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Sean "Miner" Nordeen
Begins: Mar 19, 2016
Date: Mon, Mar 26th, 2018
Trip Distance: 408.9
Entry Visits: 1,832
Journal Visits: 10,879
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Guestbook Entrys: 2
Condor Trail Overview/Planning
NOTE: I've moved this entry from the end of 2016 to here so it remains the last entry in this journal to make it easier for people to find.
I've typed up a Condor Trail Summary and Planning guide (pdf) for anyone considering hiking the Condor Trail that follows the length of the Los Padres National Forest in California. I did it as a pdf file so you can download it. I tried to cover a little bit of everything in it. If you think I'm missing something, leave your suggestion in my guestbook.
For my hike, I modified the mileage and water spreadsheet on the Condor Trail Association’s (CTA) website. I added southbound columns (and hid the north bound) while adding additional water sources and estimates of when I’d arrive at various points to make resupplying easier. As the original had water information for Spring, I modified the southern half for fall water conditions instead. I’m putting a link to my spreadsheet (xlsx) in case someone thinks it might help them plan. Don't assume water conditions will be the same when you hike. Contact the CTA for current conditions.
Now I'll try to talk about some additional information that I didn't cover in the pdf file.
Overall: Overall, it's a nice trail. It didn't excite me as much as the John Muir trail, but I'm glad I hiked it. The Condor Trail travels through some diverse terrain. I got to see a little bit of everything California has to offer. Redwoods forests near the ocean, pine forest in the mountains, sage and oak land, deep forested canyons, hot springs, chaparral hillsides, etc. Spring wildflowers were wide spread and the canyons were full of yellow fall colors.
The trail certainly needs more development. My friend O'Dark, after hearing me talking about it, said he didn't think it was ready yet for Prime Time. I do think he is right as I think it’s beyond the ability of many hikers unless they have experience with bushwhacking and cross country navigation. I don't know if I would hike this trail again anytime soon. Perhaps after it's developed more. But given I live a few hours away, I definitely will be making some more trips into the area as I enjoyed the scenery. I do think it is worth hiking at least once, if you are up for a challenge.
California condor: The trail passes through the densest population of the California condor, which has the widest wingspan of any bird in North America. I really wanted to see one, but I didn't. Some other hikers complained about the same thing. I did see several Turkey Vultures that I initially thought were condors. I do wish I could have spent more time looking for them on my last 2 days on the trail as the southern end is suppose to be your best chance to see one.
Difficulty: I found the trail very difficult. It was the hardest hike I've ever done thus far. Most of my hiking has been along better condition trails like the AT, PCT, the Tahoe Rim Trail, John Muir Trail, etc. I have hiked some trails that have required some cross country hiking or involved several miles of very overgrown trail like portions of the Tahoe Yosemite Trail (the Wilderness Press Willet route rather than the PCT). This trail was like an inverse of that trail. Rather than being mostly good trail with some short sections of overgrown or cross country travel, this trail was often overgrown to varying degrees with some sections of good trail.
Odds of Finishing: The odds of anyone finishing this trail in one shot are currently low. Several people have tried thru-hiking it recently, particularly after Brittney became the first to succeed. All gave up at some point for various reasons. As of the end of 2016, only 4 people (edit: I had to change this from 3 after another multi-year hiker came forward) managed to complete the trail where only Brittney succeded in doing it as one trip. If you ever get a chance to hear about Brittney's hike, what you hear is all this adversity she encountred and it is a testament to her will that she was able to push through it. Fortunately, my thru-hike attempt had less drama, and yet I still ended up having to get off and come back at a later date to finish.
I think someone who has only hiked on good trail, including some of the long trails like the PCT, will have problems with this trail. You can't allow your mind to disconnect from navigating the trail. The constant pushing through overgrown trail gets old. I think I was better prepared than most for this trail and I still had health issues arise that I never encountered on any other hike I've done. They forced an early end to my spring thru-hike attempt and forced me to come back the following fall to finish instead. I do wonder why I'm the only one thus far that did come back later after quitting. I'm not counting the guy who spent 5 years section hiking the trail since his goal was to section hike it from the beginning. Perhaps people just want to finish it as one trip and will try again at another time. Others, I suspect, had enough and are done. I must admit, after I had to get off in spring, I didn't want to think about the Condor Trail till August came around as I was depressed about it. I do think your chances of finishing would increase if you aren't on a tight timetable and have extra time available so if something does come up, you have time to recover from it. If I had another 2 weeks of vacation back in spring, I think I might have been able to finish then.
Hardest part of the trail: The hardest part of the trail to hike would be some of the bushwhacking around private property just east of the Garcia Wilderness. Some of the brush was so densely grown that you had to crawl under it to get by. For physical effort and slowness of travel, that short section wins hands down. Fortunately, the bushwhacking there was short lived. The hardest part to navigate would be the section between Rouge and Hiawatha trail camps in the San Rafael Wilderness where you travel 4.5 miles cross country with little sign of a trail.
