many sides. It's a relatively easy hike, although most of the trail is across slickrock and there are occasional spots where there are relatively tall rock steps or uneven rock surfaces.

I hiked the Slickrock Foot Trail with my mom during a November road trip through the Utah canyonlands. We stayed in Monticello the night before and reached the trailhead from there, although it is far more likely that you'll be visiting from Moab. From Moab, take US 191 south for 40 miles to the turnoff for Route 211 to the Needles District. Here, turn right and follow Route 211, passing the incredibly preserved petroglyphs at the excellent Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument on the way into Canyonlands National Park's Needles District. Upon entering the park, we followed the road to its end at Big Spring Canyon Overlook. The trailhead is 200 yards back along the road from the Big Spring Canyon Overlook but the parking areas between the overlook and the trailhead effectively overlap.

View from Big Spring Canyon Overlook
The trail leaves from the northeast side of the road and, true to its name, almost immediately hits the slickrock. There was some initial gentle elevation gain as the trail climbed up onto a plateau between Big and Little Spring Canyons. Here, excellent views opened up in most directions: the Needles were visible to the south, an unruly skyline of red and white sandstone towers over 400 feet tall.

The Needles
The trail soon stuck closer to the east side of the plateau, delivering nice views across the sandstone benches below us to the canyon walls that define this section of the Canyonlands. The two Six Shooter Peaks rose in the distance, the eroded remants of Wingate Sandstone towers. These two peaks, which lie outside Canyonlands National Park in Bears Ears National Monument, have been mistakenly captioned as the Bears Ears Buttes in multiple prominent national publications; the actual Bears Ears Buttes are much farther to the south, rising above the Cedar Mesa area.

Sixshooter Peak rises above the Canyonlands
A half mile into the hike, we came to a junction with the Slickrock Foot Trail loop. We chose to hike the loop counterclockwise, taking the right fork at this junction. This right fork kept us on the east side of the plateau. The trail continued making its way across slickrock, the route forward marked by cairns. At two points, there were spur trails that broke off to the right, leading out to overlooks over Little Spring Canyon. The views of the great Wingate Formation cliffs that rose behind the canyon and the lofty La Sal Mountains beyond that were quite impressive.

La Sal Mountains and Wingate formation cliffs
We continued to follow the slickrock plateau as it narrowed; at a third overlook, we gazed north to the confluence of Little and Big Spring Canyons. After the canyons joined, they cut progressively deeper into the sedimentary layers of the Colorado Plateau as they approached the Colorado River itself. Looking farther to the north, we could see Island in the Sky and Junction Butte rising across the Colorado River. We could make out a layer of burgundy cliffs beneath the Wingate Sandstone: this was the Organ Rock formation, which was topped with a thin layer of the White Rim Formation. These burgundy cliffs and towers across the river made up Monument Basin, one of the most scenic areas of the Canyonlands when viewed from Grand View Point from the Island in the Sky.

Just as the Big and Little Spring Canyons joined here, we were only miles from the point where the Colorado River meets its greatest tributary, the Green River. The confluence of these rivers marks the geographical and spiritual heart of the Canyonlands: the joining of two of the most incredible canyon-carving rivers of the North American continent, which combine after having separately carved the Flaming Gorge of Wyoming, the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah's Desolation Canyon, and Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Downstream from here, the combined waters of the mighty Colorado carve Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and then the greatest of all the canyonlands- the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River upstream of the confluence was initially known as the Grand River; the Grand and the Green are of similar size at the confluence, although the Green is longer (having originated in the Wind River Range of Wyoming), while the Grand- the modern Colorado- has a slightly higher flow rate.

Junction Butte and Island in the Sky rises over Big Spring Canyon
After leaving the third overlook, the trail rounds the northern end of the plateau, descending to a slightly lower rock layer as it began to head south again along Big Spring Canyon. From this stretch of trail, there were some excellent views directly down into Big Spring Canyon itself as well as out to the Needles to the south and the buttes and cliffs rising to the west across the Colorado River in the Maze District. The Wingate Formation mesas that make up Island in the Sky and the Needles Overlook also bound the Canyonlands to the west.

The Needles rising above Big Spring Canyon
Leaving the rim of Big Spring Canyon, the trail ascended slightly to regain the top of the slickrock plateau. Cairns marked the route across the plateau, which had constant views of the Needles rising ahead. We made our way over the rolling slickrock terrain for a half mile from the overlooks over Big Spring Canyon to close the loop and then followed the last half mile of trail back to the trailhead.

