Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Geologic wonders await on punchbowl loop

Devil's Punchbowl County Park, Calif.

Route heads through deep, boulder-strewn depression

There’s a bit of Yosemite just a few miles from Los Angeles: Devil's Punchbowl County Park. On the back side of the Angeles National Forest, let's just say it makes the better known Vasquez Rocks – which is a fairly fantastic area in its own right – look like a cheap “Star Trek” planet set.

Snow melt flowing from the higher San Gabriel Mountains, standing about 8,000 feet above sea level over the park, cut the deep canyon that is the punchbowl. Uplift and pinching from nearby fault lines have turned the sediment layers up to 80 degrees on their sides.

As late as May, snow still caps the San Gabriels, even though temperatures on the desert floor below usually are in the 80s-90s this week. At 4,440-4,740 feet above sea level, the punchbowl is a comfortable 70-something during a spring hike.

To reach the punchbowl, get on Hwy. 138, also known as the famous Pearblossom Highway of David Hockney fame, from either I-15 to its south or the Antelope Valley Freeway from the north. Turn toward the San Gabriels onto County Road N6, which winds through desert and foothills into the park.

The Pinyon Trail, a short loop through an aromatic pinyon-juniper forest, sits next to the nature center and is worth the brief stroll. About midway through the trail is a gem of a vista, looking north into the park. Beyond the formation are sandstone arches, like those common in eastern Utah, but you have to bushwack to reach them.

Rare lizard
The must-do hike is the Loop Trail. Descending into the punchbowl, the badlands feel of the rock formations becomes even more evident. The trail consists of cliff edges and switchbacks that go down 300 feet to the punchbowl's bottom and then rise 300 feet again to the park's nature center.

Weathered granite blocks northeast of the punchbowl have been uplifted nearly 90 degrees thanks to tectonic activity. The Punchbowl Fault sits to the south of the punchbowl while the Pinyon and San Andreas faults are to the north.

A variety of ecosystems exist in the park, not to mention the punchbowl itself. The Loop Trail mainly runs through a pinyon and juniper forest, but at the wetter bottom willows and cottonwoods can be found. White firs line the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

If lucky, you might spot a California side-blotched lizard climbing up a yucca trunk along the Loop Trail. The desert collared lizard and alligator lizards are quite common. If hiking during the day, you probably won’t see any rattlesnakes until you get back to the nature center to view the caged ones.

Punchbowl Creek
Rocks are the real show here, though. The Loop Trail also runs through many sets of car-sized boulders that have rolled off the punchbowl's northern side. Granite rocks also rise out of the punchbowl. The entire formation was created during about 5-10 million years ago. Geologists estimate that more than a million years was needed to raise these rocks to their present position in the punchbowl.

As nearing the trail’s bottom you’ll begin to hear the gentle rush of Punchbowl Creek, fed by snow melt off the San Gabriels. To reach the creek, you have to hike about 20 feet down a steep embankment off the Loop Trail.

From the creek, it’s all back uphill. Along the way, you’ll get a good view of Punchbowl Creek spilling out of granite rocks into the canyon.

The punchbowl's features likely will become even more dramatic in centuries to come. Thanks to tectonic activity, the San Gabriel Mountains and the punchbowl's southern edge are continuing to rise while the creek continues to erode the sandstone on the canyon floor.

Read more about day hiking with children in my Hikes with Tykes guidebooks.