Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Winter hiking chills and thrills

Raccoon tracks in the snow, 1999
BAHiker Dhananja suggested a blog post for rain-friendly hikes. "I was thinking today of good parks to hike at when it is raining and yet you want to hike. Which parks would you think of, where one can stay relatively dry? Sometimes you are statistically close to a mark - say 995 miles done for the year up to 12/30, and your mind prompts that you MUST hike at least 5 miles on 12/31. And it is going to rain. Then what? Which ones are the better places to go to on such a rainy day?

With autumn ending, it's a timely question, so I'm expanding it into a post about winter hiking.

In my mind you can choose one of two options when it's raining and you want to hike. Pick a preserve with heavy tree cover and try to stay dry, or bundle up in waterproof gear and head for a paved trail.

Veteran hikers know from experience that our local paved trails tend to be on the mild side. Some are long, but few offer enough substantial elevation change to feel like hikes.

Some paved ideas:
Sweeney Ridge -- probably the "hardest" paved trail in the Bay Area
Sawyer Camp -- the southern section is flat but the northern part does have hills. A good place to rack up the miles.
Nimitz Way -- great views in the East Bay
(also Google paved hiking trails San Jose, North Bay, etc for walking destinations)

Dhananja had some very good ideas for forested hikes (comments are mine):
Steep Ravine -- redwoods, waterfall, and hot chocolate before or after in Stinson Beach
Windy Hill -- on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, sheltered somewhat from storms
Fall Creek -- near Felton, but beware of slick CA 9
Castle Rock -- had a fantastic hike in the rain here once, with the forest canopy an aromatic umbrella
Purisima Creek Redwoods -- thick forests of redwoods but a good idea to stick to fire roads

I would add these:
Redwood Regional Park -- a protected redwood canyon with ladybug colonies
Mount Diablo's Donner Canyon -- waterfalls, with often super muddy spots
Robert Louis Stevenson State Park -- it's a long slog to the top so you may as well do it when it's cold
San Bruno Mountain -- hardly any trees to potentially block trails
Cataract Falls -- the prettiest waterfall when it's roaring, pretty even when it's not
San Pedro Valley -- blooming manzanitas and possible salmon spotting
Uvas -- waterfalls in nearly every nook and cranny
Jack London State Park -- sheltered from the storms on the east side of Sonoma Mountain 
North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park -- newly built trails should withstand winter storms
Huddart -- loads of trees on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains
A fallen tree to scramble over at Baltimore Canyon Open Space Preserve, February 2014

I can't stress enough how important planning and research are for winter hikes. After this past Sunday's heavy rain my family and I drove Panoramic Highway in Marin and noted several trees that had fallen across the road and were thankfully already cleared. Storms cause trees to fall and sometimes damage roads, so check traffic conditions before you leave the house. My go to is https://www.chp.ca.gov/traffic (note our communications center is Golden Gate). Once you determine the roads are clear, check the managing agency for your destination. Some agencies also tweet or post on Facebook, updating trail conditions, while others (California State Parks) may only note closures via answering machines at their ranger stations. It's worth calling if you're planning to drive a significant distance. 

When sequential rain storms combine with wind, there are several destinations that get red flags, indicating "do not attempt at this time." Portola Redwoods, tucked in a deep canyon reached by a series of tiny roads, is on this list, as is Big Basin State Park (as Dhananja pointed out: "that drive sucks even on a not-wet road"), and most forested preserves on the west slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Also avoid areas that commonly flood, such as Russian River. Any park grazed by cattle is an immediate no (too muddy). 

If we're lucky and snow frosts our highest peaks, most roads that access those mountains will be temporarily closed. You can often start at lower elevations and hike up into the snow. For Mount Tam, begin in lower Mill Valley. For Diablo, start on the north side of the mountain near Clayton. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, sometimes CA 84 is open and it's possible to reach the skyline preserves.

When winter hiking, use common sense. Trails will be slippery and fallen trees are common. Turn back rather than risk a dangerous situation. Even when you're taking day trips, be sure to keep emergency supplies in your car, including water, food, and blankets. Don't forget a stash of dry clothes for the post-hike drive home. Have fun!

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