After power-walking in the hills of my neighborhood for months, I joined the HikingOC MeetUp group in March. It's been great for conditioning and even better for getting me out of the house.
From my place in the hills of Yorba Linda (Orange County, California), I can see Sierra Peak, the northernmost summit of the Santa Ana Mountains, which looms over the 91 freeway from the south as you drive into Riverside County. You can't miss it.
There are a zillion antennas on top, and as a long-time radio geek (amateur radio callsign KA8CMY), it's been calling to me for years.
There are two main paths going up: via Skyline Drive (in Corona) from the east, and via Coal Canyon on the west. Coal Canyon is closer and (I believe) a more difficult hike, so that's what another hiker and I from HikingOC decided to try.
Sadly, the combination of the relatively poor camera in my iPhone 4S along with my terrible photography skills means that these pictures will all be marginal. I'll be consulting the family photo expert for gear suitable for my skill level and intended use.
Coal Canyon used to be a real exit off the 91 freeway, but crossing under the roadway was found to be the only wildlife corridor connecting the Santa Ana Mountains with the Chino Hills to the north, so it was removed from service in 2003 or so. There's still an unmarked freeway exit going eastbound, but it's for construction or emergency traffic only. The freeway-accessible parts are fenced off so the mountain lions don't wander around on the 91.
At 7AM sharp, we met at the Green River Golf Course, the closest car-accessible parking spot, and walked ~1.3 miles the entrance of the park which is just south of the freeway via the wildlife undercrossing. Hikes like this always start early to avoid the heat of the day, at least going up.
The ascent starts up Pipeline Trail to the east along a well-groomed fire/service road, and though it's definitely uphill, it's entirely non-technical and easy footing.
But a bit more than 3 miles into the hike we reach the end of the fire roads and start an unmarked non-vehicle trail. This is where it gets very steep, at times surpassing 45 degrees, and this is difficult, slow climbing. We called it "Holy Crap! Hill", the first of four like this.
Unfortunately, I left my trekking poles at home. Duh. These look like ski poles, and they're really useful for ascent and descent, providing stability and extra oomph going up. Mine are Black Diamond Ultra Distance poles, made of carbon fiber that snap down to fit in a backpack. They're very light and very nice, and I wish I'd had them with me. Nevertheless, their absence was not a show-stopper.
Finally at ~5.5 miles, we reached Leonard Road, a maintained fire road, and from there it was another half mile to Sierra Peak, looping past it to the south and approaching from the east. Getting past the non-vehicle trails onto regular roads was a great relief.
It was here that we saw a rattlesnake sunning himself (herself?) in the middle of the road; these are common sights on the trail.
Rattlesnakes are much more afraid of us than we are of them, and there's really no danger unless you step on one by mistake, so giving them a wide berth means we can all enjoy the trail together. I'd seen one in Chino Hills SP two weeks prior.
Even though it was a hazy day, the views going up were tremendous; I could see the area of my house most of the way up, and the views kept getting better and better. My previous highest hikes had been in Chino Hills State Park (both San Juan Hill and Gilman Peak), but they were like anthills in the sand from 3000 feet.
(click image for more detail)
After having arrived at the peak at 10AM and spending a few minutes enjoying the view, we took off and started heading back down. But rather than return the same way, we took the long way down that stuck to fire roads — going downhill on the original path is difficult and dangerous, especially without poles. Besides, we wanted a different view.
Heading southwest along Leonard Road, we got great views to the south of a huge canyon that I don't think is visible from any highway, and it was lovely to see the variety of geology and biology heading down. At times was kinda steep, but nothing too challenging, and we made very good time.
At the southernmost portion of the trail we made an almost 180 degree turn to head north on Carbon Canyon Trail. Had we missed this turn, we'd have been taking Windy Ridge Trail, which leads over by the toll plaza on the 241 freeway. That would have been a long walk home.
It was at this point that I ran out of water. My backpack is a Camelbak Octane 18x, and it has a bladder holding 3 liters of water along with a drinking hose. I typically fill mine with ice and then water, because cold water tastes soooo much better than hot water. But I got a good lesson in rationing.
We had met a couple of obviously experienced hikers up on the peak, taking the same path, and when they passed us it served as a great motivator to speed up a bit to chase the rabbits. In places the descent was of a steepness that made it easier to jog than to walk, so we made great time heading down. It was much easier going down even though it was around 2 miles longer.
I have a great app on my iPhone for hiking, Walkmeter, and it's just fantastic: It records every hike, times and distances (it says I've hiked 279 miles this year), and it can track GPS points to plot our hike in a map:
click image for more detail
Our 14.12 mile hike took around 5-1/2 hours on the clock, but Walkmeter doesn't count time stopped (resting, viewing, etc.) we had 4:14 of real hiking time.
The elevation at the starting point was around 450 feet above sea level, which puts Sierra Peak's 3045 feet ASL at more than 2500 feet of gain (almost half a mile straight up). Though other peaks in Orange County are higher — Santiago Peak is more than 2000 feet higher — Sierra Peak is considered by many one of the hardest hikes in Orange County due to the difficulty of the terrain. I believe it.
I'd like to do it again sometime, this time taking better notes and photographs to make a real guide to this trail: many portions are not marked well (or at all) and it's easy to go down a wrong turn. Though one is not likely to get truly lost here (visibility is very good), backtracking these inclines would be tiring. Thankfully, we didn't take any wrong turns.
I had a cellphone signal pretty much the whole hike, we're in an essentially urban area, but I'd thought ahead to get a PowerSkin battery case for my phone; this fits like a regular phone case, but it includes a built-in battery that pretty much doubles the available battery time. My battery would have been dead by the time we got back to the cars without it.
I'd been very nervous about doing this hike, but I don't think I was really all that close to my real limits: I could have done a harder hike. In the past I'd had problems with blisters, but I got away scot free on this one. I did crash/relax for most of the rest of the day, and though I'm certainly sore today, I'm ready to do whatever is next.
Big thanks to my hiking partner Diana, and to HikingOC group leader Marlin for her helpful encouragement and advice in advance.