Tuesday, February 26, 2013

C50 Training: Four Loops In The Verdugos

Various radio facilities crown the Verdugo peaks.
Due to an abundance of fire roads, mountain bikers, and radio towers, I rarely hear the beckoning call of the Verdugo Mountains. Nevertheless, when in Burbank for a work assignment, sometimes I hustle up the sweat-inducing ridge route from Wildwood Canyon Park. I like ridges--and, I suppose, sweating. But I also like loops and very long dayhikes. So while searching for another training scheme for the C50, I noticed that a challenging and semi-interesting 25-mile walkabout could be achieved by highlighting variations of four different loops in the Verdugo range: Beaudry Motorway, Stough Canyon, La Tuna Canyon, and Wildwood Canyon.

I convinced two other people to join me. Well, actually I convinced Sue, who had participated in the superloop to San Gabriel Peak. Then she convinced Bob, one of her regular hiking partners. We three gathered at the entrance to Wildwood Canyon Park (1,240') on January 4th. It was a frigid but crystal clear, shining Friday. Bob pointed out a family of coyotes moseying around on the neighboring golf course, and by 7:00 AM we hit trail.

Mt. Thom radio facility.
A few yards down the park road an unsigned trail on the left started steeply up a toe of the ridgefoot. It curved sharply to the right before switchbacking up a second toe and thereby gaining the primary ridge at an elevation of 1,740 feet. This initial half-mile buttkicker warmed up our legs while raising us into view of the city below and the canyons on either side. Soon the Vital Link Trail joined forces with our nameless ridge path. It helped us, by means of well-constructed zigzags, reach a communication tower (West Peak) at nearly 3,000 feet.

This completed the first half of our Wildwood Canyon loop, which more precisely is a lollipop-shaped route. The second half, returning via the park road, would have to wait until the end of our day.

Turning east across the tower facility we merged with the Verdugo Motorway, a wide, unpaved, service road traversing almost the entire range west to east and providing connections between other roads and trails. It carried us past a junction for Hostetter Motorway, which wound down the range's north side toward Tujunga. A few minutes later we stood upon the fenced, tower-covered summit of Verdugo Mountain (3,126'), nicknamed Bicycle Peak, presumably for its appeal to mountain bikers. The Sierra Club has planted a register can on an antenna-free bump a quarter-mile further east. But I did not know that at the time.

Photo Op Rock on Mt. Thom.
Moving on, we flew east along the Verdugo, occasionally glancing over at the much larger and loftier San Gabriel range, which included prominent Mt. Lukens. At a split for the Whiting Woods Motorway, we instead kept to the right, following the backbone southbound. The road alternately offered sweeping views of Sunset Canyon on the right and Henderson Canyon on the left. We passed Skyline Motorway, a crumbling, overgrown, tick-infested roadbed heading back down to Burbank. Beyond Skyline, the well-maintained Brand Motorway dropped to the right toward Brand Park in Glendale. Then, 0.6 miles after Brand, we finally said goodbye to Verdugo Motorway and hello to Beaudry.

The North Beaudry Motorway seen descending toward Glendale.
Most people do the Beaudry Motorway loop starting from Beaudry Blvd. in Glendale. Having come from the opposite direction, we began at the upper junction with Verdugo and marched through the course clockwise, first passing through trickling Deer Creek on the North Beaudry road. We then bypassed the 0.4-mile connector to Beaudry Blvd. at elevation 1,360 feet, transitioning to South Beaudry, which wiggled its way up to a ridge and steadily climbed to the radio facility at Mt. Thom (2,440+'). A brief stop at Thom included peering over the city at Griffith Park, checking out the "art" on Photo Op Rock, and barely noticing Las Flores Motorway as it weaved across the south face of the summit. South Beaudry then shuffled us onto Tongva Peak (2,656'), less than a mile north of Thom. Adjacent to the KROQ-FM radio facility, a small overlook area provided a suitable spot for sitting and snacking. Pomeroy Canyon formed a great corridor before our eyes, and to one side an alluring ridge route descended gently in the direction of Brand Motorway. I made a mental note to include that in a future adventure.

