The long way down.
I so wish I had photos of this to show you. But my phone was totally dead by the time I woke up. Thankfully, the Garmin Inreach still had about 25% power, so I was able to turn it on every 30 minutes or so to track most of our way down.
It didn’t rain much overnight – certainly no torrential downpours and thunder and lightning like we had other nights. We woke up fairly early, and I started my morning routine when it was still dark enough to need a headlamp to see.
The morning routine consisted of first getting dressed. I did well with layers, because when I had everything on, including my rainshell, I was warm enough even in the chilly mornings. This morning was a little unusual – it was a bit warmer than I would have suspected.
After the clothes got on, next up was packing up my sleeping bag and Riley’s down blanket. This takes a few minutes, because while the compression sack works really well, you have to work it, too. So much stuffing, and then tightening, stuffing and then tightening some more. About five – seven minutes later, your sleeping bag (and the dog’s binkie) fits into a container about the size of a large cantaloupe.
Then it’s the sleeping pad. This just has to be deflated by laying down on it, and then rolled up as tight as I can get it. “Like a burrito” I always tell myself while I’m doing it.
After I’m fully dressed (complete with hat and neck gaiter and socks and shoes) and the sleeping gear is packed up, there’s much more room in the tent. So then I move on to putting things in my pockets for breakfast. The bear mace comes along, too, as does the water treatment steripen, matches, the headlamp, and my glasses. If it’s still dark, I’ll pack up Riley’s backpack as much as I can, and make sure all the tent pockets are empty of gear. That way, when breakfast is done, it’s a fast task to get the tent broken down.
The lake was beautifully still. And the bear hang – sure enough – made it through the night unmolested. We went back to where we made dinner, and I warmed up a big breakfast for Riley. It was the last breakfast for this leg of the trip, so he got whatever was left in the bag. I ate my usual oatmeal, just like every morning.
We heard the coyotes just after Riley had been given his second bowl of breakfast. They were close – definitely no more than half a mile away. This made me feel like I should have been alarmed (Riley was eating his nice smelly lamb feast rehydrated meal), but I just couldn’t get there. The back of my head (my inner self, I guess) just wouldn’t buy it. “They aren’t going to bother you,” it told me.
And so after all the anxiety, that last morning I could just hear them while I sipped my second cup of coffee. It must be a fine place to be a free coyote – being up there is like being on the throne of the world. I was facing south, with the mountains to my back, watching the light warm everything up and dry it out. The land slopes down from there, in an epic reach that goes on for miles. Thus the throne feeling – there’s a feeling of safety and protection there, with the mountains at your back. It reminded me of when I was in Assisi, north of it in the mountains above where St Francis and his crew would retreat to pray. They would go into seclusion in some of the mountain caves. I’ve been in one of those caves, in the hole in the earth where St Francis is said to have stayed. It has that wrap around feeling that these moutains do, but as you face out, with your back up against the cool dirt wall, you face the open forest, with a view of a far hill.
The coyote calls echoed down the mountainside, reverberating like a singing bowl, spreading down into the valley and beyond.
Riley listened too. Neither of us moved, they seemed so close, and the sound seemed so perfect. Like a gong dissipating.
Then they moved on. I heard them again about three minutes later, much further away, headed down the mountain. This relieved me a bit, knowing they were moving on, but my little paranoid brain reminded me that just because a couple were moving on, didn’t mean they all were. I looked around behind me, but none where there. Just the trees and the grassy slopes arching up into the steep stony sides of the mountains.
We finished up after that. Packed the tent. Packed the pack. Treated all the water I could carry and drank a liter before we left.
It’s a beautiful walk the whole way. We passed the same sloping sides of the peaks, with big chunks of rocks cast everywhere, sometimes walking through a whole field of small boulders. There were places that could have served as camp, and about 45 minutes after leaving Truchas Lakes, I saw three tents up on a wee hill to the south side of the trail. They probably had a mostly dry camp, but it wouldn’t have been too bad – we crossed several small streams in the first hour.
