Sorta-Torment-Forbidden traverse

Torment-Forbidden from approach


The Torment-Forbidden traverse is a Washington classic that has been on my radar since at least 2014, when I tagged both separately after being defeated by a moat. This time I skipped Torment and the moat-ful part of the ridge, completing what I feel is enough of the ridge to count as having done the traverse. Along the way, I learned that what most people call Forbidden’s “West Ridge” route actually skips most of the long ridge from Torment, climbing only the last 500 or so vertical feet. (This reminded me of the Eiger’s Mittellegi Ridge route, which skips most of the peak’s long west ridge; both confused me.) While the best climbing is on the short “West Ridge” section, the entire thing from Torment is worth doing, with some fine knife-edge sections, and generally rewards the climber for staying on the crest. The rock is mostly solid, relatively free of lichen, and angled to provide nice positive holds.

Johannesburg

Hearing that both the traverse itself and Boston Basin below it can be unbearably crowded, I have been reluctant to return and finish the job. The road closure was therefore a welcome opportunity to do so. I slept at the Park boundary, then rode farther up the road to the spot where there are normally several cars parked in questionable ways. Now I was pleased to see only two other bikes locked to a tree. I hiked the approach trail, which follows an old mining road for awhile before bashing straight uphill, then joining what looks like an old mine trail. The abandoned road is, like so many others, an anti-road: cutting the trees lets in sunlight, which is eagerly soaked up by alders and devil’s club. However, enough climbers bash along and next to it to maintain an open path. The stream crossings higher up, which had caused others problems during the preceding heat wave, were tame.

Torment, gully, ‘schrund

Abruptly emerging into the basin, I followed the main trail to a large camping area, finding only two tents. Beyond, I lost the trail for awhile, then picked it up again and followed it to the snow, where I found some boot-prints heading in more or less the right direction. I wasn’t sure how low I should traverse to Torment, so I followed the prints along an ascending traverse toward a spur ridge. I passed two guys going down, who told me they had done the West Ridge the day before, sleeping at the “normal bivy.” Not realizing that they had done the short route, I followed their tracks for awhile, then turned left when they were clearly headed in the wrong direction.

Bypass couloir

I turned out to have made only a bit more work for myself than necessary. I crossed through an obvious gap in the ridge, where I had no trouble getting onto the next glacier. I descended a small crevassed bulge, traversed around another minor rib, and was again on-route headed toward the couloir southeast of Torment. The couloir itself was a mess, with broken snow and outward-sloping sandy slabs beneath, and the bergschrund below was almost completely open, with only a decorative snow bridge remaining on the far left side. I dithered for a bit, morale low, then decided to explore a gully with two chockstones leading up and right from the ‘schrund.

Inelegant tunneling

I made my way across some snow debris on the far right and, after a bit of experimental sketchiness, found a way over the exposed rock on its left side. My gully had a section of steep, shaded snow below each chockstone. I suppose I could have put on crampons and gone up the snow, but I chose instead to scramble along the rock to the left of the first, then tunnel up the moat where the wall became impassable. This required some classic groveling, hacking in my axe with my right hand, grabbing gritty protuberances with my left, and searching for footing in the mix of mud and debris between the snow and rock. Reaching the top of the snow, I went around to the right, then up some outward-sloping slabs to avoid the chockstone. I handled the second chockstone with similarly inelegance, going around the right side of the snow, then under and behind the chockstone. With a shout of relief, I found myself on grass ledges just below the ridge. Finally, I could begin the climb.

Go right over the top

From the notch where I reached the ridge, I traversed another moat to its north side, then climbed the cleaner, blocky rock there to gain the crest. I generally found that the left (north) side was cleaner and better climbing, with the right being temptingly gentle but outward-sloping and mossier. Once on the crest, I found time-consuming climbing along an improbably narrow knife-edge, with the occasional piece of Cascades tat telling me I was on-route. The knife edge cliffed out at the end, forcing me to retreat slightly and traverse left.

Ridge from near start

At the next headwall, I suspected another cliff and did not even look for a direct route before traversing right. This turned out to likely be a mistake, leading to some forgettable traversing along slabs and through a moat, then sketchy vegetable climbing to regain the crest. Assuming there was a way directly up or just left of the headwall, the ridge looked more enjoyable, and did not cliff out. Chastened, I stayed near the crest the rest of the way, including on a steep knife that looked like it could not possibly be low fifth class. However the rock is solid, with sharp, positive holds, and as long as you don’t mind the exposure, the climbing is a joy. Along the way, I removed most of the anchors (“climber garbage”), stuffing them in my pack or wrapping them across my chest.

Guys descending ridge

I reached the summit just after two guys from Seattle who had just climbed the north ridge. I immediately put my foot in my mouth by grumbling about the “Seattlites” who normally crowded the peak, but they remained friendly enough. They planned to descend the west ridge for some reason, so I offered them some of my collected tat, which they politely but foolishly refused. I enjoyed the summit for a few minutes after they left, then took off in the other direction, planning to descend the ledges I had climbed in 2014. I didn’t remember the route being particularly hard to follow, and none of the terrain was hard, but I stayed too high this time, wary of descending to the Boston Glacier, and had to do some backtracking.

Boston Basin

Finally reaching the notch to cross back to the Boston Basin side, I saw two guys descending just ahead of me. They were carrying gear and wearing boots, so I figured I would pass quickly by. However they also seemed to know which gully to descend, and to be moving well, so I decided to follow for a bit. We struck up a conversation, and after a little while one of them asked me “what’s your name?” When I told him, he excitedly exclaimed to his partner “it’s seano!” Whoa… Since I don’t take many selfies, and mostly stick to my little corner of the internet, I am rarely recognized in the mountains. It turns out that I sort of knew the guy who recognized me as well (JasonG), as I have read and benefited from several of his trip reports.

The three of us stayed together down the snow and across the basin to the woods. Both were skillful boot-skiers, and had no trouble keeping up with me on the snow. However, their boots and overnight packs were more of a hindrance on the woods trail, and I was going to leave them behind anyways once I reached my bike, since they had hiked the road, so I took off jogging. Just as I was unlocking my bike, three female rangers passing on the road stopped and asked for my permit without a “hello.” I explained that I was day-hiking, which does not require one, and that this was one of the many reasons I prefer not to camp. They mulled that over for a minute. I thanked them for keeping the road closed to cars, then sped off on my bike. The ride down was the perfect end to the day, cooling me, drying my sweat, and giving me a chance to unwind and reflect while enjoying effortless speed. I decided to stay another day, and sat in the car looking for a peak to use as an excuse.

Austera, 7733 (near Eldorado)

Austera pano


Austera is one of Washington’s highest 100 peaks, and while not particularly remote by Cascades standards, it is the hardest to reach of the major peaks around the Eldorado ice cap. This area contains two of the range’s most spectacular glaciers, the McAllister and Inspiration, and given its easy access, it is currently being loved to death by Seattle’s burgeoning techie hordes. I first visited in 2010, tagging Eldorado, Klawatti, and Dorado Needle; I should have included Austera in this trip, but was naive and new to the Cascades. The modest use trail I found a decade ago is now a badly-eroded trench, overcrowded even on weekdays.

No log bad, no road good.

A fortunate flood destroyed the Cascade River Road just before the Eldorado access trail this year (as well as the decades-old log to cross the river), and the Park Service decided to close the road at the Park boundary, two miles farther down the road. Figuring that this would thin the crowds, I stocked up on food, drove up to Marblemount, then bravely continued up the road. There were perhaps a couple of dozen cars parked just below the gate: too many, but a fraction of the normal hordes trooping into Eldorado, Forbidden, and Cascade Pass on a Saturday. I rode my bike the short distance to the new log crossing, surprised not to see any others, locked it up, and started my hike only slightly delayed.

