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Hatchet Hikes

Rattlesnake Canyon

Rattlesnake Canyon Santa Barbara, California 3 miles It’s a hot, cloudless Saturday out on the coast, and the wind refuses to rise as we leave the beach and head up into the mountains. There are very few places where one can transition from surf into switchback in minutes, and Santa Barbara is one of them. The peaks of the Santa Ynez jolt so suddenly out of the sea that they seem to risk toppling over, and the freeway does its best to squeeze by in the small corridor that’s left between the foothills and the breakers. The effect is hard to overstate: from the beach, one can see summits rising 4,000 feet, nearly overhead; from the peaks, one can see many miles out into the vast open ocean.

Barely fifteen minutes from the briny air of downtown, the entrance to Rattlesnake Canyon sits at the northern tip of Skofield Park, about a mile north of Route 192, tucked up into the foothills. Ray Skofield, a wealthy New York businessman, owned the entirety of the canyon in the early 20th century, until his son Hobart sold the upper 450 acres (the current park) to the state in 1970 for a modest $150,000, half of its actual value. Per his request, the land is now a designated wilderness. So of course, we tried it out.

As the road curves around the park’s far end, it narrows into a quaint stone bridge, where the trail follows the creek away and out of sight. The trailhead is easy to spot, with a large sign that reads “Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Area,” and there’s relatively plentiful parking along both sides of the road, in the dust.

At first, the trail hugs the creek closely, crossing just below the sandstone bridge, which lends the scene a folksy, Western-vintage sort of look. Moving upstream, the cold water combines with the shade to make for a mercifully cooler atmosphere. It’s nice to see water out here at all, to be honest, given our state’s propensity for drought. That’s a large part of this certain trail’s charm: its relentlessness.

Not in bad ways, per se. But as in how the creek, as it follows the trail on its steady, slow climb, just keeps cascading, keeping pace with the hikers at every turn. It’s as if it insists on being beautiful. And it works.

About half a mile after the bridge, the trail crosses again over the creek, and, if one is feeling adventurous, one can follow it straight up the canyon. This requires a lot of boulder hopping and slippery scrambles, so take care—but if you’re willing, you’ll encounter the crumbling remains of the old mortar dam, constructed in 1808, in replacement of the previous mud and brush dam built by hard Chumash labor, which supplied the Santa Barbara Mission. But if not, the trail continues on firm ground across the creek.

At this point, you might start to huff and puff a bit, as the route curves up and to the left, lifting out above the tree cover onto a high ridge overlooking the creek. The incline banks steeply, at times reaching nearly thirty degrees, and the sun is assaultingly hot, the temperature climbing into the low nineties. The footing is rocky, though not loose or slippery, and the views begin to grow increasingly impressive, the blue streak of the ocean rising up as if filling the canyon below us, and beyond it the shadowy humps of the Channel Islands standing like a wall before the open sea. It’s well worth it to take a quick breather here. Or two.

And then, as we’re about to trudge around another rocky corner, a voice calls out, stark, but amusingly restrained: “Hey-y-y there. Gotta snake.”

And oh, he does.

Now, I recognize how convenient it seems to have a rattlesnake appear when in Rattlesnake Canyon, but I promise, it did—and it was, indeed, awesome. See, I’ve never seen rattlesnakes out in the wild before (so humor me if this seems a bit dramatic), but its body is utterly wild. The sheer thickness of it strikes me first. In the middle of the trail, just beside a large rock it sits, half-unwound, as a man in flamingo pink shorts pokes the sand by its rattles with a limp alder stick. (Be advised: Do not do that.) Despite him, it’s slow to uncoil, and as it slithers silently into the shade I can see that it’s bigger around than my wrist, at least three feet long, and its head is blunt and heavy. The pattern of its scales is like some kind of Scottish tartan, and its rattles jut out much more stiffly than I would have thought, appearing almost as though they were stuck to its tail accidentally. With a few quick slithers that look as though they bend in time, it’s away and into the brush, leaving a faint crescent trail in the sand. Flamingo Shorts Man passes by with a nod, shaking his stick as if in victory, and we both carry on, feeling starstruck.

