The winter was just settling in for a long stay. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the snow. If I had to live in a state with no seasons, I would go crazy. But winter is not my favorite. In fact, it is far from my favorite. You could even say it is my least favorite. But this Saturday afternoon found me pulling my snowshoes out of mothballs and performing my annual ritual of contemplating the purchase of a decent AT setup. Then I received a call from my sister.
“How about a trip to California?”
Snow-less California? How could I say no? After a bit of thinking on it, I had my tickets. A follow-up conversation solidified our plans.
Me: Where are we heading?
Her: I thought backpacking in Point Reyes.
Me: What the heck is that?
Not that it mattered. I was going no matter what she decided. My sister had recently relocated to Northern California, so this would be a first for her as well. She had heard good things about the area and it fulfilled our criteria: it was snow-free and we could drive there from her house. The day after Christmas, I was on a plane to Oakland.
For a snow-dwelling Idahoan, seeing green grass and blooming flowers in December is a revelation. I stepped off the place in the Bay Area and peeled off my sweatshirt. It was not hot, maybe 55 degrees, but humid! Californians ran around in puffy jackets and looked warily at my bare arms. Trees had their leaves; grass was greening in the light rain. It’s not hard to see why visitors often decide to stay. I slung my duffel in the back of the jeep and we were off.
After a weekend with my folks, we packed up and headed to the coast. The weather forecast had been questionable all week and recently downgraded. The current outlook was 70 to 80 percent chance of rain that evening and the following day. Rainy weather was not ideal, but we were here and going to get out, precipitation be damned.
Stopping off at the visitor’s center to pick up the passes, I wandered around looking at the displays. Nettles, poison oak, bishop pines. This was definitely an alien landscape to me. Point Reyes
is an interesting place, with the driest parts receiving 12 inches of rain a year and the wettest receiving 40. Within just a few miles of each other. Some plants get as much as a third of their moisture from fog and mist in the summer and winter is the rainy season. The topography is also unusual. A high ridge called Inverness runs the length of the park, parallel to the shore. Walking through the landscape is to progress very quickly through dry scrubland, misty canyons and fern-laden douglas fir forest. Also, sometimes you can spot whales from the shore. Amazing.
Passes in hand, we drove up to the laguna trailhead, out starting point to the loop. Today would be a quick one: just a walk to the Coast Camp, a two-mile jaunt over a ridge.
As we began our trudge, the weather looked threatening. A few drops even hit my face, but the promised rain never solidified. At least not today.
We topped the ridge and two things immediately struck me: the sound of the ocean and the smell of the ocean. This was a first for me. I had never backpacked within a hundred miles of the ocean, much less a stone’s throw. It was something I never quite got used to. In the evening I fell asleep with the crashing waves in my ears and woke in the morning with the salt spray in my nose.
The sun's rays just starting to color the beach.
We rolled into camp and threw everything up in a hurry. The clouds were still there, but nothing was happening yet. And we wanted to get to the beach. At this site the beach is just a few dozen yard from the camp down a small canyon. We arrived just as the sun broke through the clouds in the distance, throwing the beach into an orange glow. After a few pictures, we both sat on the beach and enjoyed the sensation of an ocean-view sunset.
As the evening progressed into darkness, the clouds continued to dissipate. After a dinner of turkey chili, we returned to the beach to explore under the full moon. Another first for me.
The next morning dawned clear and bright, with a few wispy clouds racing around. We lingered over breakfast and again visited the beach. Today would be a ten mile journey don the coast trail to wildcat camp for the second night. The coast trail is one of the wonders of the area. It wanders mile after mile, first hugging the coastal cliffs, then climbing the middle ridge to tower several hundred feet over the ocean. Sculptured stack rocks, weathered sandy beaches and waterfalls thundering directly onto the sand are around almost every corner. The trip took longer than expected, due to frequent stops.
“Look, over there!”
“And here! That’s amazing!”
One of the many stunning beaches.
But eventually reach it we did. Wildcat camp sits on a bluff thrusting over the beach and is a stunning location. As a result, it is the most popular campsite in the park and I can see why. The trails leading to it all drop from above, so you get a bird’s eye view of the camp as you descend to it. As we did so, the first raindrops began to splatter. This would be a harbinger of more to come.
