Backyard Excursion

Like most people who are staying home to avoid catching and/or spreading Covid-19, I’ve had to fulfill my need to be outside by finding it near my home. I am fortunate to have some space to explore due to the size of our property, which, by middle-class, Southern California standards, is on the slightly large size.

I took advantage of one of the few sunny days we’ve had in the past few weeks to appreciate the arrival of spring in my backyard. The peach and plum trees are blossoming and the citrus trees are adorned in their heavenly white flowers (by the way, if you have never smelled an orange blossom, I pray you someday get to experience it). Flowers are growing on the drought-resistant bushes we planted last year, wild flowers are blooming in the very back of the property, and the bees are so plentiful, the air is filled with a constant drone of buzzzzzzzzzzz. My neighborhood sounds like it borders a racetrack for tiny motorcycle riders.

I am thankful for so many things—the health of my family, the food we have to eat, that we have a roof over our heads, that for now, my job is secure. These are big things to be thankful for.

Sometimes though, sometimes it’s the little things that give living a little extra sparkle and sense of wonder.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. It lies on the eastern edge of San Diego County, with parts of it extending into Riverside and Imperial Counties. The park is well known for its wild flowers in the spring, hiking trails, camping, diverse animal population, and unique beauty. For now, the park is closed, like so many others across the country, due to CONVID-19.

It has only been in the past couple years that I discovered the beauty of the desert. I was born a mountain lover and used to turn my nose up at the seemingly barren, uninteresting landscape of the desert. A couple recent desert visits changed my view forever. The desert—Anza-Borrego, specifically—is anything but barren and uninteresting.

From a distance, the desert looks drab. From the inside, it is a colorful place. Flowering desert plants, patches of flowering ground cover, reddish sand, striated cliffs and boulders, and minerals of red, white, and black are just some of nature’s swatches this desert hides from those who don’t venture in. In the spring, Anza-Borrego explodes in color in the form of wildflowers, giving even the most desert-averse the gift of its underappreciated beauty.

This is a gorgeous example of spring in Anza-Borrego. This is not my photo. Attribution is given in the caption below.

I can’t take credit for this photo. Instead, this talented person took it: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
Visit his flickr page for more.

If I had to choose between the mountains and the desert, I would still choose the mountains, for that is where my soul is bonded. Without the mountains, the Anza-Borrego Desert might be very different from the one I’ve learned to love. In this way, they are tied together, an attachment only nature can form.

Below are some photos I took during a couple winter excursions to Anza-Borrego this year. I had hoped to get photos of the wildflowers this spring, but social distancing happened. Hopefully next year.

Kanaka Loop Trail

On Sunday, May 5th, I really didn’t feel like hiking. I just wasn’t feeling very motivated. I’ve been working on a difficult book edit, the 5th anniversary of my dad’s death is looming in the immediate future, and I just felt blah.

I had originally planned to hike in the Laguna Mountain area, but thanks to my blahtitude, I was slow to get moving in the morning, and the later it got, the less I felt like driving three hours, round-trip, to do the hike.

It wasn’t until 11:00 a.m. that I finally kicked myself hard enough in the butt to decide on a hike closer to home… preferably an easy one so I could try out my backpacking backpack for the first time. I figured I would fill my pack up with all the gear I’ve accumulated so far to see how it felt to hike with the weight.

The area that seemed to meet the criteria best was the Santa Ysabel Upper Creek Preserve, just outside of Julian, California. The Kanaka Loop Trail is rated as “moderate” on AllTrails, but based on a previous hike in the preserve, I had it in my head that it would be flat. It turned out to be more hilly than I thought, and with my backpack on, it was pretty challenging.

I was doing great until about mile six. That is when I really felt the weight of my pack (I didn’t think to weigh it until it was too late). I can definitely see why backpackers talk about reducing weight wherever they can. My knees and feet felt the difference, but two days later—as I write this—they are fine, and that’s what matters to me.

