Big Sur: More Ocean, Fewer People

Oxalis loves the deep shade of the redwood forest.

Oxalis loves the deep shade of the redwood forest.

We spent Memorial Day weekend over on the Central Coast of California, checking out some of the rugged coastline south of Monterey. We found a number of trails that wound through forested canyons and up onto ridges.

Many these trails are on the steep side, but we were rewarded for our efforts by a lack of other walkers, expansive ocean views once the morning fog burned off, and a complete-surprise sighting of a couple of wild California Condors. [No condor photos; we were too busy gaping once we realized they were not turkey vultures!]

The upper Salmon Creek Trail near Punta Gorda was somewhat overgrown ...

The upper Salmon Creek Trail near Punta Gorda was somewhat overgrown …

... but we managed to get through chemise thickets and avoid most of the poison oak, for nice views from the Crest Ridge Road at the top.

… but we managed to get through chemise thickets and avoid most of the poison oak, for nice views from the Crest Ridge Road at the top.

Heading back down Salmon Creek. Yes, there really is a trail through this!

Heading back down Salmon Creek. Yes, there really is a trail through this. One can experience firsthand the effects of more precipitation as compared to the Eastern Sierra.

Expansive ocean and Sprinter views.

Expansive ocean and Sprinter views (see it?).

We camped for free up on the Nacimiento Road, along with 100 of our closest friends. Apparently using the many pullouts on this road for ad-hoc parking/camping is a Thing. But the road is 16 miles long so there appears to be room for all.

We camped for free up on the Nacimiento Road in Los Padres National Forest, along with 100 of our closest friends. Apparently using the many pullouts on this road for ad-hoc parking/camping is a Thing. But the road is 16 miles long so there appears to be room for all.

Alta Vista, a Big Sur Landmark

A random assortment of flowers, bamboo, prickly pear, and other succulents grew at the site. It was a tiny, wild, botanical garden.

A random assortment of flowers, bamboo, prickly pear, and other succulents grew at the site. It was a tiny, wild, botanical garden.

At the top of one of the ridges above the Burns State Park trailhead, we found a smallish, unmarked side trail that we decided to follow. It wound steeply further up the ridge and ended at the stone ruins of … a house! A nearby plaque explained:

Situated on a ridge above Partington Creek, this homestead site was patented in 1932 and named Alta Vista by Alfhild and Gustave Overstrom, who constructed a cabin, barn and cold storage cellar overlooking the Big Sur coast. In 1981, Alta Vista was purchased by Jeff Norman, a noted Big Sur historian and naturalist, who lived on the property for many years until his death in 2007. The cabin, barn and cold storage cellar were destroyed in the Basin Complex Fire of 2008, leaving the foundations that still remain on the site. With support form its members, Save the Redwoods League acquired Alta Vista from Jeff Norman’s estate in 2010 for addition to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Homestead foundation. This ridgetop location boasts stunning views of Big Sur when the fog is not present. But we enjoyed the cool and mist.

Homestead foundation. This ridgetop location boasts stunning views of Big Sur when the fog is not present. But the fog made for better photographing, and we had the site to ourselves.

Old pottery at the homestead.

Old pottery at the homestead.

After visiting the homestead site, we headed further out the small trail system on to the Tanbark Trail, which drops 3 miles back down into the Partington Creek drainage. The fog continued to provide nice, filtered light for photographing the forest. We ran into a few people along this trail who asked us how close they were to “the top” or “the house.” We thought it was amusing that so many people seemed to know about this place we’d never heard of, and whose access trail was unmarked, steep, and brushy.

The namesake tanbarks (tanoaks), which grow along with the redwoods in this part of the forest.

The namesake tanbarks (tanoaks) that grow along with the redwoods in this part of the forest.

Handy fallen-redwood bridge.

Handy fallen-redwood bridge.

Coming back down the Waters Trail in the afternoon, with magnificent coastal views.

Coming back down the Waters Trail in the afternoon, with magnificent coastal views.

Grassy-meadow switchbacks and blue water.

Grassy-meadow switchbacks and blue water.

A lovely spot for a sit-down. Further down the ridge, we spotted a pair of soaring, wild condors.

