Arroyo Seco Trip 1

2004 June

Arroyo Seco 1

What follows is a true story of what happens when you take your co-worker and his girlfriend on an ill-planned and under-defined adventure into the wild canyons east of Big Sur known as Arroyo Seco.

Day 1

Michael Woods and I left our office in downtown San Francisco around 3 pm on Friday, June 25thof 2004 and walked towards my car parked under the western abutment of the Bay Bridge. Soon we were on Highway 101 headed south towards Mani, the girlfriend of Mr. Woods, who works for Oracle in Belmont. Soon Mr. Woods began a long recitation of his recent reading of the first 5 chapters of Homer’s Odyssey; strike 1! Strike 3 would occur about 24 hours later and lead to “Grand Theft Auto”, among other things.

Shortly before 4 pm we reached the Ellison Empire, jammed everything in Mani’s car and once again were on the road. For some reason Mr. Woods insisted I ride in the passenger seat. During typical evening rush hour traffic Mani and I became acquainted, often at the expense of Mr. Woods. She drove like a maniac, which I appreciated since I hoped to start our hike while it was still light out. Somewhere around Salinas we stopped at McDonalds for a bathroom break and Mr. Woods took over as driver; I remained in the passenger seat. Upon reentering the freeway Mr. Woods was promptly run off of the road by an 18-wheeler. In our three years as co-workers this was the first time I was ever in a car with the man.

Before 8 pm we reached the Arroyo Seco Campground and to my delight we hit the trail around 8:15 pm. It was still light enough for Michael and Mani, henceforth referred to as M&M, to see the gorge that we would be walking above for the next 6 hours and at the bottom of the following day. To be more precise, we were currently walking along Indians Road from the Arroyo Seco Campground to the Escondido Campground, on an unpaved fire road that has been closed to auto traffic for many years due to landslides. Back in the day landslides were cleared by pushing the rubble down into the gorge, now however, due to endangered fish, this is no longer allowed, and the road has remained closed to all but foot and bike traffic. Based on tracing the route with TOPO! Software it appeared that we had about 13 miles to walk, and in that time would gain about 3,400 feet in elevation.

Here the author makes last minute preparations at the car camping area of Arroyo Seco.

Mike and Mani head off on Indians Road from the Arroyo Seco Campground towards Escondido Campground.

Say, that's some smile. Mike enjoys the hike along Indians Road with the fading sun and the Arroyo Seco (dry creek) to our right. This was their first good view of the gorge.

Three miles along Indians Road, according to this sign we arrived at Marble Peak Trail. Although we didn't know at the time, this is where we could exit the gorge.

Second (and last) sign along Indians Road, indicating the Santa Lucia Trail. We reached this point after about 2-1/2 hours. Unlike the Marble Peak Trail which was on our right and headed down towards the Arroyo Seco, this trail was on the left and headed towards a different watershed.

Mani walking one of the more rugged sections of Indians Road.

As the night grew darker the moon rose and reflected light on us from the west, and given that we were headed south and that the gorge was also to our west, illuminating the road to such and extent that lights were not required, even though it was only a quarter moon. At this point Mr. Woods felt it necessary, despite my vehement protests, to tell several “scary stories”; strike 2!

At several points we stopped for short breaks, and also for our no-cook dinners, but for the most part we walked, sometimes shoulder to shoulder, but more often than not with me out ahead and M&M 10 meters behind. Around 1 am the moon disappeared, the lights came on, and we began to wonder when we would arrive and I worried that we might walk right by the campsite without seeing it.

However, shortly after 2 am we came to a gate across the road and a few minutes later a large sign indicating the campground materialized. In short order I spread my 1.1 ounce per square yard silicone coated ripstop nylon ground sheet on a thick bed of Oak leaves and fell asleep under my down quilt.

