Pine Mountain with a dusting of snow

Hike: Strenuous day hike past Twin Forks Camp after crossing Sespe River

Mileage: Nine miles, ascending to approximately 5,000 feet

Time: Seven hours on the trail, including an hour lunch break

Maps: Tom Harrison’s Sespe Wilderness Trail Map

Last week, I decided to check out the water flow in the upper Sespe River and continue on past Twin Forks Camp for a more demanding day hike deeper into the Sespe Wilderness and up to 6,000-foot Pine Mountain Lodge Camp. When my hiking companion, Chris, and I traversed the Sespe after parking at the signed Piedra Blanca Trailhead, we weren’t surprised to see water running, but we were surprised to have to cross three different channels, getting our boots all wet. Our wet feet made the next six hours of hiking more difficult.

Before we left the large parking lot, we had some interesting encounters with other hikers. We met four young guys decked out for a very long jog down the Sespe, aiming for the well-known hot springs. At 9 a.m., the temperature was still around 40°F, and all they had on were shorts, light running shoes, and T-shirts — very happy and laughing loudly as they set off on a fine Saturday adventure after significant rain. It’s about a 24-mile round trip, and we admired them hugely.

We also met a backpacking couple who had just returned from attempting to ford the Sespe (about 400 yards below the parking lot). They said they had managed to get over two of the Sespe’s channels, but they told us the third one required removing boots, so they backed off.

When a third man got out of his truck while I chatted with the discouraged couple, we all immediately noticed he was in full camo — dark slashes beneath his eyes — and he quickly removed a very long, military-looking rifle, complete with curving banana clip. Not an AK-47, but a very powerful weapon. I hailed him carefully, but he just looked at the four of us for a bit, stated “I don’t like people,” and then, “I’m here for some solitude.”

Well, okay then. Carelessly, I asked him where he was hiking, and he stated, “Upriver. A bear there has been bothering me, snapping at me, so I’m gonna kill it.”

End of conversation.

As he slouched off, Chris and I were glad we would be leaving the river behind as we headed inland and up to Piedra Blanca, Twin Forks, and, hopefully, Pine Mountain Lodge Camp if time permitted. Bear hunting season in California runs until December 28, and as of December 12, hunters had “harvested” 1,268 bears. This gentleman did not have his bear tags showing, but I certainly wouldn’t challenge him about it since I’m not crazy.

Thinking about crossing the Sespe River post-rainfall

Chris and I managed to get over the first two Sespe crossings with dry boots, but we then saw the hooting and hollering quartet of mad wilderness runners plunge completely into the 2½-foot waters of the last channel, so we did the same. We then hiked through the piedras blancas playground area and up to Twin Forks Camp, a 2.5-mile, very pleasant hike. The trail was a bit muddy in places, but most of the time, it was ideal hiking terrain. The rejuvenated arroyo willows smeared vivid yellows all across the riparian zone of Piedra Blanca Creek.

The trail from Twin Forks Camp to lonely Pine Mountain Lodge Camp ascends 2,400 feet in 3.3 miles. As we got higher, and the obvious path became much steeper, we could see the light dusting of snow on Pine Mountain proper. With a mile to go, we encountered a young guy with a happy grin and two dogs. He told us the Lodge Campground was another mile up and that there was snow there.

We estimated we were at about 5,000 feet, and with the time remaining, it was wiser to turn the day hike, go back down to lovely Twin Forks for lunch, then return to our parked vehicle. We were back by 4:15, and it was cold again after the long nine-mile day with a rigorous ascent. We never heard gunshots, and the hunter’s truck was gone when we returned.

Cold as our feet were, nature herself can be cold and demanding. As a reader of my last column noted, in 1969 during a tremendous rainstorm, 10 people lost their lives attempting to get back to Lion Campground near our parking place. Six boys and four men drowned because of bad luck, and not respecting the Sespe enough.

So why do we go out there into the backcountry and local wilderness with flash-flood–prone rivers like the Sespe? Solitude and scenery are certainly two good reasons.

Hiking and backpacking — especially while walking steadily uphill, where the mind falls into a sort of trancelike dream state — helps liberate our creative spirit from society’s prevalent consumerism, “industrial populism,” and suffocation from infoglut and iClutter. The fast-thinking mind takes care of the footsteps, while the slow-thinking brain state soars. (See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), available at Chaucer’s Books.)


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