We could have taken the Jack’s Creek trail left and gone straight up to the ridge, but my maps had shown us zigzagging up the sides, taking a left after a long climb.
It was a good climb, but actually not too bad. The views to the south and west are terrific (again, wish my phone had been working). The trail is excellent too – no worries at all about finding your way or losing the trail. There are even signs of trailwork now and then.
We found the left to begin the first “zig”, and were headed back west a bit below the ridgeline. The trail is good. But as you arch around toward the saddle, where you’ll go right and begin the long down through the valley towards Santa Barbara, it’s steep on the left side, and a bit narrow. If you ran into a group of horses, I suppose everybody would be okay, but it would take some maneuvering.
Again, the views are awesome. If you’re fit, you’d be able to get up to the ridge in one day (especially if you weren’t hauling a multi-day pack). It would be an epic view, basically in all directions. The view down the valley is amazing, and the peaks of the Truchas are too. We stopped several times, and I am really greatful to be able to still see it clearly in my mind.
Just as you go over the ridge, you’ll come down several tightswitchbacks that go through a gravelly area. The trail is narrow, and it’s steep. If you have a fear of heights, this might be a little stressful.
But once you’re through that, it’s easy walking the entire way down to Santa Barbara. The trees and tall and thick – good cover for bad weather. There’s a wee stream about 20 minutes below the ridge that would be fine if you needed water. There’s also the very interesting “No Fish Lake”. That’s just below the ridge on the Santa Barbara side, and it’s about a third of a mile off the trail. I’d love to see it, but chose not to; we wanted to get home, and I was tired.
That might have been smart, as it is a really long way down. It’s beautiful, and the trail is really nicely cared for. This is possibly the easiest walking of the whole through-hike, save when you’re walking on dirt roads.
When you’ve come down the switchbacks through the trees, you’ll cross a fairly large stream – maybe 12 feet across. This is an excellent stop for water.
From here, you’ll walk through “the eternity field” as I call it. It’s a bit like horsethief meadow, in that it just goes on and on and on. There are many nice camping sites along the way, and the creek is right next to the field, so you’ve always got water nearby. You’ll actually follow this creek 98% of the way into Santa Barbara campground.
Do expect cows – with all that grass, they’re inevitable. And you’ll have to cross the creek several times over some very interesting bridges. Riley was a little alarmed by the fist bridge, and it did look kinda wild. But he got over it with no problem.
We ran into some Forestservice men taking care of the trail. Apparently they had seen a really wild storm the night prior. Not the daytime storm we sat through in the tent (with all the hail), but apparently this massive storm moved through at night. We missed it entirely.
As you come in toward Santa Barbara, you’ll start seeing more and more people. There will probably be a few trout fishermen (and women) taking a try. It does look like an excellent stream for fishing.
When you finally emerge into Santa Barbara campground, you’ll be at the far end of it. It’s a long skinny campground, and the road goes around in a loop. The right fork from where you come out is probably the easiest way. You’ll pass many car camping sites, then finally the camp manager’s RV on the right. Pass through the metal gate (complete with a cattle guard), and you’ll see public bathrooms and a water source on your right. Not sure about the water source – I actually just opted to treat another nalgene of water from the creek while we waited for Rob.
There’s a second, and then a third parking area – again, this is a really long, skinny campground. The creek flows right next to it. If you’re getting picked up from here, it’s about 20 minutes to Penasco, and the excellent Sugar Nymphs cafe. You don’t need a four-wheel drive, but it might not be ideal for a luxury sedan; you’ll get it dusty.
Riley and I snoozed by the stream for about an hour before Rob showed up. We ate up some of the leftover food, and all the crackers. It was nice to feel like a trailbum, snoozing by the creek in the sun, surrounded by daisies, while the tourists walked by in clean clothes.