A lovely spot for a sit-down. To cap off a great day, we spotted a pair of soaring condors! There are only about 35 in the recovering Big Sur flock, so it was a huge surprise to actually see wild birds.

Worth its Salt: Tramway Trail and Craig Canyon, Saline Valley

Dawn comes to Saline Valley and the mighty Inyos.

Dawn comes to Saline Valley and the mighty Inyos.

We recently took our new truck for a break-in jaunt into Saline Valley, the huge valley just east of Owens Valley. The west side of Saline is formed by the rugged Inyo Mountains, and the valley contains dunes, hot springs, pure stands of pickleweed, and—at this time of year—wildflowers. We filled up the weekend with a hike up the steep and historic Salt Tramway Trail, and got a different look at the Inyos from the inside with a short jaunt up Craig Canyon.

Salt Tramway Trail

Michel Digonnet, author of the indispensable-for-desert-travelers Hiking Western Death Valley National Parkgives special attention to the Salt Tramway of Saline Valley. The biggest mining venture in Saline Valley involved not precious metals, but humble halite—table salt. “Discovered” in the late 1800s, Saline Valley Salt Lake underwent serious exploitation around 1911, and construction of a 13.5-mile aerial tramway began soon after. From the valley floor at 1100′, it would climb almost 8,000′ to cross deep Daisy Canyon, continue upward to the almost 9,000′ crest of the Inyos, then drop over 5,000′ down the other side to a railroad terminal on the shore of Owens Lake.

The tramway was powered by electric motors and called for 2 terminals, 4 intermediate control towers to change direction of the cables, 21 rail structures, and 12 anchorage-tension stations.When completed in 1913, it became the steepest tramway in the US— and remains one of the largest of its kind today (Digonnet).

Saline Valley Salt Lake at 1100', where halite was mined and then transported up and over the 8700' crest of the Inyo Mountains to Owens Valley. A 13.5 mile long aerial tramway was built in 1913 to do the hauling.

Saline Valley Salt Lake at 1100′, where halite was mined and then transported up and over the 8700′ crest of the Inyo Mountains to Owens Valley. A 13.5 mile long aerial tramway was built in 1913 to do the hauling.

Up, up, and up some more: at a thousand feet per mile, the trail passes 10 tramway stations along the edge of Daisy Canyon before crossing it, then passes by stations 11-20.

Up, up, and up some more: at a thousand feet per mile, the trail passes 10 tramway stations along the edge of Daisy Canyon before crossing it, then passes by stations 11-20.

Looking down at Station 4 of 20. This project used 1.3 million board feet of lumber, 54 miles of cable, and 650 tons of nuts and bolts. And no helicopters.

Looking down at Station 4 of 20. This project used 1.3 million board feet of lumber, 54 miles of cable, and 650 tons of nuts and bolts. And no helicopters.

Control Station 5, where the cables changed direction.

Control Station 5, where the cables changed direction.

Part of one of the electric motors used to power the cables carrying buckets of salt.

Part of one of the electric motors used to power the cables carrying buckets of salt.

During the 12 years this tramway operated, 30,000 tons of salt were shipped over the mountains to Owens Valley. *Mike for scale.

During the 12 years this tramway operated, 30,000 tons of salt were shipped over the mountains to Owens Valley. *Mike for scale.

Spot the horned lizard and win a prize!

Spot the horned lizard and win a prize!

The next station above the #5 control station. Anyone in for an historic, exciting zip-line adventure on vintage, unmaintained mining detritus far from any professional medical assistance? Fred and Laura, maybe some bone-broth stations at the top or bottom?

The next station above the #5 control station. Anyone in for an historic, exciting zip-line adventure on vintage, unmaintained mining detritus far from any professional medical assistance?

The longest shovel ever.

The longest shovel ever.

Eventually tne trail becomes a bit of a catwalk threading its way between cliff bands along a steep side canyon. — with Mike Hay.

Eventually tne trail becomes a bit of a catwalk threading its way between cliff bands along a steep side canyon. 

The trail is still intact as it approaches Station 9. We have ascended about 4000' in 5 miles, yet are still 5 miles from the Inyo crest. — with Mike Hay.