Hiking solo vs. with a partner: I hiked the trail solo and seldom saw anyone. I don't mind hiking alone. However, I did think that the trail would be more relaxing to hike with another person. Due to the often poor condition of the trail, you had to keep your brain engaged with what you were doing at all times. Evaluating where you were and where you were going. You couldn't just allow yourself to zone out as you could easily find yourself off course or on an animal path. This was mentally tiring. It would have been nice to have had a partner to trade off navigating duties so you could just mindlessly follow behind at times. It also would have been faster to have another set of eyes looking for the trail when it disappeared.
Resupplying: I listed the resupply points in the pdf file. However, I ended up not using most of them. Due to the time constraints of my limited vacation time, I didn't want to lose time hitching into town, so I buried food caches along the trail when it came to a road. I only bought food while hiking the missing gap along Highway 1 which passes right through several towns. That said, I do think getting a ride into San Luis Obispo would have been easy off Highway 101 due to the number of people who were at the trailhead. Nacimento Fergusson Rd near Big Sur and Highway 166 both seemed to have plenty of traffic. The only problem area I saw would likely be Highway 33 which didn't seem to have much traffic and was far from any town. Here is an additional resupply location spreadsheet (xlsx) showing the trail mileage of most access points.
Maps: I found using the available commercial maps adequate for most of the trail; at least when used with a GPS device when the trail became hard to follow. I was not happy with the Nat Geo Maps due to their too tiny scale and they had several parts of the trail they didn't show. But I was forced to use one of them for San Luis Obispo County. I did carry the 7 1/2 quads for the cross country section between Rogue and Hiawatha in the San Rafael Wilderness which helped some there. I wish I had them in SLO and for the southernmost part of Monterey County when I had to follow a grass overgrown road down to Highway 1 only there were numerous other roads there not on my map (made worse since I had lost my GPS device and was fully reliant on my map). That said, if I had to do it again, I'd likely want to generate my own maps for those parts so I could get more detail. If one was to try hiking this trail without a GPS, you would definitely need a more detailed map.
GPS: I rarely have used a GPS device over the years, preferring to just use a map and compass. This was the first extended trip where I carried a GPS and used it regularly. While it is possible to hike the Condor Trail without one, travel will be much slower and getting misplaced would happen much more frequent. Brittney had some electronic issues and ended up hiking much of the southern trail without one and was frequently lost and wandering around off trail. I had some minor issues with the provided track as it was often 30ft off in the brush when I was hiking right on the trail. But overall, it reliably followed the trail without any useless wandering around. You always knew the track was going in the right direction. I found early on that I needed to check it regularly, even when I was on better trail, to insure that I didn't get off track or go the wrong way. There were many trail junctions not labeled, and sometimes you didn't even notice the junction and just took the best path. There were several occasions where the best path was just an animal path going who knows where and a faint path was the real trail. So using the GPS made travel much faster with less getting misplaced. And when I did get misplaced, it helped me to discover it quickly and get back on track. Most of the time, my GPS was in my pocket as I rarely needed to hiked while holding it. I only had to replace the lithium AA batteries every 5-6 days.
I do know when I lost my first GPS device in spring, I did take longer to travel with just a map and compass in some areas where the trail was faint. Bryan at the CTA told me to look out for 2 lost cell phones other hikers were using to navigate in the cross country section between Rogue and Hiawatha, so this trail loves to eat navigational devices.
I modified the CTA's 2016 GPS files to make them more usable. The direction of the individual tracks weren't consistent; some went nortbound and others southbound. So I updated all of them to go in a southbound direction. I deleted a few GPS points where the track had obviously drifted or the user wandered off 100+ feet in a certain direction before returning to where they were. A few of the tracks were full of duplicate points (every other point was a duplicate) that I removed. I split some of the larger tracks into smaller parts so that they fit within the limitations of some GPS receivers. I also renamed the tracks so they are easier to reference and use. Originally the track names had a county prefix but the rest was the local trail name being used which had little meaning to someone not familar with the area in question. And when actually hiking, due to the lack of trail signs, you often don't know what the trail name is anyway. So I added a sequentail number (numbers grow larger as you move south) prefix to the invidivual track names (as an example using the southern most track, I renamed it to: VTA 32 - Piru Rd Start). Now you can look at the number prefix in the name and know which track is the next one to follow. Here is my modified Condor Trail GPS File(gpx) if you'd like to look at it. If the CTA ever updates their GPS files due to a route change, then this should be considered obsolete. I also included the waypoints of my campsites and food/water cache locations though they seem to be bit off when on a map; the problems of using different recreation grade GPS receivers and SPOT devices at differnt times. They should only be considered an approximate location.
As I think it would be of interest, here is a link to the Elevation Profile of the Condor Trail created from the GPS track.