The final two miles of the hike were tough. I took a lot of breaks and questioned my sanity, but I survived. Best of all, it got me out of the funk I was in. The exercise, fresh air, and beautiful scenery were just what I needed.

The area is still English-Countryside-Green from all the rain we’ve gotten.
The flat part of the trail.
The fields were covered in little purple and white wild flowers.
Looking northwest, toward Palomar Mountain (the peak way off in the distance).

Quick Mileage Update

I haven’t posted anything on my blog for the past couple weeks. I didn’t bring my laptop when I went to Edmonton, and I am terrible trying to write anything using my phone. Then last week, I was simply exhausted.

But, I’m back now, and hopefully rested up after my trip.

I have a lot to write about, but this post is short and sweet. I need to update my mileage since my last post.

While in Canada, my sister and I hiked seven miles along the extensive river trails that run along the Saskatchewan River. It was a good stretch but mostly flat.

Today, I hiked six miles of the Pacific Crest trail near Warner Springs. The sun and heat made the hike a bit more challenging for me than usual. I also had to be home by a certain time, so I cut my hike short by about a mile.

Anyway, I get to add thirteen miles to my grand total, bringing me up to 51 miles. Yay!

Highpoint Fire Tower Hike

Over the weekend, I decided to hike a trail that I’ve been on countless times over the past three years. This was my first time hiking it, though.

The trail is a rutted, partially graded truck trail that leads to Highpoint Fire Tower, which stands at the highest point on Palomar Mountain (elevation 6,140 feet). Most of the trail is located on property owned by the California Institute of Technology and travels east, past the Palomar Observatory. It’s accessible to fire agencies, the US Forest Service, and fire tower lookouts. I fall into the last category of people as a fire lookout volunteer.

View of Palomar Observatory from the trail.

The fire tower is currently closed up since fire season won’t start until May, but I figured I would hike to the tower since I’ve only ever gone up in a vehicle. I’ve always been told the trail is about nine miles, round trip, which is also what I calculated with my mapping app. It turned out to be about 6.5 miles.

A view of Highpoint Fire Tower from the trail below. It’s much taller in person.

Since the trail isn’t open to the public, I had it all to myself until I got to the top. Not long after I made it to the tower, two hikers who used the much longer, public trail, appeared. We chatted about gear while I ate my lunch. Nice people.

A closer look at Highpoint Fire Tower. In 1964, this tower replaced the original, which was built in 1935. It is about 70 feet high, and there are 92 steps to the cab (the box-like structure on top). I love this tower! Working in it is one of my favorite ways to spend my time.

The breeze at Highpoint was refreshing after my warm trek up, and the view was amazing, as always, so I stayed for about a half hour before heading back down the trail. Getting back to the fire station, where I parked my car, was much faster than going up. This had a lot to do with gravity, of course, but I also felt highly motivated after determining the animal tracks I had been seeing on my way up looked like they were left by a mountain lion.

It’s difficult to tell, though… maybe they were canine prints. Sometimes the people who work and live onsite at CalTech use the trail for hiking, so I’m hoping someone went for a walk with their friendly, smiling, tail-wagging Golden Retriever earlier that morning.

The “TrailBuddy” logo on my trekking pole is about 2.5 inches, making the print in the photo about 3.5 inches long.

Despite the missing miles and mysterious animal tracks, the hike was good. It was interesting to see the trail from a different perspective. It also gave me a chance to check on the state of the road after all the rain we had, giving me a duty-related reason to use the trail.

Here are some more photos from my hike.

Mendenhall Valley below, the Cuyamacas in the distance (at the left of the photo).
Looking southeast toward Warner Springs and Santa Ysabel. The PCT is somewhere down there.
This is what’s left of the fire lookout’s house.

This is what the residence looked like in the 1930s. So bare! We have a photo that was taken later… the trees are there, but they are still small.

Source:
https://ffla-sandiego.org/highpoint-lookout/historical-photos/

A view of the old foundation from the back.

