Jawbone Canyon Road and the "squiggles of doom"

by Gillian Larson | posted: April 27, 2014

On Saturday I had ridden to Highway 58 outside of Tehachapi, and on Sunday, since my mom had to return to Topanga, I thought it would be easiest to have her drop me and the horses further north, then ride back south to the highway again, where she could leave my truck and trailer before heading back home. I was planning to take a zero day or two at Crescent Moon Ranch, where we had been boarding the horses for the weekend, then pick up again on the trail on Wednesday, with the aim of reaching Kennedy Meadows and mile 700 by Saturday. But what we hadn't counted on was Jawbone Canyon Road.

On the map, it looked perfect--a clear connection from Highway 14 to the PCT at the edge of the Sequoia National Forest. The trail crossed Jawbone Canyon road at about mile 602, and although it was a long 35 miles back to Highway 58, it looked like a reasonable day, and there was even water along the trail at Golden Oak Springs. So we turned off Highway 14 and headed up Jawbone Canyon, not knowing what lay ahead, although we had already had our suspicions raised by a mass of squiggling lines on the map, towards the end of the road just before where it met the PCT.

Our first hint of trouble came very quickly, with a sign that announced that the road would be closed all day May 3rd. At first we thought we had just gotten very lucky, as I was planning to return on April 30 to pick up riding nort again from where we were going south from today, and Mom would come on May 1st to get the truck and trailer. "How fortunate that we'll be done before they close the road," we thought. Then the smooth pavement abruptly ended at a gate. We were puzzled for a moment, then noticed the dirt road to the right, heading up and over the hills. Okay, so we have to do the rest on dirt, we thought, and off we went. The road was wide, if a bit washboardy at times, and later it got steeper and rougher as well. But mainly it went on . . . and on . . . and on . . . seemingly without end. We drove up hills and down hills and around curves and past bends and never seemed to get any closer to the end--and those squiggles. Finally we dropped down into Kelso (population about five) and drove through cow pastures and over cattle guards and past what was called an "airport" but looked more like a cow field, and then we headed up into the Piute Mountains and towards the PCT. Jawbone Canyon Road was getting narrower, and steeper, and it was sandy and rough, and because of the recent rain it was also eroded and soft at times. At last we began to climb into the mountains and got closer and closer to where those squiggles must be. And then we entered the switchbacks of doom--steep, rutted, loose sand and very sharp turns. On the very first one, we got stuck as the tires spun out. So we off-loaded the horses and took another shot at it, and this time succeeded. We continued with some scary moments, but didn't get stuck again . . . until we got to the very last switchback, a 180 degree turn with a steep hump in the middle of the curve. That did us in. We got stuck, and the truck slid backwards, jack-knifing the trailer. To make matters worse, two other cars came up behind us, but even though one of the cars was all-wheel drive, no one was willing to go past us and help pull us out. So we unhitched the truck and turned it around, then managed to put a rope on the trailer and using chocks on the wheels we manuevered the trailer to face downhill as well, and finally were able to re-hitch and escape. We vowed never to go blindly into the squiggly unknown again!

Because of my late start after all that drama, I was riding until 10pm that night. But the highlight of the day was the fact that I saw my first bear on the trail--a youngster, probably a yearling, who was quite shy and dashed away across the trail about 50 feet in front of us as we came around a corner. But that helped make up for a tough day.


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