View of the Needles from atop the slickrock
While not the most spectacular hike in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, the scenery along the Slickrock Foot Trail is enjoyable and the trail as a whole is fairly easy to hike despite some minor terrain difficulties. Visitors to the Needles District looking for some varied scenery but uninterested in embarking on the longer hike to Chesler Park will find this to be a satisfying hike.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Chesler Park

The Needles from the pass above Chesler Park
6 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Gravel road to trailhead, Canyonlands National Park entrance fee required

The hike to Chesler Park visits the heart of the Needles District in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, a maze of red rock spires and sinewy canyons. This is an excellent hike with great views that grants access into the depths of this red rock wonderland; besides the hike to Horseshoe Canyon, this is perhaps the best day hike in Canyonlands National Park. The hike passes many sandstone spires and leads to Chesler Park, a wide and scenic grassland encircled by the Needles. The Needles District of Canyonlands is accessible by a paved but long drive from Moab and sees far fewer visitors than Island in the Sky or Arches, though many of the visitors who make it out here will choose to hike to Chesler Park. While I'm just describing a round trip hike to Chesler Park in this post, many hikers continue onward to make a loop near the grassland by hiking through the narrow canyon known as the Joint.

I hiked to Chesler Park with my mom during a November road trip through the Utah canyonlands. We stayed in Monticello the night before and reached the trailhead from there, although it is far more likely that you'll be visiting from Moab. From Moab, take US 191 south for 40 miles to the turnoff for Route 211 to the Needles District. Here, turn right and follow Route 211 for 37 miles, passing the incredibly preserved petroglyphs at the excellent Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument on the way into Canyonlands National Park's Needles District. After passing the visitor center and then the Wooden Shoe Overlook, we turned left onto the Elephant Hill Road, turning right at the next two junctions after that to get onto the gravel road that led us to the Elephant Hill Trailhead at the bottom of a canyon. The Elephant Hill Road is open to passenger cars up to the trailhead but is for 4WD vehicles by permit only beyond that point.

The parking area was nearly full during our visit on a November weekend, as this is perhaps the most popular hike in the Needles District. From the trailhead, the trail immediately began a steep ascent up dirt and slickrock as it ascended out of a canyon and onto a shelf above. Once the trail reached the top of the shelf, we found great views of the surrounding Canyonlands country. The La Sal Mountains rose to the west- one of the tallest mountain ranges within the Colorado Plateau. The Abajo Mountains lay to the south, a lower range near Monticello. The many of the layers of the Colorado Plateau formed the dramatic canyons around us: in the needles, lighter layers of caprock topped columns and canyon walls of red sandstone. In the distance rose the mighty canyon walls of the Wingate Formation, which forms the high mesas of Island in the Sky and Junction Butte. One of the more notable eroded remnants of the Wingate cliffs was Six Shooter Peak, one of two buttes near the Needles District just outside the park in Bears Ears National Monument, which have been mistakenly identified as the Bears Ears Buttes themselves by multiple publications. 

La Sal Mountains and the Canyonlands
Junction Butte and Island in the Sky
Six Shooter Peak
Abajo Mountains
Two-thirds of a mile of hiking brought us through a narrow gap in the sandstone on Elephant Hill. Emerging on the other side, we had better views of Elephant Hill, a cluster of spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone near the trail. The trail stayed fairly flat as it continued traversing the bench, with occasional sections that required scrambling up or down rock steps or angled slickrock. As we hiked through this section, my mom pointed out that a few of the rounded, stout outcrops of Cedar Mesa Sandstone looked like hamburgers, which I was couldn't unsee after she pointed it out.

Elephant Hill
Hamburger rocks
At just over a mile into the hike, we crossed a pass through Elephant Hill and came to a stunning view of the Needles spread out ahead of us. From this viewpoint, a city skyline of sandstone rose before us, the spires sporting the bands of red and white rock that is the signature of the Needles. Hikers looking for a short hike might turn back here but the best still lay ahead.

The Needles
Leaving the pass, the trail descended just slightly and then crossed through a grassy plain dotted with junipers. At the end of the plain, the Elephant Hill trail intersected with a trail coming from the Squaw Flat Campground, 1.4 miles from the trailhead; here, we took the right fork to continue onward towards Chesler Park. After passing the junction, the trail immediately passed through a narrow cut in a sandstone fin and entered a valley sandwiched between ridges of Needles. The trail descended just slightly as it circled around the next set of rock spires.