The original crossing logs were huge old-growth things that had stood in place for perhaps fifty years or more (they are mentioned in previous versions of Beckey’s guide). Thousands of climbers’ boots had worn them flat, and also worn paths in the swamp on the far side. The new crossing is far less pleasant and established: after crossing the main channel via one awkward jam, climbers have found a variety of ways across the others and through the surrounding swamp, most involving close encounters with devil’s club.

J-berg again

Eventually the bootprints became faint trails, which merged near the “backcountry route” sign and the old, well-defined path. I lost this again in some downed trees, then found it farther uphill, even more beaten-in than I remembered. I made my familiar way up to the talus-fields, then up the three of them, following occasional cairns and bits of trail to one side or the other. I passed the first people near where the trail crosses a stream above the talus, a couple with incongruous day-hiking gear. I crossed the ridge to the glacier, finding only a single tent at its base. So far, so good: I had expected more tents from people hiking up Friday afternoon, and more day-hikers as well.

Inspiration cirque

I made my familiar way up the glacier, stopping at a runoff stream to freeze my hands and get water, then continued to the ice cap. It had been too long since my last visit to notice any particular details of the glacier’s inevitable retreat, and in any case, it was still early enough in the season for much to be hidden by snow. Crossing to Eldorado’s east ridge, I at last saw the crowds beginning, with one independent group and one guide-y-looking one roping up to begin the walk up Eldorado. I waved as I passed, eyeing my line through the crevasses around the cirque toward Klawatti. Like a decade ago, this was the most crevassed part of the route, but not too difficult if one pays attention.

Annoying Klawatti Col

Rather than going right to climb Klawatti’s south side, I went through the gap and continued across the McAllister Glacier’s east lobe a short distance to Klawatti Col. This gap turned out to be more of a barrier than it appeared: on the near side, what looked like a simple snow col was a twenty-foot wind-sculpted fin, steep on the back. On the far side, there was thirty or so feet of low-fifth-class rock dropping to the Klawatti Glacier. I examined the cleft in the center, then carefully descended the right-hand side, below where someone had left a rappel anchor. After a few delicate moves on slabs, and a careful step and mantle across the moat, I was once again on easy snow.

McAllister Glacier

This was my first visit to the Klawatti Glacier. Much smaller than the Inspiration and McAllister, it falls in a crevassed quarter-circle to the still mostly-frozen Klawatti Lake. Fortunately I was on its gentle upper reaches, traveling north next to the ridge connecting the col to Austera. I worriedly eyed a tower to the left, which looked like the highpoint, until I climbed a steeper bulge and saw a slightly higher talus blob ahead. Then Austera’s true summit revealed itself, two points along the ridge north of the blob. To the left, I could see nearly the entire McAllister Glacier, its two upper lobes falling in broken cascades to nearly meet in an ice plane down around 5,000 feet. I recognized the blob of hanging glacier north of Dorado Needle that had first impressed me a decade ago.

Klawatti Glacier

My route description called the final climb fifth class, possibly as hard as 5.7, but at least it looked short. I made my way along the broken ridge to the summit pinnacles, then looked right for a “narrow ledge,” instead finding an easy traverse. Around the back, I found easy scrambling to the summit of the first pinnacle. A few moves of awkward downclimbing got me to the notch, where I found the inevitable rap tat around a chockstone. To the east, a head-high tongue of hardened snow filled the gap, leaving a moat on either side. The first couple of moves out of the notch might have actually been 5.7, but they were low-consequence, there were only two of them, with smears for the feet but positive holds. Above, easier positive climbing led to the summit.

I cleaned up the rappel garbage, found no register, then sat down to enjoy the view. A jagged line of towers extends north, forming the east side of McAllister Cirque, mirroring the towers north of Dorado Needle. Primus and Tricouni lie to the northeast, the former looking like a particularly unappealing talus-mound. On the other side of deep Thunder Creek to the east, I recognized glaciated Logan and the dry choss-peaks of Ragged Ridge. To the southeast, Goode rose above its surroundings as a singular, narrow wedge.

I had a straightforward time retracing my route. I briefly tried climbing the lowpoint of Klawatti Col, first by the broken left face, then by the right dihedral, then thought better of it and reversed my course on the left. I followed my track back across the Inspiration Glacier, since it had worked for me on the way out. Near Eldorado, I passed a group of four older men roped up with heavy packs, on their way over the Inspiration Traverse, crossing the ice cap from the North Fork Cascade River to Thunder Creek and Ross Lake. I gave them some pointers, then trudged back across the flats to the descent.

7,733′

Point 7,733 is a striking landmark along the standard Eldorado approach, one I had meant to climb on both my previous visits, only to lack the drive. This time I addressed that failure, kicking up the snow and scrambling right up the face, then left along the ridge to the summit. The peak, though low and minor, has an unobstructed view of the Moraine Lake cirque, including the Inspiration and Fury Glaciers. Returning to the descent route, I quickly slid down to the rocks, passing a party of three just returning to their tent, then scrambled up to the Eldorado Creek side of things.

So far I had been enjoying the lack of traffic, seeing perhaps a dozen people on a Saturday on a popular peak. My joy and solitude ended abruptly here, with another two or three dozen tromping up in the afternoon heat, most wearing boots and carrying a single snow picket. (Perhaps the Mountaineers teach some form of crevasse rescue that uses it?) I descended the trail, boulders, and more trail, found the first part of the old log crossing, decided not to swim the washed-out part, then found a slightly worse way back to the new logjam. Mine was still the only bike at the trailhead, and I enjoyed a quick descent to the car, passing a few envious backpackers on the way.

The Zebra, Moran, East Horn (15h45)

Scrambly bits of Zebra


The Zebra has been somewhat of a white whale to me ever since Bill and Peggy brought it to my attention five or so years ago. It is a minor and obscure peak northwest of Mount Moran, first climbed by Leigh Ortenburger in 1970 and seldom climbed since, supposedly 5.4 by its only known route. I had twice tried to reach it from Leigh Canyon via the Thor-Moran ridge. Peggy and I turned back the first time after she dislocated her shoulder, and I gave up the second time after my will was drained by the arduous approach around Leigh Lake, along Leigh Canyon, and up to the ridge. This time I tried a different approach, around Moran and up the West Triple Glacier, and a different partner, my Sierra friend Robert. Though it was definitely better than the Leigh Canyon approach, it was still a brutal day, with a challenging return over Mount Moran and down the Skillet Glacier. Climbing the East Horn as a bonus peak added about an hour, making for an almost sixteen-hour day, the longest I have done in months.

Zebra from Moran’s NE shoulder

We left the Ranch a bit before 4:00 AM, and were on the String Lake trail by 4:15, putting in a few minutes of headlamp time before the near-solstice dawn. Both mosquitoes and campers were still asleep as we made our way along Leigh Lake and down the stream to Bearpaw Bay, though we woke the humans catching up on events since we had last hiked together. From the bay, we continued along the Skillet Glacier use trail for awhile, then took off north where it heads west along the glacier’s outflow. I had done the Triple Glacier route before, and remembered finding an excellent game trail that saved me much suffering, but I was not so lucky this time. The woods between Moran and Jackson Lake are choked with deadfall, brush, and bogs, making for savage bushwhacking by Teton standards, and Robert and I got a healthy dose. We found the game trail for awhile, then lost it again, finally ending up on the subtle ridge leading to the 10,000-foot shoulder on Mount Moran’s northeast ridge. After traveling much of our horizontal distance, we gained the majority of our elevation on the steep but more open ridge. Somewhere around 9000 feet the mosquitoes relented and the snow began. I had visited this area in 2015 to climb Moran via the Triple Glacier, which should have made the approach familiar and quick, but I am slower now, and did not remember it well enough to help us much.

