Section Hiking The Condor Trail: Bottchers Gap to Kirk Creek

  • Updated: April 09, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

April 9th to 16th, 2020
Condor Trail
85.5 miles, 15,000'

Life has been rather interesting the last few months. In February my girlfriend and I gave up our apartment in favor of living out of a conversion van in a local campground. It seemed like the perfect fit for our lifestyle which rarely involves sitting around at home these days and would hopefully allow us extra flexibility when it came to travel.

With all the planning that went into downsizing and the move itself I felt like I'd considered everything. Except, oh I don't know, a worldwide virus pandemic causing mass closures of campgrounds, businesses, ect.


And so here we are in the times of COVID-19. The campgrounds we used are all closed. An issue with our vans solar system left us without reliable power and forced us to throw it in storage and temporarily move into an Airbnb so we could meet our teaching commitments. And then I got sick.

I don't have confirmation what I had thanks to the testing situation but I had all sorts of potential exposure thanks to a public transportation trip a few weeks ago, campground living, and contact with a friend who did test positive for COVID-19. I ended up having a rough few weeks health wise.

Meanwhile the shutdown forced us to end the Wilderness Travel Course early without the snow travel or snow camp outings and then I had to cancel the Spring Advanced Mountaineering Program course completely. And without a home to shelter in per the state orders I started to look at options to get on a long trail as soon as possible.


Amongst the other issues the virus caused shutdowns of local trailheads and so I wanted something relatively obscure that would get me away from any crowds. Starting the Pacific Crest Trail early was an option but that situation has been fluid with more closures potentially on their way and reports from people on the trail of getting doxxed or even death threats from slightly obsessive Facebook keyboard warriors. All of which left me inclined to stay away until my May permit date.

The end result was that I found myself taking a hard look at the Condor Trail.

The Condor Trail is 400-ish mile thru hiking route that runs the length of Los Padres and promises a remote wilderness experience. It first came onto my radar after my Hot Spring Trail trip back in February and had the advantage of going through a lot of areas I've yet to visit.


The dashed black line is the entire trail. I ended up doing three sections and this write up covers the northern red section which I did across 8 days before a local road and trail closure caused me to skip south.

Planning

I usually go into a bit more depth here but considering I only did a bit under 200 miles and that there were some major oddities around the COVID-19 situation I'm going to limit my comments to a few things I wish I'd known going in.

As of April 2020 a gentleman by the name of Brian Sarvis (bsarvis@cox.net)is putting the finishing touches on his guidebook for the Condor Trail. He's done the trail both northbound and southbound in the spring and the fall and I'd highly recommend contacting him if your thinking about doing this trail. He's a great resource and he has a lot of enthusiasm for the trail.

I found that this time of year there was plenty of water and I never needed more than 2-3 liters to carry me between sources. I also went to great effort to end up at campsites that all had water.

Resupply wise I was able to cheat since my girlfriend Jen is a highschool teacher and is currently teaching her classes online due to the shutdown. She could do this pretty much anywhere she had cell reception and she was nice enough to live out of her car while I was on the move periodically meeting me for resupples.

Maps

I usually hike with a combination of an Oregon 650 GPS used for tracking and an Apple iPhone running Gaia GPS. The latter I use with the USGS 7.5 Topo map layer which is generally easy to navigate by and fairly accurate.

Except for this area / trail. For whatever reason I found the campsites to be located in the wrong place and multiple trails were wrong or missing completely.

By the second section I'd started loading the Gaia Topo Layer in addition to the USGS and that proved to be more accurate.

Since I had a track I found online the missing trails generally weren't that big a deal other than presenting planning challenges. I did struggle a bit when trying to exit at Kirk Creek as the USGS didn't show that trail at all.

Gear

Expect the trail to be very overgrown in places. I'm used to bushwhacking but I came out wearing my thru hiker kit since this was a prep hike ahead of the PCT and I ended up wishing I had something heavier.


I had Jen bring me a pair of branch cutters during one of my resupplies and it got so much use during the next section I had blisters on my hand. It didn't help for areas that were completely obliterated like Puerto Suelo and a few other times I really wished I had a set of loppers


Ticks were a major factor along the trail. As I would brush past overgrown brush I'd look down to see them climbing up my leg looking for skin.

