Cone Peak (5,519 ft): Highest Coastal Mountain In The Lower 48
Los Padres NF, Big Sur Coast
I realize this is off-topic; but we do love our Red Sox
Just because winter is on the way doesn’t mean that hiking season has to end. Far from it. While much of California’s mighty Sierra Nevada Mountain range spends the colder months largely inaccessible- socked in with deep snows, seasonal road closures, and bitterly cold temperatures, those parts that can be reached still offer vast opportunities for backcountry catharsis.
The Sierra in the winter is very much a different mountain range than one finds during its summertime incarnation. Trails, buried as they are under several feet of snow, lose their significance, and are replaced with wide open country, no longer seen through the lens of established routes, thus entirely recontextualizing the backcountry experience. Thousands of lakes are frozen over, opening up new ways to traverse the backcountry. And the silence…on a calm winter’s day in the middle of a snowy wilderness, it’s as if somebody hit the MUTE button on the world. And with nearly every woodland species having bedded down for the season, there is very little out there to interrupt your quiet reverie.
Snow shoes or cross-country skis can make all the difference when travelling across snowy terrain. You can buy either at any REI store; and some REIs offer equipment rentals as well. You can also rent at Yosemite’s Badger Pass, South Lake Tahoe, and Mt. Shasta City; though you’ll get way better deals if you rent from stores in the Bay Area.
Snowshoeing/ X-country skiing season in the Sierra runs roughly from November thru April, sometimes longer.
Don’t sit out the winter snow season.
I love San Francisco.
Is there another city in America more aesthetically rewarding (or challenging) for the foot traveler?
I encourage you to make the most of your city (whatever city that is).
Go for a walk, look around. There’s much out there to be found.
Okay, so where was I? Oh yeah, the heart-warming tale of how the Peanut came to be my son.
So, on December 3rd, 2006, five days after he joined our family, I took Peanut on the first of what would become a virtually uncountable number of hikes; though, thanks to my unforgivable hubris, it very nearly proved his last hike with me.
“Deek, what the hell did you do? In what sheer buffoonery did you engage with this precious little beast?”
Okay, FAIR. I deserve that.
So my friend Sean and I headed up to the back (north) side of the Bay Area’s awesome Mt. Tamalpais (yes, the same one David Crosby wrote a song about on his 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name), with the Pean in tow. Poor bastard had never been on such a series of hairpin turns, a point he drove home with a backseat full of liquified dog-treat puke.
We parked at the Cataract Falls Trailhead, along Bolinas-Fairfax Road, just west of the Alpine Reservoir Dam, and hit the trail.
The Cataract Falls Trail, if you catch it at the right time of year (which early December, incidentally, is most definitely not, due to the typically low water levels at that time of year- low water levels for which, in this case, I would be immeasurably thankful later on ), is easily one of the Bay Area’s most aesthetically rewarding river trails. Over the course of a little under two miles, Cataract Creek plunges more than a thousand vertical feet through a dense redwood canyon, rich with Jurassic ferns and other stunning greenery, around, across, and over various granite benches, in a chain of highly-photogenic waterfalls. It was uphill along the course of these tumbling waters that we set off to climb.
About a half mile into the hike, the trail crosses a narrow wooden footbridge, a crossing utterly non-intimidating for any human being over three feet tall, but far less so for a six-month old hound who still hasn’t even mastered the basic art of ascending and descending stairs. Pean was having NONE of it. So I picked him up, carried him across the bridge, and we were on our way once again.
We climbed alongside the tumbling waters, as filtered rays of sunlight pierced the canopy above, illuminating various choice stands of shrubbery and collecting pools of swirling runoff, and soon reached the top of the falls. All the while Peanut frolicked in this newly-revealed world of his, relishing the cornucopia of interesting and unfamiliar smells all about.
