Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Back to the Gorge: Family Backpacking at Arroyo Seco and Willow Creek

The Gorge of Willow Creek

Date: April 19-21 2019
Place: Arroyo Seco at Ventana Wilderness, Soledad, California
Coordinates: 36.234113, -121.487442
Length: 10.4 miles in and out
Level: moderate+

On our last meeting with our friends from San Juan Capistrano they planted the idea of going on a backpacking trip together. This idea had sprouted and formed into a very nice two-nighter backpacking trip at the Arroyo Seco area of the Ventana Wilderness last April.  
We chose the Arroyo Seco area for a number of reasons, including weather, reasonable driving time, The accessibility of fresh water, and the level to trails. 

Day 1, April 19, 2019
We arrived at Arroyo Seco after meeting with our friends in the town of Soledad, had a quick picnic lunch, did the final arrangement of our backpacks and started out. 
Our Day 1 3.7 miles hike as Captured by Pappa Quail's GPS. We did the same route, going back on Day 3. 
Our first exciting find was right there by the parking lot: a banana slug. I didn't think we'd see any, on the relatively dry, eastern side of the Big Sur, but here it was before us, in its full yellow glory. 
Banana Slug
I hiked part of Arroyo Seco Rd Trail before with a friend of mine, but that hike was at the end of May and under excessive heat conditions so we didn't get very far. This time I was hoping to get further and see more of this beautiful area.
Our hike begun on Arroyo Seco Rd, a wide and easy to tread dirt road that's mildly grading down to the gorge. It was a brilliant day and the views were spectacular. 
The Gorge of Arroyo Seco
Spring was at its peak and lovely wildflowers bloomed all around us, making the trail side really pretty and colorful.
Chinese Houses, Collinsia heterophylla 
I felt happy walking down the trail, enjoying the bright day and the mild temperatures, especially when I remembered how scorching it was the last time I hiked down that path.
Creek Clematis, Clematis ligusticifolia 
Then I tripped and fell flat forward, backpack and all, and I injured my hand and forehead. Papa Quail helped me up and gave me some first aid. Although I could go on with no trouble, it took me some time to regain the cheerfulness I had before my fall.
Sticky Monkeyflower (orange) and Paintbrush (red)
After that we continued on without further incidents, taking only brief stops to drink or to appreciate the sights. One of these marvelous sights was an intense lilac colored floral patch way down below on a flat ledge just above the river. There seemed to be an unofficial path leading from the main trail to the gorge right by this patch. I wanted to go down there but didn't say anything. Perhaps I should have. Maybe I'll go down there next time around.

The dirt road we were walking on was mostly sunny but parts of it were shaded by large oak trees that grew song its sides. The shaded undergrowth displayed very different flora.
Common Pacific Pea, Lathyrus vestitus 
At some point the question came to discussion wether there was any motor vehicle traffic on the dirt road we were on. It was perfectly good for hikers but seemed to be in disrepair for cars. I suspected that official vehicles do go on this road every now and then, for maintenance purposes.

We were going steadily downhill at a mild pace. Papa Quail and the other dad were at the lead, chatting cheerfully. All three kids were together, enjoying their own conversation, and I was bringing up the rear, snapping shots left and right of the gorge view and the wildflowers that adorned the trail.
Woodland Star
We arrived at the creek where the dirt road curved sharply and crossed Santa Lucia Creek, a tributary of Arroyo Seco. Past the bridge was a steep, narrow trail leading to the gorge where on my previous hike there we did go down for a refreshing break by the water.
This time we settled for a short breather brake near the creek, after which we moved on along the dirt road again, this time going up and around the hillside.
Santa Lucia Creek
Around the curve and higher up we had a wonderful view of the Arroyo Seco gorge, the emerald-colored water gashing through a narrow cleft of light gray stone and walled by steep green slopes. A true scenic gem this place is.
Arroyo Seco Gorge
We arrived at the Willow Creek Trailhead and started down that trail. The Willow Creek Trail is a narrow foot trail that leads down just upstream to where Willow Creek merges with Arroyo Seco. We walked down the fairly steep trail (me thinking of the time we'll be going up). The narrow trail forced us to brush against the vegetation that grew right into it, as reclaiming back its land taken by people. The vegetation was mostly benign but here and there we needed to watch not to brush against poison oak. 
Silver bush Lupine and Ceanothus near Willow Creek Trail. 
The trail down was steep but not very long. Soon we were at the bottom and crossing Arroyo Sec on a pretty, hanging bridge.