I had a small bottle of picaridin I carry for the times in the Sierra where mosquitos are too bad to be managed with clothing layers. Unfortunately despite applying it to my pants several times it didn't prove very effective in driving off the ticks.

Normally I'd have just sent Jen to the nearest REI and grabbed some permethrin or DEET but that wasn't an option during the closures. So I had to settle for picking them off manually. I somehow managed to avoid any of them digging in despite finding hundreds of them on my pants and shirt though Jen found two had dug into her while resupplying me and car camping.

Heavier layers would have also been more ideal. My pants ended up ripping, my thin hiking shirt provided little protection from the sharp branches and leaves, and a pair of gardening gloves could have saved my hands from a fair number of scrapes.

Day 0: Change of Plans

I started off the day in Lake Havasu where we'd been staying in another Airbnb while I recovered. We left early and drove back to Orange County intending to grab some of my hiking gear and head for the southern terminus at Lake Piru. My plan was to start hiking and see how far I could manage before the end of the month.

Then I got a double whammy of news. First off I heard back that Lake Piru was closed due to the virus and wouldn't allow people to hike through. And the forecast had a winter storm warning in effect for that area for the next few days with heavy rain predicted. And nothing makes bushwhacking sections more miserable than when everything is wet.

Looking at options the northern terminus was a 6 hour drive to the north near Monterey. It was brand new trail for me (vs Piru being near other hikes I've done this season) and the rain looked to be lighter and shorter lasting up there. So off we went!


I will say there have been some positives to the lockdown around Los Angeles. For one traffic has been gloriously light along the freeways. Normally heading north along the 5 or 405 at 4 pm would have been packed.


Since it was raining we found a Motel 6 in Monterey to stay at vs trying to camp. They were only booking half the rooms leaving everyone spaced out by at least one empty room but per the guy behind the desk they only had a fraction of that capacity filled.


Day 1: Bottchers Gap to Pat Springs



Being a highschool teacher Jen had to be in cell reception during the day so she could post her lessons and be available to students. So we left our mostly empty Motel 6 a little before 6 am and drove to the end of Palo Colorado Road.



I loaded up amid the drizzle and waved to Jen as she drove off looking for cell reception.

The gate had a closure sign but that just seemed to reference the Mill Creek Redwood Preserve which was closed due to fire damage. Oddly enough there were vehicles parked behind the gate that all had tags on them.


It felt good to be out and moving again after weeks mostly spend in bed. After a pleasant walk up the road I arrived at Bottchers Gap and the start of the Condor Trail propper. The is a campground here but it's reportedly been closed since 2016. The only sign anyone had been up here was a motorcycle and a truck that looked to have been parked there for a while. I hurried past not wanting to risk an altercation if there was a caretaker around.


Brian recommended that I head up the firebreak instead of the trail and this went fairly well. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I felt pretty good despite hauling 6 days of food up the extended climb.


It rained off and on and all the surrounding views were of tree covered hills partially obscured by clouds giving everything a slightly otherworldly feel.

I did have my first backtrack along Skinner Ridge when I ended up wandering down the wrong ridge in the fog. This led to me paying a bit more attention to my map vs just trying to follow what looked like the main trail.


Up near Devil’s Peak the trail / old 4wd road was heavily overgrown and I had no choice but to push through soaking my boots and pant legs.


By 2pm I was quite damp, a bit chilled, and about ready to call it a day in the hopes that things would clear up in the morning. I walked up to where Pat Spring was located and found a flowing spring but no good tent sites and ended up backtracking down the hill a short distance to where I'd caught sight of a fire pit off in the distance.


It was a relief to get in the tent and change into some dry layers and I felt better than I had in weeks now that I was actually out working towards a goal. It rained off and on for the rest of the afternoon and most of the night.


Day 2: Pat Springs Through Hell To Hiding Camp


I was a bit concerned when I woke up to the sound of rain still hitting the tent but after a few hours the clouds retreated and glorious sunlight started to dry everything out. So I used the excuse to sit around and make an extra cup of coffee or two.


By 11 am everything was reasonable close to dry and I started hiking back up the hill to the spring.