The Needles
Rounding a corner, the trail suddenly dropped into a narrow and very straight joint of fractured Cedar Mesa sandstone. This joint- like the better known stretch known as the Joint beyond Chesler Park- is formed by the very same fracturing that resulted into the individual spires of sandstone in the Needles. As in nearby Arches National Park, the sandstone layers here are underlaid by the Paradox Formation, a body of salt lying beneath the many sedimentary layers that form the Canyonlands. Deformation of this salt layer contributes to fracturing of the surface sandstone layers above, which have cracked into a grid-like layout that erodes into the pinnacle shapes and rock joints that we see today.

Trail passing through narrow rock joint
Continuing down the rock joint, it opened up into a small canyon with trees. Here, the trail began to descend more as it hugged the sides of the canyon. Soon, the small side canyon opened up into the larger Elephant Canyon and the trail descended steeply down to the wash at the bottom of Elephant Canyon. At the bottom of the wash, I came to a trail junction at 2 miles from the trailhead: the trail heading to the left up the wash led towards Druid Arch, so I crossed the wash and continued following the trail ahead towards Chesler Park.

Descending into a wash
The stretch of trail climbing out of Elephant Canyon was one of the most difficult of the hike, packing in over 200 feet of elevation gain after 2 miles of generally level hiking. The slickrock terrain here made the elevation gain much harder. As I climbed out of the canyon, I enjoyed the views of a colorful ridge of the Needles on the other side of Elephant Canyon.

The Needles
After the trail climbed out of Elephant Canyon and back onto a grassy plain on the shelf layer, I found views of some of the most impressive spires of the Canyonlands. Massive rock pinnacles rose ahead of me, marking the eastern wall of the ring of pointed rocks bordering Chesler Park.

Approaching the Chesler Park pass
As I continued the gentle uphill along the trail, great views opened to the northwest of the dense field of rock spires known as the Devil's Kitchen. This was one of my favorite parts of the hike; many of the Needles soared over 400 feet tall, making this scene truly seem like a city of stone.

The Needles
At 2.7 miles, the Chesler Park Trail split from the Devils Kitchen Trail. Here, I took the left fork, following the Chesler Park Trail as it began a short ascent, climbing a hundred feet up to a pass in a wall of the Needles. Crossing the pass, I found a wide grassland laid out before me, bound on all sides by red and white sandstone spires. I had arrived in Chesler Park.

Chesler Park
Descending slightly from the pass, I arrived at a junction at 2.9 miles: here, the trail split apart for the Chesler Park Loop. I took the left fork and wandered a bit farther down the trail to a nice high point with views across the grassland itself as well as back towards the pass that marked the entrance into Chesler Park. While many hikers chose to complete the loop- which adds about another 5 miles of hiking- I ended my hike here, soaking in the views of red rock spires all around me.

Chesler Park
Chesler Park

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Temblor Range

San Andreas Fault runs through Carrizo Plain at the foot of the flower-filled Temblor Range
5.5 miles round trip, 1400 feet elevation gain (variable length and elevation gain)
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous; off-trail experience and route-finding skills necessary
Access: Rough dirt road to access this range (high-clearance recommended), no entrance fee

The trailless wilds of California's Temblor Range in Carrizo Plain National Monument, hidden in the Coast Range between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, explode with some of the densest and most spectacular wildflower blooms on the continent after rainy winters. Although no trails lead to any of the peaks of the range, the treeless Temblor Range beckons to be explored during these superblooms, promising mountain slopes overflowing with daisies and phacelia as well as sweeping views over the isolated grassland, home to pronghorn and kit foxes, that's been nicknamed "California's Serengeti." Running through the heart of this plain is the source of those temblors, the mighty San Andreas Fault, which is more physically apparent on this arid plain than anywhere else. If you've seen photos of aerial views of the San Andreas Fault rupturing through a desert, then you've seen photos of the Carrizo Plain.

Despite being part way between the two largest metropolises of the West Coast and just over an hour off I-5, Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of the least known and visited federally preserved parks in the state of California. Established during the Clinton Era under the Antiquities Act and overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, this national monument preserves a dry grassland- at 5 inches of annual precipitation, a desert, really- sandwiched between the Caliente and Temblor Ranges. Despite being just miles from San Luis Obispo and the ocean, rainfall in the Carrizo Plain never reaches the sea, instead flowing into the endorheic Soda Lake at the heart of the plain. This great grassland today is a last refuge for many species which in the past wandered the Central Valley and other parts of coastal Central California; this is the only land wild and big enough for them to call home now.

I first came to know about Carrizo Plain by happy accident: during a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles, I looked down from my window seat and saw the great San Andreas Fault cutting through the heart of a flat desert valley. I had enjoyed studying geology as a kid and immediately recognized this as the iconic view of the fault found in textbooks- perhaps the most recognizable view of an earthquake fault in the world. Checking my map of the state of California later, I found that I had been looking at the Carrizo Plain; I thought about visiting constantly until six years later, during a superbloom, I finally made it a reality.

