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Hiding Camp

Ventana Wilderness

Ventana Wilderness Links:

June 26th, 1999

19.4 miles
4800 vertical feet
Total Time: 13:38

Rating: 6/10

Directions: take Highway 101 south toward Salinas. Exit at South Sanborn Road. Follow it as it becomes East Blanco Road. Turn left onto Highway 68. Turn left onto Laureles Grade Road (G20). Turn left on Carmel Valley Road (G16). Turn right on Tassajara Road. China Camp is located 10.7 miles down the road.   View Driving Map

Jean, Jennie, Lan and I hiked in the Ventana Wilderness.

Friday night we drove down from San Jose in two cars. I'd estimated a little over 2 hours for the drive. However, there was traffic (at nearly 10pm!) in Gilroy, and we ended up getting separated and a bit lost. Jean and I went past China Camp before we realized we must have gone too far. We turned around and saw Lan and Jennie's headlights coming in the opposite direction. They must have been within 2 miles, since I was able to reach them over the radio. We finally met at the campground. The reason we missed the sign is that it faces the opposite direction, and you'd have to look behind you has a round a sharp right turn to see it.

Thankfully, we were able to find a vacant campsite (which are all first-come, first-served), even though it was past midnight. After not getting much sleep during the night, the early morning sky began to fill with sounds you'd expect to hear in a jungle. Birds of all sorts began their morning song.

At 6:30am, we got up and started packing and preparing for our hike. The campsite was pretty, with lots of space between the trees, with a 400-foot hill (which we would soon climb) behind us for a backdrop. The drive in had heightened our sense of isolation, as we'd traveled many miles of lonely county roads to get here.

We parked our cars above the campground and started off across the road at 8am. I'd wanted to start at 7am, but it's hard to get up that early. The hike I'd planned was 24.1 miles. I'd hoped to finish in 13 or 14 hours to avoid hiking in the dark much. But, of course, we were all equipped with headlamps just in case.

View shortly into the hike (that's Tassajara Road, not the trail)

As soon as we started the hike, we had nice views to the south. Rolling green hills stretched on as far as the eye could see. A few more steps, though, and we were soon engulfed in the trees, no views on either side, starting the short climb up on the Pine Ridge Trail.

It tops out 400 feet higher and 0.6 miles later, at 4750 the highest elevation we'd reach on the hike. We descended 400 feet in the next 0.6 miles, then climbed another 400 in 0.9 miles before starting our main descent. Along the way, the views started to open up again. We could see south and west. Again, rolling green hills and canyons reaching far off to the south. The only variance was a large section of exposed rock below us to the west.

Big flowering plant

The temperature was pleasant at this time of day. We could hike comfortably in shorts and t-shirts. Unfortunately, this meant it would become uncomfortably hot later in the day. But, in the meantime, we enjoyed the many wildflowers and other vegetation.

Grasshopper posing on Jennie's trekking pole

After a thousand foot descent, we reached Church Creek Divide (3.6 miles into the hike), 2 miles after starting out. This is a main trail intersection. We could go straight on the Pine Ridge Trail, left on the Church Creek Trail, or right onto the Carmel River Trail. We turned right and descended 1.7 miles and 500 feet to Pine Valley. After going through mostly bushes, we emerged into meadows, pine trees, and large rock faces which beckoned to be climbed. Some would say it's reminiscent of the Sierras.

Jean next to some colorful trees

Hiking through Pine Valley

We passed a couple of campers -- the first people we'd seen that day, before reaching Pine Valley Camp (elevation 3141). Here, on the Carmel River water's edge, dozens of butterflies fluttered around. Unfortunately, it also looked like a butterfly grave -- dozens or even a hundred or more butterfly wings littered the ground. I snapped some pictures before we backtracked a few feet to the fence and crossed through a gate. There was no sign here, but I was sure this was the correct way to continue on the Carmel River Trail. It was 11am when we started this segment of the hike.

