Sunday, January 17, 2021

Nickel Canyon

Hiked: 1/26/2021
Distance: 14.6 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 1538' (at trailhead)
Elevation Gain: 3160'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.5
Round trip time: 7 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 142 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass at Fisherman's Camp Trailhead
Difficulty: Strenuous (cross country)

Nickel Canyon feeds into San Mateo Canyon not far from the end of public access where San Mateo flows into Camp Pendleton. It is very remote and very seldom visited. I am not aware of anyone else who has been in the canyon. I started at Fisherman's Camp Trailhead and dropped into San Mateo Canyon, following the trail past Bluewater Canyon, my destination more times than I can count. In 2016, I got within half a mile of the entrance to Nickel Canyon. On this trip, I planned to get as far up the canyon as time and water would allow. From the trailhead, it was 6 miles on trail to get to Nickel Canyon. Parts of the San Mateo trail fade in and out around two of the crossings, but cairns are helpful in places. The water levels in San Mateo Creek were noticeably low.

Oak glade in San Mateo Canyon

Marker at stream crossing

Entrance to Nickel Canyon

The start of Nickel Canyon was rocky but easy to access. Oaks and scrub lined both sides, but the center was filled with rocks and boulders of all sizes. There was quite a bit of water in Nickel with many shallow pools. It was beautiful. I waded in knee deep water where it was easier than trying to avoid it. Compared with other wild canyons in the Santa Ana Mountains, it was fairly easy to navigate. The first major obstacle I hit was a small waterfall with a 5' deep pool. The best bypass was to scramble up next to a fallen tree on the left side. I continued upstream finding a wide leaf covered pool. Beyond that, the canyon dried up for about a quarter mile but remained rocky.

First waterfall

Looking back, I scrambled up next to the tree on the right (on the left when going upstream)

Small pools appeared again higher up and I ran into the second major obstacle at the two-tiered second waterfall. The pool below the fall was only 4' deep, but there was no easy bypass. A giant boulder on the left rose 10' above the water and required a 3' step to the stone face of the fall. Several small perches were in reach. I picked one and stepped across with my left foot and immediately slipped. Out of reflex, I grabbed onto the wall with my hands and found a tiny hold with my right foot. This prevented my pack from pulling me backward into an uncontrolled fall. Any kind of injury in this ultra remote canyon would have been trouble. I climbed the wall to get past the falls and sat down for lunch. I was about half way through the daylight and one mile up canyon, and decided it was a good place to turn around. Upstream, the canyon looked a little more rugged but still inviting and passable. I was more careful getting back onto the boulder. I took off my pack and threw it onto the boulder, tossed my trekking pole on the other side of the boulder, then made a clean step across. It was warm on the way back and I took another break at the mouth of Bluewater Canyon. Anyone that enjoys exploring local wild canyons like Harding or Black Star would enjoy Nickel. Because it's so remote, expect a full day.

Top tier of the second waterfall

The step across to get above the falls

Looking upstream where I turned back, much more to explore

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Fish Benchmark and Eagle Benchmark

Hiked: 1/2/2021
Distance: 8.1 miles round trip cross country
Summit Elevation: 2334' (Fish), 2371' (Eagle)
Elevation Gain: 3362'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.7
Round trip time: 7 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 132 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free on EC085 dirt road by railroad tracks
Difficulty: Strenuous

I kicked off 2021 with a two summit loop in the Fish Creek Mountains just east of the Salton Sea. Eagle BM is also the high point in the Fish Creek Mountains (by only tens of feet). I drove to the end of Split Mountain Road, then east for 5 miles on a dirt road that parallels the Plaster City Narrow Gauge Railroad. Along the road were multiple camped RVs with ATVs and dune buggies. The area is very popular with the OHV crowd. I planned to do a clockwise loop with Fish BM first and parked near my exit point. The second mile of the road had some deeper sand. I flipped on 4x4 but I'm not sure it was needed. I planned to mostly follow Adam Walker's GPS track.