The San Andreas Fault cuts through Carrizo Plain
Short of viewing the San Andreas Fault from the air, the high ridges of the Temblor Range in the southeastern part of Carrizo Plain National Monument is the only place wher you can really see the fault's unique ruptured, straight-line appearance; the fault runs closer to the eastern side of the plain, making it more easily visible from the Temblor Range than from the Caliente Range on the other side of the valley. The rupture is more pronounced near the southern end of the plain than at the northern end, where the fault is noticeable at Wallace Creek but doesn't look quite as dramatic as it does by Traver Ranch. Hiking in the southern part of the Temblor Range also has less red tape: along the northern part of Elkhorn Road, private land is intermixed with public land while the southern Temblors west of the ridge crest is entirely public.

If you choose to explore the Temblor Range, there will be no trails to guide you: you'll simply have to make your way cross-country up the ridges of the range from Elkhorn Road. The Temblor Range is a relatively easy place to do this, as the lack of tree coverage makes way-finding fairly easy and the terrain is relatively easy to hike on without major obstacles, but it's important to know that this is still off-trail hiking and requires some ability to read terrain and navigate. The best way to choose a place to hike, if you're focused on the superbloom, is to simply drive along Elkhorn Road and then hike into the range when you see denser and more copious patches of flower blooms on the ridges above. If you'd like to catch the best views of the San Andreas Fault, I recommend hiking the Temblor Range south of Crocker Spring Road. I started my own hike from at 35.117 N, 119.622 W, but you can probably find equally if not more enjoyable hikes elsewhere in the range. The crest of the Temblor Range runs between about 3200 and 3500 feet while Elkhorn Road generally floats around 2400 feet above sea level, so most hikes to the crest of the Temblors will put require about 1000 feet of elevation gain or more if you follow the many bumps along the side ridges. Generally, Elkhorn Road is about 2 to 4 miles distant from the Temblor Range crest, although following nonlinear ridges will obviously add to that distance. It is a good range for off-trail day hikes.

There are no paved roads in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Many of the roads in the plain can become impassable after rainstorms and the roads cutting through the heart of the plain- Simmler and Panorama Roads- are often closed through the winter and spring when the endorheic basin around Soda Lake is full. Access to the Temblor Range requires driving the Elkhorn Road, which can be accessed either from California Highway 58 in the north via Seven Mile Road or from California Highway 166 from the south from the Elkhorn Grade Road. The Elkhorn Road is quite rough in spots and while it may be passable by passenger cars at times, it is far safer to come out here with a 4WD high clearance vehicle.

Elkhorn Road is itself a tremendously scenic drive, especially at its southern end. Elkhorn Valley, a portion of the Carrizo Plain sandwiched between the Temblor Range and hills along the San Andreas Fault, has an isolated and otherworldly feel. The barren look of the Temblor Range hills contrasting with the lush valley and the colorful fields of phacelia and daisies is extremely striking.

Phacelia fields on Elkhorn Road
Multi-color blooms along Elkhorn Road
I started my hike slightly farther north, at 35.117 N, 119.622 W, when I spotted nice wildflower color along the crest of the Temblors. I set my sights on the crest of the ridge from here and set out across the grassland. Carrizo Plain is best known for its tri-color blooms of orange fiddleneck, yellow daisies, and purple phacelia (desert candle and owl's clover are two other commonly spotted flowers here). During superbloom years, the peak bloom often comes in early April; my mid-March visit was slightly on the early side and I primarily saw daisy blooms higher up in the Temblor Range, although there were some patches of phacelia on the plain itself and I found one small area where all three colors were mixing at the start of my ascent. Desert USA compiles useful reports that cover bloom status each year.

Multi-color blooms before the ascent
I picked a ridge and simply followed it up to the crest of the Temblors. While there were no formal trails here, there are many faint paths established by the kangaroo rats that lived on the range's slopes, so I followed those at times while I ascended through slopes of agave, grass, and loose rock.

Agave on the slopes of the Temblor Range
Soon, I arrived at some profusely daisy-coated slopes: the density of the blooms here was astonishing. One bump in the ridge led to the next and I enjoyed ascending through these marvelously flower-coated mountainsides. As I made my way uphill, sweeping views opened up of the steep ravines on either side of the ridge, the other flower-covered ridges and peaks of the Temblor Range, the Caliente Range across the valley, and the remarkable rupture of the San Andreas Fault running through the heart of the Carrizo Plain.