The trail is still intact as it approaches Station 9. We have ascended about 4000′ in 5 miles, yet are still 5 miles from the Inyo crest. 

View from Station 10, at the edge of Daisy Canyon, where the trail disappears. To get to Stations 11-20 (11 is on the skyline), one would need to drop 1000' down to the canyon bottom and back up the other side. We turned around here.

View from Station 10, at the edge of Daisy Canyon, where the trail disappears. To get to Stations 11-20 (11 is on the skyline), one would need to drop 1000′ down to the canyon bottom and back up the other side. We turned around here.

Enjoying the softening light on the late-afternoon descent ... thinking about the fact that we're just about out of water and that there is beer down at the truck ...

Enjoying the softening light on the late-afternoon descent … thinking about the fact that we’re just about out of water and that there is beer down at the truck …

... as shadows begin to creep across the valley floor.

… as shadows begin to creep across the valley floor.

Steep, deep and fall-ridden: Craig Canyon

Collared lizard enjoying the morning sun.

Collared lizard enjoying the morning sun.

Craig Canyon is just north of Daisy Canyon and the Salt Tramway, so we explored it a little the next day right from camp. In just 2 miles we scrambled up numerous small falls and bypassed 2 large ones. As Digonnet says, “The lower canyon offers a relatively easy hike to exceptional narrows that rank among the deepest and tightest in this range. For a change there is no running water or bramble to make hiking a nuisance.” 

The Big Silver Mine at the entrance to Craig Canyon.

The Big Silver Mine at the entrance to Craig Canyon. “Rustic! Landscaping! Not too much hantavirus! Free spiders!”

Amazing layered rock in lower Craig Canyon. This is one of a handful in the Inyos that are not choked with water (and impassable brush).

Amazing layered rock in lower Craig Canyon. This is one of a handful in the Inyos that are not choked with water (and impassable brush).

Mike checks out the granite quality. The rock in the canyon included limestone, shale, granite, conglomerate, and probably many more!

Mike checks out the granite quality. The rock in the canyon included limestone, shale, granite, conglomerate, and probably many more!

We passed several falls, which were short and climbable with options of varying difficulty.

We passed several falls, which were short and climbable with options of varying difficulty.

Nothing ever stands still in these canyons. This had been washed down and deposited in the streambed. Subsequent alluvial deposition covered it. Now those depositional layers are being eroded out, which has exposed the log.

Nothing ever stands still in these canyons. This log had been washed down and deposited in the streambed. Subsequent alluvial deposition covered it. Now those depositional layers are being eroded out, which has exposed the log.

View from the top of the first large (50') fall, which we bypassed on ledges.

View from the top of the first large (50′) fall, which we bypassed on ledges.

Top of second large fall, also bypassed on ledges near the giant cactus at right.

Top of second large fall, also bypassed on ledges near the giant cactus at right.

Two miles up-canyon, we enter a spectacular narrows of polished limestone.

Two miles up-canyon, we enter a spectacular narrows of polished limestone.

This must have been exciting when it flooded.

This must have been exciting when it flooded.

Violent and rapid water flow had undercut these limestone walls.

Violent and rapid water flow had undercut these limestone walls.

Rock-studded dried mud made up some of the walls in the narrows.

Rock-studded dried mud made up some of the walls in the narrows.

After the narrows, we came to a third fall, maybe 30' high. This may be passable with some gear for protection, but we turned around here.

After the narrows, we came to a third fall, maybe 30′ high. This may be passable with some gear for protection, but we turned around here.

Winter, Saline Valley.

Dried-mud polygons in a high basin. We found worked obsidian chips alongside the dry lake.

Dried-mud polygons in a high basin. We found worked obsidian chips on a small rise above the dry lake.

Mike and I started off 2015 with a 3-day walk in Saline Valley, located near Bishop between Owens Valley and Death Valley. You can get into Saline Valley from the north or south via the rough and often washed-out Saline Valley Road. We were able to drive the intrepid Subaru in from the north, with only a few icy sections to negotiate.