Pomeroy Canyon leaving Tongva Peak with Griffith Park in the distance.
After refueling we hopped back onto the Verdugo Motorway, having finished up the roughly 5-mile Beaudry loop. The road then transported us 3.3 miles back to the first radio facility at West Peak. We continued westbound another mile before deciding to shake off the boring motorway and try on an obvious use trail seen etched along the very top of the backbone ridge. This 0.6-mile path climbed up to Point 2646 and then sharply dropped 500 feet to a junction where the Verdugo and Stough Canyon motorways intersect. The steep, hardened slope caused some slipping and one minor fall. But still it was a nice diversion from stomping the fire road all day.

Sue and Bob taking the use trail up to Point 2646.
Starting down the Stough Canyon Motorway, our next loop was under way. Normally folks park at the Stough Canyon Nature Center 500 feet below and begin from there. But we were doing it in reverse. The uncomplicated road eased down 0.9 miles, delivering us at the Nature Center (1,520') by 1:17 PM.

Thus far we had covered a distance of 16.3 miles in 6.25 hours. An empty bench welcomed our weary rear ends. Miss Drinking Fountain and Mr. Restroom shouted out, "Use us!" Socks were changed, lunches consumed. And half an hour later, Sue, Bob, and I felt somewhat refreshed, ready to take on the second half of the Stough Canyon loop.

This is what remains of the Old Youth Campground facility.
Back up the road we marched for 0.4 miles. A turnoff on the left climbed 60 feet to the Old Youth Campground trailhead. This wide, pleasant path pushed us up a little ridge and into a flat hideaway above McClure Canyon, where the campground ruins (a stone foundation and fireplace) sat restfully. This corner of the range offered more views of Burbank, including Bob Hope International Airport. The trail continued slightly uphill, wrapped around the east and north sides of Point 2256, and terminated at the Verdugo Motorway. Turning east (right), we quickly found ourselves back at Stough Canyon junction, having now concluded the simple 2.4-mile loop. Another half mile on Verdugo brought us to the La Tuna Canyon Trail junction (2,300').

The La Tuna loop is longer, more rugged, and less popular than Beaudry or Stough. It begins and ends off of the I-210 on La Tuna Canyon Road. Hikers park at turnouts for either the La Tuna Canyon or La Tuna Foot trailheads, which are 0.3 miles away from each other. It is therefore necessary to car shuttle or to walk the moderately busy, litter-filled surface street between trails. Both singletrack paths ascend to the Verdugo Motorway, which can be used to connect the two and form a loop.

A bobcat notices our presence.
Our unusual plan, however, required us to modify the loop a bit and do some of it piecemeal. In fact, we already had completed part of the route before lunch, when we took a combination of Verdugo Motorway and the ridgetop use path from the West Peak area to Stough Canyon. And now, post-lunch, we had already taken the road from Stough to La Tuna Canyon trailhead. Therefore, we only needed to cover the remaining portions down La Tuna Canyon and up La Tuna Foot.

Without delay, the La Tuna Canyon Trail gently sent us northward along a ridgeline, falling a mere 250 feet in 0.4 miles. A more rapid decline followed as we were moved eastward into a lush little tributary. This refreshing side canyon sponsored a slow-flowing stream and numerous oaks. Unfortunately, the footpath seemed in a hurry to depart these cool narrow walls. It floated over to the next canyon and after a few u-turns released us onto La Tuna Canyon Road (1,320').

Here we faced east and negotiated the street, which ran in unison with La Tuna Canyon creek. After a short distance there was a turnout and picnic area for The Grotto, apparently a local hangout featuring a small, enclosed waterfall.

The La Tuna Foot Trail is visible across the canyon.
A use path took us into The Grotto (1,440'), located a mere 300 feet or less from the roadway. We identified the eroded, unsigned La Tuna Foot trailhead, steeply withdrawing up the east wall. After a quick and easy scramble, the trail took shape and looked to be in fine form. It switchbacked a bit before gaining the dominant ridge and calling it home. For approximately 1.9 miles we steadily tackled this incline, gaining maybe 1,500'. The path sometimes skirted along cooler north slopes below the ridgetop, passing through green-growth and a few small trees. Mostly it sprawled out across the chaparral-decorated spine, undulating a couple times over small bumps. At last the narrow track bumped into a wide fire road called Plantation Lateral around elevation 2,880 feet.