Day 2

Around 6 am I was awake, having slept more comfortably than on any of my previous backpacking excursions. Mani had a case of the “sleeps” however, an affliction my wife tends to suffer from as well, so it wasn’t until a bit after 8 am that we left and started down the 1-mile trail from the campsite to the river. Later I would find out the Mr. Woods didn’t sleep at for fear of wild animals. This may have something to do with the creature that roared at us the night before in the wee hours of the morning.

A thick bed of oak leaves at the Escondido Campground provided for a great nights sleep, if 4 hours can ever qualify as a great night.

This is trailhead sign at the end of the Escondido Campground. Only 1 mile to the water!

M&M headed down the 1-mile trail from the Escondido Campground to the Arroyo Seco.

For a few minutes we walked along side the river but soon it became apparent that it was time get wet, so I hopped into the waist deep water and prodded along. M&M rearranged their bags on the shore and soon followed suit. It became immediately apparent to me that we were in for a really long day since Mani moved with trepidation when in the water. If you have never walked in a river, it is hard to appreciate the required technique.

Unexpected gems are one of my favorite aspects of backpacking and travel in general, and the first one occurred after only about an hour after reaching the river. To the right of the Arroyo Seco, about 20 meters away and almost obscured by trees and brush was a 10-meter high waterfall falling into a perfect pool. The flow was not great, nor was the pool deep, but it appeared to be perfectly proportioned and I half expected to find dancing fairies and magical creatures frolicking in the pristine water. I took a photo but it didn't really turn out well so you'll have to go see it yourself.

This photo, looking upstream at M&M, represents a what the upper section of the river typically looks like, shallow and lush. Watch out for the slippery rocks!

Sometime around noon I stopped for lunch at a spot that also happened to be the first area with a small sandy beach suitable for spending the night. Salami, cheddar cheese, and crackers made up lunch (and were also dinner last night and breakfast this morning) and ended an experiment in backpacking food that I don’t wish to repeat. After eating I swam in a small pool and studied the map and my compass, quickly concluding that I had absolutely no idea where along the Arroyo Seco I was.

45 minutes after I stopped M&M showed up and we continued together. Silently I resolved to not get out of sight for the remainder of the trip. As we continued on the going was slow, but that was expected and the rugged beauty of the area remained a constant. Soon we came to pools in the river that offered two options of passage, scrambling along the riverbanks, often full of rocks, brush, and poison oak or lazily swimming in the pool. M&M opted for the former while I preferred the latter. Mani’s leather boots may have played a role in this.

This was the first sandy area I came across that was large enough to accommodate a few sleeping people and also where I ate my lunch.

At 5 pm, or sometime around then, the sun was no longer shining on us due to the steep canyon walls and Mr. Woods also struck out. As usual, M&M had scrambled around a deep pool instead of swimming through it, and in doing so Mani had scratched her face. While I waited on a small ledge to lead her down the rock face, Mr. Woods spent 5 minutes putting a band-aid on her face while silently I fumed. Emily, my wife, would be expecting a call from me sometime tonight, and I knew at the rate we were going I would not make the deadline. Putting her into the position of calling rangers to report us missing was not an option so I began to plan my escape and hinted as much to Mr. Woods. After leading Mani down the rock I swam through a long deep pool and waited on a rock, soaking wet in the shade, while M&M first tried to go around and then reluctantly took the plunge. The swim took me about 5 minutes but I waited at the rock for about 20 minutes.

This picture was taken just upstream of an area that I would later learn is called "Yin-Yang" by some or "Hells Half Acre" by others. I swam through the pool and took this picture while shivering and waiting for M&M to get through.

Mr. Woods arrived at the rock after Mani and while he stood there, shivering with his teeth chattering, I explained about Emily and told them I had to go ahead. He knew this was coming and took it well. I asked for the car key, gave Mr. Woods matches for a fire, and wrote down my phone number. It was agreed that if I hadn’t heard from them by noon the following day I would instigate a search party. And then I left; it was just after 5:30 pm.