I walked the railroad tracks less than a mile before veering toward the steep ascent gully. I expected a solid 1500' scramble and was not disappointed. The gully was full of large boulders and dry falls. The ascent was a mix of class 2/3, but with careful route finding, most was class 2. I was in shadow until I exited the first gully and started up the second gully which was 500' of steep class 1. I exited the second onto a high plateau with a final 300' ridge to Fish. On top, I found a benchmark, reference mark, and register placed in 1979 by Wes Shelberg. Fish is a seldom visited summit. The prior entry in the register was from a year ago and was the only entry in 2020. The register was only half full since 1979. Eagle looked quite rugged only two air miles away. Views in all directions were great. I only rested long enough to complete my summit rituals. I thought most of the scrambling was done once I reached Fish, but was mistaken. Tough hours were ahead.

Ascent gully

Near the top of the gully

Approaching Fish BM

Worked up a lather already

Looking over at Eagle BM

I dropped back onto the plateau and started down a long class 2 gully with toward Eagle. I was dumped out about 700' below Eagle in a confluence of canyons. I aimed for the slope left of Eagle and slowly picked my way up. At the bottom of the slope, I heard voices and saw a couple of hikers on the ridge on their way to Eagle. I didn't expect to see anyone and wondered if they would still be at the summit when I arrived. After fighting up to the saddle below Eagle, I was startled by an explosion above the summit. Some kind of loud fireworks had gone off and the sound echoed through the canyons. A second explosion quickly followed. In 15 minutes, I was on the summit with a party of six hikers and a dog. They were the vanguard of a larger group and set off the fireworks to let the others know they had reached the summit. They thought the other part of the their group was about an hour behind them and left more fireworks for them. I chatted with a guy named Alexis and discovered they were all local. I found no marks on Eagle, but register also went back to 1979. Based on the register, it was much more popular than Fish. They settled north of the summit to wait for the rest of their group. I was only Eagle long enough to sign the register since the afternoon sun reminded me the day was short. I wanted no part of getting down in the dark. My only major deviation from Adam's track was the descent off Eagle. He stayed on the ridge line and I decided to drop down a gully on the north side, something I came to regret. The gully was steep and very loose. A lot of it was talus, but even large, stable looking boulders were loose and could not be trusted. I ended up butt scooting down most of it, causing minor rock slides every other step. It was the only unpleasant part of the hike. Once on the lower plateau, I eventually found the remnants of an old miner's trail and was able to follow it on and off for the rest of the descent. I got back about an hour before sunset.

Ascent path on the slope

Looking back at Fish BM

Craig Barlow and Adam Walker signatures

Some of the party of six below the summit

Crappy, loose gully I used to descend from Eagle

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Ladder Canyon Loop

Hiked: 12/29/2020
Distance: 4.9 miles round trip cross country
Summit Elevation: 1332' (high point on loop)
Elevation Gain: 908'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.7
Round trip time: 2 hours
Recommended water: 20 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free on Painted Canyon Road
Difficulty: Easy

Leisa joined me doing a very popular loop through Ladder Canyon. We drove through Coachella to the Mecca Hills and finally 4 miles of dirt road to reach the trailhead on Painted Canyon Road. The dirt road was washboarded, but flat and no major obstacles. Small sedans with low clearance were at the trailhead so any car can make it. Most of the canyon is wide and sandy. About a half mile up the trail, there is a wooden marker on the right side that signals the entrance to the main ladder section on the left. The entrance looks like it might be difficult, but there is a good trail going around and through the boulders. The first ladder is installed under one of the boulders here but we didn't need it. The first ladder we used was a 10' downclimb. The next three were going up dry falls, some as high as 20'. In between was a fun narrow slot section. Leisa thought it was the trail version of Chutes and Ladders. We followed the main channel to the top of the ridge where a well worn trail continued. We passed another party making their way clockwise around the loop.

Entrance to the ladder section

Top of the ridge and the party we passed

When the trail turned, we weren't quite sure whether to drop down into the wide canyon below or stay on the ridge. Leisa noticed the ridge trail had rocks across it, so we dropped into the canyon which turned out to be correct. The next two miles were wide, sandy, and easy going. Then we reached two more ladder downclimbs. In the final mile, we passed dozens of people going counter-clockwise. Several asked our advice on the route and we filled them in as best we could. Driving out, we stopped at a restroom and decided to explore another canyon that might have been Ropes Canyon. Another group had started ahead of us but turned back quickly. We continued up mostly class 2+ terrain without the aid of ladders. At one tricky spot, Leisa waited for me to go ahead a few hundred yards to look for a roped section. The canyon continued with more of the same but no ropes. It was a nice way to cap the day.

Exploring the second canyon

Crux in the second canyon

Some errors in the track from the narrow sections