Daisy-coated slopes of the Temblors
View of the San Andreas Fault running through Carrizo Plain
Daisy-coated ridges of the Temblor Range
Temblor Range and daisies
The San Andreas Fault is perhaps the best known example of California's active geology. Here, the Pacific Plate comes in contact with the North American Plate. Although the North American plate is pushing west here, the junction between these tectonic plates is a transform boundary- one where the two plates slide past each other, rather than colliding. This boundary is expressed through a large number of faults at the Earth's crust and the San Andreas Fault, a strike-slip fault, is the largest rupture line along which these plates can slide. Movement along this fault has torn apart volcanic rock from the ancient Neenach Volcano, part of which forms Pinnacles National Park near Salinas and the other part of which is nearly 200 miles away just north of Los Angeles. On the Carrizo Plain, the San Andreas Fault has caused lateral shifts in the washes of streams that drain the Temblor Range.

Daisies and the San Andreas Fault
Once I made it to the crest of the Temblor Range, a fence on the east delineated the border of the national monument. Looking east, I had a view down the flower-coated east slopes of the Temblor Range down into the Central Valley. Below the Temblor Range, near the town of Taft, was the Midway-Sunset Oil Field, the largest oil field in California and part of a vast collection of oil fields at the southern end of the Central Valley near Bakersfield. Kern County- which encompasses most of these oil fields- is the most productive oil producing county in the United States at the time of writing. The abundant oil resources in the area have been subject to recent political contention, as the Bureau of Land Management moved to allow one drilling lease within the monument in the Caliente Range in May 2020.

View east towards oil fields around Taft
San Andreas Fault running across Carrizo Plain
I enjoyed the views at the summit along with the copious flower fields. As this was an off-trail adventure, I had the spot entirely to myself. You'll almost certainly encounter similar solitude if you hike in the Temblor Range. It was difficult to believe that I could enjoy such extraordinary wildflower displays and the awesome view of the San Andreas Fault alone, especially as this area is not that difficult to access from California's major cities. I watched the sun set over this magical plain when I got back to the truck and was glad I had found a way atop the Temblor Range to appreciate this magnificent landscape.

Sunset on Carrizo Plain

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Mission Peak (SF Bay Area)

Mission Peak
7.5 miles round trip, 2150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Ohlone College parking fee required

Social media's impact on the outdoors is rarely more obvious than at Mission Peak, a mountain rising above the city of Fremont in California's San Francisco Bay Area that is known not only for its sweeping views but also for the crowds that line up to pose at the Instagram-ready summit pole. This is an immensely popular hike, but Mission Peak's commanding position over the South Bay and the views that provides means that this love is well-deserved. The traditionally-preferred route from Stanford Ave in Fremont should be avoided due to the limited parking from that approach, so I'll describe here the slightly longer but still scenic route from Ohlone College, where there's far more parking. 

Many novice hikers view Mission Peak as the ultimate challenge of the Bay Area, although the ascent up the peak is really not too bad for anyone with hiking experience, following wide paths for the most part and only dealing with rockier terrain in its final stretch. This hike is best in winter and spring, when temperatures are mild and the grassy hills are green. Mission Peak lies within Mission Peak Regional Preserve, operated by the East Bay Regional Parks District of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

I hiked this trail with Anna on an early February weekend day, when an inversion layer locked some smog near the Bay but the weather was otherwise sunny. To reach the trailhead from I-880, the main artery along the east side of the sound, take exit 12 for Mission Blvd and follow Mission Blvd east and north for three miles to Ohlone College. Turn right onto Pine St at Ohlone College and follow Pine St uphill past the baseball fields and tennis courts to the large parking garage. You can buy a day permit at the kiosk by the elevator to park in the parking garage on weekends.

Exiting the garage, cross the street and follow Pine St towards the power lines to reach the trailhead for Mission Peak. A large sign for Mission Peak Regional Preserve marks the start of the hike, at a spot where a wide dirt road branched to the right under the power lines. The trail branched off at the base of a power line tower and then paralleled Pine St. We followed this wide dirt trail uphill for a fifth of a mile, passing a cattle gate and then coming to a junction with another wide dirt trail running along the base of the mountains. Here, we turned right and followed the trail towards Mission Peak.

This wide trail- a road trace- ascended at a steady grade along the southwest aspect of a ridge as it left Ohlone College, traveling through open, grassy slopes. Views opened up immediately, encompassing not just the sports fields of the college below but also much of the rest of Fremont and the Santa Cruz Mountains across the Bay. The part of the hike was also the most crowded, the steeper parts of the trail having not yet weeded out unprepared hikers. After a half mile, the trail curved into a deep notch cut into the ridge of Mission Peak. Cows grazed on the grassy slopes around us.