Wildlife in general is plentiful here, at least in comparison to the adjacent urban sprawl. Be aware that such encounters are not altogether uncommon, and mountain lions (as a sign by the entrance warns) have made occasional appearances.

Mercifully, the trail soon flattens out a bit, and the shade returns. Passing below the broad arms of some thick oaks, the creek meets with the path again, and over the course of the next few hundred meters, we’re treated to some of the most wonderful cascades in the Santa Barbara area. One after the other, the smooth drops and clear pools flash and gurgle with a charming expressiveness, inviting passers-by to stop and stay awhile. This is perhaps the hike’s biggest draw, and for good reason. Dogs play and splash through the water, and even I, a devoted landlubber, have to opt for a quick dip in one of the more inviting pools.

 

After another half-mile, the trail opens up into a wide, airy meadow, known as Tin Can Flat. According to the Santa Barbara Independent , a man named William O’Connor built a makeshift hut out of chaparral twigs and tin cans here some time in the early 1900s, in an effort to comply with state homesteading laws. The hut was destroyed by fire in 1925, but the flat still retains its name. The meadow is dry and open, the mountains rising up around it in a sort of protective embrace. For most hikers in Rattlesnake Canyon, this is the trail’s upper terminus. One can continue on across the meadow, climbing another three-quarters of a mile to Gibraltar Road, or take the leftward branch, trekking all the way to the Tunnel Trail. But most turn around here, having hiked about a mile and a half uphill (and, in my case, admittedly feeling a bit winded), and start back down the slope toward the creek.

The hike up takes an hour and forty-four minutes. The trip down lasts barely an hour. Sweaty and spent, we get back to the car, and within twenty minutes we’re dropping our shoes in the sand and diving headlong into the icy Pacific surf. That’s the true, natural advantage of the rare places like this—you get everything: shady creeks, steep mountains, canyonlands, handy beaches, and an impressive delivery on the promise of the Rattlesnake name. I mean really, what more could you want?

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Switzer Falls

Switzer Falls
Unlike most hikes, the starting point for Switzer Falls is nearly seven hundred feet higher in elevation than its terminus. Cruising up the spacious switchbacks of the Angeles Crest Highway, the parking area is clearly marked when I arrive at midmorning, with only a few other cars in the lot. Continue reading

Mount Tremper

Several Catskill peaks rise above the small upstate town of Phoenicia. Mount Tremper reaches upward from the bends of the Esopus Creek before it empties in the Ashokan Reservoir. One of the reservoirs that provides New York City with its renowned drinking water.

Though not one of the high peaks, the views from the top of the Mount Tremper Fire Tower rival any of the high summits. The trail itself begins at a small parking area off Mt. Tremper-Phoenicia Rd. Not many cars can fit in the designated area, so parking can be difficult on summer weekends, but considering this hike is not as popular as some of the high peaks, with a little luck you can find a space. There is an additional pull-off just down the road from the official parking area, but the narrow road means there’s no real shoulder or roadside parking.

 

You’ll begin the trail by crossing a few small wooden bridges over some trickling streams making their way down to the Esopus. A peaceful way to begin your trek, especially when the first few hints of spring start to appear, brightening up the dull winter forest. However, the trail does begin to climb almost immediately after, following some stone steps and loose rocks up the slope of the mountain.

Be sure to follow the Red Trail markers. At times the trail will follow a stream bed, which can make it tricky at times when the trail suddenly breaks away from the stream. Once in the flow of a hike, it is easy to get used to following a specific landmark or type of terrain, and not realize that the actual trail has split off in the opposite direction. So keep a watch on the tree trunks for the red circles.

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The terrain levels-off briefly until you approach the junction with an old road. Follow the red markers to the right after you sign the trail register. From here the trail will once again begin to climb.

Mount Tremper has a rich history, dating back hundreds of years. Starting from the area’s settlement in the 1780’s, there was an emphasis on the the abundance of hemlock bark available on the mountain. The bark contained tannin which was used in the process of leather tanning. Being situated along the Esopus, it was especially easy to transport the bark to other areas of the state. Even roads were built for the purpose of harvesting the bark. Due to the over-harvesting however, there is little to no hemlock still present on Mt. Tremper.

