Monday, May 28, 2018

Point Reyes Backpack

Roughly about 20 miles north of San Francisco, the 800-mile long San Andreas Fault disappears into the Pacific Ocean at Point Reyes. Over time and innumerable earthquakes, the San Andreas created a rift zone that has sort of peeled Point Reyes away from the rest of California. As long as the iconic point remains attached to California though, there will be hikers and backpackers traipsing on the many trails networking across the wooded ridges and rugged coast. However, I'm glad to report that thankfully, there were no earthquakes during our three-day visit to Point Reyes and for the time being, the point still remains firmly attached to California.

Light as a feather!
Lane and I had recently taken an REI class on ultralight backpacking and after applying our newly gained knowledge, both our packs weighed slightly more than twenty pounds each. Give those two students a golden sticky star and an A+ each! Brad joined us for what was his first backpack trip ever, and we removed about ten pounds of gear that left him toting nearly forty pounds up and down the steep trails of Point Reyes National Seashore. That student should have received an F but despite the heavier weight, he hiked tirelessly at thrice the speed of Lane and I. Of course, Lane and I were each carrying extra weight that was not pack load, if you get my midriff meaning.

Day 1

Hikes begin with but a single step
We started out from Bear Valley Visitor Center, which was a very active place on Memorial Day weekend. Day hikers abounded and we three backpackers were soon overtaken by six-year old children and arthritic grandmothers. Well, two of us were passed up, to be accurate. Brad was pretty much a rumor somewhere ahead of Lane and I.

A small creek flows under a bridge
and Shadow Man approves
I figured that Point Reyes would provide some awesome wild coast scenery but I certainly did not expect the luxuriously shaded forest that we would encounter on the point. All that coastal fog filtering through tree leaves keeps things moist and as a result, the forests were remarkably lush and verdant. The day would have also been hot but for the cool, refreshing air stirring underneath the trees.

Brad disappears on the Glen Camp Trail
The Bear Valley Trail was in actuality a well-maintained gravel road that angled gently to a meadow on a forested pass. Once the pass was crested, the road descended at an equally gradual rate. Hey, this is going to be easy! Like that would ever happen! Sure enough the Glen Camp Trail wasted no time charging uphill to Glen Camp through some dense forest. The trail was a real path, no more easy gravel road for us, and we toiled up the trail, wondering how a twenty-two pound pack could suddenly feel so heavy. 

It's not California without poppies
Eventually, the trail leveled out before joining up with another gravel road that would descend down to the coast. The grade was gradual at first but before long, we were plunging downward at a pretty good rate of descent. The closer we got to the coast, the less trees there were, and we were soon feeling the California sun.

Psst! Got peanuts?
Wildcat Camp was a grassy rectangle atop a coastal bluff, and a primitive runway bordered the actual campsite area. Hopefully, no planes would taxi down the runway while we were sleeping. The camp had running water and vault toilets, which were more luxurious amenities than we were normally accustomed to.

Double Point lies at the south end of Wildcat Beach
After setting up camp while blue jays and quail begged for handouts, we walked to nearby Wildcat Beach. At the beach, a small creek zigzagged to and fro before becoming one with the ocean. The beach was bordered by two craggy points: Millers Point to the north and Double Point to the south. The beach is popular with the day-hiking crowd and frisbees were flying and soccer balls were being kicked back and forth. We just sat in the sand, idly watching the waves and generally taking it easy as the day inexorably headed toward late afternoon.

Day slips into night

Our camp was atop a coastal bluff and we walked to the cliff's edge and watched the sunset show. The sun slowly sank, imbuing all with a warm orange glow before sinking into the ocean with an imaginary hiss. A heron waded along the shore, his feet disappearing in the golden shimmering waters of the sea. As soon as the sun sank, a full moon rose from behind a ridge and on that celestial note, we crawled into our tents and went to sleep.

 Day 2

Dawning of a new day
Day 2 dawned bright and sunny, with just a touch of mist in the air. Remember that steep drop down to Wildcat Beach? We did, because that steep drop was now a steep hike out. Basically, we'd gain almost 1,000 feet in just over a mile, a prodigious rate of ascent that had hearts racing and lungs heaving in short order.

It was a steep hike away from Wildcat Camp
We'd be on the Coast Trail for most of the day, and it was a real trail that continued to climb up and over a wooded ridge. Fortunately, all the bad uphill ended after a mile and a half and we enjoyed the leveling out, especially as the path parted a meadow consisting of chest-high brush. Regrettably a poison-oak branch whipped my neck pretty good and left a red mark as I hiked through what I thought was just tall lupine bushes next to the trail. I couldn't get to the wet-wipes fast enough but I'm glad to report all my frantic scrubbing paid off in that no itchy rash ever appeared.

Path on the edge of the world
So, after a moment of horror inspired by poison oak, it was back to the fun part of hiking. The trail gradually descended across the slopes of the mountain range we'd been hiking up and over. The lush forests of yesterday were just a distant memory as there was nothing but golden grasses and wildflowers swaying in the sea breeze. 