Saline Valley is part of Death Valley National Park, the largest National Park in the Lower 48. The valley floor boasts warm springs and a somewhat-perennial hippie colony, where rumor has it that the word “wind” is forbidden; a marshy salt lake; and sand dunes nestled between the towering 10,000-foot escarpment of the Inyo Mountains to the west and the Saline Range to the east. Unless you are in the deep canyons of the Inyos, where water flows, the only water you have in the Saline Range is what you carry with you.

Remnants of a snake. We also found a frozen tarantula higher up-canyon.  We did not see or hear any wildlife until we were almost back in the bottom of the valley—winter had sent most creatures underground or to lower elevations.

Remnants of a snake. We also found a frozen tarantula higher up-canyon. We did not see or hear any wildlife until we were almost back in the bottom of the valley—winter had sent most creatures underground or to lower elevations.

People sometimes ask why we walk around out here. Despite sometimes heavy packs, we enjoy these remote and untraveled routes because there is always something to see: Animal tracks or giant, ancient logs in a wash. Jumbles of geology, where basalt, granite, limestone, and other rocks sit side by side. Carpets of wildflowers after a rain. Evidence of past, violent volcanic or hydraulic action. Obsidian pieces and rock art left by long-ago nomads.

And always the chance to sleep in the open, full of dinner after a day of walking, under the stars amid the absolute silence of a mostly empty valley, and with the next-day’s promise of sitting in a warm sleeping bag with hot coffee, watching the sun rise.

Easing into Day 1 with heavy packs and thankfully mellow terrain.

Easing into Day 1 with heavy packs and thankfully mellow terrain.

Finding an easy way down into the wash on Day 1, with heavy packs. We planned 1 gallon of water per person, per day - so we started with 24 lbs. of water each, plus other gear.

Finding a way down into the wash on Day 1. We planned 1 gallon of water per person, per day – so we started with 24 lbs. of water each, plus food and other gear, which added up to 50+ pounds each.

Faint remnant of an old trail where Waucoba Wash narrowed at the base of a ridge,

Faint remnant of an old trail where Waucoba Wash narrowed at the base of a ridge.

Waiting for dinner in our cozy 2-person down sleeping bag.

Waiting for dinner in our cozy 2-person down sleeping bag.

Chilly morning pack-up, as sun hits the Inyos across the valley. We had daylight enough to walk from 8am to 4pm, or longer if we wanted to pull out headlamps. The moon was almost full, so nights were bright.

Chilly morning pack-up, as sun hits the Inyos across the valley. We had daylight enough to walk from 8am to 4pm, or longer if we wanted to pull out headlamps. The moon was almost full, so nights were bright.

Petroglyphs in a tiny canyon that drained a small lake basin. Always someone was here first.

Petroglyphs in a tiny canyon that drained a small lake basin. Always someone was here first.

We passed a variety of rock formations that probably had origin in past volcanic activity.

We passed a variety of rock formations that probably had origin in past volcanic activity.

Sunny afternoon wash-cruising beneath the towering wall of the Inyo Mountains. Miners once built a tramway to haul salt from the now-dry lake up and over these mountains and into the Owens Valley for transport. Some of the tram towers are still standing.

Sunny afternoon wash-cruising beneath the towering 10,000-foot wall of the Inyo Mountains. Miners once built a tramway to haul salt from the lake up and over these mountains and into the Owens Valley for transport. Some of the tram towers are still standing.

Volcanic-rubble layer cake in a large wash.

Volcanic-rubble layer cake in a large wash.

Cross-country over a moonscape of volcanic rocks.

Cross-country over a moonscape of lava rocks.

Overlooking what would be our campsite, on the flatter, sandier ground below.

Overlooking what would be our last campsite, on the flatter, sandier ground below. The Saline Valley Road travels along the foot of the mountains across the valley.

We discovered the "Saline Valley Tetons" in the middle of the bottom of the valley. These were the largest boulders around.

We discovered the “Saline Valley Tetons” in the bottom of the valley. These were the largest boulders around. How did they get here?

Ten-foot log of unknown age and origin in Waucoba Wash, several miles from the mountain forests on the sides of the valley.

Ten-foot log of unknown age and origin in Waucoba Wash, several miles from the mountain forests on the sides of the valley.