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The Piru Narrows

2 August 1997 (Private Trip)

By: Erik Siering

Piru Creek is the only federally designated Wild and Scenic River in Los Angeles County. It flows between two man-made reservoirs, Pyramid Lake and Lake Piru, situated in the Sespe Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest. The creek draws heavy recreational use at its easily accessible upper and lower extremes. Yet, the interior of the Piru drainage offers a true wilderness experience due to its rugged canyon terrain. The highlight is the constriction known as The Narrows, with its tall walls of dark conglomerate rock.

Ann Kramer and I made a delightful dayhike traverse of the fifteen mile free-flowing stretch of Piru Creek, from below the outlet of Pyramid Lake at Frenchmans Flat, to emerge downstream near the inlet to Piru Lake at Blue Point Campground. This required a long car shuttle, so we parked my truck at Blue Point and drove Ann's car to Frenchmans Flat. There we set out along the south side of the stream. It was a hot midsummer day, off prime season, but we were in the cold and murky water so much that we enjoyed the warmth.

Jerry Schad describes this trek in his guidebook "Afoot and Afield in Los Angeles County" (A-1, Trip 2), in which he details the trip route and natural features. I should note what has changed since the 1991 publication of his book, our reference edition. Templin Highway (old Hwy 99) is now closed to vehicles at the Frenchmans Flat parking area. This spot is popular with fishermen. One can stroll the four-lane highway (!) several miles north, to its end below the Pyramid Lake dam outlet (the continuation of the old roadway is under the reservoir). Here too is the takeoff for an overgrown trail to the closed lookout on Slide Peak, a Lower Peaks Committee summit. Frenchmans Flat is in Los Padres NIF, and so an Adventure Pass is needed for parking. Blue Point is within the Lake Piru recreational area, and requires user fees, which is enforced. Day use parking is $6, payable at the Lake Piru entrance office that opens at 05:30 a.m., or in a drop box at Blue Point.

We followed a clear use trail stream side for a few miles. The first crossing, at the Sespe Wilderness boundary sign, even had a hand cable in place. The path then deteriorated and virtually disappeared. But navigation is simple: go downstream (heading west, eventually turning south), alternately tracking faint game paths and crossing the creek repeatedly to minimize brushwhacking and to bypass cliffed-out banks. Often it's best just to wade directly downstream. It was necessary at times to swim deep, dark pools to maneuver through massive boulders, particularly when approaching the Narrows. After exiting the canyon, trails yield to the final 1.5 mile stretch of dirt road leading to Blue Point.

Bear scat is prevalent. The large berry-pit laden scat piles serve as remarkably effective "cairns" for the game path, clearly most frequented by wildlife, not man. Midway on our hike, we frightened a healthy male black bear as he grazed midstream. He peered at us warily, with a mouthful of green moss, before splashing out and quickly bolting up a steep canyon ridge. It was refreshing to encounter a bear unaccustomed to humans. We spotted an elegant blue heron fishing ahead of us. Later, Annie screamed, startled by bright orange-red fresh-water "lobsters," i.e. crawfish, that swam across her feet as she stood in stream moss. She declined my offer of a crustacean, which can be caught by stealth and swift hands.

Warm days in the late spring or early fall are the best times to visit. Avoid recent rainfall, so that the water level is reasonably low. Your feet will be wet all of the time; tennis shoes work well in the slippery, rocky stream bed. Our dayhike took a moderately paced 13 hours. We spied plenty of nice dry camp sites which would accommodate a leisurely backpack.

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