Other than some occasionally threatening clouds it was a glorious morning. Without the rain the trail was far more pleasant and I was practically skipping down the trail.

And then I made the turn on the Puerto Suelo Trail which would drop me down to Hiding Camp and my good day came to a sudden brush and tick infested halt.

The initial section leaving the ridge had a cut trail which then became more overgrown as I descended before disappearing completely.


Someone had left ribbons marking the route but it wasn't marking any clear way around the heavy brush. It seemed like there was no alternative to crawling under heavy brush, wading through thick sections of blackberry vines, and getting covered in ticks for my trouble. Then things got even better...

A branch caught the pocket on my Prana Stretch Zions and I heard a loud ripping sound. Looking down...


The rip started off smaller but soon ran down the length of my leg and there wasn't a lot I could do except push forward while bleeding from a few hundred scrapes across my hands and legs.

Eventually I came through the worst of it, reacquired what passed for the trail, and eventually stumbled into Hiding Camp.


Hiding Camp is a beautiful site hidden along the side of the Carmel River. The only real downside was that I had to reach it via the Puerto Suelo Trail.

My legs were wobbly and scratched to hell so I was grateful to sink down onto the picnic table as soon as I arrived. I went about gathering wood for a fire and used that to dry out my gear as best I could.


Day 3: A Short Day To Pine Valley


The next morning I was still feeling weak. I suppose that's to be expected after major exertion following an illness but it also left me in a bit of a worrying spot since I didn't know how bad the trail was going to be from here.

My pants were also done with the rip now stretching from mid thigh all the way down to the ankle cuff. Considering the amount of bushwhacking I'd been through the last two days the idea of cutting the legs off like I'd had to do last time something like this happened wasn't appealing. So I settled on the only alternative I had: rain pants.


For the next two days I hiked along in bright yellow rain pants. I had to keep them zipped while I was hiking to protect from the brush which meant each break I'd desperately split them open to try and dry out the sheets of sweat running down my legs.


I also had a river crossing to deal with immediately after leaving camp. I'd been warned the Carmel River could be a significant crossing and at the moment it was running up to mid thigh. I sent Jen a message telling her how I was feeling and what my plan was just in case and then worked my way across.

On the far side I followed a slightly indistinct trail that seemed to basically follow the track I had. At least until it didn't.

I ended up doing some slightly sketchy bushwacking up steep hillsides and had to back off a few times until I eventually required the trail proper.


Once I was back on the trail it was generally easier to follow except for a few spots here and there.

I wasn't feeling great but at least I wasn't getting any worse. Still when I finally topped out, went through a gate, and stumbled into the Pine Valley Campground area.

After not having seen anyone since I left Jen I was surprised to run into two guys sitting beside the stream. But not as surprised as they were to hear where I'd come from. Apparently the Puerto Suelo Trail was known to be impassable and they were impressed that I'd made it through.


The area was nice and open with a number of campsites scattered around. Many of these were occupied but I spied a free spot up on a ridge near the cabin and quickly laid a claim.


I could have pushed on a few more miles but I didn't know where my next camping option with water would be. So I settled in for a fire and a bit of much needed recovery time.


Day 4: Fighting Along Black Cone Trail To Strawberry



I'd been chatting with Jen via InReach explaining how I was in dire need of a new pair of hiking pants before I managed to give myself heat stroke. Also the light hikers I'd been trying out were causing me a not insignificant amount of discomfort.

We decided that she would hike in via Timber Top and try to meet me near Marble Peak with a spare pair of pants and some branch cutters so I could at least defend myself during the next bushwhack. She said she'd hike in and wait for me until 3 pm which left me with a really long day ahead of me and to say I was somewhat skeptical of the condition of the trail would be a bit of an understatement.


On the way out I was waved over by some nice locals from Big Sur who had heard what I was doing and wanted to chat for a few minutes. They seemed like nice guys and even offered me some LSD as I was leaving though I turned them down figuring I had enough problems to deal with.


The morning was a steep climb but the trail was at least a bit better. A few places I had to push or crawl through but I was easily able to follow the trail until I reached the junction with Black Cone Trail. There I made the turn and took a break in the first hundred feet or so which looked like it had been cleared by a trail crew. And then...


