A Transformation in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Hiking Purisima Canyon after the Pacific storms

Record-breaking rainfall and powerful winter storms had been battering California for weeks by the time President Biden arrived from Washington.

Record-breaking rainfall and powerful winter storms had been battering California for weeks by the time President Biden arrived from Washington to join Governor Gavin Newsom to survey the damage. They flew out over the coast in two big twin-rotor Air Force helicopters, and what they saw was appalling. Colossal storm surf had demolished historic Capitola Wharf, and whole sections of paved highways had washed away. Hundreds of trees had fallen, in at least two cases on top of inhabited buildings, causing human fatalities. All the storm damage would end up costing California over $1 billion.

But then at last, the nightly newscasts brought some good news. The meteorologists saw a brief break ahead in the “atmospheric river system” that spanned the Pacific and was fueling all the big storms in California. 

So my long-time hiking amigos Steven King, Warren Haack and I agreed that the time had come for us to head back up into the Santa Cruz Mountains.  

Still, with all this rain of biblical proportions lashing the coast for days, we really had no idea what to expect up there. But we knew the trails up in our beloved Purisima Canyon well and had hiked them before in stormy weather. So we decided to go for it.

At the Purisima Creek Road trailhead we held a quick conference and opted for the Harkins Ridge trail, which rises up quickly out of the redwoods. By taking a steep well-drained route like this, we hoped to avoid most of the flooding and devastation we feared might exist in the lower regions of the canyon.

But as we climbed higher we realized that not only the rain had caused problems. Gale-force winds had obviously swept unimpeded over exposed Harkins Ridge, and it looked like a war zone. Multiple Douglas firs, as well as live oaks and other deciduous trees, had fallen across the trail. It was as if the gods had thrown a wild party and then fled suddenly, leaving all their broken toys behind. 

Yet the mountains around us had become more vividly green than any of us remembered, and there was a mystical, almost surreal quality about them now. After about 2 miles of steep hiking and 1,000 feet of elevation gain, we reached the trail summit, and from there we headed north on a sweeping traverse around a wide cirque. The going was easier here on the relatively level terrain. Still, dramatic storm clouds continued to race across the sky, and we were grateful that no rain had fallen yet that day. 

Once again the trail changed direction, and now we could see the Pacific Ocean on the western horizon far below. But as we began making the long, switch-backed descent into Whittemore Gulch, an unspoken sense of uneasiness began to grow within the group. We knew we were heading back down into a steep, constrictive riparian area, where the full impact of the recent heavy rains might be waiting for us.

Our fears soon became a reality. Coming to what had been a small tributary creek, we were startled to discover that it had spread far beyond its usual boundaries and become a rushing, angry cascade. The little wooden bridge crossing the creek had been torn away by the rising water, adding a final ominous note to the drama. 

The thought of retreating all those miles back up Whittemore Gulch and down through the broken tree carnage on Harkins Ridge seemed pretty grim. So instead we started bushwhacking to reach higher ground, basically jumping from one remaining spot of dry land to another. This was not too difficult for my younger, more agile friends, but at 82 years of age I found it quite challenging. Struggling to keep my balance on the slippery, convoluted terrain, I relinquished all pretense of dignity and began grasping whatever overhanging branches I could reach. 

Everyone was greatly relieved when we finally made it through that swirling minefield, but our elation proved to be short-lived. A short distance farther we came to a place where 30 feet of the trail had been sheared away and fallen into the swift-flowing stream below. Only a narrow, muddy ledge remained near the top of the slide for us to creep cautiously across. 

When we got back to the trailhead that morning, Steven, Warren and I felt filled with a sense of accomplishment. It had been a grand adventure we all agreed, hiking up into the mountains to overcome the many obstacles that the great storms had created. Purisima Canyon, always a beautiful and inspiring place to hike, had ultimately been very kind to us and especially magical that day. 

The warming globe, we knew, would lead to increasingly severe weather in the future. Yet we felt mightily grateful for the abundant rain that had come to break the back of the terrible drought from which California had suffered far too long.

Photo: David Anderson