Arroyo Seco means 'Dry Creek' but the creek below was flowing nicely. Its banks were sandy and looked very inviting. In fact, there were already a few people enjoying a lazy day but the water. We decided to go on and settle at our own private beach. 
Arroyo Seco
We did pause long enough for Pappa Quail to find a woodpecker. 
Downy Woodpecker
We continued southwest on the Willow Creek Trail, past the border sign, and into the Ventana Wilderness, now going in parallel with the Willow Creek itself. 

The trail was much narrower now, clearly less traveled. The vegetation often grew over the trail itself and we had to be much more careful about not brushing against poison oak. In places where the trail followed the hill couture it was so narrow that we feared it would collapse under our feet and into the creek. In a few places we had to carefully tread around points where it had collapsed. In short, that last mile of the day we moved very very slowly.
San Bernardino Larkspur, Delphinium parryi
We arrived at the first wilderness campsites along Willow Creek, just past the trail split to Tassajaca Creek Trail. Everyone was tired and there was a unanimous decision to camp there for the night. Our campsite was well shaded and the sun was already west of the ridge and the temperatures dropped. It didn't get cold in the true camping definition of the word but thoughts of dipping in the creek no longer held their appeal from earlier in the day.
We set up our camp, collected driftwood, cooked dinner and goofed by the campfire. We had a lovely evening and a peaceful night.

Day 2, April 20, 2019
We woke up to an overcast day and a promise of drizzle (that didn't materialize). The night before we had already decided to camp at the same place on the second night and do just an in-and-out day hike west along Willow Creek as far as we felt like.
Adobe Camp
We had breakfast and arranged our backpacks to be used as day packs. This day the kids would go pack-free and only us adults carried the da's provisions. 
Day 2: 3 miles (in and out) hike
After some more goofing and posing for photos we hopped right back on the trail of yesterday and continued on southwest.
At first it was al good. The trail was narrow but clear and easy to walk. We enjoyed the cool morning air and the lush green vegetation, dotted with wildflowers.
Willow Creek Trail
But then the trail transformed into a poison oak jungle. At first we tried our best to avoid touching the plants at all. Then it was trying to not touch it with any exposed skin. At some point however, we simply gave up and walked straight through the hostile thicket, hoping for the best. I was glad for the impulse purchase of the special poison oak removal soap just before going up to Arroyo Seco with our friends the day before.
Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum 
In between the poison oak bloomed pretty undergrowth flowers. The fiesta flower was probably the most common of them, forming lovely blue patches along the trail.
Fiesta Flower, Pholistoma auritum
 We came to a creek crossing. I sat down and took my shoes off. While everyone else crossed balancing on slippery stones I waded barefoot in the cold water. After we crossed I sat down again to wipe my feet and wear my shoes again. Then I had to run to catch up with everyone.
Willow Creek
Although the day was mostly overcast and cool the sun did break through the clouds every once in a while. Being under the tree canopies we didn't feel much of that sunshine but when we did it seemed to uplift everyone.
It was also a relief whenever the smooth and shiny poison oak was replaced by the prickly blackberry. I only regretted not being there during fruit season.
California Blackberry, Rubus ursinus 
The large thimbleberry plants were also common there, and blooming at their peak. And yes, always that poison oak in the background.
Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus 
We came to another creek crossing. This one had higher, steeper banks that were muddy and crumbling. I took my shoes off again and this time the younger chika did it too. Everyone else climbed down carefully and balanced on the stones again. But this crossing didn't go smoothly because our friend slipped and fell into the water. He wasn't hurt and the kids laughed and he quickly got up and finished crossing but he was wet from his waist down.
Willow Creek
It didn't take long before we faced the next crossing and I really internalized what the ranger on the phone had meant when he said that the trail was not maintained. That crossing however, had a large log laid across. While our wet-shoed friend crossed in the water without anymore worry all the rest of us either balance-walked the log or butt-scooted on it to the other side.

