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Ventana Wilderness: Pine Valley Trail Run

Posted Feb 19 2010 12:00am
“The topography of the Ventana Wilderness is characterized by steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges separating V-shaped youthful valleys … Much of the area is very rugged and trails within the Wilderness are frequently overgrown and challenging to follow. Off-trail travel can be extremely difficult due to the steep, unstable terrain, and dense vegetation.”
- Wikipedia entry for the Ventana Wilderness Area

There’s nothing to snap you out of a training funk better than spending more than a half-day in the wilderness … especially if you were only planning on spending a few hours there. But that’s getting ahead of myself a bit – so I’ll start with the basics.

The Ventana Wilderness Area occupies approximately 240,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest between California’s coastal Highway 1 and my home region of Carmel Valley. The northern end of the wilderness area is about a 30-minute drive from my house, so while it’s not the most convenient area to train on a regular basis, it’s a very compelling area for an adventurous day trip.

Realizing how fortunate we are to be so close to such a place, some of my training partners have made a concerted effort to get to know this wilderness area better. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict what you’re in for on such outings, as trail conditions and river levels can change dramatically over the course of just a week or two. I guess that’s why they call it the wilderness.

On the recent three-day weekend, a handful of us took a white-knuckle 4WD ride up the access road to the Pine Ridge trailhead for an exploratory run into the wild. We didn’t really know what to expect along the way … which in hindsight may have been a good thing.

Our trail started at just under 4000’ of elevation and began with a short climb to the top of the nearby ridge. Apparently the “wild” aspect of this area doesn’t just apply to the terrain …

… as these shell casings on the ground would attest. These could be from hunters, but Carmel Valley also has a pretty solid Good ‘Ol Boy population, so you’re never quite sure what might have been on the business end of this rifle. The shells were also a nice reminder that much of what happens in the wilderness probably stays in the wilderness.

Moving past the casings further up the ridge …

… we ran into some snow! I’ve made my position on winter conditions quite clear on this page over the years, but there's something pretty cool about patches of snow on the ground to reinforce that this isn’t my regular training run.

Fortunately, most of the snow patches were small and easily navigable as we made it to the top of the first ridge …

… where we were greeted with a killer view looking back through the Carmel Valley, with the Monterey Peninsula barely visible in the far distance.

Most of the next five miles were a gradual descent, which is normally a great feeling, except for the fact that we knew we’d have to come UP this hill on our way back out.

The trail descends through an area called Pine Valley, distinguished by its tall namesake trees on the floor …

… and very prominent rock formations above. If you’re into rock climbing and don’t mind a rugged 5-mile hike in and out, this would be a sweet place to polish your skills.

Smack in the middle of Pine Valley, at least 10 miles removed from the nearest paved road and probably 20 miles from the nearest house is something of a local legend: the cabin dwelling of Jack English, 91 years old, who outbid the State Park system for this lone parcel of land decades ago, and now makes his home in the middle of the wilderness.

Jack has a reputation of kindness and generosity towards all who pass this way; he greets hikers, invites complete strangers into his home to share food and shelter, and tells scout troops about the history of the land and the importance of keeping it wild. However, seeing as how the windows were closed and it wasn’t yet 9AM, we left the cabin in peace …

… although I did have this strong urge to creep closer and check for a ring of ash on the ground, look for a ghostly rocking chair inside, listen for whispering voices, or ask Jack if his first name might be short for Jacob. (Which reminds me - have I mentioned yet how excited I am that Lost has started again?)

(Also, if you want another glimpse of Jack, here’s a great audio/video slide show done by the San Jose Mercury News after the wildfires of two summers ago. He’s truly an amazing guy.)

The floor of Pine Valley is beautiful and tranquil, and the flat terrain makes it a popular wildlife corridor. While I was fumbling with my camera, a group of deer were trotting across this field … but of course, by the time I took a picture it was too late.

Leaving the valley behind at this water crossing, it occurred to me that I should give my friend Jeff a few pairs of Drymax socks someday. In the time it took him to tiptoe across this log, I waded back and forth across the stream about three times.

Leaving Pine Valley begins a long, steep climb up the opposite ridge from the one we descended to get here – and this is where the adventure got truly interesting.

The trail quickly became overgrown and difficult to follow; it was clear that this area hadn’t been maintained in quite a while.

Can you see a trail through here? Me neither. But the last traces of groomed trail vanished into thick brush just like this; for the better part of an uphill mile, we relied on maps and trail sense (and hopefully a dose of good fortune) to navigate our way.

At one point it crossed our mind to turn back and simply retrace our steps – but by the time any of us voiced this idea, we were so far into the mess that trying to find our way backwards would have been just as challenging.

The good news was that we had nice views to enjoy while we were hopelessly lost. The open meadow of Pine Valley is visible in the distance below; if you click to enlarge the picture, you can see the roof of Jack English’s place in the lower middle portion. I’ll bet Jack wouldn’t have gotten himself into this kind of mess.

Sometime during this long uphill scramble, I thought it would be a good idea to keep taking pictures – not so much for the website, but in case someone found us out here 6 months from now, they’d be able to piece together our last journey Jon Krakauer-style . If we never made it out, maybe we’d at least be famous; it seemed like the least I could do for the good of the group.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to ponder our mortality for too long, because we eventually caught sight of the main trail, speckled with snowfall off in the distance. Once we saw it, we had our bearings and knew which way to head.

Since we were gaining elevation again, the snow became more prevalent … but since we were back on the main trail, nobody minded the snow one bit.

Less than a half-mile from the snow-covered trail, we crested the climb and caught sight of the Pacific Ocean just beyond the next ridgeline. Snow, scenic trails, and ocean vistas: I love California.

Leaving the ridgeline was a long gradual downhill terraced into a low canyon, where the only thing that stopped our momentum was a steady series of treefalls across the narrow trail. Unfortunately, the enjoyment was rather short lived …

… because once we bottomed out in the canyon, we had a long 4-mile uphill stretch to return to our starting point.

By this time, the day had become pretty warm, and these were four of the toughest miles I’ve run in quite a while. Also four of the most satisfying, if that makes any sense.

My friend Whit is an amazing ultrarunner, and the reason he looks so much fresher than me is that he spent about 10 minutes resting here at the top of the hill while waiting for me to catch up.

Finally, almost six hours after departing, we made it back to our starting point. Despite the tough miles, the whole experience was fairly energizing for us, in the way that having a small taste of something delicious makes you yearn for more.

We collectively decided that with such an enormously beautiful area like this so close to our front doors, it would be a shame for us to leave it unexplored. Individually, this run helped me set aside my winter ambivalence and begin to focus on more serious training as spring and summer approach. Although there aren’t any races on my calendar yet for 2010, I’ll definitely be making some appointments to return to this wilderness area throughout the year.

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