Although the hike to the peak of Saddleback Butte State Park is only 1.6 miles, the fact that I was 1) hiking alone and, 2) most of the 1,000 foot elevation gain was in the last half mile, had me a bit nervous. At the age of 57, I consider myself a moderately in shape hiker when it comes to stamina. But, when it comes to coordination and balance I find myself to be on the clumsy side.
When I arrived at the camp-ground, not a soul was in sight, not even the camp host. I parked my car under a lone Joshua Tree, the only shade in the entire campground.
Saddleback Butte is a granite mountaintop towering a thousand feet above the Antelope Valley floor at an elevation of 3,651, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert. The state park was created in 1960 to protect the butte (one of many similar land features in the Antelope Valley) and examples of Joshua Trees and other plants and animals that were once common throughout this high desert area.
I strolled around the campground, reading the information on the several available hikes. I decided to go for the three mile loop to the peak. What the heck. I gave myself permission to turn around if I felt the trail was exceeding my (solo) abilities.
I was relieved when after a few minutes another vehicle pulled in. Another "lone hiker" - a middle aged gentlemen - had arrived. And while he was courteous, his demeanor made it clear he didn't care to chat, and certainly didn't need an old lady hiking buddy (hah!). But, just knowing there was one more person in the park made me feel both safer and saner. He headed out 5-10 minutes in front of me, and for most of the hike he was in my view.
The trails begin on a mild slope through moderately loose sand among creosote bushes, Joshua trees, and tumbleweed. Brown posts with yellow tops marked the trail frequently, every 100 feet or so. I was given a beautiful day to hike. The skies were clear, and there was not even a hint of a breeze. Had I been a day later I would have had haze and Santa Ana winds.
A cottontail rabbit darted out of the creosote shrubs and disappeared into a hole. It was tempting to wait and see if I would be invited to a tea party, but as I did not see any "drink me" bottles lying around I accepted the fact that I was too large to follow. I stopped to empty the sand from my shoes and barely missed setting my stocking foot on a busy colony of red ants.
I reached the base of Saddleback Butte in about half an hour. So far twas a piece of cake, but then, I knew it would be up to this point. The climb now became significantly steeper, and boulders got in my way with increasing frequency.
While there may be hazards to hiking alone (...and yes, I DID see the movie 127 Hours...) there are also perks, such as going at my own pace and being able to do quirky things like stop every 64 steps and take 17 breaths. (Yes, I am a tad OCD, heh!)
The brown trail markers continued for awhile as the path became rockier. Eventually they were replaced by small stacks of stones that hikers use to mark confusing trails. And then they disappeared as well, just as the path became all boulders. I continued for a little bit, but quickly realized that I am not a good tracker. Combine that with a memory that's not as sharp as it once was and I decided to call it quits, even though I was only about 10-15 minutes from the peak. While age issues may have prevented me from reaching the top, maturity - and dare I say wisdom - left me content to have made it as far as I did, alone.
I stood now and enjoyed the 360 degree panoramic view of the Antelope Valley and Eastern Mojave Desert. A flock of Crows rejoiced with me, as well as some pesky desert flies. I swear the sky was bluer up near the top. Sadly, a grayish brown haze hovered on the horizon.
I began my way back down the mountain, making a couple of wrong turns and having to backtrack a bit before once again reaching the trail markers. Ah well, the gentleman hiker was now behind me in the event I still did something clumsy or stupid on the way down.
A colony of Black Ants demanded equal time from my camera, although their dark color made it difficult to distinguish them from their shadows.
Back at the parking lot, the camp host had returned and collected my day-use fee. She asked if I'd enjoyed my hike. I said I did, but that I could not imagine hiking here in the summer. The temperatures were in the high 60s today, and I'd gotten some good color on my skin, as well as working up a good sweat. She told me that almost no one came to this campground in the summer. I looked around. Since embarking on my hike, a single RV had pulled in, having their pick of any of the 50 spaces available. I wondered how it could possibly be less busy than it was on this perfect January day.
Saddleback Butte State Park does not currently have anyone preparing to step up to the plate to keep them open. There are donation jars at some of the other local parks to benefit Saddleback, but right now it looks like the gates will be going up at this park in six months.
In case you're wondering how close I got to the top, you can see a lesser peak in this photo, just to the right of the top. That's about where I ended up. I have no regrets.
Hope to see you at the parks.