On the wooden gate that led to the next stretch of the Carmel River Trail through the Ventana Wilderness, someone had carved these words: “Not worth it.”
Since we’d been warned that this part of the trail would require “bushwhacking,” we were pretty sure it was a comment on just how bad things were. But our car was at the end of this trail, so we had little choice but to keep going.
The trail led through some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. Except for the burble of the river and the chirping of birds (and an occasional jet plane), it was quiet. We didn’t see another person for close to three days.
But the sign was right: It wasn’t worth it. Too much stress and exhaustion make it hard to truly appreciate beauty and quiet. Though it was gorgeous:
The Ventana Wilderness is an area of rugged coastal mountains with steep ridges and deep valleys. Even a well-maintained trail there would be challenging, because of the terrain. Unfortunately, the part of the Carmel River Trail from the Pine Valley campsite to the Sulphur Spring campsite hasn’t been maintained at all.
The area is full of chaparral, much of which is growing at head height across the trail. Below that you find vast quantities of poison oak, along with quite a lot of lovely wildflowers, berry bushes, and other wonderful things. But because no one has cut anything back in some time, the trail itself is barely visible and avoiding the poison oak is pretty much impossible.
That was bad enough, if expected. But there were also trees down across the trail all along this part of the trail, which stretched about nine miles. Some of them were huge – three-four feet in diameter. Climbing over that on a narrow trail near a ridge carrying a full pack is not a lot of fun, and takes awhile.
In many places along the ridges the trail is eroding, meaning you have to step very carefully to avoid sliding down a cliff. It would probably be impossible to shore up all those points even with regular maintenance, but at least some of them should have been addressed.
The trail is not well-marked. In some places there were orange ribbons showing where the next part was, but they were few and far between. Previous trekkers had left signs of their own – for which we were grateful – but the most useful thing we had was a GPS app that showed the trail. We checked it regularly to make sure we were in the right place.
This was particularly true on our third day out, when we crossed the Carmel River around twenty times. It was often hard to tell whether we were at the place where we were supposed to cross or not, so we had to check and see where the trail went from our spot. The river was not very deep – knee level was the deepest we saw – and the rapids weren’t fast, but it was still hard work to cross it without ending up sitting in it.
The Ventana Wilderness Alliance, a volunteer organization, is doing what it can to help maintain the trail, but the amount of work required to keep this trail in condition is more than volunteers with machetes can reasonably be expected to handle.
These trails are the responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. But it’s not really their fault that the trail is in such poor condition. They aren’t getting anything like the amount of money they need to do their job. This is the kind of real harm done by the “sequester” – which cut budgets willy-nilly – and the attempt to starve the agencies that manage the national parks and forests and similar public lands by those who don’t see any value in such things.
We’re not just talking about maintaining trails for the pleasure of backpackers here. As Edward O. Wilson argues in his latest book, Half-Earth, we need to keep a large portion of the planet in wild and semi-wild condition to help maintain biological diversity and offset the effects of climate change.
But we can’t just leave that land to manage itself. Humans have been using and maintaining the Ventana Wilderness and places like it for many centuries. The Native Californians weren’t farmers, but they managed the lands they lived in, making judicious use of fire and clearing areas as needed. These days we need a combination of the traditional methods – which were more effective at preventing dangerous wildfires than current ones – and modern ones to keep the lands healthy.
Maintenance is also important to keep people from getting badly hurt or killed out there. The trails are open to everyone, but there is no system of registering as a back country hiker. If you go in there without telling your friends or family, no one will know you’re there. (We had told a couple of people to get in touch with rescue authorities if they didn’t hear from us by sunset on Friday.)
Fortunately, we survived with nothing worse than exhaustion and a lot of poison oak outbreaks. (Commercial here for Zanfel, which is the best thing I’ve found for dealing with poison oak, expensive though it is.) We were both in reasonably good shape and I did a round of physical therapy earlier this year for my knees, so I could climb over things that would have been impossible last year.
And we certainly proved we were tough, though I have to say, I am past the point in life where I find it necessary to prove my toughness. All I really wanted to do was spend time in beautiful quiet wilderness; I didn’t have any desire to make an epic quest out of it.
But it was beautiful. The air was clear and so was the water. The lizards were out and about. On our last night, the frog chorus went on until dawn (not that it kept us awake). Everyone should spend some time in places like this. It’s good for us all.