West Triple Glacier and Zebra

Moran’s Triple Glacier route climbs the eastern glacier, then continues on snowfields above. As we were headed for the western one, we were soon on new ground. I initially hoped to traverse low on the eastern glacier, then continue across the other two to climb the western one, but after crossing the first glacier’s toe, we found ourselves cliffed out far above the second. We descended the ridge separating the eastern and central glaciers toward Moran Canyon, then dropped through steep woods and class 3-4 terrain to the latter’s terminal moraine. From there, we climbed the moraine’s crest to where it joins that of the western glacier, then made a sketchy third class dirt descent to the western Triple Glacier.

Lower glacier

I had been out of water for half an hour, so while Robert put on his crampons (a much more involved process than me putting on mine), I crossed to a cascade on the other side to grab a couple liters of the last water we would likely find for awhile. Once Robert joined me, we began a steady ascent up moderate snow toward the upper-right corner of the glacier, just below the saddle on the spur ridge between the Zebra and the main Thor-Moran ridge. The angle was moderate most of the way, and the snow was firm enough for our steps rarely to collapse.

Glacier headwall

The upper glacier is split by a rock band on the right, and an ice bulge on the left. I considered going to the far left of the bulge, but decided that a snow ramp through the rock would be more direct and not too steep. I had been able to French-step the rest of the route, but had to “front-point” on my front-point-less crampons through the gap, and on much of the snow above, which remained steep. It was too steep for self-arrest to be realistic, but not steep enough for climbing to feel insecure. Robert did well on this part, following my boot-pack without hesitation and even stopping to take some photos. Coming from the increasingly dry Sierra, he was unnerved by the Tetons’ steep snow two years ago, but has since become much more confident.

Start of the Zebra

Reaching the top of the snow, I climbed a short gully of mud and rotten rock to reach the saddle, where I hid away from the breeze to put away my crampons. Robert shortly joined me, and we decided to stash our axes and spikes at the notch before scrambling to the summit. We started left of the crest, climbing a class 2-3 talus chute with good holds on the left, then crossed to the right to continue on broad ledges. The Zebra’s rock slopes down to the east (right), and is mostly sheer on the west (left), so climbing right of the crest can be either fast or tenuous, while the route along the crest is slower but more secure.

I traversed low, bad idea

Traversing right, we soon regretted leaving our axes behind, as we were forced to cross a short slush-field with a bad runout. Grabbing a sharp rock, I kicked deep steps and hacked in a handhold, which I left behind for Robert’s use. Beyond, we climbed a moderate but wet and mossy corner to return to the ridge. I checked out the crest, which looked like a cheval country, then opted instead for an exposed and outward-sloping moss traverse below a snowfield. Robert, sensibly enough, did not like the look of this and, being a Real Climber, took the ridge, meeting up on the other side of my green folly.

Beyond, we traversed right again, then climbed easy ledge-y terrain to the crux, a right-facing dihedral leading to the final false summit. While vertical, this short pitch had enough positive holds to keep it low fifth class. From the top, a bit more scrambling and a final short face section led to the small two-humped summit. We found no register or cairn, only a weathered piece of purple cord where someone had needlessly rappeled on their return. I found a seat out of the wind amidst the loose jumbled rocks next to the summit, while Robert took out his fancy camera to capture some enviable shots and a panorama.

Rotten Thumb from Zebra

Having made the effort to reach this remote place, we had thought of climbing nearby Rotten Thumb, but the traverse looked impassable, with a vertical notch followed by a tower sheer on three sides and slightly overhanging to the east. The obvious route to Rotten Thumb leaves the west Triple Glacier below the rock band and climbs moderate snow to its northeast ridge. Since this would require 1000 vertical feet or so of backtracking, and the peak is aptly named (a rounded rotten blob), we decided to save it for sometime in the distant future. We reversed our route, finding the slush-traverse warmer and sketchier than before, then recovered our gear and headed toward the Thor-Moran ridge.

Moran from the Zebra

While the Zebra’s rock is generally decent, the rock between it and the main east-west ridge is often rotten, and this section involved some cautious and time-consuming climbing back and forth across the crest. This section had drained my last motivation on a previous Zebra attempt from Leigh Canyon, but I found it easier to bear when it was mandatory. Robert had not climbed Thor, and it was only a short distance away, but we figured it would take one or two more hours to make the side-trip, and we still had quite a bit of climbing between us and home.

The section between the Zebra saddle and the main Thor-Moran ridge is frequently loose and/or outward-sloping, making it unpleasant and slow. I remembered turning around on this section on my previous attempt to reach the Zebra via Leigh Canyon, too discouraged after bushwhacking around Leigh Lake and slogging up the south side of the ridge near Thor. We found some low fifth class terrain in this section, but it could probably be avoided with better route-finding.

Thor with Hidden Couloir

The main ridge is still loose in places, but much better climbing than the spur. I have traversed all or part of it several times, and am always impressed by the exposure and a bit surprised at the occasional difficulty. There are sections of very steep climbing on blocky, debris-strewn rock, and a traverse to the north after a chossy white gap with big air down to the East Triple Glacier. Robert was dragging a bit at this point, but had enough climbing skill and scrambling experience to overcome his fatigue. I have done various things to surmount Moran’s final granite cap, many of them unpleasant, but this time I had good luck heading directly up and right from the final notch. We stopped to refill water at one of several snowmelt rivulets, then continued to the summit plateau. Moran is a souped-up version of Longs Peak in Colorado, with no easy way to a large and nearly flat summit.

Robert spent some time taking photos from the top, then we proceeded down the Skillet. The top had gone into the shade, so we put on crampons and downclimbed the first few hundred feet facing in. Below that, we were able to take off our spikes and plunge-step or boot-ski. The snow was frustratingly sun-cupped, but lacked the deep center runnel I had found in previous years. I am normally intent to get to the bottom as quickly as possible (generally 30-35 minutes for a 5000-foot snow descent), but this time we pulled off to the right below Moran’s saddle with the East Horn.

Starting down Skilliet

There is supposedly a 5.1 Chouinard route up the Horn from this side, but what we found felt harder, perhaps because it was wet and we were tired. Robert had had enough, so I continued alone, wandering up outward-sloping ledges to reach the ridge slightly beyond the saddle. There are two headwalls between the saddle and summit, neither of which looks easy to take head-on. I went around the first to the left (north), then tried the same on the second, only to be turned back by ice and wet slabs. Instead, I made my way down and around to the right, climbing past some shrubs and up one side of a slight gully to return to the ridge perhaps a hundred yards from the summit. The route felt at least as hard as the Zebra’s supposed 5.4 — I’ll never be a good judge of climbing grades.

East Horn ridge

Mindful of the lengthening shadows and Robert’s increasing boredom, I semi-hurried back to where he was waiting, then we returned to the glacier for what I hoped would be a quick descent. Normally the lower Skillet is fun and fast, with decent boot-skiing to the “pan,” perhaps a bit of postholing, then excellent snow extending down the outlet stream to the gravel- and aspen-flats below. However this year is the driest I have ever seen the Tetons in June, and the stream was only intermittently bridged by snow. We carefully slid the solid-looking parts, picking our way down the loose garbage in between, taking far longer than I had hoped.

I have done the trail from the Skillet to Bearpaw Bay enough times that I should be able to get it right, but I usually manage to screw up at least a bit, as the use trail fades or gets lost in the area’s many game trails. Fortunately Robert had recorded a track and had a bit of battery left, so we were able to re-find the trail lower down and avoid some tedious bushwhacking. The mosquitoes around Bearpaw and Leigh Lakes were the worst I have ever experienced in the Tetons, and they were fast enough to keep up at a walk. Along with the tedium of Leigh Lake’s endless east shore, the bugs finally drove me to jog, and Robert perked up enough to join me, so we hobbled into the String Lake lot well before dark, taking a respectable but not mind-blowing 15h45 to slay my white whale of a striped horse of a mixed metaphor of the northern Tetons.

Gila tour

Wut?