Passing through the grassy notch
The trail ascended through the grassy notch until leveling out as it approached some woods, passing by a pond and a watering area for the cows. At just over a mile from the trailhead, the trail left the dirt roadbed, heading to the right on a single-track through oak forest and paralleling Mill Creek Road. There's no parking at this access point from Mill Creek Road, so there's no use thinking of shortening the hike by a mile by driving to this side of the mountain. For the next 0.4 miles, the trail ascended gently through the forest along the road, passing by some nicer residences that were across the road.

Oak woodlands
When the trail reemerged in the open, it began to climb more steadily again, pushing uphill to join a gravel road at 1.8 miles from the trailhead. The next 0.4-mile stretch of the trail climbed quite aggressively along a steep slope with gradually widening views to the north until reaching the top of a plateau north of Mission Peak's true summit. Here, the trail switched to a gentler grade as it wandered through broad, grassy slopes with grazing cows. The pointy summit of Mission Peak rose from the rounded hills in front of us while to the north grassy, rounded hills stretched towards Pleasanton Ridge and Mount Diablo. Smog in the Bay had spilled over into the Tri-Valley, keeping Livermore and Pleasanton out of sight below a layer of haze.

Open grasslands on the shoulder of Mission Peak
Summit ahead
The flatter hiking on the plateau ended at 2.7 miles from the trailhead, where we passed a vault toilet. An unmarked gravel road broke off to the right here; we stayed straight and came to another junction immediately afterwards. The trail to the right led towards the Stanford Ave trailhead, while the trail to the left continued towards Mission Peak's summit.

This wide path wrapped around the north side of Mission Peak's summit ridge before making a steeper push through the open slopes to gain the ridge. Along this stretch, we passed a side trail from which we returned after doing a short loop around the summit. The wide path has become quite eroded here as the legions of hikers who make their way to the summit have chosen to leave the main trail and walk out many parallel tracks to reach the ridge. This fairly stiff ascent ended on the ridgeline. 

Final trail to the summit
From here, a dirt single-track path followed the ridge to the summit. The trail is a bit uneven and rocky in places here- the only part of the hike that isn't on a fairly smooth, road-like surface. A final, 150-foot elevation gain push brought us to the summit, 3.5 miles from the trailhead, where the famous summit pole lay a few meters away from rocks marking the true high point. As we expected, there was a line of hikers here waiting to have their photo taken with the summit pole. Since we were here just for the views, we skipped the hubbub and settled on the rocks to take in the expansive views of the Bay Area.

Mission Peak is in the Diablo Range and so the views along the Diablo Range were quite expansive, extending to the south along the grassy ridges of Monument Peak to Mount Hamilton and its white-domed observatory in the distance. To the east were the hills of Sunol Regional Wilderness and to the north were the two peaks of Mount Diablo, rising above the smog that coated the Tri-Valley. The green hills of Pleasanton Ridge and the Dry Creek Regional Park faded down into the smog of the Bay; Fremont and the waters of the Bay itself were just visible through the haze, as were the peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains rising across the Bay: most prominent were Loma Prieta, Mount Umunhum, and Black Mountain. Mount Tamalpais rose above the smog layer to the north, but unfortunately one of the great prizes of this view- the skyline of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge- were buried in the air pollution. Although my hike predates the SCU Lightning Complex Fires that swept through the Diablo Range, when you hike it you should be able to observe the effects of that fire on the mountains to the southeast.

Looking south along the Diablo Range to Mount Hamilton
Mount Diablo rises over the Tri-Valley
Loma Prieta and Umunhum float above the South Bay smog
Mission Peak is so named for its proximity to Mission San Jose, a Spanish mission that is actually in modern day Fremont. Mission San Jose was one of 21 missions established in California during the late 18th and early 19th century by Franciscan priests. Juniperro Serra- now a Catholic saint- oversaw the establishment of the first missions, which were strung along the coast or just slightly inland between San Diego and Sonoma. The intention of these missions was to establish Catholicism and European modes of agriculture and living for the native peoples of California; baptized natives lived and farmed on the missions. However, natives who lived in the missions were often held against their will or were forcibly driven to the missions; this erased many of the rich cultures of California Coast native peoples and subjected many of them to conditions bordering slavery. European diseases such as measles also decimated native populations.