Nary 5 minutes had passed when I found myself swimming through a long pool, when lo and behold, rising like a phoenix from a rock monolith in the middle of the pool, was Dave. Actually I don’t remember his name, but it doesn’t matter either. Dave could tell me where I was and how far I had to go. More importantly, M&M would surely encounter Dave as well. As it turns out, Dave was on his first trip up the Arroyo Seco and didn’t know that much, but his friend Sam did. I’m pretty sure his name wasn’t Sam but that doesn’t matter. Dave, Sam and two women were camped just downstream of where I first saw Dave, at an area that I would later learn is called “Yin Yang” or “Hell’s Half Acre”. When Sam told me I still had 4 hours to go I almost lost it as I knew that traveling in the river at night was not a smart option. But then he qualified his statement by saying that it was 4 hours to the parking lot, meaning that 1 hour of that would be walking 3 miles on Indians Road. Then he cheered me up even more by looking me over and saying that I could probably be out of the river in 2 1/2 hours. It was not yet 6 pm so that meant I would be out before dark; I was on top of the world, thanked them profusely, told them to expect M&M and took off.

The remaining portions of the river were by far the most spectacular, consisting of deep, long, narrow pools and even a waterfall that required a rope to descend. Of course I was in “get the hell out of here mode” so I didn’t dawdle but I was in awe of the area nonetheless. I think I passed 3 more groups of backpackers on the way out and soon found myself at the take out point, a suspension bridge spanning the river and leading to a trail up to Indians Road. At this point my worries vanished as I knew nothing could go wrong now. Out of the river, on the trail I was ecstatic to be walking on solid footing and charged up the gorge. At 7:30 pm I reached Indians Road and the sign that told me how far away from the parking lot I was. But instead of enjoying a relaxing 3-mile stroll along the fire road back to the car I decided to make my life hard. Looking at my watch I concluded that if jogged I could reach the car before 8:15 pm, thus creating my own little 24-hour epic. So I did, and at 8:10 pm I was in the parking lot.

As I stripped and changed into my clean, dry cotton jeans and tee shirt I pondered what I would do next. Actually, I had been thinking about it all day. First order of business was to drive to pay phone where I called Emily collect. She accepted and heard a frazzled husband tell her that he was coming to get her and would explain later. She suggested meeting me at the Fremont BART Station, and this was accepted by me as a great idea. Back in the car, I drove for just over 2 hours and 130 miles. My wife was waiting for me, as promised, with an avocado, egg, and cheese sandwich (I love my wife!). Next we drove another 20 miles to Oracle in Belmont, picked up our car, then drove 140 miles separately back to the Arroyo Seco Gorge parking lot. We deposited the car, I left a cryptic note on the windshield, and then I started the 140-mile drive back to Berkeley. Around Salinas I pulled over and Emily finished the journey. We were home around 4:30 am. At 8 am Emily got up and went to work (I really love my wife!).

Day 3

I slept in. But by noon I hadn’t heard from M&M so I began to instigate the search. It turned out to be much more difficult than one would imagine since I was not able to reach the Arroyo Seco Ranger Station. Instead, after many false starts, recordings, and nice but useless people I reached the Search and Rescue Division of the Monterey County Sheriffs Department. I gave the car make, model, and license plate number, along with M&M’s vital statistics. The sheriff kept in touch for several hours and just as they were about to start the search, M&M showed up and had a chat with the ranger on duty. This was confirmed by a phone call Emily received that night around 7 pm while I was out getting ice cream. Mr. Woods recounted events that unfolded since the time we separated and Emily screamed at him to burn his clothes after he remarked that he didn’t feel any affects from the poison oak. Apparently M&M didn’t realize that the wrath of the vine is not felt until sometimes days after the exposure, and as it turns out, they did feel the wrath and are suffering from it as I write this.