We really appreciated the occasional shady parts
Of course, the lack of trees allowed for some epic views of the rugged California coast arcing towards Point Reyes, unseen and hidden by a layer of mist. Rock islands dotted the brilliantly blue ocean and we could see miles and miles of Coast Trail undulating atop the rocky cliffs that marked the edge of California. Periodically, the trail would head inland to cross a creek, providing a shade break or two that was greatly appreciated.

A quail sentry warns the others
Along the trail, giant eucalyptus trees reached for the sky and we gawked like the Oregonian rubes we were. California quails chirped in the underbrush and the trail was flanked by California golden poppy and California blue-eyed grass blooming away, each item reminding us that we were strangers walking in a strange land. 

No shade today!
After nine-ish miles of hiking, Coast Camp came into view and it pretty much resembled Wildcat Camp: grassy and treeless. Comprised mostly of does with fawns in tow, deer were hanging out about the campground. Fortunately, none of the deer were interested in purloining my hiking poles. In a neighboring campsite, I was lucky enough to spot a ringtail fleeing our arrival and more on that critter in a bit.

Windblown surf at Coast Camp
Like the day before, we went down to a nearby beach but nearly had our skin taken off by sand driven by a brisk wind. It really was uncomfortable so we beat a retreat to our camp and eschewed the sunset show. The wind kept it up all night long, and I know I nervously watched my tent poles flex every which way with each strong gust, wondering if the tent would remain standing. It did.

Lane's shadow flees the fearsome ringtail
Lane was woken up by our ringtail friend who was trying to drag his pack away from inside the tent vestibule. I didn't know Lane's voice could go that high. Well, yes I did really, because I had heard that piercing screech once before when he espied a belligerent snake, but whether I had heard that sound once or twice, it really didn't matter. I didn't know that he had such an extensive vocabulary that can't be repeated in a G-rated hiking blog, either. At any rate, all packs were immediately stowed inside tents with their respective owners and the ringtail did not attempt another raid, probably because his ear drums had been ruptured by Lane's high-pitched shrieks and wails.

Day 3

Day 3 started out cold and foggy
Another day, another steep morning hike. What was different, however, were the weather conditions. Gone were the warm sun and blue sky, supplanted by the same gusty wind that had kept us awake all night. While we were trying to sleep, a cold mist and fog had padded in on silent cat feet. We raced through breakfast and taking down camp, wanting to get an early start while the temperature was cool and besides which, we still had a nine hour drive home waiting for us after the hike.

Lane and Brad trail in my wake

The trail du jour was the Fire Lane Trail and both Brad and I thought it was indeed a pretty good idea to fire Lane. And speaking of Brad, he had taken a few wrong turns during the first two days as he charged unsupervised ahead of us. Recognizing the importance of staying close to the person with the car keys, he brought up the rear on this day, hiking at Lane-and-Richard speed, impatiently restrained like the caged hiking beast he is.

A rough-skinned newt, also out for a hike

The Fire Lane Trail climbed relentlessly to a trail intersection and then things got rougher and steeper. The trail hadn't seen a lot of trail love recently and was badly overgrown with brush, much of it being of the poison oak variety. One plus to the vigorous growth were blackberry and salmonberry vines and bushes, and we partook of the fruit even though they weren't fully ripe yet. Poison oak has no berries and is not good to eat so we just left it alone. 

One of millions
Like a macabre scene from a B-grade horror movie, millions of black caterpillars crawled on the trail and on nearby bushes with branches stripped bare by the leaf-eating larval piranhas. When the hike was over, we were still plucking wormy hitchhikers off of clothing and backpacks. There were so many on the trail that unfortunately, caterpillars were harmed in the hiking of this hike. There was simply no way to avoid stepping on them.

Big ol' honkin' laurel trees
The trail re-entered a lush forest, crossed a gravel road, crested a broad wooded ridge, and then proceeded to go downhill for the last three miles. Life was good and downhill is not overrated. The forest on the east-facing slope of Mount Wittenberg was luxuriously green and teeming with vegetation. The path maundered through a stand of the largest laurel trees I've ever seen and the scent from the fragrant leaves was intoxicating. 

Trail, at the end of the trip
Eventually, the trail widened back into a gravel road which then morphed into a freshly mowed path through a pasture, all of that signalling a return to civilization and an end to our trek. On the plus side, there were clean clothes (clean underwear is awesome, just saying) waiting at the car. Plus-plus, there is also Mexican food to be found in civilization and we availed ourselves of the food of my people when we hit Petaluma. All in all, Point Reyes proved to be a most affable host and the three us were each impressed with our backpack experience there. Now, if I can only get my pack weight down to ten pounds!

The Three Ringtail-a-teers
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

1 comment :

  1. Enjoyed your recap! Always fun to hear about trails in other neighboring states.