Heading back down. One thing I love about Palomar Mountain is the ever-changing terrain and the many different types of trees and shrubs that inhabit the area.
Nom, nom, nom… watch out for hungry trees!
Back at the fire station. This is my husband’s cute little car. He had to use mine, so I got to drive this up the mountain. This is a fun car, but my dream car is a Subaru.

Bobcat

B is for Bobcat

Today’s blog post is brought to you by the Letter B.

There are tons of things that start with the letter B, so I had a lot to choose from when deciding what I would write about for today’s A to Z Challenge.

I considered sharing that I got a backpacking backpack for my birthday, which was on Saturday. I also thought about writing a post about Boucher Hill Fire Tower—a fire tower located in Palomar Mountain State Park. Not only did I pass the tower on my last hike, it’s also where I spend a lot of my time as a forest fire lookout volunteer.

I could have written about barf, which is what I did on the trail two hikes ago after eight miles with a mostly empty stomach that was literally sloshing water around as I walked. Then there is the topic of backtracking. I had to do that on my barfy hike when I decided I didn’t want to cross a creek for the fifth time that day. That ended up being a mistake, but not worth sharing.

But as you can see from the title of this blog post, I am going to write about a bobcat. I was blessed on my Boucher Trail Palomar Mountain Loop hike (March 24) with the sudden appearance of a bobcat who popped out of the bushes, onto the trail, about thirty feet ahead of me.

I spent most of my hike worrying about the mountain lions that live in the State Park, so I’m surprised I didn’t automatically “see” a lion when the bobcat stepped on the trail. Instead, I “saw” a fox. It took a second to process what I was really seeing. When it turned to rush back into the trees, I was relieved to see its bobbed tail, confirming its non-mountain-lion-ness.

Before dashing off, the bobcat stared at me long enough for me to get a photo. Be warned, the photo is Sasquatch/Big Foot quality, so please excuse the lack of clarity. Also, a lot of people tried to convince me the animal is a mountain lion after sharing the photo on Facebook. I assure you, it was not. The cat’s tail in the photo blends into its leg, making it look longer than it is. I’ve seen a mountain lion in person; there is no mistaking when you see one.

Hi, little bobcat!
Definitely not a mountain lion… whew!

Alone on Boucher Trail & Palomar Mountain Loop

A is for Alone

Last weekend, I did two hikes. One was a four-mile, easy hike with my husband. If you’re interested, you can read about that hike here. The other was a nine-mile solo hike. Both hikes were on Palomar Mountain, but they are miles apart and vastly different.

Some people express concern when I mention I hike alone. To be honest, I have my own concerns about being on the trails by myself. A couple years ago, I wouldn’t even consider doing a solo hike. The biggest reason for my change of heart regarding solo hiking comes down to not having to rely on someone else to do the things I want to do. My husband likes to hike sometimes, but I can’t settle for the sometimes hike. I need to hike, and I need to be challenged.

I also enjoy doing things on my own. When I used to run, friends would often suggest running together, and I always declined the offers without apology. Running was my time. Now hiking is my time. It’s not that I’m a fascinating person to myself. I just like to think. I don’t like to talk. I want to be in tune with creation, to see it, hear it, feel it. I can’t do that when I have to concentrate on what people are saying or how I should respond to the things they tell me. Like your run-of-the-mill introvert, socializing often exhausts me.

My hike last weekend was both a little scary and exhilarating. But then, the two often go hand-in-hand, so it’s not surprising.

The scary came from being absolutely alone during most of the nine-mile hike. I don’t like crowds, but it is reassuring to see a human on the trail every once in a while. If nothing else, it gives the mountain lions a choice, and hopefully she will choose the other person. I’m joking, of course. Mountain lions don’t often attack. Besides, chances are I’d be the choice meal because I’d be easiest to catch.

Is hiking alone the safest thing in the world? No. Is going to the grocery at 7:00 AM the safest thing in the world? No. I could stay at home and hide from the world, but even that isn’t “safe.” Even in the sanctity of my own home, I am not guaranteed to be free from dangerous people, natural disasters, or disease.