Plantation Lateral spent another quarter-mile increasing us to 2,980 feet, and in the process guided us through a bunch of planted trees, including pines, referred to on maps as the Fire Warden's Grove. Shaded benches provided a place to recuperate after our stamina had taken a beating on the La Tuna Foot climb. Having previously criss-crossed between Warden's Grove and West Peak, we considered the 7-mile La Tuna Canyon loop closed and could almost see the end of our journey.

Heading down the Vital Link Trail at sunset.
Ten minutes later, at 4:42 PM, we willed ourselves back over to the Vital Link. Gazing down the long ridge, it appeared much the same as when we started up ten hours prior. The sun slid behind the Pacific at 4:56 PM. Bob snapped some pictures. We reached the 1,880-foot mark and abandoned the ridge, selecting an unpaved fire road that plummeted into the heart of Wildwood Canyon Park. As darkness closed around us, and the road switched to pavement, we noted the park's audible firing range and its scores of tree-shaded picnic tables. The road through the canyon ended up being 1.2 miles long, the final leg of our final loop of the day. It was a relief to finally see our cars at 5:39 PM.

Despite some aches and pains, and a few blisters, the group fared well. We racked up 25.6 miles and 6,700 feet of gain, all done in less than eleven hours. I, for one, felt like there were another 5 or 10 miles left in my legs. Next time I would put that feeling to the test.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

C50 Training: Altadena to San Gabriel Peak Superloop

Standing on Mt. Lowe with Mt. Wilson behind us.
By late December snow had arrived in the Cucamonga Wilderness, forcing me to look elsewhere for adequate training scenarios. Thus, unlike hikes one and two, which covered parts of the actual C50 course, this trip took place further west, in and above the city of Altadena. Also, this time I would not be traveling solo. A new friend, Sue, had taken an interest in the C50 after joining me on a trip up the Lone Tree Trail a few weeks prior. Neither of us had anything better to do on Christmas Day, so at 7:10 AM we met at the Rubio Canyon debris basin and started a 25-mile superloop to San Gabriel Peak.

Aerial imagery showing the location of Camp Huntington Road in Altadena.
Across from the basin, the unsigned Camp Huntington Road quietly snuck northward along Rubio's east bank. At a vehicle barrier, the paved, private drive bent to the right, providing access to a couple residences, while our path continued straight, beyond the barrier, morphing into a dirt road used by the water company. Past a second split leading up to a reservoir, the road then ended at a fenced in well--and the entrance to narrow Rubio Canyon.

Sue and I briefly followed the use path up-canyon, passing a junction on the right for the SCE Tractor Road trail, which squeezes behind the reservoir and takes off eastward toward Pine Canyon. Our plan, however, sent us crossing the dry creek bed, following the well-defined Camp Huntington Trail westward and ascending 150 feet up to the Rubio Right-of-way.

The Right-of-way is an old train route once used to transport passengers into Rubio Canyon for the historic Mt. Lowe scenic attraction. Today this deteriorated railbed supports a footpath that begins between two houses at the corner of Rubio Vista and Pleasantridge and concludes 0.4 miles later at the ruins of Rubio Pavilion, where in 1893 an incline tram carried tourists straight up the mountainside to a hotel on Echo Mountain.

Lower Old Echo Mountain Trail seen from high up on the Lone Tree Trail.
Sue and I turned left onto the Right-of-way, but after a mere 125 feet down-canyon, we turned sharply right onto yet another historic trail, the Lower Old Echo Mountain.

Lower Old Echo traces part of the original 1892 walking route to Echo Mountain. Thanks to a few local caretakers, this trail is returning to life after much neglect. It is free of bushwhacking and offers a heart-pounding, 0.7-mile ridge route up to the Sam Merrill Trail junction at some electrical towers.

From these towers, we hurried up 1.2 miles of the Sam Merrill to another old railbed called the Alpine Division, which long ago took tourists 3.5 miles along the Mt. Lowe system from Echo Mountain station to a remote Swiss-style hotel called Alpine Tavern, located at the southwestern base of Mt. Lowe.