One of many butterflies; note the wing on the ground to the right.

As we hiked along a flat meadow, we passed an area with several small wood buildings which is apparently an area for horses and their riders. Ah yes, horses. While we saw lots of evidence of horses along the trails the entire day, we never actually saw any horses on the trail (though we would see some off the trail later).

Jean hiking through the field after we crossed the gate

After a brief respite from climbing and descending, we started a short, 300 foot climb up, crossed another gate, and started another long descent. The trail was slightly overgrown, but I commented that it wasn't as bad as the Bald Ridge Trail on Mt. Diablo. I'd have to retract that comment later.

As we descended further and further, the jungle vegetation closed in around us. As we were crossing the river in one place, I spotted a largish gray snake slithering into the bushes in front of me. I noticed the end of its tail was noticeably lighter than the rest of its body. It appeared to stay right there, just inside the bushes, and started making a loud hissing sound. I'm not expert, and I don't know exactly what a rattlesnake looks or sounds like, but I didn't want to take any chances. We were a long way from help, and we hadn't seen anyone since Pine Valley Camp. We changed our path, crossing the river over some logs, reaching the other side about 10 feet away from the snake. (Note: there are 6 types of poisonous rattlesnakes in California, and are found in the Ventana Wilderness. If bitten, try not to overexert yourself, and get treated as soon as possible. It helps to kill the snake and bring it back with you, but of course that's not always possible. Snake bites are rarely fatal, but take extra precautions if traveling with small children, as they are at greater risk if bitten.)

We continued our descent, perhaps a little more wary now. But soon we had other things to worry about. The bushes closed in on the trail even more. Soon, we were walking straight through thick brush with branches so hard they sometimes drew blood on our legs. The "trail" got worse and worse, and we thought about turning back. I kept hoping it would get better, but it never did. It was quite ridiculous. I know trail maintenance can be difficult, but at some point it may be more prudent to throw in the towel, let nature take its course, and close off what's left of the trail. No one had warned us of this. Not the guidebooks, not the ranger I'd talked to on Friday. Rangers don't know...I suspect they rarely go far on the trails they're responsible for. It's probably better to contact the trail maintenance volunteers to get current trail conditions.

I'd hoped to get to the Round Rock Junction by 1pm, but 1pm came and went and still no sign of it. I decided that if we didn't get there by 1:30pm, we should probably turn around. As we neared 1:30pm, and we got closer to the water's edge, I figured we would go to the river, rest, and head back. Luckily, the trail continued all the way to the river, and we arrived there at 1:30pm. But where was Round Rock Junction? In fact, we'd already passed it without knowing, and were now at Hiding Camp (elevation 1800 feet), 9.6 miles into the hike.

Hiding Camp

Hiding Camp is a beautiful area next to the Carmel River. Here, the river is about 12-15 feet wide, but fairly shallow. Trees line either side, providing ample shade, but there's sun to be found if you want it. I skipped along some rocks to reach the other side (though I inexplicably put my foot in the water on the other side). There was a picnic table and a sign which pointed toward Puerto Suelo Way. I crossed back to the other side and joined the others. We put our bare feet into the clear, cool water. I washed some of the dirt away and dried my socks out on the rocks.

Lunch break at Hiding Camp

This was also a perfect spot to filter some water. By this time, I had already finished my Platypus (over 80 ounces of water), so I refilled it. We still had a long way to go. After eating, drinking, resting, and refilling, we started to pack up to go. After some discussion we decided to cut our trip short and head back the way we came. While we didn't like the thought of heading back through the brush, the alternative wasn't that great either. Returning along the Miller Canyon Trail would require another 14.5 miles of hiking along unknown trail. Who knows if it was any better than what we had just gone through? Plus, our progress had already been slowed and we were looking at spending a fair amount of time hiking in the dark. So instead we chose the 9.6 miles back the way we came.