SpringVs Fall: One good thing came about from my having to get off trail in spring. I was able to hike the rest of the trail in the other prime hiking season of fall. So I got to experience both. Most thru-hike attempts happen in spring so they don't get to experience fall at all. I don't think either is better than the other, they are just different. Like my pdf mentions, there are pros and cons to both seasons. Everything is green in spring with numerous wildflowers. For fall, thanks to recent rain, I had a mixture of brown and green vegetation (the brown being much taller) with some fall colors limited to the bottom of canyons along the creeks and rivers. For pure beauty, I think spring has the edge. But fall is easier to navigate and hike. In spring the trail is often obscured by new grass growth, while in fall, all the grass along the trail is trampled down so the trail is easy to spot and follow. Temperatures were cooler in November than they were in March which I enjoyed hiking in more.
Phone Coverage: I carried Verizon since they normally have better coverage away from town. You are often traveling far away from any cell tower in the bottom of canyons. So cell coverage is very spotty; particularly on the southern end. This was the siutation for the southern end from north to south. There is spotty service as you cross ridges from Hwy166 to Horse Canyon. Next service beween Alamar and Madulce Trail with the best spot on a turnout facing SE towards the top. Spotty service out to Reyes Peak. Then on the hills above Lake Piru. ATT has coverage on the southern end of Lake Piru, but Verizon didn't. Cell towers are located on Plowshare Peak, McPherson, and Pinos. If you can see those peeaks you should have coverage.
Clothing: Wear long pants and long sleeves. Don't wear the lightest weight clothing either. My pant seat was torn (the seam didn't rip) 6 inches long when bushwhacking around the private property east of Garcia Wilderness. I wore heavier pants this fall and still got a tear around the ankle. There are only a few places where you can wear shorts for any extended time as most places will scratch you up. Brittney often wore a short skirt and the picture I saw of her legs wasn't pretty. Poison oak can often be found along the canyon bottoms which is another reason you might want to cover up.
Gear: Going as light as you can is always good advice for long distance hiking as it allows you to hike stronger and longer since you aren't carrying as much weight. My baseweight was about 9.5 pounds which included a good camera. But due to how much brush you end up pushing through, you should also consider carrying the smallest pack you can so it gets less brush dragging on it. Ideally it should be a pack that doesn't stick outside of the body line. I carried a frameless pack, a ULA CDT. I still had some issues with the dyneema side pockets where I hold my water bottles wearing some holes in them from the constant dragging through brush. As I wasn't using the extension collar, my pack doesn't stick up much above the shoulders, but it still got hung up on branches that I had to push under.
Insects: I had little issues with insects. At least it didn't leave much of an impression on me. I never wore DEET, but my clothing was treated with Permithrin. Above Willow Creek in Monterrey County in spring, I did find ticks on my legs when I tried to wear shorts despite the low brush. And in some of the wet canyons in spring, there were some small clouds of gnats and a few mosquitos. In some of the oak land, I did have some flies bothering me for some short stretches. I cowboy camped or slept under a tarp for the entire trail. I can only remember seeing a mosquito 2 or 3 nights and it was just 1 or two that eventually disappeared.That said, since I have regularly cowboy camped since 2006, I do avoid some types of campsites where I might have had more of an issue.
How long will it take: I spent 26 days actually hiking. Brittney took 36 days, but I don't know how many days off she took in that total. I think most people will take somewhere in between 3 and 6 weeks. From the limited register entries I found along the way of other hikers attempting the trail, it seemed as if I was traveling quicker than they were. The amount of time they took from Lake Piru to South Fork in spring was about the same amount of time I took from Hwy 166 to Lake Piru despite the fact that I was facing the shorter days of late fall. From some of the photos I've seen of these people, they tried to wear shorts and short sleeves which likely slowed them down pushing through all the brush. Since I was normally fully covered, I would push through at normal speed. I likely had a lighter pack as well.
Temperatures: I did see temperatures at night drop below freezing both in spring and fall though it never dropped below 30F. Though, given the snow I found on Pine Mountain in early December, if I had been forced to camp up there, I may have found it colder. I also saw some warmer nightly temperatures in the spring where I thought my 20F quilt was too warm. In the late fall, daytime temperatures never went above 70F. In the spring I saw high 80's. From reading about Brittney's hike who traveled (in my opinion) too late in the season (starting in May and finishing in June), it was reported that she saw triple digits at one point.
Water: In early spring, I found it very abundant and in places not mentioned on the CTA's provided spreadsheet. But I was hiking in late March early April. People hiking later in spring likely had less water. For November, water was a concern so I placed several water caches. Most of them ended up not being needed, in part due to a storm that happened just before I started and one that happened early on in my hike. I could have hike without caches, but I was trying to limit my water carries to 3L or less.
Condor Trail - 2016
The Condor Trail (CT) travels 410 miles through Central Coastal California in the prime habitat of the endangered California Condor. It runs the length of the Los Padres National Forest from Botchers Gap in Big Sur to Lake Piru near Los Angeles. This scenic trail extends through 4 counties and 7 designated wilderness areas.
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