Sunday, June 05, 2011

Headland Kings

For better or worse, this may be my last backpacking trip for a while - for the first time since I started these, I don't have any particular destination in mind for a next trip, nor specific plans for a follow-up outing. It was good to end on a relative high note, though... my Point Reyes trip had gorgeous scenery and some memorable adventures, crammed into a brief extended weekend that felt rewarding while serving mostly to energize me.

It's kind of funny to see how all of the different agencies handle backpacking differently. Henry Coe is (was? more on that later) a state park; the Ohlone Wilderness is managed by the East Bay Regional Park District (Alameda and Contra Costa counties); and Point Reyes is managed by the National Park Service. The NPS also oversees Yosemite, but the two are run a bit differently, which makes sense since they are VERY different parks. Point Reyes is much smaller, but also much more accessible; someone in decent physical shape can get to pretty much any part of the park, at pretty much every time of the year. PR is much less of a wilderness experience than Yosemite, which I've actually come to appreciate: it's amazing how much you can fall in love with simple things like an outhouse after you've done without.

Anyways: Yosemite manages backpacking by setting limits on the number of hikers it allows into a trailhead at any given day, but allows those hikers to camp anywhere they want. PR has designated hike-in campgrounds, and only allows you to stay at one of those sites. Reservations can be made several months in advance. After doing research, I'd decided that Wildcat camp sounded the coolest, and called on the first day that reservations were available. Amazingly, it had already sold out by the time I called (which, admittedly, was in the early afternoon, and for Memorial Day weekend). Fortunately, I had a backup ready, and opted for Sky Camp, which is more centrally located and higher up.

The campsites are the best-equipped of any backpacking site I've been to: each comes with a picnic table, a charcoal grill, and a food-storage locker. I appreciated the locker most of all, as it meant that I could forego the bear can. (I don't think there are actual bears in PR, but there are tons of critters who have become very familiar with the food brought by humans.) Each campground has a combination of individual and group campsites, and also has an outhouse, trash and recycling receptacles, and potable drinking water. I still brought my water treatment fluid, just to be on the safe side, but was happy to not need to treat any of my water.

Of course, I camp in order to hike, not vice versa, and the hiking was excellent. On Saturday I arrived at the park a bit after nine, after a little confusion on the way in - I'd used Google Maps for directions, but had just directed to "Point Reyes Park" instead of the actual address of headquarters, and so it had directed me to a random road deep into the park. I figured out what was going wrong once I headed north from Point Reyes Station, and was able to easily turn around and return. The headquarters was fairly busy even this early in the morning, but was very well-staffed as well. I got checked in, got my permit, and bought a decent topo map (they had two for sale, I opted for the Wilderness Press one). After cinching up, I headed to camp.

There's a nicely dense and complex cluster of trails in the headquarters area, and after some reflection, I decided to take what looked like a relatively boring trail out and save the more interesting ones for my return on Monday. Starting from headquarters, I headed up the Horse Trail, which rose on a pleasant grade through fairly thick forest. This brought me to the Sky Trail, which I followed a short ways downhill to Sky Camp. The whole trip took me less than two hours, so I had plenty of time to pitch my tent and head out again before lunch. I'm not sure whether the NPS lets you request specific camp sites or not; I'd been assigned #12, which was in a pretty heavily wooded area with good coverage but no views. It would be a great spot to camp on a hot day or in inclement weather, and seemed about twice as big as most other individual camp sites. If I had the chance to go again, though, I'd try to get one of sites 3, 4, 9, 10, or 11, all of which have breathtaking views of Drake's Bay.

I'd decided that Saturday I'd focus on hiking in the area north and west of Sky, and spend Sunday in the bigger areas available south and east. From Sky I headed up towards Limantour Road. My map makes it look like the trail dead-ends there, but from trail signs I figured out that it intersected with Bayview Trail. I picked up that, which runs closely to the road for a while before breaking away. I crossed the road to pick up Inverness Ridge Trail, which has excellent views of the southern end of Tomales Bay. The trail eventually brought me to my main destination, Point Reyes Hill, the highest point in the area. Here, I was treated to the gorgeous sight of Drake's Bay, which has a particularly graceful curve. I paused at a fortuitous picnic table to eat lunch, then headed down the Bucklin Trail.

I'd originally planned to cut west toward the White Gate and get as far west as I could before turning around, but a drizzle developed that quickly turned into a steady downpour. I'd brushed off the weather reports, which had mentioned a slight chance of rain - in my experience, a slight chance of rain tends to mean no rain at all; or, even if it does rain, only a small quantity. I hadn't dressed appropriately, was getting increasingly miserable, and decided to try and cut this leg as short as I could. After reaching Muddy Hollow, I turned east, then picked up the Bayview trail to Limantour, where I retraced my steps back to camp. By the time I reached camp I was wet and soaked, so I quickly whipped up a hot meal, then dove into my tent where I shed my sopping clothes, changed into my dry spares, and burrowed into my sleeping bag. I was finally warm and comfortable, and didn't mind too much that I had several hours of daylight left; I passed the time by reading Burning Chrome and doing crosswords.

