February 26, 2018

Photo Essay: The Longest Mile, At Devil's Punchbowl

"Sunset is at 5:44," I said from the third row of the minivan Robert had rented for our day's adventure.

"OK that's good," Robert called bad from behind the wheel. "The hike should only take us about two hours, and we'll get there by 3."

We were on our way to Devil's Punchbowl, a badlands-type county park in the Antelope Valley about 30 miles northeast of Downtown Los Angeles (but depending on which way you drive, it could clock in at as many as 100 miles and 90 minutes). It had been on my hiking list for years, but I always found it just a little too far and a little too daunting to go there on my own.

When we arrived, I was relieved to see we were only planning on tackling the one-mile loop trail. But why would we need two hours to hike a mile?

After all, I walk a 20-minute mile. Even a tough mile that goes straight up with some scrambling might only take me an hour, not two.

But this is no typical trail at Devil's Punchbowl—and not just because it leads you on an "upside down" hike, forcing you to descend first and then climb back out of the "bowl" at the end.

First of all, there are lots of distractions along the way. While some of the sandstone boulder outcroppings are jagged and tilted, just as you'd expect to find so close to the San Andreas Fault, others bear the smooth, spherical edges of erosion.

And it's true—probably a lot of water has run through this gorge at one time or another, if only from the snowmelt of the San Gabriel Mountains.

That also makes the trail somewhat of a trial, as the erosion leaves you treading either loose, sandy patches or slippery, exposed rock.

If you stay on the trail, I suppose the hike is pretty straightforward—but it can be difficult to stay on the actual trail and so easy to stray onto one of the unofficial spur trails that people have created by shortcutting the switchbacks.

The loop trail is by no means the most difficult course you can take through Devil's Punchbowl, as evidenced by the intrepid rock climbers we saw perched on the various up-tilted peaks.

But both the elevation change and the scenery literally take your breath away—especially those "punchbowl" formations that date back more than two million years and maybe as many as 20 million.

And soon, everything starts looking like a possible trail. (Or, conversely, everything starts looking like it must not be a trail.)

A couple of years ago, this probably would've been an easy hike for me—but after years of being out of the hiking habit and keeping my walls to fairly level ground, I found it difficult to raise a leg high enough to scramble up a boulder.

That loop felt like the longest mile I'd ever hiked—although, in the end, it only took us about an hour and a half and not the full two hours.

But the one-mile loop trail isn't the only way to discover Devil's Punchbowl, though it's the easiest. There's also the 7.5-mile trek out to Devil's Chair.

I'll have to work my way up to that one.

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