We stepped onto the first portion of this route, now called the Echo Mountain Trail, and crossed the head of Las Flores Canyon, hugging steep, rocky cliffs. Less than a mile later, the path safely deposited us onto the Mt. Lowe fire road near Cape of Good Hope. This is where the old railroad used to turn right, heading up and through Millard and Grand canyons.

The 2009 Station Fire badly burned this area, destroying much of its beauty, but the road was in good condition, still handling regular hiker and biker traffic. We passed through some interesting landmarks, such as Horseshoe Curve and Granite Gate, accompanied by informative signs next to the road. Despite observing extensive fire damage, we also experienced some delightful forest canopy, particularly in Grand Canyon, where many trees survived the conflagration. Among these majestic oaks and pines rested the ruins of Alpine Tavern, where the old railroad line had ended and now existed the building's foundation and a modest campground.

Here we transitioned to the West Mt. Lowe Trail, found immediately above the campground alongside a dry streambed. A short distance up this gully Crystal Spring could be heard flowing, locked behind a spring box door. This drainage was tapped over a century ago for the Alpine Tavern. The outlet pipe still fills an old water tank above the ruins, and overflow leads back into the gully. But this scheme no longer works properly due to several holes in the disintegrating tank. Rather than pour naturally down the gully, almost all of the water is diverted onto the hillside beside the leaky tank, which rarely, if ever, reaches capacity.

Looking across devastated Bear Canyon at Mts. Deception
and Disappointment.
After Crystal Spring, the West Mt. Lowe trail crossed the switchbacking fire road once before continuing its 1.5-mile ascent across Lowe's west face. Only a year or two ago rocks and overgrowth prevented a casual journey along this route. But workers have re-established it as a comfortable and perhaps slightly more attractive alternative to the East Mt. Lowe approach, which spends considerable time highlighting charred slopes, a downhill mountain biking course, and the tower complex on Mt. Wilson.

Climbing out of Grand Canyon, West Mt. Lowe provided inspiring vistas of the hearty forest around the campground. Higher up it then moved us into view of the devastated upper reaches of neighboring Bear Canyon. Looking across this burned gulch, we could see Mts. Deception and Disappointment, as well as our primary objective, the cone-shaped San Gabriel Peak. We then zig-zagged up the rocky, northwest shoulder of Mt. Lowe, reaching the 5,603-foot summit at 10:18 AM.

The rocky path up Mt. Lowe's northwest ridge.
Another hiker had beaten us to the top and was occupying the bench. He too had started from Altadena, but from Cobb Estate instead of Rubio. He kindly snapped a picture of me and Sue, before heading down. Despite the chilly, overcast weather, visibility was decent, allowing views of all the surrounding peaks, including nearby Mt. Wilson with its large array of antennae. Locating tubes placed upon the summit pointed out various landmarks. Some tubes had also been positioned along the trail from the campground. They were originally part of the scenic Mt. Lowe attraction, intended for guests of the Alpine Tavern who would walk or ride a horse up to the summit.

Lowe is a worthy destination all by itself. One-way from Rubio we totaled approximately 7.3 miles with 3,950 feet of gain in three hours. But it was only the first of three planned peaks for us. Next on the agenda was Mt. Markham.

After signing the register, we left Lowe and descended 0.3 miles to its east side, where there was a trail junction. Here the East Mt. Lowe path contoured southward, forming an alternative route back to the campground. A second trail, usually referred to simply as Mt. Lowe, split off to the left, heading northward.

Mt. Markham and San Gabriel Peak seen from Mt. Lowe.
We followed this second trail for another 0.3 miles, to a point where it intersected Markham ridge, which cut eastward. A clear use trail propelled us 0.4 miles along this rocky spine and elevated us 420 feet to the long, flattish summit, where at 10:59 AM a register awaited our signatures.

Taking a moment to sightsee, we spied a small group atop Mt. Lowe, and another on the East trail. Directly below us Eaton Canyon's impressive vastness stretched out for miles, and immediately to our north, fire-ravaged San Gabriel Peak looked very close and very conquerable.

Returning to the Mt. Lowe Trail, it now leveled out, gently snaking across Markham's northwest slope for approximately half a mile. This stretch paralleled the Mt. Lowe fire road and finally joined it at Markham Saddle, which is a popular pass between San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Markham.

