Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Tale of Two (New) Trails

I recently spent a week at Pedernales Falls State Park and during that time managed to hike two new trails, the Madrone and the Juniper Ridge. They are new in the sense that they don't show up on any official maps yet, but trails don't just happen overnight and some sections of these two trails are newer than others, thus they can be followed with varying degrees of confidence. (Confidence that you're still on the trail and have a fair chance of ending up where you expect, which didn't always work out for me as you will soon read.) I heard rumors of a hand-drawn map but didn't manage to get my hands on one until after I had stumbled and fumbled my way down the full length of both trails. (I'm a man. I don't need no stinkin' directions!)

This is a map of all my hikes in the 5000+ acre Pedernales Falls State Park since I started using a GPS almost exactly two years ago. There's a lot of overlap here as I've hiked all or portions of many of these trails more than once, and I don't always stick to the trails so some of the tracks above won't be found on any map, official or not, other than mine.

This is one of the new-fangled steel trail signs they are using now instead of the routed and painted wood signs. But don't expect the trails to be blazed with these. Between the two new trails I only found 3 of them, all a junctures with other trails.

And at one point, and one point only, I was guided by temporary signs that were little more than plasticized cardboard and had no actual trail names on them.

This track, near the southern border of the park, is the Madrone trail. From this it looks like the trail is a loop but neither the Madrone nor Juniper Ridge trails are actually loops. In this case the 8.5 mile hike was all of the Madrone and parts of the Juniper Ridge and Wheatley Cutoff trails.

If you look close you can see that my track has a short little tail on it near the county road right at one of the spots the power line crosses the road. There's actually a crude parking lot there, but be sure and go up to headquarters for a windshield pass before using it. The trail starts a couple hundred feet up the power line access road. It's hard to tell from the topo, but the terrain south of the county road is gently rolling, in sharp contrast to what you find in most of the rest of the park with it's ledges and steep ravines.

That terrain south of the county road is also prime real estate for feral hogs. Fortunately they always seemed to see me before I saw them and, unlike my close encounter of earlier in the week, the few glimpses I managed to catch were of them moving away from me at a comfortable distance. (There's a couple of them somewhere out there in the trees in the photo above but I can't find them now. Hogs are very good at not being seen.) Speaking of glimpses, I hiked this trail on a Saturday when the park's campground was booked to capacity, yet I saw only one couple out there, and then only briefly since their goal appeared to be covering the most ground in the least amount of time.

When I was hiking the section over on the north side of the county road, where the ledges are more numerous and the drop-offs steeper, I decided this rock would make a pretty good perch for taking a break. I got all my gear off, got the trail mix out and carefully positioned the pack just so to act as a backrest. I had just wiggled my butt down on the rock to adjust my cheeks into the right spot, preparing to settle down for a bit of relaxation when there was an almighty racket and a pair of black vultures exploded from almost underneath my feet, slapping their three-foot wingspans on the rocks, on the ground and on each other as they scrambled away. My relaxation was temporarily delayed as they went one way and I went the other!  OK, so they weren't actually right under my feet when this happened but over there under the rock the black arrow is pointing at, but that was still close enough!!

Apparently they had roosted here under this rock and were a bit reluctant to give up their spot, (If you look close, just above the center of the photo, you can see the blue drinking tube sticking out of my pack. That's where I had settled, blissfully, if temporarily, unaware of the neighbors.) but they couldn't take it once I settled down and got quiet; probably thought I was sneaking up on them. If they has just asked I'd have moved on and let them have the place; after all, by right's it's always been theirs anyway.

It doesn't look like it from here, but I'm standing on a pretty steep slope to get the photo above and the land drops away right there behind me so this spot offers a prime vulture's-eye view of the goings-on in valley below.

This is one of the few, bright red, exfoliating bark Madrone trees that I spotted and that the trail is named for. I understand the original name for the new trail was going to be Panther Junction, which might sound a little more adventuristery, (Or something like that.) but it actually makes no sense in this part of the country, so I, for one, like the name they ended up choosing instead. Trees might not seem exciting but the Madrone is unique and kind of rare.

The other new trail in the park is Juniper Ridge, and this one gave me a few more problems than the Madrone trail. In fact it took me two tries on separate days to get it right. If I had done the Madrone first I wouldn't have had the problems with Juniper Ridge that I did, but I didn't, so I did. (If you can follow that you're doing well!)

My first try at Juniper Ridge was just a couple tenths less than ten miles of pleasant hiking with some scrambling and slogging mixed in and resulted in the track above.

Seems like a perfectly good track when looked at like this, but

right there between the two black arrows things went a little sideways for me.

