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Barefoot hiking the perimeter of Crystal Cove State Park

June 16, 2012

At my “Barefoot at the Grand Canyon” presentation two days ago at REI (THANKS to those of you who made up the wonderful audience!) I made public my goal to hike Santiago Peak (at 5,687 the highest point in Orange County, CA) next week.

Barefoot.

Yikes.

To prepare for that 16-mile round trip, I thought it would be good to go on a longer-than-usual hike this morning (my typical distance is 3-6 mile  in the hills east of Orange at Santiago Oaks, Irvine, or Peters Canyon Regional Parks).

My chief criteria: a shaded trail that wouldn’t get too hot on this almost-summer day. Some elevation gain, easy parking, and a loop or out-and-back layout that I couldn’t “chicken out” on were also part of my trail-selection strategy.

Crystal Cove State Park fit most of these criteria–it’s right on the coast, so our “June gloom” cloud cover would (I hoped) keep the trail surface cool enough to stay barefoot, and the loop around the park’s “back-country” perimeter is just over 11 miles (according to the ranger I asked). A web site listed the elevation gain at only 900 feet; not much of a workout compared to the 4,000-foot gain coming up on the Santiago Peak adventure. Oh well.

And there were several “cut-across” trails that I was tempted to take to decrease my mileage about half-way into the hike. These turned out to be a good thing in that I was able to practice a little positive self-talk to keep me focused on my goal–not take an easier way out just because I started to feel anxious.

This “mid-hike anxiety” happens on a regular basis, especially when I’m hiking alone and haven’t seen any people for a while (can you say North Rim?) Here the “mental challenge” was not that I was alone in the wilderness, since Crystal Cove on a summer Saturday morning is populated with hundreds of friendly hikers, runners, and bikers.

For some reason, “You’re hiking 11 miles barefoot!?” became a scary idea  1.5 hours into the hike–coincidentally at the farthest place from the trailhead, just past Ridge Park. I had brought sandals along “just in case,” but I really didn’t want to put them on. (After getting used to the fun of hiking barefoot, even my lightweight Merrell Pipidae sandals are too much shoe . . . unless the trail is burnin’ hot.) Up on Bommer Ridge, however, the sun had come out and the trail surface was starting to scorch my soles . . . or so I was trying to convince myself.

I did a mental checklist of how my feet felt (warm, but still fine) and how the rest of me felt: hungry. That was it–I needed to put some fuel in the tank. Ten minutes of munching on apple slices, carrots, and trail mix pepped me up–as did the realization I was about half-way done “already.”

My biggest mental boost came about a half hour later, when I was a bit down again: I’d just rounded a turn and discovered the dirt road (pretty smooth for most of the journey) was turning into my least favorite trail surface: eroded asphalt, with big ol’ chunks of rock sticking up out of the faded blacktop. To make it even nastier, there was a scattering of set-free gravel pieces all over the trail as well–and there was no relief of dirt on either side as the nasty asphalt went right up to the native buckwheat bordering the trail.

As I picked my way slowly along, with much clatter of hiking pole tips, I remembered what Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton wrote in his really helpful book about barefoot running: Barefoot Running Step by Step.

Relax and flow!

When faced with gravel or other rough surfaces, Barefoot Ken Bob says to concentrate on relaxing (there’s a paradox!) and going as lightly as possible.

So I tried it and was able to get into a nice rhythm and pick up my pace . . . and came around another turn in the trail to see a dad and his young boys hiking along. I smiled and said, “Good mornin'” as I eased on down the road. They said their “hello’s” as we passed, and then I heard one of the boys say to the others, “Whoa . . . did you see that? She’s, like, floating.”

Hearing that, I did indeed levitate for a few steps before letting some air out of my ego so I could return to the task at hand: flow (not float) the last three miles down Moro Ridge. (I hiked in a clockwise loop–which is good if you DON’t want a killer hill workout, but I did, so I was a bit disappointed at my choice, but oh well.)

Throughout the hike, intermittent Pacific Ocean breezes would surprise and refresh me, but with all the overcast, there were few views of the beach until I was almost back. Not a big deal, as I’ve seen the ocean once or twice already in my five decades in OC . . .

It took me just under 3.5 hours to hike 11.25 miles . . . with lots of stops along the way to take 50 photos. Here’s just a few:

“Whoa! She’s floating!”

The actual place where the asphalt was; here I was trying to capture the trail texture . . . instead I got an unplanned frame shot of a biker in the background.

So much billowing buckwheat (background) in bloom! Plenty of monkeyflower, too, to brighten up the trail.

Absolutely the biggest datura blossom I’ve ever seen!

I miss my tripod . . . for this shot I had to set my camera in the dirt on the trail.

Lots of maps along the trails were helpful–each had a “you are here” button. That’s the ocean in the background; I’m almost back to the parking lot after hiking the perimeter of Crystal Cove State Park “backcountry” clockwise–and barefoot.

Holy Jim Trail: I’ll see you next week! (Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise . . . )

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