We thought we were the only ones there, but a man came over to the opposite shore and started talking with us. He'd backpacked there and was spending the night before heading down to Los Padres Dam. He sounded a bit skeptical when we told him our plans. Probably thought we were nuts to be doing all this in one day. I'd tend to agree with him; if it weren't for the fact that we were training for the 21.4-mile Mt. Whitney day hike, I'd much rather prefer to do this hike as a backpacking trip.

It was nearly 3pm by the time we started back up the trail. I put my shell pants on to protect my legs. It was a hot day, but I didn't care any more -- the skin on my legs had taken enough of a beating already. We retraced our steps through the brush. Somehow we ended up by the river again. This wasn't familiar at all. We retraced our steps back up and found ourselves at the Round Rock Junction. There's no sign here -- only a log across the trail. I remembered passing it earlier. So now we headed back up the correct trail - the Carmel River Trail.

Hiking through the bushes along the "trail"

Later along the trail, we encountered a pair of backpackers coming the opposite direction. They told us the Miller Canyon Trail was completely overgrown; they'd tried it in March and had to turn around when they couldn't find the trail anymore. Plus, the rangers had told them that the trails were fine and open. So we felt a little vindicated, and happy with our decision not to go that route.

We reached the snake's lair and did our little detour again, just in case. All of us except for Lan, that is -- daredevil that she is, she decided to walk the trail. The snake, of course, was longer there.

I continued to suck down water in the oppressive heat. We topped out and crossed through the gate and headed down into the meadows. Two people, two dogs, and 3 horses were enjoying themselves at the horse camp before the second gate. A dozen or more backpackers swarmed the Pine Valley camp as we passed the butterfly graveyard and found a place to rest along the river.

My watch read 6pm. It'd taken us 2 1/2 hours to traverse the 4.3 miles to Hiding Camp from here, and 3 hours to get back. Not bad considering the climbing and bushwhacking involved, but it meant we'd probably be hiking in the dark later. In the meantime, though, we enjoyed another rest. Food, drink, more water filtering (I'd almost finished another 80 ounces of water). Bugs flew all around us as we rested, unfortunately, as they had been doing most of the day. As I write this two days later, I still have dozens of bites on my legs. I'm not going to bother to count. I'll have to be more liberal with the DEET next time.

It was 6:30pm when we started out from Pine Valley Camp. We still had 5.3 miles and 2000 feet of climbing to go. As we crossed another meadow and started our climb, it struck me that the trail was overgrown here, too. It definitely wasn't as bad as the jungle we'd passed through, but I hadn't remembered it being overgrown here. It'd been so long, I must have forgotten.

The climb starts gradually. 1.7 miles and 500 feet later, we found ourselves at Church Creek Divide at 7:30pm. I felt better knowing that we only had 3.6 miles to go, and we wouldn't have to do too much night hiking. After a short break we started our main ascent. We slowly trudged our way up the switchbacks, 1100 feet in 1.5 miles.

Final rays of light illuminating the top of a tree

After that, it was rolling hills back to the finish. The hills to the west glowed with the light from the setting sun. A full moon rose over the ridge to the east. And we had the trail mostly to ourselves. It was nearly 9pm by the time it started getting dark. By then we'd taken out our headlamps in preparation. Soon we re-entered the brush and were glad we had them.

Jean led us through the bushes, head bobbing up and down to check out the trail ahead. As we started climbing, I knew we had 1.2 miles to go. And when we started our descent, that meant a scant 0.6 miles to go! There was no stopping us now. The sky darkened but our lights guided us. We broke out into a clearing and I knew we were there. We heard voices, saw headlights, and then we were done! A group hug at 9:30pm, after 19.4 miles, 4800 feet of climbing, and 13 hours, 38 minutes of hiking. We still had a long drive ahead of us, but there was a great sense of relief, satisfaction, and accomplishment in finishing, even if we hadn't done the original intended 24.1 mile route. Mt. Whitney, here we come!

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