The Riddler, Parts 1–3

Shine On, You Crazy Diamonds:
Cachuma Saddle to Coche

The Riddler

Finally. The Riddler. Our previous attempt having been beset by numerous issues and ultimately thwarted, ZK and I set out on a hot Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago to see this one done. Knowing what awaited us on the climb from Cachuma Saddle to McKinley Spring, we took a late start in an attempt to avoid some of the heat that had been beating down on SoCal that week.

Day 1

The retread of the McKinley Mountain road went without a hitch; there was water aplenty at the first stock trough and so we took the opportunity to tank up and cool off a bit there. Things were drier and less green than during our Spring attempt, but as the sun set over Ranger Peak and Figueroa Mountain and we climbed the western flanks of McKinley Mountain, we agreed we were off to a good start. We lit the headlamps and marched the final stretch to McKinley Spring camp in good spirits.


Day 2

The next morn, we were up early and already the heat was shimmering off the road and rocks. We walked that easy half-mile up to McKinley Saddle, where we ditched our packs in the limited shade and made for the abandoned AWS Cabin ruins atop McKinley Mountain.

McKinley Mountain AWS Cabin Ruins No. 1

From McKinley, we retraced our steps to the saddle, perused the trail register there at the San Rafael Wilderness boundary, and then began the ascent toward San Rafael Mountain. I passed the “scene of the crime” (where I fell last attempt) with an odd sense of disdain and bravado, and in little time we were atop the mountain and picking around its peak, photographing the trig, noting points in the distance, and executing all such usual nerdly duties.


We enjoyed an extended break just as the pines began east of the peak, and then continued through the draws and rock formations which comprise the easy descent toward Mission Pine Spring.

It was here that — despite having spied neither Radagast nor any moon moths — a great whoosh came from the towering formation to our immediate south and caused me to instinctively duck. And behold: fewer than 50 feet from us and at eye level a large golden eagle broke through the trees and powered its way down-canyon beneath the crowns of the Coulters, ponderosa, and Incense-cedars, leaving us mere bipeds simply standing to admire. [ed. note: CRC, you’ve hit your Tolkien reference quota for this post]

We reached Mission Pine Spring camp just after noon, and there spent a fair amount of time picking around the rock formations to the southeast, photographing the numerous spotted Humboldt’s lilies in the glade, and generally lounging. I dozed off under the oak near the spring, but woke some time later with the chills and a pretty gnarly headache. Hmmm.

Spotted lily up close

We tanked up on water knowing our next destination to be a dry camp, shouldered our packs and headed off over Mission Pine Ridge, navigating along and being ever-grateful for all the work the VWRs have been doing here. I was moving slow, and could feel a fever coming on. This caused me to be less than pleased, I assure you. About half-way between MPS and Mission Pine Basin I stepped over what to my fatigued eyes looked to be a cluster of black spores or a chunk of charred manzanita, but that ZK picked up and proclaimed to our collective amusement to be a small bee finger-puppet. A calling card? An ominous portent? Or a lost mascot? I reasoned the latter, and you regular trekkers of the Los Padres can guess to whom I figured this little bee would likely belong.

We reached Mission Pine Basin at dusk; the Coulter pines at camp, with their head-busting cones of doom, prompted us to throw the bedrolls down in the field. I drank nearly three quarts of water, ate 4 servings of Mountain House, and sacked out. I’d better feel better in the morning, I grumbled.

Day 3

Mission Pine Basin camp

I didn’t.

There was no way in Hell’s Half-Acre I was going to let this trip go the way of our last attempt, but neither did I feel I had the power or inclination to make our planned miles from the basin to West Big Pine and down to Bluff Station. What to do … cut a day off the schedule and head down the upper Santa Cruz toward Coche? Spend a lay-over day here and hope tomorrow I would have enough spring to make up the lost time? Discretion something something valor … we opted for the route to Coche.

We collected water at a willow-clad draw just short of the Fall Canyon junction, and then double-backed to the junction where stands one of the few great trees in this area to have escaped the Zaca Fire completely unscathed.

Mission Pine Basin/Santa Cruz Junction

And then we dropped.

The descent from Mission Pine Basin into the Coche drainage was made rather easy due to the exceptionally well-placed cairns along all the rocky gullies and ravines which seem to twist every which way for the first mile or so. Who knows where we’d have ended up had it not been for the savvy volunteers who’d come this way in the months or years past and made such efforts. We fixed a few cairns and placed a few of our own (including a cell phone sweet-spot about half-way down), clipped here and there, dodged one annoyed rattler, and waded through impressive swathes of yerba santa.

As we were approaching the Grapevine Junction, ZK spotted a rather non-descript metal sign proclaiming a rather pathetic little flat to be Coche Camp. Nonsense. Surely some miscreant had moved this sign from the camp … this sad corner of the forest couldn’t possibly be an official USFS trail camp.

Mais au contraire. Upon closer inspection we determined the sign had been affixed to the tree longer than either I or ZK has walked this earth. So we endeavored upon some reconnoitering, and indeed found a pair of ice can stoves beneath a fire-scarred oak closer to the creek, and later that afternoon unearthed another filled with soot and burned detritus … this one had quite likely not been disturbed since some time before the 2007 conflagration.

Coche Camp

And so after some minor remodeling, we enjoyed an evening at Coche, I making a point to stay hydrated and the both of us enjoying the comforts only an ice can stove cum ice can bench can provide a weary hiker. We’d cut a day from our itinerary, but still it seemed the right choice. And as our small fire crackled beneath the markedly clear night, I realized my earlier symptoms had gone.

So now we’d only two days remaining. I intended to make the most of them.

Guest Star Lite Bee

The Riddler is continued here


3 responses to “The Riddler, Parts 1–3”

  1. Great trails report. Thanks for rescuing my “little honey bee”.

    The Beeman

  2. Mark Anthony Avatar
    Mark Anthony


    Read your post on Mission Pine Springs. Thanks for putting it up. I live in Arizona now.
    Did that big fire scorch the pines at MPS ? Big Pine ?
    I had heard it was scorched. Please let me know. It is Jan 23rd 2014
    Thanks !


    1. Mark, sections of Mission Pine did indeed burn, but sections were also spared. MPS is in good nick after being singed, there’s a stretch between there and the Basin that was an absolute train wreck had it not been for the VWR sawyers and trail crews that labored over the course of a few years to clear it, and then the big ponderosa there at the east end of the basin (where the trail splits) was saved while nearly all others were torched. Big Pine Mountain was wholesale scorched, and seems to be recovering slower than any of us imagined. It’s just ceanothus and scrub now, mostly. Sad times.

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