After enjoying the summit views and reflecting on the meaning of the peak's name, we decided to descend. You can simply return down the ascent route, but we chose to make a loop around the mountain's high northern slopes, briefly getting away from the crowds on the mountain. Our return route involved continuing along the main ridgeline to the southeast, descending for 0.3 miles and joining a dirt road trace at a saddle, and then following this road 0.8 miles around the northeast side of Mission Peak to rejoin the main trail. We turned left at every junction until we returned to the main trail. The walk down the ridge to the southeast from the summit was very scenic, with constant views of the grassy uplands of Mission Peak and Monument Peak. The road trace passed the Eagle Springs backpack camp, a backcountry campsite, and then contoured along the base of Mission Peak's steep summit pyramid with great views to the north in the grassy meadows. After rejoining the main trail, we descended back to Ohlone College and had a well-deserved dinner at Arzu, a favorite Fremont restaurant of ours for Xinjiang food.

Mission Peak is an extremely popular hike, but it's still a good hike. The views at the top are outstanding and the grassy slopes and oak woodlands en route are scenic and enjoyable to hike through. Even if Mission Peak isn't on the list of things to do that I'd recommend for out-of-town visitors, it's still a classic Bay Area hike.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail

Coastal bluffs along the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail
6.8 miles round trip, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee, weekend and holiday access only

The Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail is an easy, flat hike along scenic coastal bluffs south of Half Moon Bay on the Pacific coast of California's San Francisco Peninsula. This pretty hike- which is sandwiched between the coast and San Mateo County farmland the entire way- is well-graded for the most part and has not yet become overrun with visitors, making it a wonderful spot to enjoy a gentle seaside stroll without dealing with the crowds that overrun most of the beaches in nearby Half Moon Bay. The trail can be accessed by two trailheads at either end of the trail; I'll describe a round trip hike from the southern trailhead along the coast to Cowell Ranch Beach, at the northern end of the trail. The hike can be shortened to just 3.5 miles for hikers who are able to arrange cars at both trailheads. Currently, the Cowell Purisima Trail is only open on weekends and holidays, due to limited funding for the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), which helped acquire, preserve, and manage this property.

Although unpaved, the trail has a good gravel surface and is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers except for the descent into Purisima Creek's canyon, about a mile north of the southern end of the trail. Visitors wanting to stick to the gentler, accessible stretches of the trail should hike the trail from the northern end, as the best views of the hike come north of Purisima Creek. The trail was quite buggy when we visited in late summer but that might be less of an issue during colder months. POST provides a useful map of the hike.

I hiked the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail with Anna on a roasting, hot Labor Day weekend when California was engulfed in wildfire smoke and temperatures in the Bay Area were topping 105 degrees. The only respite was the coast- but knowing that everyone else would have the same idea, I knew we had to choose some place more quiet. From Half Moon Bay, follow California Highway 1 south for 5 miles and then turn right (west) into a parking lot for the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail. There is no explicit signage directly along Highway 1 but there is a large sign for the trail at the entrance of the parking area. The gate for the parking lot is only open from 8 AM to sunset on weekends and holidays, until POST is able to negotiate with San Mateo County Parks to have the area opened to the public daily. There is a vault toilet and room for about 20 cars and I found a spot without trouble on an afternoon on Labor Day weekend (the northern trailhead, which is closer to Cowell Ranch Beach, is much more crowded).

From the trailhead, the Cowell Purisima Trail- a wide gravel path- headed west through farmland towards the coast. The fields on each side were cordoned off from the trail by barbed wire fence. After 0.3 miles and a very slight downhill grade, we reached the trail running along the bluffs along the coast. The trail to the right headed north towards Cowell Ranch Beach, while the trail to the left led out to a viewpoint of the coast. We followed the trail to the left first, following it a fifth of a mile to a viewpoint at the southern end of the trail before we headed north towards Cowell Ranch Beach. The viewpoint had a bench and sweeping views towards the north of the yellow bluffs that defined the California Coast here. Montara Mountain rose to the north and the Pillar Point golf ball- a large, round Air Force tracking station north of Half Moon Bay- was visible as well. Empty beaches stretched along the base of the bluffs, beaches that are off limits to protect harbor seals that haul ashore here. Eel Rock, a popular spot for harbor seals and seabirds, lay just offshore.

View from southern viewpoint
We had company from a few other visitors near the southern viewpoint but once we returned to the junction and started our trip north along the coast on the Cowell Purisima Trail, we largely had the trail and the landscape to ourselves. The trail covered 0.7 miles between the southern junction by the coast and the descent into Purisima Creek Canyon. This stretch of trail (like the rest of the trail) was sandwiched between the coast and farmland, although brush on the coastal side of the trail largely precluded views. At a few spots, we were able to capture glimpses of Eel Rock and the coastal bluffs, although signs warning of unstable cliff edges kept us off social paths leading to presumably nicer views.