In the late 1870’s, a Catskill resort known as the Tremper House was constructed on the Mountain, which hosted several famous guests such as Oscar Wilde & Henry Ward Beecher. The resort remained open until 1904, when it almost transitioned to a tuberculosis sanatorium. However, that plan fell through, and only four years later it unfortunately fell victim to a fire, the same outcome as many other Catskill resorts.

Similarly to the Shawangunk ridge near Minnewaska State Park, this area also saw a seasonal influx of blueberry pickers during the early 1900’s. The Tower was built in 1916 partially in response to the annual blueberry pickers burning over areas of the mountain.

The mountain even used to house a bluestone quarry, which now serves as a home to one of the few confirmed rattlesnake dens in the Catskills. There are Rattlesnake warnings posted on the trail, so it is important to be careful and keep an eye and ear out, though sightings are not very common. As you walk the often rocky trail, you’ll notice an abundance of shale lining the path, with its purple and pink hues standing out amongst the grays, browns, and greens of the forest.

The terrain and scenery does not vary much, though if hiked in the spring before the leaves fully bloom, views of the high peaks can be spotted between the branches. Though spring can provide you with a better view, it can also be challenging when you reach higher elevations. Snow and ice can last late into the season, making some of the steep inclines especially tricky. If you can manage to stay to the outer edge of the trail, you can sometimes find a narrow path clear of ice. Winter and early spring hikes may even require the use of micro spikes to make it up the slippery trail. Ice flows along the larger boulders and rocky overhangs form impressive and fleeting natural sculptures, growing smaller with each day.

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The ice can sometimes even be difficult to spot on the trail, often covered by fallen pine needles, leaves, and wind blown branches. The crisp air, made even cooler by the remnants of winter, carries with it the scent of balsam and the rejuvenating smell of the damp earth. Spring maybe not be the most popular time on the catskill peaks, but it always manages to provide its own beautiful characteristics, showing glimpses of the warm and lush summer ahead.

As you continue your ascent you’ll pass a camping lean-to just downhill from a fresh spring water source, flowing cool and welcoming. For those hikers on longer backpacking trips, these two often overlooked sites are an appreciated scene. Once at the top of the trail, an elevation of 2,740 feet, you’ll come across a second lean-to. Several backpackers passed by as I ate lunch near the wooden shelter, but it didn’t appear as if anyone had spent the night in a while. The stone fire pit was iced over, waiting for the first flames of the season.

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Just beyond the shelter is the Mount Tremper fire tower. Standing 47 feet tall, peeking above the leafless canopy, shaking in the wind, but holding strong. You can get a semi-obstructed view from a rocky ledge in front of the tower, but for the best views and the ones that make the trail worth it, climbing the tower is a must. The enclosed room on top was locked during my trip but that didn’t affect the views from the highest landing. With no branches or trees to obscure your line of sight, you can get a true panoramic view of the Catskill Range and the Ashokan Reservoir nestled between the hills. A completely unique vantage point, compared to the other nearby summits.

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With Each step you take further up the tower, more uniques perspectives of the distant peaks takes shape. Patches of snow form white mosaics under the birches and oaks, but in just a few weeks all of the leaves will be in full bloom, turning the brown and bluish hues into a blanket of deep green.

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The wooden steps may seem unstable as the structure itself sways with the breeze, but they continue to survive unfazed, year after year.

Standing atop the tower, peering over the uneven land that seems ready to reawaken, there is a feeling of calm anticipation, of readiness for the changing season ahead. I could stay motionless on the top, endlessly taking in each separate scene, but the chilly spring winds get the best of me. Once the clouds roll in and the summit temperature starts to drop, I make my way back down to the trailhead and grab a bite at the nearby Phoenicia Diner.

Mount Tremper is a a sleeping giant in the Catskills that may not have the same appeal as some of the high peaks, but allows you to escape the crowds and view the Catskills from a new perspective. Maybe it is the history, maybe it is the solitude, or maybe it is something else entirely, but there is a specific feeling that draws me to this mountain in the midst of the quiet towns and sprawling forests.

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Rattlesnake Canyon
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