One end of the Juniper Ridge trail can be picked up by hiking the South Loop Horse trail about a half mile south from the Wolf Creek trailhead parking lot. (From the parking lot go due west a couple hundred feet to intersect the Horse trail instead of south onto the Wolf Creek trail.) At the juncture the Horse trail hangs left and follows a watershed down and to the east. The Juniper Ridge trail bears right and follows a narrow ledge hugging the edge of the watershed.

Hiking the loop counter-clockwise I had crossed a pipeline right-of-way there at the blue arrow. Having previously stumbled across another piece of the Juniper Ridge trail where it crossed the South Loop Horse trail (Right about at that north-facing point just to the right of the right-hand most black arrow.) I expected the trail to meander back across the pipeline right-of-way at some point so wasn't surprised when I encountered the pipeline(s) again right there at the left-hand black arrow.

The white PVC pipes appear to have been part of some sort of irrigation system at one point but are now all broken up and clearly unused for quite some time.

Only there was a little problem. The abundant, sometimes ridiculously abundant, surveyor's flags that had marked the new trail to excess, suddenly stopped and the trail hasn't seen enough usage yet to make it very clear, not on the hard caliche that passes for ground around here, especially when that ground is already marked up by decades of service vehicles following the pipelines.

The wide right-of-way actually accommodates two petroleum pipelines over there on the left, and one gas pipeline that I'm standing on. Expecting the trail to cross from one side of the right-of-way to the other, I did too. Only I could find no trace of the trail on the other side.

As this blow-up of my track shows, I wandered around a bit there near the left-hand arrow but still didn't have any luck finding where the heck the trail went. Not wanting to backtrack, I decided to just follow the pipelines for a bit since, if nothing else, I knew of a couple other trails that cross it farther to the east.

If you look at the topo lines and go back and take another look at the previous photo you might get a hint of the problem with this plan. Things can get steep out here and, unlike trails, pipelines don't do switchbacks, they just brute-force themselves in a straight line through whatever terrain comes along!

Unlike the original pipeline builders, I didn't have any heavy equipment other than my own two feet (and soon butt and hands.) to help me tackle this new challenge, I clawed and slid my way down the rocky drop-offs, made a little jog into the woods to find a place where I could get across the strongly flowing Butler Creek (That little dotted blue line.) without having to resort to the hassle of changing into and out of my water-shoes, then scrambled up the far side of the ravine, often pulling myself up on all fours. (I swear some big fat gremlin came along and sat down on my pack at this point because it was way heavier than I remembered!) By the time I found another trail over on the north side of the pipe line (Part of the Juniper Ridge trail as it happened.) I was one pooped puppy!

To make matters worse, I closed the loop by hooking up with Wheatley road and then the Wolf Mountain trail, only Wolf Mountain trail isn't so much trail as it is a hard-packed gravel and limestone slab road. This makes it easier for park personnel to get in and service the primitive camping area at the base of the mountain, but is also makes for a very tiring slog to finish up a long and frustrating day.

A couple days later, armed with some notes I took while talking to a long-time ranger of the park, I tried the Juniper Ridge again, clockwise this time for a little variety, and this is more what my track should have looked like in the first place.

The right-hand leg of this nine mile loop is on a section of the South Loop Horse trail, then I hooked up with the Juniper Ridge trail right there at the black arrow. The section of trail inside the blue boundary is what I missed on my first attempt.

What threw me that first time was the trail coming out on the pipeline right-of-way there near the purple arrow, then, after following the pipeline for a bit, diving right back to the south instead of crossing the pipeline. I didn't expect that because it seems to me that that ridge right there is gentle enough to get a trail over it without resorting to having to walk down the rather ugly pipeline, but then what do I know???

But then again, I'm pretty sure the Juniper Ridge trail was designed and built by a mountain bike club out of Austin and not by professional trail-blazers.

This has resulted in a few other bits of strangeness too, such as the spot there the trail switchbacks up, traverses a slope and switchbacks back down again. An aerobic little excursion, but the sharp-eyed will notice that the two initial points of the switchbacks are actually only 20 feet apart and separated by nothing more than level ground and a couple small cedars. And in another spot you can look down the length of a ravine and see the trail meandering aimlessly out and around and back until 1000 feet of trail ends up crossing from one side to the other of the ravine three times within 150 feet linear.

But it has also resulted in a trail that contours around the rugged terrain, minimizing the ups and downs found on most other trails in the park, traveling along ledges, hugging the edges and giving nice views down into the terrain below.

All in all, these two new trails are strong additions to the trail system in the park and give access to previously under-visited areas. (And if the new maps get delayed for another year or so, keeping trail usage light, I'm not going to be complaining!!)

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