The 17th was National Hiking Day! I decided to head back into the wilds north of Castaic lake to visit a little-known gem knows as Fish Canyon Narrows. North of Castaic in the Sierra Pelona, I’m hiking to the southernmost edge of this fall’s Lake Fire.
I’ve blogged about this area before. But a phenomenal place that has few visitors is always worth a second post.
At one time, the Narrows wasn’t so unknown. Fish Canyon Road used to be open to motor vehicles. A few miles up, Cienega Camp was extremely popular for its towering oak trees, fall hunting, access to seasonal water, and the trail north to the Narrows. It was also the proposed route for Templin Highway which would eventually connect Interstate Highway 5 with California Highway 14. Thanks to Governor Jerry Brown back in the 70s, it didn’t happen.
In the 80s the opposite happened. The Angeles national Forrest decided it didn’t have the money to keep up Fish Canyon Road (mostly dirt with paved spots where the creek flowed over it) and gated it off. Cienega Campground can now only be reached thru a 3-mile hike down the gated off and decaying roadway.
Turning north from there, it is 2.25 miles to the opening of the Narrows proper and then another very slow mile to the edge of the burned area. Something about this hike always leads me to feel like I have traveled less than I actually have. I’ve done a bit over 5 miles but it feels like less than 3.
Along the way, a couple of locations had firebreaks carved along the ridge lines. Some areas have been stripped of all vegetation as parking areas for trucks and heavy equipment. They don’t want to take the risk of hot exhausts or sparks starting a fire right there.
When I parked at the gated off road, two cars were there ahead of me. People on the trail ahead. Ah well… maybe I’ll pass them en route and then have the place to myself. Sure enough a couple of miles up the road I pass them, five adults and three children heading back. They are a hiking group that a few members happened to have the day off. I continue on my way to the abandoned campground.
The firefighters have been here. Large areas have been bulldozed smooth, leaving the oaks and a few large sycamores standing. All the smaller brush and saplings are gone and the ground is barren. Not just in the campground but in large areas to the north. In the absence of other vegetation for fire to “ladder” up on, oaks and large trees are extremely resistant to fire.
Even if the ground cover is not stripped, a fire will typically cook the lower hanging leaves but not start an enduring fire. It takes a blaze of spectacular intensity to get a healthy oak seriously burning. (One that is already partially gone wouldn’t be so resistant.) The bark of an oak barely smolders and protects the vital cambium from excessive heat. In the worst-case scenario, I’ve seen green sprouting from branches that looked like standing charcoal.
Many of the oaks in this area are hundreds of years old. They survived fires of centuries gone by and with luck will survive them centuries into the future.
From here on, it is all freehiking. That is, hiking in the nude.
I stuff my duds into my pack and continue on. Zero chance of meeting anyone else this far out, this late in the day. Wearing a pack is not exactly freehiking. The shoulder straps and waist belt remind one that they are still there. But I’m not willing to give up my water and snacks and first aid kit and SPOT communicator. And I want to have my clothing with me, so there’s nothing to be done for that.
There’s a time and place for the joy of “flying without a parachute.” (That is freehiking without any gear at all, including clothing.) This isn’t one of them. What lies ahead is an ankle turning mess where injury and impaired mobility is always a risk. Without my pack, being stuck out here overnight would be a hungry, hypothermic nightmare.
The Narrows begins a bit over 2 miles to the north of Cienega Camp at the Pianobox Prospect. The last time I went thru here it was all wading, rock hopping, and bushwhacking. This time passage was easier. Not easy – but easier. At the entrance are an abandoned mine and some abandoned equipment. The river was also dammed at one time and the water was used as a sluice for panning gold. Some of the concrete footings are still visible if you look closely.
There’s also a trail to the top of Red Rock mountain. Not going there today.
You enter the narrows. On either side of you are vertical walls, hundreds of feet high. At its narrowest point, they are only 40 feet apart. My goal is to reach the southernmost extent of the Lake Fire.
The first thing I noticed is that there was an actual trail. It was intermittent but if I didn’t know better, I’d say a trail crew had gone thru and done some preliminary work. My brain sparked a couple of times and I realized a hotshot crew had gone through here during the fire. Of course, there was a trail! Ten strong people had gone this way armed with Pulaskis, and rakes and chain saws and other implements of destruction. They would not have wanted to be delayed by fallen trees and dense brush.
It made my trip much easier. Still, there was a bit of bouldering to be done and brush to be avoided.
When you first enter a “narrow” – aka a “slot canyon” – there is a sense of awe at the sheer cliff faces towering over you. Maybe a sense of the violence of nature, as the occasional surviving tree shows signs of debris ten feet above you.
There is no straight path. Those areas that look like they are straight on a map are really full of turns too small to show up. Even when the creek is fairly straight, the path is not. It crosses and recrosses, seeking out the side that is neither impassible nor requiring wading thru knee-deep water on slime-covered rocks. The going is slow.
It was 80F during the day but inside Fish Canyon Narrows it had to be ten degrees cooler. And it was dark!. Often the sky above you narrows to a slit. The creek-side foliage further deepens the gloom. It is often unclear where the correct place to cross over is until you are well past it and must back up.
Hiking the narrows is psychologically demanding. Turn after turn, followed by more relentless turns. In the late afternoon, the gloom becomes oppressive. The walls feel claustrophobic Obstacles on the ground lose visual contrast and become difficult to judge. Your GPS is worthless down here. If I tried long enough, I might get an SOS signal out on my SPOT but with no location information. (Good reason to let people know where you are going!)
It occurs to me that even with my headlamp, it would be an unrelenting nightmare to try to traverse this once it grew dark. Done that before. I’m pretty good at handling unrelenting nightmares, at least the ones outdoors where I have the tools and skills I need to get by. They don’t feel fun at the time but when I look back at them later, I remember them as fun.
I did make it to the southernmost point of the fire. It looks like an ember blew down here on the evening wind and started something small. It didn’t kill the sycamore clinging to the canyon wall, just burnt off some ground cover and died. The trail goes on but I do not. There is another half mile yet in the narrows. I have been father upstream before but not today.
I check the time on my SPOT and it indicates 4:15. My heart skips a beat and adrenaline surges. That’s a half-hour to sunset (4:50 that day) and minutes away from total dark in the canyon. But then I remember… The unit is stupid and doesn’t understand daylight savings time. My internal clock was still good. Start at noon. One hour from my car to Cienega camp and a picnic. Make it to the Narrows entrance by 2pm. An hour in the slot canyon. Reverse the process.
Once I’m back out of the slot, the trail is mostly open. Then I’m back at the camp. Clothes go back on, not so much because I might encounter someone this late but because it is getting chilly – a cool wind always blows down-canyon at night. Since I’m now on abandoned road and not a trail, I don’t need a lot of light to manage. Made it back to the car at 5:19, well after sunset but with another 15 minutes of usable light.
Starting time was noon, ending time was 5:19 pm. Starting temp was 72F climbing to 80F and dropping to 62F. Total elevation gain was 450 feet and total distance was about 10 miles.