In a few segments the trail separated from the creek, but that didn't make it easier - the vegetation grew into the trail and there were fallen trees on it in places. The canyon walls were made of flaking rock held by vegetation and covered by soft, wet soil, pasted on the rocks with moss and ferns. Ot was really pretty, almost tropically-looking. But it was also unstable. Luckily no rocks fell down while we were hiking there but freshly fallen rocks strewn all over the place were silent evidence that rock fall was common there.
The canyon wall
In between the creek crossings we got higher above the creek and had a nice view of the surroundings. Large bushes if silver lupine adorned the rocky ledges and my brain tagged them as landmarks - a sight that would inform me later how far we would have to walk on our way back.
Silver-bush Lupine, Lupinus albifrons

We cross the creek a few more times - seven in total before finally deciding to turn around and return to our campsite. We didn't get very far, but the trail was hard to negotiate and the creek crossings claimed much of our energy. The map indicated that there would be several more crossings ahead if we continued, and since we didn't have any particular destination anyway, it seemed like a could time to turn back.
And then, as we came to the first crossing on our way back Pappa Quail slipped and fell into the water as well, heroically saving his camera. He too was unharmed but his shoes, the only pair he brought, were completely drenched.

He too didn't bother balancing on rocks anymore.
Good thing the camera wasn't damaged on the fall because on our way back we saw a couple of lizards that Pappa Quail promptly documented.
Granite Spiny Lizard
One of these lizards was hidden in the vegetation (not poison oak for a change). It didn't run away so I could photograph it too with my wide lens. I could clearly see its tail - something had got it in the past and it dropped its tail and regrew it afterwords. It's a fascinating survival phenomenon of the lizard.
Southern Alligator Lizard

I was in front, leading our group on our way back downstream. I hardly stopped other than to take off or put on my shoes when crossing the creek. I thought I had seen all that there was to see while going up the creek but apparently I had missed a patch of linanthus that was blooming on the slope off trail. I was happy to stop there for a minute to take a closer look while the others took a well earned snack break.
Variable Linanthus, Leptosiphon parviflorus 
We didn't get very far on our day hike. On any regular trail a three miles hike would take us no time at all. This trail however, forced us to walk slowly and tread very carefully. Poison oak thickets, fallen logs, crumbling trail, and most of all - the numerous creek crossings had taxed our energies enough to call to a day in he early afternoon. We spent the rest of the day lazying around the campsite, sitting by the creek or goofing by the campfire, telling jokes and stories and singing rowdy songs. And yes, I had spent a good time bucket-washing my young chika and myself as well as our clothes to get rid of the poison oak. (It actually worked - we did get some reaction but very little, considering how sensitive we are and how much contact we had with this plant).
We retired early that evening and had another peaceful night.

Day 3, April 21, 2019
We woke up to a sunny morning. All energized we had breakfast and broke camp. Our friends were eager to get going on the way back - they would have a 6-hours drive after that to get back home. We got our backpacks all packed, snapped a few more selfies, and hit the trail.
Leaving Adobe Camp
We sped thought the difficult mile downstream Willow Creek. Despite the poison oak and the poor trail conditions we made it to high grounds in a fairly good time, hardly pausing on our way. Uncharacteristically I was on the lead. Behind me were all the kids, in high spirits, chatting and singing.  Way in the rear were the two dads, having their own private conversation on god knows what.
The was no sign of a cloud and the blue sky gave a perfect backdrop to the gorgeous views of the canyon below. I inhaled the fresh air and imbibed on the view before me.
Willow Creek Canyon
There were more flowers along the way and I enjoyed the colorful display on the trailside.