The roads north of Silver City, particularly Highway 15 to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, twist and roll through ponderosas and alligator junipers, with no lane markers and little traffic. They are justifiably popular among cyclists, and home to the Tour of the Gila bike race. The so-called “inner loop” heads east from Silver City to San Lorenzo, follows the Mimbres River northwest to Lake Roberts, then crosses the Continental Divide to meet Highway 15 about twenty miles north of town. The loop by itself can be done as a long road ride, but the detour to the Cliff Dwellings makes it a bit too much for a single day, even without stopping to explore the ruins and hot springs.

After returning from Mogollon, we packed up our gear and drove toward Silver City, camping at the last semi-legal spot west of town. We had contemplated riding this road, but were glad we had not, as it is flat, dusty, windy, busy, and passes through a mixture of bland scrubland and ranch towns deeply red of neck. I had a hankering for a breakfast burrito, and had opted for Don Juan’s as our source mostly because it was on the way. As soon as I saw the place, I knew I had chosen well. It is a small, slightly dilapidated stucco box in a parking lot, with a window on one side to place orders, and one on the other to receive paper bags of food. All of its meager resources are focused on producing quality burritos cheaply and quickly. In about five minutes, we had two burritos costing about five dollars apiece, which we consumed in the car. It felt slightly odd that an Asian girl took our order, and an African one handed us our food, but the burritos were authentic and filling; presumably the two working the windows were students at Western New Mexico University.

We once again left our car at the ranger station, then took off east along Highway 180. Though it is the main route between Silver City and the outside world, it was quiet on a Sunday morning, as many people were at their churches, leaving us to ours. This stretch east to the Mimbres is by far the least pleasant, a four-lane highway (albeit with good shoulders) to Santa Clara, then a winding two-lane road through lower scrubland. The main “scenery” is the Santa Rita Mine, a massive open pit carved a thousand feet into the ground through decades of steady labor. It was much as I remembered it from my first visit thirty years ago, with a slow stream of massive ore trucks carrying loads of mostly dirt to be sifted through for traces of profit. The “scenic” overlook tries to give visitors a sense of the place’s scale: a tire taller than a van demonstrates the trucks’ size, while the trucks’ insectile work below hints at the pit’s scale. The “pride of industry” narration that I remember was not playing, though, and the viewpoint was closed for COVID. Unlike before, we stopped at a sign about a strike that was the basis for the movie “Salt of the Earth”, in which women picketed the Empire Zinc Company for over a year when the male miners were forbidden to do so.

Since we were in no great hurry, we stopped at the store in San Lorenzo for some cheap calories and sunscreen, then again at the Mimbres Cultural Heritage site. The latter looked closed, but a chatty and knowledgeable volunteer showed us in and gave us a history lesson. The Mimbres were contemporaries of the Anasazi, known for the their pottery with intricate, stylized black-and-white designs. Their civilization in the area peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries, before drought and deforestation dispersed them. They buried a pot with a hole in the bottom with their dead, creating a rich lode for archaeologists and pot-hunters to mine in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Feeling slightly more educated, we posed for a photo (touring tandems are rarer than Mimbres pots), then continued upriver. We had budgeted three days for the loop to allow for side trips, and had intended to go hiking off Forest Road 150, but there was a prescribed burn scheduled there for the next day, forcing us to look for another spot to camp. We climbed over the divide, and soon found a network of roads in a pleasingly open ponderosa forest. There was no stream or other natural water source, but the Forest Service had thoughtfully provided a 3000-gallon orange bag of water. It was probably meant to be dumped on a fire by helicopter, but hopefully the gallon we took did not cause them to lose control of their prescribed burn. The tub was also useful for a brief, cold bath.

Volcanic terrain around Gila

The next morning we continued past Lake Roberts, a popular fishing marsh, then turned north on Highway 15 toward the Cliff Dwellings. The road climbs 2000 feet from the junction before dropping the same amount to the Gila River. Fortunately the south-facing climb is mostly moderate and shaded, much easier than I had dreaded. We took a break at an overlook, where Leonie did some yoga while I tagged nearby Copperas Peak. The “climb” was a slightly annoying hike through dry grass and loose basaltic rubble, but the summit had a 360-degree view of gentle mountains to the south and east, and more colorful volcanic terrain to the north.

Be safe, snakey!

From this divide, we flew down a steep and winding descent to the river. Near its base, the car in front of us abruptly pulled over, to help a snake in the middle of the road. I thought it might be a rattler, but soon realized it was just an angry bullsnake. A few others stopped as well, and eventually one man distracted the snake with a stick long enough to pick it up by the tail and move it off the road. I have always tried to grab bullsnakes just behind the head, and did not realize that this was an effective technique. I wanted to pick it up, handle it, and perhaps move it farther from harm, but it was still annoyed, and continued to hiss and shake its tail, so we watched it for a few minutes, then continued to the park.

The main visitor center was closed, but the bookstore and cliff dwelling path were open. We moseyed around the short loop, passing well-preserved buildings which tourists can no longer enter. The homeowners had chosen a perfect site, a south-facing canyon wall with a spring below and an overhang above to shade them from the high summer sun. If I were at all competent at hunting and farming, I could imagine myself settling down there.

Gila cliff dwellings

Cultural enrichment complete, we returned to a trailhead behind the visitor center from which we could reach some nearby hot springs. There were a half-dozen cars parked there, but we hoped the springs would not be too crowded, and even more foolishly hoped we could find a campsite along the trail. We rode and pushed the bike about a quarter-mile past the gate, then stashed it on a sandy flat behind some willows and burrs.

The hike to the springs requires two fords, calf-deep and 20-30 feet long. The water wasn’t cold enough to be truly miserable, but was cool enough that I attempted a high-difficulty log crossing — a large step to a moving log — earning my shoes a wash. The springs were neither crowded nor empty, with a couple and a not-couple in bathing suits sharing the warmest and least disappointing of several pools. I was hoping for something more like the Rico or Buckeye springs, but found a knee-deep, somewhat slimy pool separated from the shallow Gila by ten yards of alluvium. We both felt filthy, though, so… good enough!

Leonie opted for nudity, bravely soaping up and washing in the cold river, while I chose to simply rinse my bike shorts and my self soap-free. She chatted with the couple from Chicago, while I awkwardly talked to the non-couple from Sedona, a Frenchman who made custom wood flutes and a woman who was currently his landlord. They had both been in Sedona for a long time, witnessing its brief golden era between electrification and kitschification, and retained a fondness for the place. The Frenchman reminded me a bit of Fritz Damler, the 9.5-fingered man who made my guitar in a previous life, and who made his living by, among other things, sailing to Turkey to import kilims.

Once we had both pruned up enough, we dressed in hiking clothes and wrestled the bike through the sand and burrs and back to the trailhead. The non-couple were camping right at the closed visitor center (Gila is that kind of place), but we wanted a bit of solitude, which we easily found a short distance down-canyon on a National Forest road. As I prepared dinner, I thought forward to the next day with mixed apprehension and anticipation: we faced a hard climb out of the Gila followed by more climbing along Highway 15, but we would also be on the loop’s best roads.

In deference to the day’s heat, we started reasonably early despite the morning chill, and were soon steadily laboring out of the Gila valley. After an initial steep pitch, where I had expected to push, the climb was mostly moderate, and the north-facing aspect made the sun feel a bit less intense. We descended from the divide, then passed the Lake Roberts intersection and immediately began climbing again on what was signed as a “hazardous mountain road.” The lane markers disappeared, the traffic thinned, and we rode slowly but happily through alligator junipers transitioning to ponderosas.

I noticed a camper next to a break in the climb, which turned out to house the Chicago couple, who were spending another day in the Gila before continuing on their long road trip around the west. I am distressed by the recent wave of hashtag-vanlifers invading every quiet corner of the western wilderness, but still identify with its individual particles, so I wished them well and advised them not to visit Saguaro National Monument, as southern Arizona would already be oppressively hot.