Mostly, it wouldn’t be healthy for my soul.

Life is about living. With living, sometimes you need to take risks. Sometimes you have to put yourself in a place where others think you ought not be. Sometimes, if you want to live life, you have to do it alone.

Sometimes, alone is just where I need to be.

Love Valley Meadow Hike

This quick four-mile out-and-back hike was not on my agenda last weekend, but when my husband suggested heading to Love Valley to see if there were any wild flowers growing, I saw an opportunity to get a few more miles in… and maybe even see some of California’s famous wild flowers.

Love Valley lies on the eastern side of Palomar Mountain, just off of East Grade Road—or the S7, if you want to be technical. It is part of the Cleveland National Forest with views of Lake Henshaw, Warner Springs, parts of the PCT, and beyond. It is a pretty easy hike, but it can get very warm there in the summer.

There weren’t any wild flowers when we visited, other than the usual tiny purple flowers that grow in the area, but it was beautiful. The meadow at the base of the valley is green from all the rain, and the two small ponds are full. My husband and I passed a woman and her two dogs as we were heading down the valley fire road, but we saw nobody after that.

We hadn’t been to Love Valley in more than two years, and there were a few unfortunate changes. The first was a large portion of the meadow stripped almost bare. This is a result of San Diego Gas & Electric using it as a vehicle staging area for a project more than a year ago. It’s nothing a little time can’t fix though.

The other change is more permanent. There used to be an old, rusted-out, bullet-ridden metal structure on the site. I think it used to be a barn. It was both ugly and beautiful, as only a rundown barn in the middle of nowhere can be.

It’s gone now.

I don’t usually like human-made things taking up space in nature, but its absence made me sad. I emailed the Cleveland National Forest a couple days after my hike to ask what happened to it. I didn’t expect a reply, but one came the next day from the Recreation and Lands officer who oversees the Love Valley Meadow area. According to the officer, the barn has always been slated to be “deconstructed” but a storm came through a while ago and it sustained major damage. That sped up the process to get rid of it.

They did a thorough job of getting rid of the structure! No trace of it exists. Nothing. If I hadn’t seen it in person, I would have no idea that a barn had been there at all.

I took this photo of the Barn in 2015.
This is the Barn in 2017. I took this photo without realizing it had sustained so much damage.
I’m not very observant.
The Barn in 2019. This is looking south, while the other two photos were looking north.
Regardless of the direction, the barn is gone.

The missing barn aside, it was a nice, low-key hike. Here are some other photos from our excursion.

A little hazy, but that’s Lake Henshaw down there.
A view of the valley.
A nice, full pond.
Me and my husband with the non-barn behind us.

My Tiny Piece of the PCT, Side B

On Sunday, I returned to Warner Springs to hit a few miles of the PCT. This time, instead of going south/east on the trail, toward Eagle Rock, I went north. This is where Section B of the PCT in California begins.

Since I had never been on this side of the trail, I studied it on CalTopo—a very helpful backcountry mapping tool—and found what appeared to be a good turn-around point. This little section of the PCT crosses over the Agua Caliente Creek a few times as both trail and creek snake around the landscape. The third crossing is at around mile five. Since I wanted to go about ten miles out and back, that became my destination.

There were a several times along the way when I considered turning around. It was getting warmer, there was little shade on the trail, and a good portion of it was uphill. None of this bothered me as much as the nagging voice inside my head that my husband was going to worry about me being gone so long; it felt like I had been on the trail for hours.

But I kept going, mostly because I have this need to always see what lies beyond the next bend in any road upon which I’m traveling. And there are a lot of bends as the trail switchbacks its way up and then down to the creek. Time after time, I was rewarded for my curiosity—each twist in the trail opens to better views than the one before it.

Once I rounded the bend that I swore would be my last, I heard the unmistakable sound of water rushing over rocks and stones. I knew then I was close to the turn-around point, so I allowed the path to lead me down into a small valley of oaks, green grass, and tranquility.

