Another nice day has popped up. The high is expected to be in the upper 80s, within my comfort zone for a hike. So I take my trusty Suzuki and even more trusty dog Avery, head out to Fillmore, turn north on A Street and head up to the Sespe Wilderness for some hiking on the Alder Creek Trail. I’ve blogged about this route before.
Along the way, I pass the now-closed trailhead to Tar Creek Falls. I was back there about 15 years ago when it was still legal. Made it back there again about 5 years ago but stopped going when the signs went up.
Or at least it is supposed to be closed. Party people go back and leave all their mictotrash around. Condor chicks are attracted to the shiny, eat the stuff, and die. People are ignoring the signs and heading down there in droves because there is plenty of water at the falls and they have free time. The fine for using the trail is a thousand bucks but nobody seems to care.
Sometimes the last couple miles to the trailhead can be driven in an ordinary sedan. This isn’t one of those times. Only high clearance 4WD need apply. There’s one section where it gets really rough, both from the winter’s rain and from the lack of regular maintenance. Perhaps a dozer will come through this way later this summer before hunting season.
When I finally make it to the trailhead there are several 4WD vehicles already there. Most amazing was a pickup hauling a 30 ft, fifth-wheel trailer holding 3 horses. When I thought about it, he had much larger tires and more ground clearance on his truck than I did but the trailer must have scraped ground more than once. The long wheel-base would have minimized the bumps the horses experienced as long as they were positioned at the midpoint between the truck’s rear axle and the trailer’s front axle.
I followed him out at the end of the day just to see how he managed it. The word glacial comes to mind. He’d have got through the rough patches faster by parking his rig and riding the horses. Going around some of the tight curves involved stopping, backing up, having another go at it, stopping again and repeat.
It was good to get out here while it was still green. Most of the year, the grass is dead and the shrubs are dirty olive as 6 months of intense heat and no rain go by. Spring is a green time and the first hot cycle after the rain causes an explosion of growth.
This was probably the last good day for a long hike in this area with highs in the low 80s. The following week has been hot with highs in the high 90s and probably a hundred on Thursday. I usually don’t do vigorous hikes when the temps are in the 90s.
I might make an exception if there were a lot of shade or there was a lot of recreational water along the way. Not lots of shade here. There is some decent water down the Tar Creek Trail but as I noted above it is closed and it looks like a lot of people are already there. And if something is officially closed, I officially avoid it.
Of course, there are wildflowers to be seen. Not all of them are bright and showy and not all of them are big. The black and white sage are both in bloom. Walking by I let the plants brush against my body, releasing a pleasing minty fragrance. White sage has lighter colored leaves covered with fine hair. The local Chumash tribes use it for smudging and purification ceremonies. Black sage leaves are smooth and darker.
Black sage left, White sage right.
Sugar bush got its name from the berries which can be made into a kind of lemonade. Right now it is producing clusters of small white flowers. As a local scrub and chaparral native, it makes a lovely shrub for a xeriscape.
Yuccas are sending their staves shooting upwards at inches a day. Right now it is still young and tender. The heart would still be edible. At full growth, it may be as much as ten feet tall and will produce a large cluster of white flowers giving it one of its common names, Our Lord’s Candle.
The flowers are edible as well as the seeds it will produce. The pointy leaves are good for needles and if you pull them off with care they will have a fiber suitable for a sewing thread attached. Or you can work the fibers into very strong cordage.
The roots can be eaten if cooked and you can make beer out of them. The sap from the plant is used as a natural soap with antibiotic properties. After they die off and dry, the staves are excellent walking sticks and are used in lightweight construction.
Small creatures like to live within yuccas because the sharp spines protect them. Yucca points are every bit as sharp as a hypodermic needle and if you are stabbed by one you will regret it. They are covered with a mild toxin that is highly irritating.
Yuccas were sacred to the indigenous population of SoCal because of all the uses. Traditionally they would never harvest more than half the plants in an area. A yucca only blooms once in its lifetime and then dies. The only pollinator is the yucca moth, a unique example of symbiosis. However, yuccas also reproduce by cloning so you will often see younger plants sprouting from the base of an older one.
Yerba santa is another local medicinal with a minty scent. Natives would use it for a “smoke bath.” It got the name of “holy herb” from the Spanish who learned of its use in treating respiratory issues. Until the invention of antibiotics, it was the only effective therapy for tuberculosis. It is still in use today by many as a folk remedy. Soak a crushed hand-full in a quart of water and breath the steam.
I’m not sure why but this year’s crop doesn’t smell as minty as last year’s. Maybe it was the late rain in March and April.
Of course, there were lots of flowers!
I keep heading on my way. Not a good day for freehiking, what with all the other people at the trailhead. On the trail, I met a family on their way to a picnic, two backpackers who said there were several more up ahead and a trail runner.
I have to be careful about rattlesnakes. there were a couple along the road up here that slithered away before I could stop the car to get their picture. There was another on the trail someone had crushed with a rock. Very sad. Probably the horse people that did it. Rattlesnakes really spook horses.
