Friday, March 21, 2014

Cuyamaca Rancho Evening Loop - The Final Shakedown

Last weekend was our final free weekend before the PCT. We did a mini preliminary move out walk through of Josh's apartment with his manager and then headed east to squeeze in a hike. This would be my new ULA backpacks maiden voyage. We took a detour to the Southern Terminus to snap a new foot picture for the cover of my blog and I was overwhelmed by the urge to head to Morena. After leaving a note in the register for our new friends (that we've not yet met) who are starting before us, we headed toward Cuyamaca.

Our goal was a loop that started at the Marty Minshall Trail south of the lake. The route traversed a large open meadow dropping into Anza Borrego Desert State Park toward Mount Laguna. We didn't start hiking until noon and immediately the trail dissolved into a marsh as did my resolve. I was feeling very uncomfortable like my clothes didn't fit right, my pack was not sitting correctly and the straps were rubbing relentlessly on the fresh tattoo I got on my arm. Note to self: not a good idea to put a giant tattoo where your backpack strap goes right before a big hike. I had to remove my pack a few times and adjust it while trying to learn which of the million straps dangling went with what. Finally I got into the groove and we made good time across the meadow.

Josh spotted several deer in the distance and we greeted two sets of horseback riders. When we arrived at the Los Vaqueros Horse Camp we took a quick break before making a wrong turn up a dead end trail followed by a short road walk in the right direction. Passing thru the camp I spotted a few deer bones in the grass and we combed the area looking for large pieces like skulls and ribs but didn't find anything.

Continuing on, our trail merged with a fire road and climbed gradually above the valley. A handful of mountain bikers flew by us and we quickly exchanged pleasantries. We rounded a hairpin turn and Josh spotted footprints immortalized in the hardened clay soil. These were the largest cougar prints I have ever seen. If I was in bear country I would have been confused as they certainly were large enough to be a bear with a limp. We continued to see them here and there as we climbed and determined they were relatively recent, probably made in the last rain storm.

We crested the the top of the fire road taking panoramas of the beautiful view of the valley before heading north on the California Hiking and Riding Trail. We crossed into Anza Borrego Desert State park and under a lush oak tree before making our final push toward the hwy.

When we reached the Sunrise Hwy we grabbed some shade under an oak tree and ate an orange while deciding how big of a loop we should do with the daylight we had left. I told Josh that I had my headlamp and didn't mind doing some night hiking, but with the giant cougar tracks we passed we decided to amend our original hike to only do a couple of miles in the dark. After about 20 minutes, we packed up and followed the La Cima Trail trail as it curved next to the road toward mount Laguna. Soon our trail merged into the Upper Green Valley Trail and turned into a long canyon that paralleled the La Cima Road. My legs were starting to cramp, a result of an electrolyte imbalance due to my diet change, which is an attempt at dropping some weight before the trail. I took some Advil and ate a shot block as we started our push up hill on the Upper Green Valley Fire Road. Keeping my head down on this section of uphill hiking I could see our cougar friend's foot prints everywhere, it is here that I named him Jeff...I don't know...Jeff seemed like a good name in my endorphin laden mind. I wished I could see Jeff but I also hoped that I didn't, especially in the dark.

Once on top of the hill, we caught our breath and took in the pinks, oranges and cobalt blues of the evening sky with the full moon rising behind us. We junction with the Soap Stone Fire Road and followed it back toward the horse camp. The sunlight was rapidly being replaced by moon light and we dawned our headlamps just passed the horse camp. It wasn't long after that we heard a twig break and swung our lights around to catch the green glow of two round eyes looking back at us. We stopped, squinting and moving our lights to try and identify the creature when I gracefully and silently traversed the log it was standing on and dropped into the grass, never breaking eye contact. By it's size and movement I'm pretty sure it was a bobcat and we remarked on the likely hood that it was right in front of our eyes when we passed by in the daylight but failed to see it for it's camouflage. Night hiking is the best, you get to see all sorts of creatures that normally blend right in. We passed out of the camp area and under a stand of cedars, when an explosion of flapping and commotion and movement came from the tree tops. My heart fell into my stomach and I stopped dead in my tracks, trying to figure out what and where the sound was coming from. Finally, a mighty gobble echoed through the air and I breathed a sigh of relief. "Freakin' turkey's, man!" I exclaimed to Josh. We started hiking again trying to figure out if it was us who had startled the turkeys or if the bobcat, or, [gulp] Jeff...had climbed the tree and snagged one of the birds. We picked up the pace and jammed across the open meadow trying to keep and eye out for predators and not fall down in the high walled, gullied trail in the process. Suddenly Josh stopped short and said "look, I've got more eyes." I doubled back and turned my light in the direction he was looking when suddenly one pair of eyes multiplied into ten, getting closer and closer as they appeared. Deer. The entire herd of deer decided to turn their heads at the same time and caught our light. Now sufficiently freaked out and totally stoked we met our final trail junction. We stopped in front of a wilderness camera that was strapped to a tree and made silly faces hoping it would take our picture. The terrain became steep and littered with roots and rocks. Josh spotted more bones, what looked like a partial rib cage...Jeff's dinner? I think yes.

I picked up the pace and rounded a bend when my light caught movement in the sand. I stopped short and used my trekking pole to flip the creature out of the silty soil to discover he was a little black field mouse! Josh came around with his camera and took a photo while I tried to keep him from making it to his hole which he responded to with an irritated squeal that made me giggle. Finally josh got the picture and we helped him back to his hole before carefully stepping over it and proceeding toward the marsh.

We managed to find a side trail to the road that kept us out of the soggy brush and were again back at the truck. What a good time! I love night hiking! We headed towards home with big smiles on our faces. Once I finally worked out the kinks on this day hike I feel confident about my backpack and it's ability to perform on the hike. All in all I think we did about 12 miles, a comfortable evening jaunt.

The next day we took a leisurely drive around East County, driving up some back country roads of Hwy 8 including Thing Valley Road in Mount Laguna, which is beautiful. We finally arrived back in Cuyamaca to see our friend the coyote at the corner of Hwy 79 and the Sunrise hwy, an area I've named coyote junction. Josh and I love to sit and watch him as he searches the field for mice and things. He is always here around 6:30pm.

Josh and I chatted about our feelings surrounding the big hike being so close and were kind of stunned that this was it. There are no more training hikes, no more weekend backpacking trips, no more leisurely drives to coyote junction. The next trip we take will be from the Southern Terminus...North...for 5 months.

Holy shit.

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