Since, so far, everything had been going so swimmingly, Sean and I decided to press onwards towards the summit of Mt. Tam, turning left onto the High Marsh Trail, which traces a relatively level track across the backside of the mountain, contouring along its northwestern flank.
This is where the fateful hubris took me.
In a catastrophically gross over-interpretation of the level of bonding that had transpired between myself and Peanut over the five days of our co-habitation, I deemed it a legit call to let him off leash for awhile. As soon as the shackles were withdrawn, my furry son exploded into the adjacent meadow in a fit of unbridled excitement heretofore unseen (by me, anyway) in his short life, loosed as he was upon an open wilderness for now only the first time.
For awhile everything was cool, Peanut responding with dutiful immediacy to all summons, treat offer or no. Okay fine, I offered him a treat every time he came to me. Still, though, it all felt right at that point.
Sometime later we turned onto a new trail, climbed a few hundred feet, and came upon a picnic area called Barth’s Retreat, at which, on our approach, we could hear an all-American family enjoying a nice Sunday lunch in the great outdoors. This picnic area boasted a reliable water source; so we were heading straight for it to refill our water bottles, and to let the Pean drink from the through-running creek.
Just as we were walking up to the spigot, the baby of the family let out this blood-curdling scream- not a scream of terror or anguish, mind you, just a young kid being a loud little fucker, as I always was myself (still am).
Regardless of the actual benignity of the child’s scream, however, it was apparently a sound that Peanut had never heard before; and to him it sounded just plain wrong. Thus erupted he into a full-out sprint back in the direction from which we’d come, racing up to the top of a nearby rise in the trail, and on his way out of the immediate vicinity.
Naturally, I gave chase at once, struggling mightily to balance my sudden extreme panic with a sufficiently reassuring “Hey buddy, everything’s fine, it’s not scary, want a treat?” voice of comfort.
It almost seemed like it might just work, as Peanut stopped periodically, turning around and appearing to momentarily consider trusting me, before at last disappearing over the hill and out of my site.
An urgent 45 minutes of comprehensive area-searching came up fruitless; and so I powered up my phone to call my girlfriend Katherine, Peanut’s newly-adopted mother, and my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, as it seemed.
To be continued…
There are numerous ways you can climb a mountain in San Francisco (being that there are, according to the hill gurus, 47 hills within the city limits); but if you really want the experience of climbing a proper mountain, but refuse to drive more than five miles from the city, look no further than San Bruno Mountains State & County Park, which sits immediately south of San Francisco’s southern border, occupying parts of Daly City, Colma, Brisbane, and South San Francisco.
The San Bruno Mountains exist as a four-mile long ridgeline of rolling peaks, running in a roughly WNW-ESE direction, and topping out at the summit of San Bruno Mountain proper, at 1,320 feet above sea level. The San Bruno Mountain ridgeline marks the northernmost extreme of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which run southward through the San Francisco Peninsula, separating the urban sprawl of the Bay Area from the wide blue Pacific to the west. Parts of the San Bruno Mountains have been set aside as San Bruno Mountain Ecological Reserve, protecting various species of butterflies and sensitive plants, some of which are found nowhere on Earth but here on San Bruno Mountain.
So then, the hike:
Friday afternoon I grabbed my trusty hike-mates, Peanut and Maggie (you haven’t met her yet; but you will soon), threw them in the car, and set off for the 15-minute drive from my home in San Francisco to Brisbane, the next town south, from whence the day’s hike would begin.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that, though I am categorizing this as a dog-friendly hike, it’s technically not. Dogs are prohibited on the trails of all California State Parks (with a few weak-ass and utterly negligible exceptions); but since I find this rule to be antiquated, arbitrary, and in many cases just plain discriminatory against dogs (though admittedly there are some California state parks where the dog ban makes sense), I choose to obey it selectively, as I deem fair. In this particular case we would be traipsing over a remote and little-used part of the San Bruno Mountains Park; so I was willing to risk being ticketed, figuring that most likely we would not encounter any super-cowboy rangers.