In the end it all worked out. No one was physically damaged although M&M don’t yet know about the extra 430 miles on her car. Although I may have been hard on M&M in the text I harbor no ill will (and I hope they feel the same way), in fact, I have nothing but the up most respect for Mr. Woods for the way he dealt with adversity. On the one hand he had me telling him we had to go faster, and on the other hand he had to convey this to Mani, his new girlfriend, in some sort of tactful fashion. Add to that the utter failure of his dry bag, which resulted in him carrying a 30-pound water sack under his arm rather than having it float along side him (his dry bag didn’t have shoulder straps) and you could have had a very unhappy camper. The same goes for Mani; very early on her knees started to bother her, yet other than suggesting that we climb out of the gorge to the road, I heard absolutely no complaints from her.

Later in the week, while discussing the trip at work, Mr. Woods and I could only go back to the website that inspired the trip, and look at the naked men and women with awe, wondering how they made the river walk look so easy.

Background / Map

Henrik, a co-worker of the author and Mr. Woods, originally brought up the idea of the Arroyo Seco Trip way back in early 2003 based on a trip he found on the web authored by Rob van Glabbeek. It describes a trip were two groups drive to Arroyo Seco, leave one car at the gorge parking area, drive to the Escondido Campground through Fort Hunter-Liggett, spend the night at the campground, spend two days and one night going down the river, get back to the Arroyo Seco Campground gorge parking lot, then drive back to the Escondido Campground to get the other car before heading home.

This is a lot of driving, especially since the trip from the Arroyo Seco Campground to the Escondido Campground takes about 1-½ hours each way by car. I was interested in walking, or perhaps riding a bike, on Indians Road from Arroyo Seco to Escondido and thus turning a two-car/one-way trip into a one-car/loop trip. Thus began my investigation into the condition of Indians Road.

If you look at the AAA map below called “Coast & Valley, Bay Area to Southern California”, you can find both campgrounds (indicated by pink triangles but not labeled) and see Indians Road connecting them and running roughly parallel to the Arroyo Seco, however, an arrow points to the middle of the road and states “Road Closed Indefinitely”. After numerous searches on the web and phone calls to the Arroyo Seco Ranger Station I was able to garner that landslides had closed the road but that it should be passable on foot. However, I was not able to determine the number of slides, the extent of the slides, the location of the slides, or even the length of the road between the campgrounds.

This is a section of the AAA "Coast & Valley, Bay Area to Southern California" map that shows the Arroyo Seco River, Indians Road, and the Arroyo Seco and Escondido Campgrounds (indicated by pink triangles and labeled by yours truly). I have also highlighted the route you must follow if you drive from one campground to the other. Heed the note on the map regarding "temporary closure" of roads in the "military reservation".

So, one weekend in late May Emily and I drove down to Arroyo Seco with the intention of riding our bikes on Indians Road. Actually, it was Memorial Day and the park was so full they wouldn’t let us in, turning us around at the kiosk to be precise. Having come so far we decided to drive to Escondido and try the ride in reverse. However, we were stopped by the military police and told access was not allowed since 9/11. Note that our entry was denied before we even had a chance to show our drivers license, registration and proof of insurance, all of which are required by the military police.

Driving back north on 101, having given up all hope, we decided to try to go back to Arroyo Seco in hopes that they were now letting people in. The third time was the charm and around 3:15 pm I set off on my bike on Indians Road. My primary goal was to ride all the way to Escondido and in the process see if the road was passable. Smartly, my wife remained behind. I estimated the trip to be about 10 miles each way and guessed I would be back by 5 pm.

After one downhill leading to a bridge the road went up for many unrelenting and exposed miles. I only kept going since I knew my ride would be all downhill on the way back. Despite the grade and heat the road was in good shape and easily navigated by bike. However, after about 8 miles I reached a saddle and hadn't yet come across the slide. I didn't want to continue since: I was already exhausted, I didn't have a watch, going downhill towards Escondido would mean uphill to get back to Arroyo Seco, and I already drank most of my only bottle of disgusting luke warm Gatorade.