After this flat break, the road climbs along some mostly-dry streams up to another high divide, through a shady forest of tall ponderosas, then rolls through the high country to the village of Pinos Altos. We took a side-trip through downtown, where I hoped to perhaps find some ice cream, but the tourist town was mostly silent. A sign outside the general store advised me to call a local number for service, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. I think we were both somewhat impatient at this point, so we did not linger to look at the old buildings or learn about the village’s history. Silver City beckoned a thousand feet below, so we put our heads down and cranked downhill into the headwind toward the car.

Having time to spare, we decided to resupply and patronize some local businesses while we were in civilization. We found a local bike store that had some overpriced gloves to replace Leonie’s absurdly worn-out ones, and a health food store to get a vegan ice cream sandwich (???) and some expensive veggies. On the way back to the car, we were diverted from Don Juan’s by the promise of $1 tacos at a shiny, California-looking Mexican place. The “carne asada” and “carne adovada” were dry ground beef with different spice packets, the “fish” was from a cat food can that had been open too long, and the “veggie” was bits of fried kale. As the saying goes, you can’t shine a turd. With bellies full of lukewarm disappointment, we restocked on road calories at Walmart, then drove back north and west on highway 180.

Glenwood and Mogollon

Nope!


While I have been traveling and getting out more than I do in a normal winter in the Lower 48, I have unfortunately been writing less. Though I do not plan to abandon the blog, I expect this new sporadic schedule to continue.

The greater Gila is a largely undeveloped area of mixed piñon-juniper and ponderosa forest in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. While much of it lies within the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses of New Mexico, they are surrounded by a vast area of non-wilderness (i.e. bikeable) National Forest. With elevations ranging from around 5000 to over 10,000 feet, there is only a narrow springtime window in which the lowlands are cool enough and the highlands are relatively snow-free.

We had been carrying a tandem and bike trailer around on my car for weeks, at a significant cost in both hassle and gas, and it was finally time to use both. My friend Mike had laid out an ambitious 350-mile tour through the Gila, north from Silver City, then west to Alpine and down scenic Highway 191 in Arizona, which we hoped to complete in a bit over a week, including some time for hikes. The forest roads on the northeast part of the loop climb as high as 9,000 feet, though, so while the lowlands around Morenci would be too hot (and windy!) for pleasant touring, some sections remained impassable due to snow and mud. We therefore saw only small parts of what would have been an excellent loop.

New catwalk

Our plan was to leave the car at the Glenwood Ranger Station, then bike the paved road up through the ghost town of Mogollon and continue on dirt forest roads to Beaverhead Ranger Station. The helpful woman at the Station, however, informed us that fire crews had recently been turned around on that road due to lingering snow. Since minor snowdrifts that block a truck are often avoidable on a bike, we remained slightly optimistic. However it was too late in the day to sensibly start, so we instead took a side trip to the nearby Catwalk.

Better alternative

The Catwalk in its current form is a sturdy metal structure extending less than a mile up the box canyon of Whitewater Creek, popular among tourists visiting the Silver City area. It was longer and more impressive in its earlier forms, first as a slapdash wooden affair built by miners in the late 1800s, then wooden and metal replacements built by the CCC in the 1930s and Forest Service in the 1960s. We started on the modern structure, but were soon driven down to the river by the crowds of children and lumbering gawkers. It was actually much more fun below the catwalk, as I was able to hop from rock to rock, while Leonie splashed up the shallow stream.

Rockslide damage

Somehow missing a trail closure sign, we continued past the crowds, finding remnants of several old routes up-canyon, all destroyed by rockslides and flash floods. There is no way to build a long-lasting trail up a box canyon with crumbling sides, but the trail has at various times followed the creek all the way to its source near Whitewater Baldy, the Gila highpoint. This area contains (or contained) a rich network of trails connecting the western lowlands at 5000 feet to a highline trail closer to 10,000, but fire, erosion, disuse, and lack of maintenance have left them in an uncertain state. As tempted as we were to backpack these trails, we retreated and decided instead to try riding up through Mogollon as far as we could along our original tour route.

Mogollon ore carts

We spent a decent night in the Ranger Station parking lot; the ranger who approached us in the morning was more bemused than upset by our choice of campsite, and invited us to the annual dutch oven bakeoff that afternoon. We slowly assembled food and water for a single day, then headed north of town on the highway before turning right on the dead-end road to Mogollon. While there are a few summer homes there, and perhaps even a permanent resident or two, it is mostly a tourist destination in normal years, or a well-maintained cluster of abandoned buildings in COVID times.

This is the good stuff

After climbing 2000 feet from Glenwood, the road descends 500 to Mogollon before turning to dirt. We stopped to take a few photos among the abandoned buildings and equipment, then continued uphill, climbing another 2500 feet to Silver Creek Divide at just over 9000 feet. The road maintained a consistent grade that was pleasant on the tandem alone, but would have been painful with a loaded trailer. It was mostly snow-free and dry to the divide, though its route along the creek meant we had no views and no visual cues of when the climb was done. We met a few cars, including a an ambitious Mini Cooper from Florida, but mostly had the area to ourselves.

At the Divide, we regrettably elected to miss the cookoff, instead continuing along the high traverse, with expansive views to the north. Unfortunately this north-facing slope held much more snow and tire-sucking mud, so we soon gave up, settling for some trail mix before returning through Mogollon and back to town. It seemed both too early up high, and too late down low, to complete our original tour. We were not done with the Gila, though: the mid-elevation roads between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings offered a suitable and seasonable consolation prize.

Lonesome Miner Trail (20h20)

Bighorn cabin


The Lonesome Miner Trail (LMT) is a route through the Inyo Mountains near Lone Pine, traveling between the range’s crest and eastern base. The Inyos are a desert range made mostly of garbage rock, and the route does not go over or even particularly near any peaks, so it is a strange place to find Yours Truly. However, the Inyos have their own grandeur, rising almost 10,000 feet from the Saline Valley on one side and over 6,000 from the Owens on the other. Their eastern side is also both hospitable and mind-bendingly remote: while most canyons have year-round springs, these are mostly at elevations between five and six thousand feet, separated from the inhospitable and uninhabited desert valley below by a vertical mile of brushy slot canyons and loose ridges. The springs are no easier to reach from the barely-inhabited Owens Valley to the west, from which one must climb a vertical mile to the crest before descending several thousand feet. Nevertheless, a brief mining boom occurred around these water sources around 1900, and the LMT links some of the water sources and mines via their old roads and pack trails.

A lonesome miner must eat

Ever since first hearing of it in 2018, and backpacking it around that winter’s solstice, I had a vague idea that the LMT might be doable in a single day. With trails that span elevations ranging from 4000 to 9500 feet and are difficult to follow at night, timing is difficult for a fast trip. The best time might be in October or November, between when daytime temperatures are bearable and when the first significant snow coats north slopes. However it can also be doable in March or April with some tolerance for snow and/or heat. The official route crosses the range from Hunter Canyon on the Saline to Pat Keyes Pass on the Owens side. However this involves a hundred-mile car shuttle on annoying dirt roads, so I prefer to come in from Long John Canyon on the Owens side, requiring slightly more climbing but only a ten-mile shuttle.

Dawn from above Long John

I had not planned to attempt the LMT on this trip, but when my circumstances thrust it upon me I shoved about 5500 calories into a daypack, drove as far as I dared up Long John Canyon road, and set my alarm for 2:30 AM. I was not sure I had the fitness or desire to do the whole thing, but an early exit via Forgotten Pass would leave me only a few miles from the starting trailhead. I took longer than usual preparing in the morning, then started out around 3:20, hiking and occasionally jogging the road as it decayed into the wash. I been this way twice in the past, so although the trail is often faint to nonexistent, I had little trouble following the general route to the crest, where I saw dawn on the barely-drivable road north from Cerro Gordo. I sent a few final text messages, then began jogging down the other side, committing myself to at least a very long day.