This being Southern California, a well-fed creek or stream is a rare sight. I wanted to leave the trail and follow the water’s flow to where the trees opened on an area adorned with large, water-carved boulders, but the way was blocked with poison oak and stinging nettle.

Instead, I crossed to the other side of the creek—just so I could say I did—then crossed back again before resting on a log that bordered a single-tent camp site, which was not in use at the time. I listened to the creek’s music while I ate my chocolate-melted Kind bar. It was shaded, peaceful, and perfect.

I could have stayed at the site all night if I had a tent and enough food… and a husband who wasn’t expecting me to come home. But, reality forced me to my feet and sent me back the way I had come.

The hike back to my car was a little more eventful than the hike in, but I’ll save that for another time. Until then, don’t worry—no mountain lions, serial killers, or flesh-eating fire ants to talk about.

This weekend, I plan to get some miles in on Palomar Mountain, which I affectionately call “my mountain.” I spent a lot of my childhood camping, fishing, and hiking on that mountain. Now, I bring my own children to experience it the way I did. I also volunteer in the mountain’s two fire towers as a forest fire lookout. I love my mountain.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

My Tiny Piece of the PCT

After about three weeks of fighting off one bug or another, I was finally feeling well enough to hit the trail on Saturday.

The hike I chose starts at Warner Springs in San Diego County, which is less than an hour from where I live. The route is part of a small stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, where Section A ends at Highway 79 and becomes Section B. For this hike, my destination was south and east along Section A, toward Eagle Rock, which is a landmark made up of large boulders. I didn’t get a picture of Eagle Rock on this hike, but here is a photo I took during a hike about a year ago.

You can see how Eagle Rock got its name!

The day was chilly (by Southern California standards), so I layered up my clothes, including a bright yellow windbreaker my husband used to wear when he was into cycling. It was a perfect layering piece with pockets in the front and back. It did a fantastic job keeping the cold wind out. He hasn’t worn it for so long, I think I’ll just have to keep it.

I passed a few PCT thru-hikers who were heading the opposite direction, making their way to the Warner Springs Community Resource Center just west of Highway 79. The community center seems to be an amazing resource for PCT hikers. I haven’t experienced their hospitality firsthand, but you can visit their website if you would like more information. Here is their web address: https://sites.google.com/site/wscrcenter2/about-pacifc-coast-trail

Other than the thru-hikers at the beginning of my hike, I had the trail mostly to myself… until I got closer to Eagle Rock. About a mile from the landmark, I passed several day hikers who were returning to the trail head at Warner Springs. I guess they all got an earlier start than I did, which was fine by me—I enjoyed the solitude of the first three-quarters of my hike.

The best part of the hike, aside from feeding my soul by being in nature, was how green everything is right now. With all the rain we’ve gotten over the past few months, the fields, mountains, and valleys are almost the type of green I used to see while I was living in England, years ago. At every turn in the trail, I stopped and wondered how the view could be more beautiful than what I was currently seeing.

The hike to Eagle Rock and back is about six miles. When I had done the hike with my husband and son almost a year ago, we didn’t go any further than Eagle Rock. This time, I wanted to keep going to see where the trail led me. Plus, I wanted to put a couple more miles under my feet. It was definitely worth the extra effort. Next time I hike that route, I’ll start earlier and go even further.

Even after three weeks of little physical activity, I felt pretty good except for a knot in my left calf that appeared the morning of my hike (before my hike) and got worse as I walked. I wonder if I was a bit dehydrated, as I haven’t been faithfully drinking my water like I should be. When I got home, I rested my calf and massaged it for a while. It feels better now and should be ready to hit the trail again this weekend.

There is more to share about my hike—especially how much I needed it—but I will save that for another post. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this. I heard this beautiful gal on the trail before I saw her, and I admit… she startled me. As we stopped and stared at each other, I half expected her to open her mouth to tell me something important, like maybe a boy named Timmy had fallen into a well and needed saving.

She followed me until a tall patch of green grass off the trail drew her away, “Timmy” long forgotten.