It was a fairly hot weekday morning in September, already 90 degrees.
Not many other hikers were on the Vasquez Rocks Trail as I plodded along, getting a later start than I planned.
As I headed onto the trail, I passed a man heading out carrying camera equipment. He was dressed to work, not hike. I smiled and said, “Good morning.” Hikers are almost always courteous, there’s an unspoken hiking etiquette.
He smiled in return and said, “Be careful, someone told me there was a mountain lion on the prowl.”
A mountain lion and an empty trail — everyone I saw was heading off the trail or climbing the famous rock formations near the start of the trail, with no intention of hiking further.
I regarded the striated rock formations that jutted out of the brown earth like a giant prehistoric dagger with fascination and wariness. I was alone on a trail I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t think I was on the correct path.
I’m an avid hiker. I’ve hiked many trails in California and take a yearly trip to hike the wondrous waterfall-laden trails in Yosemite. Yet somehow, I never hiked Vasquez Rocks, a trail less than 10 minutes from home.
By a mile in, I was nervous. I was on alert for the mountain lion and doubting my course. My GPS indicated I was not following the correct path. Was I wandering off onto the famed Pacific Crest Trail without knowing it? Would I end up lost in the Sierras missing a boot like Cheryl Strayed in “Wild?”
Vazquez Rocks Natural Park is located in Agua Dulce, 10 minutes from Valencia. Formed by the uplift from the San Andreas fault and millions of years of erosion, the 150-foot tall rocks served as a hide out for the outlaw Tiburcio Vásquez in 1874.
The area includes several hiking paths, some well-worn and others unsigned and faded. Some paths zigzag through the hills, others give way to rock scrambling. The main hike is a moderately difficult 3.5 mile loop with a 400-foot elevation gain. It’s not a long hike, but it does have a few challenging inclines and crosses many of the smaller paths and fire roads.
There are few trees, some low vegetation, but mostly dusty rock formations–why most people come to Vasquez–that offer little shade, but are formidable and staggering in size and complexity. Pack accordingly with a hat, plenty of water and sunscreen.
The main trail has smaller offshoots to explore, often taking you to other rock formations, which there is no shortage of and often resemble terrain from another world. More than 60 movies used Vasquez Rocks to film, including “Flintstones,” and “Planet of the Apes.”
About a half-mile onto the trail at the top of a short incline, the horse trail extends southwest, which you’d be smart not to follow to avoid the road apples the horses leave behind. The path often resembles that of a drunken sailor leaving a bar at 2 a.m. as it winds and turns, giving way to other paths.
Safety vs Adventure
This hike had me thinking about safety. How do you balance your desire for adventure with fear of getting lost, or of wild animals, or a fellow hiker with bad intentions?
I began to doubt myself. I worried about those things, but I kept moving, rather loudly in the hopes of scaring off the mountain lion. Despite my meanderings, I didn’t encounter the mountain lion and didn’t get lost. It isn’t easy to veer off onto the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, which is a 2,650-mile through-hiking trail that begins in Mexico and extends to Canada.
I came to realize, sometimes you have to be more alert and cautious, other times, more adventurous. The key, for me anyway, is to be careful, but never let the fear eclipse my love for the outdoors or exploration.
As I made my way to the end, I realized how close I had been to the trail the entire time.
I took some time to climb the main rock formation and its imposing jagged edges, admire the simple Tataviam Indian pictographs, and easily found the PCT, which to my chagrin was clearly marked with a large sign. Oh, and I returned home with both my boots.