At one mile from the trailhead, the trail dropped into Purisima Creek's small canyon, the only stretch of notable elevation gain and loss on the hike. The lusher vegetation of the canyon was a welcome change from the arid surroundings in late summer. The trail crossed high over Purisima Creek on a well-built bridge and then ascended up the other side of the canyon via switchbacks. Although slightly narrower here, the trail remained smooth and the grade was gentle despite being a bit too steep to be wheelchair or stroller accessible.

Canyon of Purisima Creek
Climbing out the north side of the canyon, we returned to the wide gravel path and flat hiking along the coastal bluffs. The farmland next to us grew brussel sprouts and pumpkins; the stems of the harvested brussel sprouts had a distinctly alien look. Interpretive signage along the trail indicated that Italian immigrants to the area brought artichoke, pumpkin, and brussel sprout farming to the coastal areas of San Mateo and Santa Clara County, which are now responsible for much of America's brussel sprout production.

Brussel sprout fields north of Purisima Creek
Views along the coast also opened up along this stretch of trail: the brush on the ocean side of the trail was less overgrown and provided better views. We had occasional views of the many small islands off the coast.

Coastal views north of Purisima Creek
The trail was particularly idyllic and enjoyable here, wandering between the ocean and the farmland towards Montara Mountain in the north with almost no elevation gain. We spotted hawks flying overhead, numerous seabirds on the rocks offshore, lizards catching sun in the grass, and rabbits bounding in and out of the pumpkins fields.

Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail winding between farmland and the ocean
The trail crossed two more creek canyons en route to Cowell Ranch Beach, but each of these times rather than descending into the canyons the trail utilized impressively well-built truss arch bridges. The southerly bridge of the two had a span over 170 feet- some extremely impressive engineering for a hiking trail! While we enjoyed having the trail largely to ourselves (we saw less than 15 other hikes over 3 hours while hiking in between the southern and northern access points for the trail), it seemed a shame that such a well-maintained path for which so many resources had been dedicated wasn't visited more frequently or even open to the public on weekdays.

Truss arch bridge along the trail
The best view of the hike came about 200 meters past the first truss arch bridge. Although signs here did indicate that cliff edges were unstable, we followed a spur trail branching off to the left that led out to a protruding bluff overlooking Seal Rock, another large rock along the coast. From this point, there were gorgeous views up and down the coast: to the south, we could see the bluffs forming the stretch of coast that we had just hiked along, with the San Francisco Peninsula's coast reaching farther to the south beyond that below the hills near Pescadero and La Honda. To the north, Seal Beach lay below us and stretched to the rocky headland that rises above Cowell Ranch Beach. Beyond that we could see the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, the big golf ball of Pillar Point, and Montara Mountain rising above it all.

View south along the coast from near Seal Rock
This was the best view of the hike, but we chose to continue all the way to the overlook at Cowell Ranch Beach. The headland above the beach soon came into view, although the trail took a convoluted path to reach it, crossing another truss arch bridge and winding around the head of another small canyon before joining up with the wide gravel path that led out to Cowell Ranch Beach from the northern trailhead, 3.1 miles from the trailhead. Along the way, we spotted a majestic hawk perched on a fence post near the trail.

Hawk on the fence along the trail
Turning left at the junction with the Cowell Beach Ranch Trail, we quickly arrived at the top of a flight of stairs that led down to Cowell Ranch Beach. We had a view of the beach from the top of the stairs: a swath of sand at the base of yellow cliffs, washed gently by the waves of Pacific. We chose to walk out to the end of the headland rather than going down to the beach itself as there were a good number of visitors on the beach and we wanted to avoid crowds during the pandemic. If you chose to visit the beach, it will add a fifth of a mile and 100 feet of elevation gain to the hike.

Cowell Ranch Beach and Montara Mountain
This end of the hike was a bit crowded, so we didn't stick around too long, choosing to head back and enjoy the views along the trail without too many crowds. We fought off the bugs en route to the southern trailhead and enjoyed a sunset made dramatic by wildfire haze at the southern junction along the coast before we returned to our car.

Sunset from the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail
While not the most spectacular stretch of the California coast, the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail provides uncrowded access to a flat and enjoyable hike along oceanside bluffs close to Half Moon Bay and the population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Locals who come here will be surprised they can find wildlife and ocean views with few other hikers so close to the city.