Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Los Padres National Forest
Pat Springs Camp
Moderate overnight backpack -14.2 miles
(Photo-Lupine in the Spring, not to be missed in the Ventana!)
The story goes, that at one time a natural rock formation bridged a gap between two peaks in the Ventana Wilderness of central coastal California. The peaks, known as the "Ventana Double Cones," along with the rock bridge arching between them, once formed a window that one could view blue sky through. Hence the name, Ventana, or Spanish for "window." Nobody I know has ever seen it, and one account I came across claimed that the bridge fell some time ago, and only the name "Ventana" is all that is left remaining of the long ago once famous rock phenonmena.
Fall through spring are the only sane times to hike the Ventana due to the extremely hot summers. So, we planned our Ventana trip out of Botcher's Gap to Pat Springs in the spring. I wish I could tell you what the date was exactly...the year was 1990. Some of my readers will wish me to be more exact by the end of my tale, but I think I will leave the date as is.
On the drive to the Ventana from Santa Cruz, we marveled at how close we were to such a beautiful wild area to hike in. Within an hour and a half we were on the trail hiking. Our first span of trail stretched through an immense burned area that had still not begun to regrow. We were saddened by the sight, and later angered even more after coming upon a still smoldering unattended campfire left by campers. It's one thing for nature to perform her "cleansing by fire" routine, quite another for her to be subjected to untimely burnouts caused by careless human visitors. Within a couple of hours though, we passed out of that area and came to a nice ledge with a view and an oak tree to spread our lunch under. Then, once refreshed by lunch, and the incredible views we'd been graced with, we continued our gentle climb. We wound through the forest and over creeks, and finally the trail steepened for a piece that would take us to our camping spot for the night.
At the top, we were on a high meadow that sat nestled at the south side of Devil's Peak. Being just below higher Carmel Peak also, I set off to see if the peak was accessible by footpath. About 20 yards away I came through a small grove of trees to a rocky outcropping. Just as I passed through the curtain of trees into the open I surprised a skunk about fifteen feet to my left. He hightailed it out of there, and I counted my blessings that my normally very alert labrador hadn't noticed his passing. After finishing my exploration, I headed back to the others. The next afternoon we would gaze back at the slopes of this same peak as we worked our way higher and higher, and be thrilled to spot a mountain lion wending it's way around the peak.
In the morning, while packing up to go on, another nature encounter came in the form of a black widow spider nestled underneath my son's sleeping pad! We certainly had luck on our side this trip by not getting skunked or bitten. The lower coastal ranges allow you to hike in times when the higher mountains such as the Sierra Nevada are blanketed in snow, but with skunks and black widows and rattlers and poison oak...things less common in the high mountains, one does have to be a little more vigilant.
Shaking off thoughts of what could have been, we hiked down the ridge we were on, and came out to another lower meadow skirted by an interesting area forested by oaks and pines combined. We hiked through the warm morning and noon, passed by a nice forested campsite and continued to our prize for the night, Pat Springs. The spring was down trail 200 yards or so from the campsites, and there were several campsites to the left of the trail nestled among some shady trees. But, we opted for more solitude and sunshine, and headed a short way past the springs and on up the ridge.
Once up the ridge a ways, we popped out into the open and realized how windy it was above the trees. But, we found a nice ledge a few feet below the ridgeline that was just the right size for a family of four to camp on! It was while leaning back against the cliff enjoying the sun and view that I first spotted it. I wasn't sure I'd really seen it though. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was seeing things. Maybe it was just my imagination. Maybe I'd better just see if anybody else could see what I was seeing. So, after prompting, my husband looked too. There it was! I wasn't crazy, and I wasn't imagining it. The Window, The Ventana, the namesake of the wilderness we were traipsing through was not just a legend. It was there in plain view across the valley, directly across from where we sat. I wondered how many people had actually seen it before us. I wondered how many had searched for, and had never found it. I wondered how many had just believed all along that it was only a legend after all, or a piece of nature worn away by time and long gone and missed by all. And finally, I wondered how it was that I had just happened to be lucky enough to be there at that time of year, at that time of day, and in that exact spot to see it. For surely it was visible for only a fleeting moment in time periodically, based on the angle of the sun.
I have never returned to the double cones. Never climbed to the top of them to find the source of "The Window." Never returned to our spot above Pat Springs. But, I think of it from time to time. It was a magical time in a magical place, and the source of yet another magical memory in the backcountry.