Sunday, November 25, 2012


I'd done the Mishe Mokwa Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains close to 20 years ago. It was so long ago I don't remember much about it or whether or not I did the whole 6 mile loop. But I decided on a repeat trip and I did plan on doing the 6 miles.

The trailhead is about 9 miles or so up Yerba Buena Road off PCH. The turnoff is just past Neptune's Net, a popular stop for motorcyclists doing the coast route and the surfers who use County Line Beach across the highway.

I got an early start and was on the trail by 8:45 am. It was a bit chilly and slight breeze was blowing up the canyon from the ocean, so I was glad I'd decided to wear long pants. I had a topo map and a generally idea of what lay ahead (or so I thought) and was pumped for a day of adventure.

A sample of what lay ahead

The trail starts along Carlisle Canyon, with views towards the ocean on one side, and towards Thousand Oaks on the other side.

The blue Pacific.

Towards Thousand Oaks.

About a half mile in I realized how remote the surroundings where, how alone I was, and how there might be mountain lions anywhere in that area. I started to walk with my radar at full, and yet, when I stopped to tie my boot lace a little further along the trail, a hiker came up behind and startled the bejeezus out of me. He wasn't sneaking up; he was walking very quietly, by himself. So much for radar.

Another view across the canyon

I liked the way the light hit these rocks

A view down Carlisle Canyon

First glimpse of the Echo Cliffs with Balance Rock above

I finally reached the part of the canyon where the Echo Cliffs and Balance Rock lay. A group of rock climbers had passed me and they now took a steep side trail down into the canyon to spend the day climbing the sheer sandstone cliffs far below. 

Beautiful sandstone cliffs

Rock climbers do pitches up these cracks

The view down Carlisle Canyon from the crest of the trail
Same place, different angle
Balance Rock

Zoom view of Balance Rock

The trail become quite steep and narrow along here, and when it crested and turned sharply northwest, it became sheer rock and totally exposed, with a several hundred foot drop off to the dry creekbed below. I shot a quick video to show a friend the terrain.

I continued on, stopping once to watch a Bewick's Wren that flew down right in front of me, pecked at the trail dirt a few times, then fly back into the scrub. Another 20 minutes and I arrived at Split Rock.

Here I found one picnic table and a giant rock that was split into three sections, one large enough to walk completely through. It didn't take much imagination to think that Native Americans used the site for some ceremonial purpose. The area was home to a few different tribes, primarily the Chumash.

Split Rock

At Split Rock I made a cup of coffee using my new Snow Peak LiteMax backpacking stove. At 1.9 oz. it's easy enough to carry along on a day hike, along with a Snow Peak titanium 700 mug and a small canister of fuel to boil some water. After coffee and a snack. I headed out again.

The trail started to climb out of the canyon bottom in what was to be a mostly uphill rest of the afternoon; for the next 2 1/2 hours, it was one hill after another. Thankfully the views in any direction during my frequent stops to catch my breath were stunning and made the ascents well worth the effort.

The first section of steep trail after Split Rock

Amazing rock formations everywhere

A wonderland of rock

My camera batteries died at Split Rock and I resorted to using my phone camera the rest of the day, but it seemed to do a fair job. The strange color cast in the photo below was because I forgot to switch from florescent to daylight mode, which I remembered to correct afterwards.

I finally reached the ocean side of the trail again. The breeze had really picked up and I was glad to have my windbreaker on over my fleece jacket.

The Pacific Ocean again, this time from the Back Bone Trail

About 45 minutes later, and many hills, I finally reached the base of Sandstone Peak. I was getting pretty pooped and still had more than a mile to get back to the truck. My legs were tired and I decided to save myself for the trek out rather than climb up to the peak, which was quite steep and involves some scrambling over rocks.

View to the north, with the Camarillo Plain in the distance

The rest of the way was mostly downhill--a steep 45-degree angle down a rough, uneven, rock-strewn trail that was a real knee and thigh buster. The last hour and a half of this hike left me convinced I would never do this trail again. Beautiful as it was, the trail is in really crappy shape fully three-quarters of the way. Though nothing worthwhile ever comes easily, this place is best left to those whose legs are more fit (and younger) than mine.

I got back to the truck at 2:30 pm, tired, hungry and supremely satisfied that I completed this hike. I covered 6 miles and three trails: the entire Mishe Mokwa, a portion of the Back Bone Trail, and the entire Sandstone Peak Trail. Enough for this adventurer!