Again we set up camp quickly so we could explore. We scampered to the beach and meandered up and down it, looking at the streams gurgling into the ocean, rocks emerging from the beach, cliffs jutting over the sea. While we did, the rain started again and would not end soon.
Arriving back at camp, we set to making dinner quickly, knowing that time was running out on us. The rain was accelerating, and even with rain gear on, it was finding the gaps. My sister boiled the water, I divided the ingredients. I glanced around and made note that we were the only ones out of our tent. No one else was so dumb!
We wolfed our dinner quickly, washed our pots quickly and crept into the tent as soon as we could. It was moist, but not cold and so never uncomfortable. In fact, it was pleasant listening to the rain drops hitting the tent while we were comfy inside. I would say the night passed without incident, but just after I fell asleep my sister awoke me with the news that a gust of wind had pulled the rain fly’s tent peg out of the soft ground. Ugh. One quick trip out to locate the peg and my boot to set it and I was back in the bag. NOW I can say the rest of night passed without incident.
Morning at Wildcat.
An hour before sunrise my eyelids fluttered open. What would the weather roll in with on this day? I didn’t feel like exiting my bag to check, so we opened the tent doors and waited for the sun to lighten enough for us to see the sky. My sister finally exclaimed, “Hey! I can see some blue sky!” We did not know it at the time, but this was the last we would see of the rain.
A few thin clouds kept the sun from full strength, but eventually they would blow away and give our camp a chance to dry out.
Again, we lingered. A quick breakfast, then to the bluff overlooking the beach, sitting enjoying the sun. Today we would be leaving the beach, so we made the most of it. The beach itself was off, due to high tide, but watching the morning sun striking the cliffs is not a site I’ll forget soon.
We did eventually pack up and head out of camp. Today would be another ten miles or so, wandering down along the coast and then doubling back to follow the middle ridge to our next camp, glen. We left the coast and ascended the ridge, changing landscapes as we did. The grass and brush was behind us and the fir and ferns surrounded us. Moss clung to the bark and a few oaks were scattered through the forest. The ridge to glen camp is a long one, but the sun flickering through the needles and the occasional glimpses of ocean through the trees made it as enjoyable as anything.
Glen camp is likely the least popular of the camps. Unlike coast and wildcat, it is not on the ocean. And unlike sky, it is not accessible by a very short hike. But it is a worthy destination. As the name implies, it is nestled in a gorgeous glen, surrounded by a thick forest. The campsites mostly occupy small clearings on the hillside overlooking the glen. A small brook flows by the camp, filling the glen with its music. Although at a distance, if you listen carefully the booming of the ocean faintly sounds through the trees. We had this camp entirely to ourselves.
The ridges are of a different temperament that the coast. The flora and fauna are high water users, with mushrooms springing anywhere they can and salamanders, frogs and slugs ooze across the ground. Some, like the banana slug, are kinda gross.
The weather again cooperated. Rain never arrived and the evening was perhaps the most comfortable of the three we spent.
The green green forest of California.
The dawn arrived with some clouds, but mostly clear skies. At this distance from the coast, the air just isn’t that wet, at least not in the winter, and most of our gear was not sopping, which was a nice change.
My sister, who designed this trip, follows the old family tradition of maximum ground coverage. Today would be a ten mile hike out, with a trip over the top of “Mount” Wittenberg
, the highest point in the park at 1407 feet.
We never got an early start on this trip, rolling out of camp a half-hour earlier than the previous morning, but we didn’t mind. On our final day we might as well enjoy ourselves.
There is some elevation to be had here.
The route climbed to the ridge and followed the trail over hills and through valley, often with a view of the ocean or headland peeking from behind the trees. The Wittenberg trail hugs the side of the hill and views open up. It’s a nice change from the top, which is more or less completely covered by trees. I wasn’t entirely convinced we were there, until I spied the benchmark.
The trip out was redundant, only in the sense that every view was marvelous and every copse of trees smelled exotic. The fireline trail climbed over small hills and down into rolling valleys until we met again with the Laguna trail and trudged back to the parking lot.
My first costal backpack completed, I parted with my sister the next day. She promised to explore the area further and fill me in on all the details. My plane touched down in Idaho and I exited the terminal to a light snowfall blowing in my face and ice crunching underfoot.
When I finish daydreaming about this trip, maybe I’ll start my research on that AT setup …
Goodbye wildflowers, hello snow.