Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What goes down must come up

Gordon Mill Trail
El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve hangs west off the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains. With elevations ranging from 2200 to 800 feet, 36 miles of trails through more than 2,800 acres, and aromatic redwood-scented air, it's so easy to set off down a fire road and keep descending for miles. The huge trail network permits mountain bikers (and hardy hikers) to create long loops through these woods. This preserve is a Bay Area anomaly in that only one trail (a short spur to a sandstone formation) is off limits to bikes.

There's something about Corte Madera (as many cyclists call it) that clouds my judgement. After years of feet-on-the-trails researching I have found reasonably easy hikes at this peninsula preserve (such as this one and this one), but my natural tendency is to hike with my head in the clouds until in a bolt of clarity I realize I have to hike all the way up what I just hiked down. What follows is a steady trudge uphill and a silent promise to remember my mistakes next time.

Steam Donkey Trail
Yesterday at Corte Madera I would have achieved my standard stroll downhill/semi-trudge uphill, but on the fly, I deviated. I began from the newish deluxe staging area at the eastern edge of Corte Madera, on Sierra Morena Trail. After an easy 1/3 mile, I turned onto Gordon Mill Trail. As I hiked downhill, I remembered working a volunteer project on Steam Donkey Trail; it was nearly 20 years ago and I don't recall what we did, but in my hazy memory Steam Donkey was pretty. So I worked my way downhill, via Gordon Mill Trail, and then began to ascend via Steam Donkey.

Oljon Trail
Oh my this singletrack trail is steep! Steam Donkey gains about 400 feet in 1/3 mile, with a grade lingering near 10%. It is a sustained ascent, with only a few tiny downhill dips, a real butt-buster. I was actually grateful I was ascending, since I worried that a cyclist would zoom downhill and not see me (all in black) in the deep shade. Heading uphill I kept scanning the trail and listening for bikes, and I was very cautious when turning blind corners. But there were no bikes, nor hikers. Just me, panting up the trail and scores of squirrels chattering through the redwoods. This trail's name refers back in time to a logging winch used to extract redwoods from these woods -- corte madera translates from Spanish to "place where wood is cut." The forest is relatively young and dominated by redwoods, but here and there bigleaf maples had dropped orange leaves to the trail. Finally, I chugged to a junction, with the worst of the ascent back to the trailhead over. I had the option to jog (metaphorically -- my glutes were screaming, also, metaphorically) left and return to the trailhead via Gordon Mill, but I wanted a change in scenery, and here is where I made the best decision of the hike. I turned right and continued on Steam Donkey. As the path began to ascend I pressed on warily, not wanting another climb as steep as the one I'd just finished. Like the previous segment of Steam Donkey, this is a narrow singletrack, but with increased visibility and a more gentle grade. At the junction with Oljon Trail, I turned left.

This relatively new singletrack is now my favorite Corte Madera trail. Oljon weaves uphill through redwoods, crossing two bridges and ascending via switchbacks. I marveled at a very large (and perhaps half-dead) tanoak on the left near the second bridge. This lovely path skirts a hilltop, relaxes to an easy grade and ends at a junction with Sierra Morena and Gordon Mill trails. From there, it was a pleasant stroll back to the trailhead. Total mileage was about 3.2, but due to Steam Donkey's torment, felt further.

Would I take this loop again? Probably not. Instead, next time I'm thinking of stringing together Sierra Morena, Oljon, Steam Donkey (not the steep part), Gordon Mill, Crossover, Timberline, and Methuselah (finishing on Sierra Morena). But I had a great time, even on Steam Donkey (in retrospect) and am happy to have made the acquaintance of Oljon (which by the way, on the map looks kind of like an elephant head).


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Thank you for such a detailed guide to the reserve, it would be very interesting to visit these places. Very beautiful photos.

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