Sunday was far more successful. I headed south on Sky Trail, then continued down on Woodward Valley to the Coast Trail. The Coast Trail runs along an overlook that's raised a fair amount above the ocean, which I'm all in favor of: hiking is infinitely easier on dirt than on sand, and you get better views this way. The whole of Coast Trail is beautiful, from the stunning sight of Drake's Bay through the myriad cool rocky outcroppings to the southeast.

I bypassed several spur trails down to the beach, but did spend some extra time at Arch Rock. This is a promontory that extends a good way into the ocean, but there's also an unmarked trail that steeply descends down to the water, where (if you're brave and feel like hopping across several rocks) you can cross a stream that runs out to the ocean through a hole carved through the massive rock above. I stayed here a while, fascinated by the interplay of water: a constant stream flows into the ocean, but the inrushing tide can occasionally overtake it, reversing the flow as it pours upstream. I took some photos and a short video, then scrambled back across the rock and regained the trail.

I hadn't been sure how much time I would make on this hike - I usually count on about 3 miles per hour for a "normal" hike, and about 2 miles per hour when backpacking; on this day I was only carrying my small daypack, but I was also planning on being out for about twelve hours, and taking plenty of time for pictures. I reached Wildcat a bit after noon, and decided that this would make a good point to start curving back towards home base. I spent a very brief time on the beach at Wildcat. Seriously - this park's full name is Point Reyes National Seashore, and I probably spent less time at the actual seashore than anyone else who's ever been there for three days. It was nice, but I had hiking to do!

I'd been hoping to eat lunch at Wildcat Lake, a cool lake that's surprisingly close to the ocean. It's fairly marshy and overgrown, though, so I continued heading north. I passed through Old Out Road, then decided to take the no-bikes-allowed Alamea Trail the rest of the way up. Big mistake! Yesterday's rain had turned the road into a ruin, totally muddy, unpleasant, and vile. It was the most miserable hour of my entire trip. I finally re-emerged on the Ridge Trail and then picked up Stewart Road to Firtop, which doesn't have any views but does have a nice meadow where I finally ate a belated lunch.

I completed a loop by heading north a bit more, then picking up Greenpicker Trail to swing west and south. This brought me to the Glen Camp trail. All told, I hiked through three of the four backpackers camps on Sunday, and came within less than half a mile of the Coast Camp as well. Glen Camp was probably my least favorite of the bunch: not bad, but it didn't have the amazing views of Sky or the ocean proximity of Wildcat.

After reaching Bear Valley Trail, I continued straight on to Baldy Trail, which had a really fun and steady rise up from the canyon to the ridge. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I must have caught a second wind, because the elevation just melted away from me. Baldy connected me with Sky Trail, where I played footsy with a large and loud group of hikers until I turned on enough gas to leave them permanently behind. I continued on Sky Trail all the way back to camp, where I celebrated with another hot meal, some quiet reflection, and finishing the last short story in Burning Chrome.

Monday, Memorial Day, ended up being somewhat abbreviated. I woke up around six, struck camp, finished breakfast with the last of my remaining fuel, then headed out. I took Sky Trail south to the Z Ranch Trail, then headed towards Mount Wittenberg. I stashed my pack behind a tree before the final ascent, but I needn't have bothered, as it's actually quite gentle. Wittenberg doesn't really have any views, either, but it does have a nice, rambling top with a whole set of looping trails that cut through forest and meadow.

After wrapping up, I simply followed Mount Wittenberg Trail back down to Bear Valley Trail, where it was a short jaunt to the headquarters, my car, and ultimately home.

I think that with Point Reyes, I have now done pretty much all of the backpacking that's available close to the Bay Area. Henry Coe remains my favorite of the bunch, for its remoteness and serenity as much as for its beauty. The State of California is shutting down that park, which I think is a travesty bordering on an outrage - it's depressing that our legislature has so little control over its own budget (thanks to, um, we the voters) that the only influence it can have is through cutting stuff that nobody wants to see cut. Coe is a treasure, and a vital resource for the fast-paced, high-tech world of Silicon Valley, and I really hope that creative minds in our government can help find a way to keep it alive. Ohlone Wilderness was good too, but far more limited, with really only a single through-trail giving a backpacking experience; I don't really have any desire to do it again, unless it's to experience the same thing in a different season. I suppose there is backpacking along the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, but that only really works as a one-way trip, and doesn't seem worth the effort, especially since I've hiked all of it in segments before. I can definitely imagine coming back to Point Reyes at some time in the future; there are tons of hikes I could do as full day trips, plus I could profitably enjoy a three-day backpacking trip based out of Wildcat, which is close to a lot of territory that I never got around to exploring. And, of course, there are lots of great parks within a day's drive of the bay area - I would love to return to Yosemite sometime, probably focusing more on the high Sierra territory; I also would like to experience some of the other parks in the Sierras, like Hetch Hetchy; or checking out any of the myriad National Forests in northern and central California. I don't know when, but I do hope that there's more such trips in my future.

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