Postholing begins

Conditions soon reminded me of my previous December trip, with snow filling in the switchbacks on some of the east-facing switchbacks. The road was easy to follow, but the snow was punchy and deep enough to force me onto its edges, making running difficult. Snow-line seemed to be somewhere between six and seven thousand feet on the wooded north slopes, foreboding a frustrating day. The south-facing climb back to the Hunter saddle was dry, however, and I climbed comfortably in a t-shirt as the sun finally hit me.

Lower Hunter Canyon

The descent into Hunter was again snowy, but the trail was easy to follow, as was the dry trail along the wash’s bottom. I paused at the camp spot before Bighorn Spring, where we had slept on my 2018 backpack, and noted that only one party had signed the register since then. Continuing past the spring and nearby rusting machinery, I climbed up the bank to the left, admiring the view down-canyon from above a fork, then plugged in my poor cold phone to charge before contouring into the north tributary in search of the trail up to Bighorn Mine.

Bighorn cabin and Saline

I wasted some time finding the route, as the original trail followed the wash and has therefore been consumed by rubble and brush. After a bit of exploration, I proceeded left and spotted some cairns along the right bank. The line of cairns followed the edge of a collapsing rubble cliff, which made me doubt that this was the original route, before following old rockwork as it switchbacked up the right side of the valley. I stopped to take some photos of old tools and a broken bowl at the mine, then continued to the Bighorn Cabin. Perched on a narrow spur ridge near 7000 feet, the cabin is close to the ore vein, and has an incredible view of the Saline Valley below. However living there must have been arduous, requiring frequent trips to the spring 1500 feet below for water. The cabin is in good shape and well-equipped with tools, cots, and a stove, but I doubt any of the handful of people who now visit each year stay the night. I took some photos of the cabin and commemorative plaque, then kept moving.

Frenchy’s from above

The route is again somewhat unclear here, traversing along a rusty pipe and continuing up-canyon for awhile before switchbacking past some more prospects to the ridge above 8000 feet. From this crossing, a difficult trail descends 2500 feet to Frenchy’s Cabin in Beveridge Canyon. This section is faint, and has been obliterated partway down in a talus field, but cairns and careful attention make it possible to follow by daylight, even in snow. Unfortunately said snow was piled calf- to knee-deep on parts of the trail, with a crust only beginning to soften as the morning warmed, turning potential running terrain into laborious hiking. My friend Kim had proposed doing the route in the other direction for precisely this reason — you might as well be going uphill if you have to walk — but plowing uphill would have been much more tiring.

Thanks, Kim!

I reached Frenchy’s before noon, around eight hours into the day, and paused to refill my water and pillage the two sandwiches Kim had left in the cooler for passers-by. This was the only point on the route at which I could bail, climbing about 3000 feet to Forgotten Pass and returning to the Owens Valley near my car. Pleased with my progress, and believing myself almost halfway through the LMT, I decided to continue to the end, expecting to reach the top of Pat Keyes Pass around dark. This would allow me to do the last climbing, and most of the tricky route-finding, before headlamp time.

Beveridge Ridge cabin

Passing the “town” of Beveridge, I climbed past the trail east to the Saline Valley, ascending mostly easy-to-follow switchbacks along the spur ridge to Beveridge Canyon. The thermometer at Frenchy’s had read 65 degrees, and it was hot on the south-facing slope, but I was still moving well enough. Stopping at the Beveridge Ridge Cabin, I signed the register and took a few photos. I also took a packet of beef ramen, licking the noodles, sprinkling the flavor packet on top, and shoving them into my mouth as I turned the corner to posthole through more snow on the way to the bulldozer and other remains of the Keynot Mine. With no obvious road leading to this spot around 8000 feet, I am not sure how the equipment reached this remote spot. Perhaps it was helicoptered in to the dirt helipad at the cabin, then driven around the corner.

Keynot machinery

On my previous trip, we had made the mistake of continuing along the mine to its other end, following more evidence of mining until the level road disappeared into the hillside, then sidehilling miserably for several hours across loose terrain to reach the next ridge. This time, I followed a line of cairns and a faint trail back and uphill from just before the dozer, eventually finding bits and pieces of old trail leading to a collapsed cabin. I suspect that the LMT route follows a path that predates the mechanized Keynot Mine, connecting Beveridge to a more primitive prospect and the hermitage of McElvoy Canyon. This trail frustratingly gains and loses elevation, but is preferable to and far faster than cross-country travel across the steep hillside.

Bleeding bighorn

After the high traverse, the trail into McElvoy Canyon is one of the faintest and most confusing parts of the route. After descending along a hardpack dirt ridge, where the faint trailbed has almost completely disappeared, it weaves around complex crags on the canyon’s steep south side. In several places, it crosses unstable talus-fields that have obliterated whatever trail once existed. Looking for sporadic cairns and rockwork on either side of these slopes, I was able to follow its general path, though not its every detail, on the long descent, finally losing it in game trails and brush just above the stream, near where it flows in a cascade over smooth slabs.

McElvoy stonework

Here the correct route follows the southern bank downstream, eventually crossing near some well-built stone cabins. However I had neglected to bring the route description, and in my haste forgot the route. I wasted perhaps half an hour here, first looking upstream, then following a wash with a giant cairn just upstream of the McElvoy Mine buildings. Finally, I remembered that the correct route starts in the ravine immediately behind the cabins. Though it starts out well-built and clear, it soon fades and splits, with branches leading to multiple small digs. I initially went too far left, then contoured right to find the correct route, which climbs a hillside near the eastern edge of the prospecting, then switchbacks up a dirt ridge out of the canyon’s north side.

Here I remembered the trail well, and followed it easily as it returns west along a ridge toward the Inyo Crest, then contours north through woods to reach Pat Keyes Canyon. I had lost too much time crossing McElvoy, and was both frustrated and cold plowing through the slushy snow on this high traverse. Fortunately the trail crosses the canyon relatively high, as it must climb to 9500 feet on the other side to cross back to the Owens Valley via Pat Keyes Pass. Unfortunately the sun had set, I was out of water, and the stream was small and muddy where the trail crosses it. I eventually filled my water bladder with cold hands, then lost the trail on its way downstream toward a supposed ruin.

The trail probably climbs behind this old cabin, but I had run out of light, and decided to simply claw my way directly up to the ridge and find the trail when I reached it. I had counted on reaching this part, which is cold and difficult to follow, with at least some daylight left, and was annoyed and discouraged to once again be doing it in the dark. After a bit of cross-country wandering I picked up the faint Pat Keyes Pass trail, which for once follows the line on the USGS topo. There are enough cairns that the trail would probably be easy to follow at a jog by daylight with fresh legs, but I was dark and fatigue forced me to proceed at a walk.

After traversing around a couple of bumps on the south side of the ridge, the trail crosses to the north for the final half-mile to the pass. Here the misery began, with shin-deep powder and uneven rocks covered by a crust now hard enough to hurt my shins through my pants. I wallowed and cursed in the dark for what felt like an hour to finally reach the saddle, crossing at a point with no trail or markings. I had lost quite a bit of time here wandering last time, so failing to at least start on the trail boded ill. It was almost 9:00 PM — well after dark, but fortunately early enough for Leonie to still be awake. I told her that I would be coming out Pat Keyes, then texted Kim to see if she had a GPX track for the descent.

Unfortunately the cold drained my phone’s aging batter in the few minutes I had it out, knocking out both my communication and navigation. I knew the trail trended left, and did not follow the line on the map, so I headed in that general direction, looking around carefully for cairns above and erosion below the snow. I luckily found the line, following it slowly until my phone revived and I was able to not only see a map, but swap in fresh headlamp batteries. The cairned route, which fades in a couple of places, seems to stay right of the line on the topo, descending closer to a faint drainage before rejoining it where the overall slope steepens. I lost trail a couple of times, and there may be another route closer to the line, but my path was not too onerous.