A trailside memorial for someone's dog, Eragon.
Here the fire road continued east. Sue and I instead chose the unsigned trail that climbs northward from Markham Saddle, along the west face of San Gabriel Peak. We located the path to the left of a water tank. It passed through a mostly blackened and destroyed landscape. But the trail itself was adequately maintained and easy to follow. We found ourselves skirting the headwall of Bear Canyon and admiring a few rock formations. Some exposure kept us alert. At one of the switchbacks, a memorial cross had been placed for a dog named Eragon. I suppose he fell off the cliffs.

After 0.7 miles the trail reached another saddle, this one being between Mt. Disappointment and San Gabriel Peak. A left turn would have taken us to a paved road for Mt. Disappointment, host to some telecommunications equipment. But we went right, skipping Disappointment and continuing on our way to San Gabriel Peak.

This last summit trail climbed 400 feet in 0.4 miles. That's not terribly steep. But having started five hours earlier and several thousand feet below in Altadena, Sue and I were struggling a little, moving steadily but slowly, feeling the weight of every step. At 12:10 PM we finally trudged onto the 6,161-foot highpoint and plopped down on a bench, resting our legs and sucking in the cold air. It was time for lunch on San Gabriel Peak, and time to gaze upon some of the backcountry and snow-capped peaks to the distant east.

Snow-covered Mt. San Antonio is visible from the Mt. Markham summit.
Done with lunch, and failing to find a register, we considered our day so far. Three peaks had been bagged. We had accumulated about 10.5 miles and 5,300 feet of total gain. The bulk of the climbing had been completed. Yet we still faced fifteen miles back to the cars.

Retracing our route, we dropped down to Markham Saddle and backtracked on the Mt. Lowe Trail. The East Mt. Lowe alternative then swung us around the south slopes of Lowe, where dead branches rose up from the new chaparral like skeleton hands from a graveyard.

I was running low on water, so we revisited the campground and old tavern site. I scrambled to the hole-filled water tank and, hoping no small animals had recently died in there, refilled my Camelbak from one of the spouting leaks. The water appeared crystal clear, which eased my mind a bit, even though I knew it proved nothing.

A tranquil setting in the heart of Eaton Canyon.
Via the Mt. Lowe fire road we marched 0.2 miles to the unsigned Idlehour Trail, located at a junction which also included the fire road to Inspiration Point and the Middle Sam Merrill (Sunset) Trail. At 1:54 PM, we found Idlehour next to the Inspiration Point road and began hastily covering its entire 4.5-mile length. Along the way we experienced a spectacular canyon and a healthy forest. We trod upon a beautiful blanket of newly fallen leaves and boulder-hopped across two bustling creeks. We chatted with a solo backpacker spending his Christmas holiday in isolated bliss. Then it was necessary to say goodbye to this wonderful place and ascend 760 feet from the canyon floor to the relatively boring Mt. Wilson Toll Road.

By 4:47 PM the road had conducted us to Henninger Flats, a developed campground with a one-room visitor center and museum. We rested on the benches, took advantage of the water fountain, and tended to our aching feet. The sun was already setting, so down the road we went for another 2.6 miles, periodically checking out the panoramic views of all the twinkling cities below. We crossed the bridge at Eaton Wash around 5:40 PM, nearly an hour after sunset, and with flashlights beaming into the darkness anxiously started on the Altadena Crest Trail (ACT), our journey's final leg.
Viewing the sunset on Christmas Day 2012 from the Mt. Wilson Toll Road.

The ACT stretched across the northern boundary of Altadena, sometimes riding slopes directly behind residences. Being very worn out and tired, our pace slowed considerably while tackling another 900 feet of gain, rolling up and down, in and out of the little foothill gullies. Thankfully the trail was in good condition and prompted only mild cursing on my part.

Recent volunteer work made it possible to hike the 2.5 miles from Eaton Wash to Rubio Canyon without using the surface street detour from Zane Grey Terrace. We instead utilized a brand new section of trail that climbed out of the last gully and down to the trailhead at 1101 E. Loma Alta Drive, where we were parked right across the street from the Rubio debris basin.

The time was 6:45 PM.  Tallies for the day amounted to 25.3 miles, 7,136 feet of gain, and we had been out and about for 11.5 hours. Not bad for a Christmas Day hike.

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