Setting out from Brisbane’s South Hill Drive, near its junction with Quarry Road, we started up the Trinity Ridge Fire Rd, a brutally steep and rocky dirt track unsuitable for 99.9% of motorized vehicles. The sun was out; but a light breeze kept things manageable- for a few minutes; but in short order I had my shirt tied around my waist. In my backpack I carried a pair of 32-oz water bottles: one filled with lemonade (for me), and the other containing regular old no-frills water (for the beasts). The front left pocket of my hiking pants bulged with dog treats; though my attempt to conceal such a rich cornucopia of fragrant goodies behind a flimsy thin nylon membrane wasn’t exactly fooling either of these hounds, both of whom danced around me eagerly, tails a-wagging, any and every time I would reach into my pocket for anything whatsoever.
Now either the breeze died out completely, or I was just sweating too hard to notice it (and thus to benefit from any succor it might provide); but the upshot was that I was sweating my ass off, and pretty winded from the sheer brutality of the ascent. We plodded up the side of the mountain on a trail which steepened as it climbed, slipping on stones as we picked our way uphill. The shit was steep; and I was hot; but nevertheless, after about a half hour of climbing, we gained the ridgeline.
Behind us, views of downtown San Francisco, and much of the eastern part of the city had opened up, as well as views to the east and northeast, towards Oakland and Berkeley, on the far side of San Francisco Bay. At the ridgeline, we also gained views southwards, to San Francisco Airport, the South Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the municipalities that fill the eastern half of the San Francisco peninsula. To the west, partially obscured by the bulk of San Bruno Mountain, which drags the ridgeline another couple hundred vertical feet skyward a mile or two west of here, could be seen the gap in the coastal mountains, through which passes California’s Coast Highway 1, on its way to Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and seaward points further south. Through this gap poured forth a white wall of coastal clouds, blowing inland and slowly filling the valleys of Daly City and Colma.
The clouds continue to roll in from the coast. We jog about 75 yards north along the San Bruno Crest, and then drop steeply down the other side- southwards, towards South San Francisco. Again, the going is tough- exceedingly steep and rocky; though now a cool breeze, outlier of the probing fingers of the incoming fog bank, assails us from the southwest. I put on my shirt.
Touching down along Sister Cities Boulevard in South City, we walk a mile through the fringes of town, and then start back up to the ridge from a more easterly trailhead. We’re in the direct path of the winds off the bay now; and so the going is chilly- even with the toil of steep uphill hiking. Soon my shirt isn’t even enough, and I put on my light windbreaker to buffer my defense against the cool air of early evening. Gazing back down behind us as we climb, I see the marinas along the edge of San Francisco Bay, just north of the airport. The evening rush hour of Highway 101, which runs north-south against the eastern foot of this ridge, shows itself as an ever-brightening necklace of white and red lights, stretching away to the south until lost in the melee of sensory stimuli that lay in that direction, to the north obscured by the bulk of this here ridge on which we stand.
We regain the ridge of San Bruno Mountain after 20 minutes of stiff uphill walking; and a look to the west confirms that the increasing fog has begun to consume the western end of the ridge, obscuring, one-by-one, the radio towers and other buildings which pepper the top of San Bruno Mountain. Better hustle before we are engulfed in cloudy mist.
We flop back over to the north side of the ridge to begin our descent back down to Brisbane, this time by way of the Siskiyou Road Trail. To the north, the clouds continue their pervasive spread out across the forty seven hills of San Francisco, bleeding over Mount Davidson and Twin Peaks, creeping slowly towards the skyscrapers of downtown. Another steeply-angled descent- and we skid and slide our way down the beat-up trail, at last touching down in the hillside neighborhoods of southern Brisbane.
As the wind kicks up another few notches, and the darkness begins to close in on us, we stroll our way through residential Brisbane, until at last we are back in the car, cranking tunes and heading home to a well-earned dinner.