The trail became easier to follow as I approached the level of the Owens Valley’s lights: Independence, Lone Pine, and some smaller settlements whose names I forget, connected by the cars crawling between on Highway 395. I was pleased to be able to jog the final switchbacks, which are smooth and easy to follow, but maddeningly horizontal compared to most of the trails I had visited. Reaching the trail register, I took a couple of experimental selfies, signed out, and started the two-mile walk to the car. It had taken me about 20h20 from where I had parked on the road up Long John Canyon. With better conditions and no major route-finding errors, I could have done the Lonesome Miner Trail in under 20 hours, and probably under 19; a faster runner somewhat familiar with the route could easily go under 18. I had doubted that I could complete it in a single push, but math works even in the Inyos: 50-55 miles with 15-20 thousand feet of climbing are still doable in a single push.

Santa Barbara tour: to Carpinteria

Morning from camp


In addition to being sheltered from the wind, our campsite was above the cold marine layer, so waking up was pleasant despite our lack of a source of water. We had another forty or so miles to go, but they were downhill or flat and, more importantly, all paved. The final descent followed a stream and valley that collected cold air, but we were far enough south to prevent redwoods from growing, or my hands from freezing.

Declining to take a side trip to the “best hiker-biker beach camp in California” at Refugio, we turned onto Highway 101’s frontage road for the long ride east along the Santa Barbara coast. With smooth pavement and a tailwind most of the way, we made ridiculously good time, reversing several days’ progress west in a single short day. Low on food, we stopped at a convenience store for snacks, and were once again told that we were absolutely not allowed to have any water or use the restrooms. Perhaps this low-grade hostility will fade with the coronavirus, but I suspect it will become the new normal as businesses realize they can save a few pennies on their water bills and minutes of employee time. It is just another small efficiency eked out by the crushing magic of the free market.

Did not slide out

This part of the route involved a mixture of segregated bike paths, striped lanes, urban streets, and a few miles of highway. Finding the best mix would have been difficult for a traveler, but green signs pointed us to the “Pacific Coast Bike Route”, which has been chosen as the least painful way to follow the coast through SoCal’s urban sprawl. While enjoying the easy ride through Santa Barbara, I fantasized that it might extend all the way from the San Francisco Bay to the Mexican border, but it sadly only goes from San Luis Obispo to Malibu. We will need to find another way to plow through greater Los Angeles and reach Baja.

Carpinteria sunset

Even after a lengthy lunch stop with Steve, we made it back to Carpinteria by mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to shower and walk on the beach. We watched the sun set behind the Channel Islands and blinking drilling platforms — some of the few allowed on the California coast — then stumbled back along the beach in the dark to pick up some good but overpriced Thai food and retire to the car. The next morning we packed up slowly, then drove Highway 101 back north, the prevailing wind and tandem on the roof killing our mileage the whole way.

It had been a short tour, with only 160 miles and 16,300′ of climbing. However, we had crossed much rougher terrain than I expected would be possible with the tandem and trailer, and both the touring rig and our relationship emerged without suffering permanent damage. Parts of the route rivaled the roughest terrain I had navigated in South America, and we even negotiated several stretches of single track, which I had never considered. However, the rig’s sweet spot is paved side-roads or good graded dirt, which is where I hope to focus in the future.

Santa Barbara tour: West Camino Cielo

Afternoon on Camino Cielo


It was once again cold and windy overnight at Hidden Potrero, but we woke encouraged by the knowledge that it was all downhill between us and pavement, which we had not seen in four days. (A potrero is a long mesa on the side of a mountain, often used as a pasture. Like the campground’s supposed water source, its pasture was not obvious, making the name accurate.) The sun also rose early at the saddle, making it easier to get a reasonable start around 8:30.

Descending to Upper Oso

The rig was relatively light and maneuverable, with not much water and only one more dinner and breakfast. I had feared that the descent would be rutted and overgrown like previous day’s climb, making it little faster, but the road down to Upper Oso was in much better shape. It is steep, though, and we had to walk the bike down a couple of sections where I did not feel confident in the caliper brakes’ ability to stop it. The road cuts spectacularly down Oso Canyon, with steep chaparral and minor cliffs on both sides and the Santa Ynez mountains ahead.

Pavement at last!

I kissed the pavement at Upper Oso, then we rolled into a campground that much larger and better-maintained than the ones we had passed over the last few days. There was a working spigot, a dumpster, and even flush toilets (!), though only the camp host and a possible day-hiker were around. The miles flew by on the smooth descent to the Santa Ynez, and even the rolling terrain out of Los Padres National Forest along the river went quickly.

Highway 154 is now the main route over the divide at San Marcos Pass, but Steve had suggested we take the old stagecoach road, which is paved and in good condition, but windier and more gently graded. A few minutes after turning up the climb, we were caught by a guy with full panniers. He introduced himself as Eric, and said he was headed down to “San Diego… and if I have the time, Florida.” He was clearly no novice, having first biked this way with his father decades ago. With a bit of digging we learned that, among other things, he had ridden the Baja Divide route, a rugged mountain bike trail down the spine of Baja California. With his restaurant job mostly scuttled by the pandemic, he now had more time than money — a situation perfect for bike touring.

Camino Cielo

We parted at the pass, heading in opposite directions along Camino Cielo, a gratuitous road that snakes from Refugio Pass to Romero Saddle along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, eventually connecting Refugio on the Pacific to the Santa Ynez River at Juncal. On foot or possibly motorbike, one can continue east along the crest, following the Ocean View Trail to another section of Camino Cielo that descends to Ojai. The sections east and west of San Marcos Pass are paved, and a moderately popular scenic route for cyclists and (unfortunately) cars and motorcycles as well.

Having climbed 1300 feet to the pass, we descended slightly along a cold stream where we should have refilled on water, then climbed another thousand feet to the end of pavement at the Winchester Gun Club. We noticed numerous sandstone blobs along the road, and later learned that the area behind Santa Barbara has quite a bit of climbing described by Mountain Project as “not a destination area, but good routes exist.” With hot springs, wilderness, closed-off dirt roads, peaks, and local-friendly crags, it wouldn’t be a bad place to live… if it were affordable. California is a wonderful place, ruined by the number of people aware of that fact.

At the noisily active gun club, we once again left pavement for another ten miles along the crest, to another paved section near Santa Ynez Peak at our tour’s highpoint just over 4000 feet. The pavement had made me complacent and uncharacteristically optimistic, so the initial steep descent, with scattered rocks, eroded channels, and another gate passed by partial disassembly, was a rude shock. With a mixture of careful riding and hike-a-bike, we eventually reached the lowpoint, from which we had another 1600 feet to climb, all on similarly-degraded dirt.

Lake Cachuma

Between the wind, the slow terrain, and an increasingly-worrying shortage of food and water, this was a rough slog for an afternoon so late in the tour. We mostly had the road to ourselves, suffering together toward the towers that marked its end, appearing and disappearing with the undulating ridge. While I do not handle brush and miserable washouts well, I am comfortable with long miles and elevation because, with a predictable rate of progress, I can calculate how much longer they will last. I was therefore able to settle into the grind and enjoy the inverse views: to the left, the Pacific surrounding the Channel Islands; to the right, the rolling dry hills surrounding Lake Cachuma.

As we approached Broadcast Peak, we were surprised to hear “on your left” and be passed by a mountain biker, taking a video on his phone as he passed. I was a bit jealous of his ease, while he thought our unlikely setup was “sick.” The road winds just south of both Broadcast and Santa Ynez Peaks, both of which would have earned me Peakbagger Points via short roads to their summits, but time was short, and I was too beaten down to even consider tagging them.