Unfortunately the rest of the trail was badly overgrown and goes on that way for miles. I could mostly push through but I had to constantly fight for progress. Adding to this I like to listen to scifi and fantasy audiobooks while I hike but brush like this has an annoying tendency to snag the wires and rip the earbuds right out of your ear.

The entire time I had one eye on the clock and it soon became clear that despite the strong start I wasn't going to make my rendezvous.


For most of the day I was under intense sun but I could see clouds spilling over the ridge from the ocean to the west. And by the last mile or two I was socked in by drippy clouds.


The last section of the trail down to Strawberry Camp was easier to pass through but harder to follow thanks to the post burn growth sprouting up from the trail.

When I arrived at Strawberry Camp it was several hours past the 3 pm deadline Jen and I had agreed to and I was still quite a ways from Marble Peak. However, I found a bright pink note and a bag waiting for me on one of the signs.

She'd hiked all the way into Strawberry instead of just staying at Marble and the bag contained a new pair of pants, a different pair of shoes (my Hoka's had been causing me a hell of a lot of pain), and a pair of branch cutters.


I decided to stay here for the night and make use of the fire pit to try and dry out.


Day 5: A Resupply At Timber Top


I was starting off my 5th day and due to trail conditions I'd only made it about 35 miles. Considering my first planned resupply wasn't until mile 65 it was looking like I was going to be a few days short of food. And of course Jen hadn't been able to leave me any food the previous day since there was no way to to protect it from the critters.

After trading a series of InReach message Jen and I decided we'd aim to meet that evening at Timber Top. It was just a few miles in for her and she'd be able to spend the night with me as long as she hiked back out early in the morning.

For me it would be an extra 8 miles each direction out of my way but since those miles were along the dirt Coast Ridge Road I would be able to just put my head down and grind out the miles.

The trail leaving Strawberry had been freshly worked the day before meaning it was pretty much the best condition bit of trail I'd seen so far.


After several hours of sweaty climbing I reached Marble Peak and looked down on a sea of clouds coming in from the open ocean. And a beautifully clear dirt road.

The road was mostly uneventful except for the occasional vehicle and one dog barking at me from a tent set up on a hill beside the road. There wasn't any water except for one small seep that I would have struggled to get any water out of. Fortunately I'd drank as much as I could at the last spring and so avoided having to do something like descend off the ridge down to Cold Springs where I could hear water running in the distance.


I arrived at Timber Top maybe an hour before sunset and only about 20 minutes ahead of Jen. She'd made the short steep climb loaded down with a cool bottle of beer and a enough food to get me through another 4 or 5 days.


There's a decent enough campsite on the top of the hill and that's where we set up camp. It was a bit breezy at times but we managed to have a nice little fire and a relaxing dinner looking out across the clouds below.


Day 6: A Long Hike Down A Road To Upper Bee


Jen left before dawn while I had a more relaxed morning.


Right as I was packing up the last of my gear  a lady and her dog came by. She had apparently come in for a 4 or 5 day backpack but since her water filter had died on a previous trip she had carried all the water in for both her and her dog. I can only imagine how heavy her pack must have been!


The 8 miles back to Marble went quickly despite the fact I had a bit of altitude to make back. I also took advantage of the cell phone reception around Marble to see how things were going back down the hill.


I anticipated not finding any water along the road so I'd I'd drank as much as I could from what Jen had brought me. I just needed to find a source of water before I set up camp for the night.

On the far side of Marble I was passed by three separate vehicles that must have been out there working on one of the cabins I passed.


Near the last cabin there was a hammock set up along the side of the road in the shade of a large tree. It seemed only right to take a few minutes to enjoy it.


Right after that I reached a gate which appeared to mark the end of the maintained road. From here it changed from bare dirt to being slightly overgrown by grass and bushes but it was still easy to make progress.

Soon after I reached where my map showed Upper Bee Camp being located. Since it likely had water I decided I'd camp here for the night.

The only problem was that when I reached the section of road where the map showed the trail branching off I couldn't find any trace of a junction.


