August 25, 2012

Photo Essay: The Long Way to the Highest Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains

I'm not much of a peak bagger.

I don't plan on checking Baldy or Whitney off my hiking list. I don't think I could handle it. At this point, I'm not even ready for Mt. Wilson. The Bridge to Nowhere hike, clocking in at only 11 miles, nearly did me in. I'm still waiting for my toenails to fall off.

But, I do like the opportunity to climb small mountains and surmountable peaks, if they're not too far or too high, or if I'm not too alone.

After spending three weeks in the desert very much alone, I didn't know what else to do upon my return to LA but climb a mountain. When in doubt...

For a hot summer day, which felt suffocatingly humid compared to Joshua Tree, I chose Mt. Allen, the highest peak in the Santa Monica Mountains - otherwise known as Sandstone Peak.

There are two ways to summit Sandstone Peak: a short, steep, direct out-and-back from the parking lot, and a long, meandering, circuitous, more gradual loop along the Backbone Trail. I chose the latter, in favor of its diverse scenery and more gentle climb, hoping the temperature would be less severe at the higher elevation, and that the ocean breeze - though heavy with moisture - would cool me off.

The trail from the parking area starts out steep and rocky...

...and dry and high, though lush with vegetation.

It was nice to see something so green after several weeks in the brown desert.

Soon enough, the winding Yerba Buena Road - the only way to get to the trailhead - is revealed below, cutting its way through the mountains, just a few miles off of the PCH and away from the beach.

Like the rest of the Santa Monica Mountains, Sandstone Peak was created 10 million years ago by volcanic eruptions, and is comprised primarily of igneous rock.

It is known for its interesting geological formations, including Split Rock (on the way to Sandstone Peak along the Mishe Mokwa Trail), Balanced Rock (accessible via an unmaintained trail off the Mishe Mokwa Trail) and Skull Rock.

Like much of the rest of Los Angeles - and, in fact, much of California and Nevada - this area was once under an ancient ocean.

The ocean is still very much present - in the views below, and in the air -, though the trail passes through some shaded, almost wooded areas that make you momentarily forget where you are.

But you are quickly reminded, as the Backbone Trail constantly encounters exposed rock, either up above or underfoot, sometimes greatly eroded.

Even Sandstone Peak itself was once 10,000 feet above sea level. Now, looming above all other peaks in the Santa Monica Mountains, after 10 million years of erosion, it stands at a mere 3111 feet.

The hike is a long walk for sure, altering between steep, rocky, sun-exposed sections, and steep, rocky, shaded sections.

Upon arriving to the spur trail to Sandstone Peak, you are greeted by a sign and a set of innocuous-looking stairs that are easy enough to climb.

Then, the trail nearly disappears altogether. You have to find a clearing, and then tip-toe up a breakneck incline of pure rock towards the plaque at the top.

I barely rested on my way to Sandstone Peak, planning to break out a tangerine at the top. I hadn't encountered any fellow hikers the entire way - except for a group of singing youths on their way down as I headed up - until I reached the summit, where a couple of hikers had just arrived and were signing the register, snapping photos and taking in the view.

Legs wobbling and head spinning, I stopped for a rest on a rock. I took a couple of photos of my own. But I didn't linger. Sometimes you just want to be alone at the top of a mountain, and not have to share that experience with strangers who don't seem in a hurry to leave.

I started to head down, nearly paralyzed with fear. I was going to have to crab-walk my way down, and these two hikers were going to have to watch me. My trekking pole shuddered in my grip. I breathed heavily, exhaling noisily.

"If you see me on all fours, I'm probably fine..." I called out to them over my right shoulder, not looking back for their reactions.

I descended down the Sandstone Peak trail quickly enough, and soon Yerba Buena Road came back into sight. The way down felt so short, I wondered if I should've hiked straight up to the peak rather than taking the long way. But I'd seen so much that day. I wouldn't have wanted it to be over so quickly. After all, it wasn't just about reaching the peak. It was about the climb.

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