But I did continue, and shortly came to the slide that I easily carried my bike across. After the slide I kept going towards Escondido, going down two more gentle slopes before reaching a long, flat, and straight stretch of road. Riding across it I found an old sign lying on the side of the road indicating that I was in Hanging Valley. At the end of the long flat valley the road started to go down again; I conceded defeat and started back to Arroyo Seco. At 5:50 pm I found Emily in the day use parking lot that was due to close in 10 minutes. I jumped the river and then we headed home, stopping in San Jose for gas and Vietnamese sandwiches.

Based on my bike journey I concluded that walking the road at night was feasible and did so about 1 month later with Mr. Woods and Mani, which you have presumably read about already. Just one week after the trip with M&M, I went to Arroyo Seco again, this time with my wife, for a more leisurely overnight trip up and then down the river, details of which can be found under “Arroyo Seco, July 2004” in the Backpacking Section of this site (no, I'm not going to put a link here you lazy bastards!).

Suggestions If You Go

Indians Road: Walking the road at night is a unique experience and a great alternative to car hopping. It took us about 6 hours, including breaks, and we consumed about 2 liters of water each during our jaunt. The temperatures allowed us to walk comfortably in short sleeves and the road was also easy to follow, even when the moon went away and we only had headlamps. From Arroyo Seco, the road is generally level before dipping down to cross a concrete bridge over a creek that feeds into the Arroyo Seco. Then the road climbs continuously for many miles. You will know that you reach the summit when you encounter your first downhill section. The one major landslide is shortly after the summit and care should be exercised crossing it. I successfully carried my bike across it during the day however Mr. Woods slipped and fell while we were crossing it at night. After the slide the road goes gently up and down before reaching a long, flat stretch in which you encounter a downed sign indicating that you are in Hanging Valley. From there the road goes downhill, with one short uphill section, before reaching a gate in the road and then finally the Escondido Campground. Personally, I would not attempt to walk the road during the day due to the extreme temperature, complete lack of water, and minimal shade.

Henrik traced Indians Road from Arroyo Seco to Escondido using TOPO! and obtained the following values:

  • Distance, 13.3 miles
  • Elevation at Arroyo Seco, 936 feet
  • Elevation at Escondido, 2145 feet
  • Highest point on Indians Road, 2889 feet
  • Total Elevation Gain, 3427 feet
  • Total Elevation Drop, 2218 feet

Keeping Your Gear Dry: Most people I encountered on the river either put all of their gear in dry bags or carry large rafts to float their packs when required; however, I believe that trash compactor bags provide a more elegant solution. My pack is a G4 made by GVP Gear [] and it is essentially are large, lightweight bag with shoulder straps. To keep my gear dry, I simply put it all inside a trash compactor bag, twisted the top, folded it over, and kept it shut with a rubber band. The advantage of this system is that you can use the external pockets of your pack for items that can get wet such as water bottles, underwater cameras, etc. The system is quite robust as well. In deep water I had multiple swimming options including: swimming while pushing the floating pack ahead of me, swimming the breaststroke with the pack still on my shoulders, and my favorite, heaving my belly onto the pack and swimming with my pack fully submerged while I was mostly out of the water. The system will obviously fail if the bag is punctured, so for that reason I was careful when scrambling and used two trash bags instead of one.

Gaining Access to Fort Hunter-Liggett: Access to Escondido through Fort Hunter-Liggett [] is still available despite our recent experience getting turned away on Memorial Day. I have called the base and found that access is available 24 hours a day and if an area is closed, it will only be for a few hours to allow for training exercises. Before a trip, you can call the base and get road closure conditions up to a week in advance. We plan to do this in the future and record who and when we spoke with. If the military police try to turn us away at the gate again we will say we talked to Commander Jones on June 20th, 2004 and he said that the road was open when we planned to travel through on June 26th, 2004. If that doesn't work we will either ask to speak to a commanding officer or wait for training exercises to finish.