I could see clear patches below that could have been indications of a trail. Deciding that one way or another I needed to refill water I picked a promising looking spot and started bushwhacking my way down to the creek.

30 minutes later I was ready to give up. I hadn't found anything approaching a trail and while I'd found water I couldn't even find a flat patch that would work for a tent site. So reluctantly I filled up all my water, drank what I could, and turned to climb back up to the road.

And promptly hit what looked like an old road.

Shaking my head I followed it a short distance down the canyon and soon came to what I assume was Upper Bee Camp.


A fire pit, a flat spot, and easy access to water. It was everything I could have wanted.


For the record when I followed the trail back up to the road the next day this is the spot where it joins. It was heavily overgrown for the first few hundred feet and I couldn't do much with my small pair of clippers so I built the duck to hopefully help others. Also you can follow the purple track from my Caltopo map above.


Day 7: Things Open Up To Trail Springs Camp


Back on the road I was once again looking forward to being able to make decent progress.


The road had more of the appearance of a fire break through this section but it was relatively clear and I even found a good flowing water source at one point.


As I gained altitude the vegetation started to change and I even had periods of tree cover which was a nice break from the sun.


The pines and chaparral were a nice change after all the brush and I started to see footprints indicating that others had been this way in the recent past. I also hit a number of downed trees which I had to clamber over.


Eventually the trail dropped down to Trail Spring Camp which was another spectacular camp...except for the ticks. I was sitting on a rock cooking dinner and no matter where I sat I had to get up every few minutes to pick off the occasional tick working its way up my leg.

But hey, other than the blood sucking potentially disease carrying parasites everywhere it was nice.


Day 8: A Trail Closure Causes An Early Exit Via Kirk Creek


The more alpine feel had me really looking forward to the next section. And then I turned on my InReach during breakfast and got a bad news text from Jen.

Apparently the county had just closed Nascimento Road where we'd intended to meet that evening for the next resupply. And all the local trails.

After some back and forth we decided I'd come out Kirk Creek and meet her along PCH where we could reassess and figure out a plan moving forward. Fair enough, except that the USGS maps on my phone didn't actually show the Kirk Creek Trail.

I was also getting down to the last dregs of my battery pack. I'd only managed to charge my phone to 50% last night before it ran dry and the smaller spare I'd grabbed turned out to require an older style cable I didn't have. So I was going to have to watch how often I pulled out my phone to check the map.

I ran into the first people I'd seen in days camped a few miles past Timber Top. It was a pair of guys and their dog out doing a loop from Vicente Flat up and over the nearby lookout. They also were nice enough to give me an extra cable which let me charge off my spare battery which took a bit of the pressure off.


The trail dropped down to Goat Camp which wasn't shown on the USGS but it's a nice camp with ready access to water. From here I had a view of the cloud layer below and it looked like I'd soon be hiking down into it so I took an early lunch break and made some raman.


The trail also got really damn pretty and I found myself constantly pulling out my phone to take pictures.


As expected I was soon under the clouds.


This limited how far I could see but what I could see was still spectacular particularly with all the blooming flowers.


At Vicente Flat I did find a signed junction that had an arrow indicating the Kirk Creek Trail. Unfortunately that just took me to the main camping area and it wasn't clear where the trail went from there. I did see a few tents scattered around but I didn't see any actual people I could have asked.

I took my best guess and followed a trail that seemed to be heading in the direction that Jen had described via text which turned out to be a long gradual descent.


I only ran into one other hiker after Vicente Flat . He was carrying a heavy load and barely spared me a nod as he struggled his way on past.


Eventually I could hear vehicle traffic in the distance and PCH appeared as I dropped down under the cloud layer towards Kirk Creek Campground.


The trail ended at PCH right across from the campground entrance. The campground was closed of course but there was some excitment while I was there as they evicted someone who had apparently snuck in and set up a tent.

I found a place to sit (on the pavement to hopefully avoid ticks) and waited for Jen to arrive. She'd stopped along the way to grab beer and pizza to welcome me back to civilization.


It was going to take a bit of research to figure out what was going on with the local closures so we ended up down in Santa Maria in an Airbnb for two nights.

Next up: after a brief break I headed for Cuesta Pass along the 101  to continue south.

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