Our friends were pressed for time but when we arrived at the Arroyo Seco bridge they couldn't resist when I suggested a brief stop at the beach. This time we were alone there, at least in the beginning. We decided to stay for half an hot. We snacked, took our shoes of and waded in the shallows, and filtered more water, getting ready for the big uphill ascend that awaited us. 
It was hard to get back in hiking mode. We were so tempted to stay there and spend the rest of the day on this sunny, beautiful beach! But we needed to get going. 
While we were putting on our shoes and packing everything again four guys clambered down the trail and across the bridge. They were carrying small inflatable rafts and told us they were about  to raft down through the gorge, a class 4 rapids. We wished them fun, crossed the bridge to the other side, and started up the trail.  
The beach at Arroyo Seco
About half way up to Arroyo Seco Rd we came upon a raft seat that fell off one of the rafts. I took off my backpack and told the others to wait a couple of minutes while I run down the trail and called to the rafters, waving the foam seat at them. They saw me and acknowledged what I was holding. One of the guys started uphill to retrieve the seat. I left it for him on the trail and run back up to join my group.
While I was down returning the raft seat my company had spotted some fairy lanterns for me. (My camera settings was off so the photo is dark.)
White Fairy Lantern, Calochortus albus 

Back at Arroyo Seco Rd and away from all that poison oak we could relax and enjoy our hike back up. We were ascending so naturally we walked slower, but we took much fewer pauses than I expected. The chikas, having a friend with them, hardly complained nor whined. And the young chika helped me find cool wildflowers. 

Hummingbird Sage, Salvia spathacea 
Pappa Quail too was alert to the birds that were active in the trees along the trail. At one point he stopped behind for so long that I begun to worry. He had complained earlier about pain in his knee and I thought It might be bothering him too much but when he rejoined us he said that he sportted a bird and was trying to get a good photo of it.
Anna's Hummingbird
Up and up we went, and the trail seemed endless. Already familiar with it, I could tell where a particular curve would be and encouraged the chikas that we were nearing our destination even without hearing any complaints. 
Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum 
Indeed, soon we were high above the gorge once more. I stood there for some time, wondering if the rafters had gone by already or are they still working on assembling their rafts. I didn't see them at all and eventually tore myself from the view and continued on. 

The Gorge 
On our way up I took more time to enjoy the wildflower. At least I was no more hurting from the fall I took in the way down on our first day. 

Morning Glory, Calystegia sp. 
It cannot be that much had changed in two days but somehow it seemed to me that there were more wildflowers and of more species going back on that same trail. 

Hairy Sun Cup, Camissoniopsis hirtella 

There seemed to be more birds too. Or that at least they were more active. 

Violet-green Swallow 

For the most park the Arroyo Seco Rd has a relatively mild grade. But on a coulee of segments the trail becomes considerably steeper. I stopped briefly to adjust my pack and to see everyone else chasing uphill as if they were roadrunners running from Wile E. Coyote. 

Going up
I didn't feel like a coyote and I wasn't chasing anyone. I merely enjoyed the sight of yerba santa in full bloom at the edge of the trail.
Yerba Santa, Eriodictyon californicum 
I knew we got to the last curve of the road when I saw the clamp of monkey flower and Indian paintbrush that I saw on the way down. It looked the same and we were passein by it at approximately the same time of day so even now it was too bright and looked like the burning bush.

Behind the last curve were the wood pegs that marked the beginning (or the end) of Arroyo Seco dirt road. Behind that was the pavement and the parking lot and picnic area.
The finish curve
On our way up we entertained the idea of having lunch together before splitting but when we arrived at the parking lot our friends decided to start south right away. We bade them goodby and they took off. we didn't linger much after they left but we did stop for lunch on our way back. 
It was a lovely little backpacking trip. We didn't cover much ground but we stayed in Nature in one of the most beautiful places not to far from the Bay Area, and we had a special time with our friends. This was the first f two family backpacking trips we had last spring, and a wonderful experience altogether. I believe that our friends enjoyed it too :-)