Fortunately, Avery is snake-avoidance trained. She is a smooth-haired border collie mixed with some kind of a pointer. Every time we’ve encountered a snake (that she noticed) she has gone into a point and backed away from it while issuing the most blood-curdling sound I’ve ever heard from a dog.
OTOH, she has stepped right over a snake that did not move. Fine by me because a snake that does not move is a snake that does not want to be noticed. You see, a rattlesnake knows that in a fight with a dog, the snake will likely lose. Coyotes eat them all the time. Even if it gets a strike in, the dog could kill the snake long before the venom does its job. It makes perfect sense for a snake to remain perfectly still unless that it is clear a predator has noticed it. Rattlesnakes don’t have a strong odor and a dog will cue on its movement and not its scent. They don’t have the same pattern recognition ability we do.
This hike involves a section with a 500 ft. elevation gain over about a third of a mile. That’s enough to generate some serious sweat and heavy breathing. Avery insisted on stopping part way up and I obliged her.
To our north is a short section of the Sespe Formation, layers of sedimentary rock that have been uplifted along a fault. I never get tired of photographing this particular rock formation.
I try to imagine the layers of sediment going back in time. There is a trove of fossils there, mostly ammonites from a long-dead seabed. I understand at one point they found a fossilized whale around here. They would naturally keep the exact location a secret to keep fossil hunters away.
The Sespe Condor refuge was set up in 1947 and the much larger Sespe Wilderness area in 1992. Prior to that, it was known primarily as an oil field going back to World War I and empty ranch land before that. This area of the Sespe used to be a trove of Indian artifacts until in the 60s people scoured the area for anything that looked saleable. The wilderness is still publicly accessible to foot and horse traffic while the refuge is restricted to authorized people only.
The trails that we hike today only exist because they were cut by oil men looking for that black gold. Throughout the Sespe you’ll see little mounds of dirt with little vegetation on them. That’s dirt that was brought up by drilling. There are wells that were capped long ago and flat spots where it logically shouldn’t be flat. Even a long fallen derrick the oilmen left behind. It is visible from space in Google Earth.
Some of those roads have been allowed to fall into disrepair and have disappeared. Others have been included in the national trails system where foot and hoof traffic and the occasional illegal dirt bike keep them open.
If you look at the map, those trails have been given an easement through the condor refuge of about 1/8 mile either side of the trail. You aren’t restricted to the footpath. During quail and deer seasons there’s more than enough huntable area. Nobody out there with a tape measure to see if you’ve strayed too far, either.
About 2/3 of the way up, there’s a fork in the trail. Going left continues you on Alder creek Trail to Cow Camp, then Alder Creek, and then on to the Sespe River. Going right begins the elegantly named Bucksnort Trail. It eventually takes you to Lake Piru on the obscure
Ant Trail Agua Blanca Trail. Everyone goes left. So few people go right the trail becomes overgrown for lack of traffic. You can see where the rights of way through the sanctuary abruptly end on the map where the trail leaves the condor refuge.
Taking Frost’s poem literally – and not figuratively as was his intent – I took the path less well-trod upon.
I haven’t been this way in several years. It is like visiting a long lost friend. Very shortly, to my right I see Bucksnort Springs. It is a reliable source of water in all but the driest portions of the driest years. I’m thinking someone lived back here once. It could have been an abandoned oil company shack or maybe a rancher’s cabin before that. There are the remains of a concrete pad and trees that don’t look native.
If you look at Google maps, it shows Squaw Road going all the way back here. Sometimes auto GPS units will show phantom roads like this. If they appear navigable people will become hopeless stuck. Never trust your GPS on rural roads.
The water coming from the spring makes a pleasant rivulet. Of course Avery has to enjoy it. In just a month – or maybe two – the surface water will be dried up with a tiny flow underground. The grass will be dried and apparently dead. In the fall even the underground flow may be gone. It is time to enjoy life to its max.
Of course it is also tick season. 🙁
Bucksnort Trail ends and
Ant Trail Agua Blanca Trail begins and heads downhill to Piru. But I’m not heading that far today. I go another mile and take some photos and head back.
The trail goes on and on and on. I have to turn around somewhere. This is as good a spot as any. We have a picnic lunch and Avery grabs my slice of SPAM. Obviously, I wanted her to have it or I wouldn’t have held it near her nose, right? It is OK. I have more. And I share my cheese and jerky. The diced peaches and Nutri-grain bars are MINE!
I have to concern myself with Avery. She is getting on in years and probably has worse arthritis in her hips than I do in my knees. I don’t put a pack on her or make her pull me up the hill anymore. I also know that she’d go on until her legs fell off if I were willing to. She’s a great trail dog and hardly pulls on her long leash – unlike a certain other dog I know.
Round trip was 7 miles with about a thousand feet of total elevation gain in addition to an hour each way on dirt roads in addition to another half hour each way on surface streets. I’ll need to wait for the temperature to dip into the 80s to do this again. Maybe I’ll get out earlier and stay later for a few more miles.
A distant view of a tiny white flower carpet with a closeup
The trail I identified as Ant Trail is really the Agua Blanca Trail. Ant Campsite is at the intersection of the Bucksnort and Agua Blanca trails and I confused the camp name for the trail name.