Past Santa Ynez Peak

At the pavement it was Leonie’s turn to crouch and kiss the ground. Then we put on all our clothes to race the sun down the 4000-foot descent to the sea. Steve had recommended the Refugio biker-hiker campground on the beach, about an hour away, as the best one in the state, and we made our best effort at speed down Refugio Road. This could be scary at times, as the pavement was sometimes rough, the road narrow, and the joy-riding drivers and motorcyclists headed up to watch the sun set took the blind corners at speed. Even with our lightest load of the tour, carrying little food or water, I wore down the brake pads considerably, and was worried about my ability to control our speed. (I briefly looked into adding braze-ons and replacing the calipers with discs, but this does not seem like a clear win.)

My hands were aching and cold, and Leonie was practically falling asleep on the back, when we found a pullout about 1200 feet above the ocean with a sheltered and flat-ish spot to camp, and no angry signs. We were low on food and water, but both tired enough to prefer it to riding another half hour to the beach. I was happy to just suck it up and figure things out in the morning, but Leonie decided to flag down a car and ask for water, something I would hesitate to do in the States even in non-COVID times. This time we lucked out: the first car was driven by a young woman named Angelina who was carrying not just bottled water, but mandarin oranges and (for me) chicken salad. We watched the light fade over Santa Cruz Island as we ate our last dinner, then crawled into the tent for our first windless sleep of the tour.

Santa Barbara tour: Hidden Potrero

WTF?


[by Leonie]

Anticipating a short day of about 20 miles by bike, we aimed for a mellow start to our last morning at Big Caliente hot springs. The main pool had mysteriously cooled to slightly warmer than bathtub temperatures overnight, so after a chilly breakfast and hot beverages we set off to explore the creekside pools. A short hike through the former parking area led to the trail to the debris dam; we followed a use trail across the creek. Volunteers have funneled the hot seep through a PVC pipe down the steep hill and created lovely round pools inlaid with shells and river-worn rocks.

Minor obstacle

After a soothing soak we packed up the remainder of our gear and set off. The first eight miles were familiar, since we had ridden them twice the day before. We paused at the pass for fifteen minutes of sun-drenched yoga before enjoying the descent. The slog through thistles was not as challenging as we feared and soon we were out of the worst of the road conditions at Indian Creek trailhead.

Not-a-road

Not knowing the state of Camuesa Creek, which we would follow for the next nine miles, we filled water bottles at a river crossing and turned upstream. Our route meandered near an occasional trickle of water, algae-laden pools and dry creek bed. The canyon walls narrowed and the road disintegrated, eventually disappearing beneath thistles and jumbles of crumpled concrete. Riding was impossible and we resigned ourselves to a slog through the debris. I’m not sure who thought to build a road inches away from a flowing creek in a slot canyon, but it probably collapsed within months of completion. A culvert loomed five feet overhead, and the remnants of a bridge pushed skyward. We dragged, pushed, and pulled our heavy load, cursing our way through the thick tangle of cement, shrubbery and spiky plants.

Full yard sale

But then the canyon walls dropped, we regained a wide dirt surface, hopped back in the saddle and started pedaling, all troubles left behind in the snarl. We enjoyed about ten minutes of trouble free cruising before the next major obstacle: another locked gate. We had passed almost a dozen and perfected our technique for passing them, but this one was too low to pass our tandem beneath, even tipped on its side. A full fledged yard sale ensued, followed by the desperate maneuver of passing the ten-foot-long, 50-pound steel tandem over the gate. Leonie held it steady, perched atop the gate, while Sean crawled underneath to complete the passage. Touring with a tandem requires cooperation and communication, not just while riding!

Sunset from camp

Fortunately the road smoothed out beyond this ridiculous assortment of complications. We climbed steadily, the road a thin cut hugging steep hills, offering sweeping views and a moderate grade. After a thousand feet or so of climbing, we arrived at a saddle perched 3000 feet above sea level. A short spur road led to Hidden Portrero camp, where picnic tables and a grassy expanse of flat ground beckoned. We were prepared for the lack of water, but surprised by the sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean from the saddle — after being immersed in chaparral and oak woodlands for five days we had forgotten our proximity to the sea.

The day’s toil was short, only six hours, but intense, so after setting up the tent and eating an early dinner we relaxed at the saddle, enjoying a spectacular central coast sunset before retiring to our tent for our final wind-blown night in Los Padres National Forest.

Santa Barbara tour: Indian Creek

Bath and sleeping shelter


[by Leonie]

The midnight pee is a dreaded part of camping — unless there’s a tub of steaming hot water 20 steps from camp. We soaked under the glittering stars before returning to the relative shelter of our concrete bunker, clean, damp, and toasty warm for the second part of the night. I enjoyed breakfast and tea while soaking and we were ready to depart at the crack of 10 AM for a short ride and a day hike.

Not so bad unladen

Riding unencumbered by panniers and trailer felt breezy and blissful; the first three miles of downhill cruising sped by. River crossings were more relaxed and pleasant, and without gear and weight demanding attention we were able to focus on the delight of riding through this improbable wild beauty, less than 150 miles from almost 5 million people.

At the Middle Santa Ynez campground a few miles from the hot springs we were surprised to see half a dozen shiny cars and a dozen folks gathered around picnic tables. Over the past three days we’d seen maybe a dozen people, all either backpacking or biking, and had forgotten folks got around by turning a key and pressing a gas pedal.

The gathered crowd were volunteers and staff from Channel Islands Restoration, a crew dedicated to removing invasive plants and replanting natives; they had permission from Los Padres National Forest to drive in and remove tamarisk. Tamarisk is a feathery plant with pink blooms that hosts dragonflies, hummingbirds and bees. The plant is also called salt-cedar and was brought over from Europe, with federal approval, for erosion control during the 1800s. It has quickly taken over riverbanks throughout the west and is considered an invasive plant by the US Department of Agriculture; ranchers and environmentalists alike despise the water-sucking plant which can transform desert streams and ponds into dry basins.

Removing the plant requires dedication; you can’t burn it, and many herbicides are ineffective against this plant which can go dormant for long periods before re-sprouting. Back-breaking labor is required, and if natives aren’t replanted and tended, a newly cleared river bank may erode severely in the next gully washer. I wrote an article about Channel Islands Restoration and their work a few years ago. After a quick chat, we kept biking towards the day hike Steve had suggested, up Indian Creek.

Not much of a road

The route brought us to the top of a small pass and dropped down a steep hill passing more abandoned infrastructure; an interpretive sign about the diversity and fragility of the Santa Ynez River, more signs for Cold Spring, and Mono campground. About seven miles from the hot springs the road disappeared in a thicket of waist high invasive thistles. Their spiky seed-heads clung to our pants and socks as we heaved and shoved to push the bike through the tangle and across stony river beds.

Creek crossing and uplift

Once we cleared the snarl where a road or trail had once been we were relieved to find the surface of a narrow dirt road and the trailhead to Indian Creek just beyond. A rusted metal post held a trail register which revealed that only two groups had visited the trail in the past year. A crew of trail volunteers had cleared a path 3.5 miles up the creek, and a couple from a month earlier had pushed on further. “Trail overgrown with poison oak, no water. Misery.” read their entry in the trail register. We opted for a 7-mile out-and-back instead of the 11-mile loop we’d originally planned for.

Jeep road reclaimed

The trail followed flowing water, so we enjoyed birdsong and the musical trickle of Indian Creek as we contemplated the barren hillsides, distant ridges and streaky blue clouds. Walking exercised forgotten muscles after days in the saddle and we reveled in the freedom of being upright on our own two feet. The trail dipped down to creek crossings and vanished into head-high brush; generous flagging kept us on track. Back at the trailhead we combed through the trail register. Only a dozen groups had visited in the past five years, and their entries revealed a pattern of fire and flood that made the trail seem heroic.

Little Caliente

On the return trip we stopped at Little Caliente Hot Springs, two picturesque pools on a dry hillside that reeked of sulphur. The climb back up to the pass was casual on an unloaded bike and the Middle Santa Ynez campground was empty. We passed three cyclists on e-bikes on our return to Big Calilente, and settled in to read books and enjoy a final night at our own private wilderness hot springs.