Camping in LA: Hoegees Campground


I just got back from an overnight camping trip in the Angeles mountains north of Pasadena. We stayed in a small hike-in campground called Hoegees, about three miles in from the parking lot. I’d never been there before, but we were looking for somewhere that would allow dogs so Thor could come, and locally that means National Forest land since both State Parks and National Parks are very restrictive about pets.

It turned out to be a real find. The trail up to the campground is in really good shape, with around a 1000 foot gain over the 3 miles, and some great views down the canyons. It’s placed at the bottom of a small gully alongside a seasonal creek, in the middle of a grove of bay trees. For most local camping there’s a lot of fire restrictions, with only small gas stoves allowed. Here they not only had fire pits and stoves at each site, they even let you burn fallen wood so you didn’t have to pack in your fuel. We had a wonderful evening around the roaring fire, and some fun hunting down extra wood in the dark when we ran low.

The area used to be a hiking resort, and there’s still a whole lot of cabins nearby that people lease from the Forest Service. These are pretty interesting places, with no power or water, mostly dating back to the 30’s. There’s even a ruin in the campground you can pitch your tent in if you want a spooky experience.

It’s first-come, first-served with 15 sites and no reservations or fees at all. We were there on a Saturday night, and though there was a group of Boy Scouts, most of the sites were empty. You’ll need a Forest Adventure Pass to park at the Chantry Flats trailhead parking lot, but since that was full we used the nearby Adams Pack Station lot for $5 a day. We stopped and chatted to the owner Rich Conforti on the way out, and he told us about the work they’d been involved in to keep the trails maintained, which explained the great shape they’re in.

If you want to do this hike and camping, I’d recommend getting both Tom Harrison’s Angeles Front Country map, and John Robinson’s Trails of the Angeles which describes the hike in along Upper Winter Creek trail, and an alternate lower route we took out which went alongside the creek.

More camping posts

Kinesis Keyboards – I wish I could quit you

I’m stuck in an abusive relationship with my keyboard. The Kinesis model I use is an RSI sufferers dream, and I’ve been using one for the last 4 years. Unfortunately, I’ve just had to order my fourth, since they’re built to shop class project standards.

The design is perfect, with an amazing amount of programmability and a QWERTY layout where you never need to stretch or strain your fingers from their home positions. There’s even a programmable foot switch, which I have mapped to shift, control and command, since pressing my little fingers for the modifiers seemed to be at the root of a lot of my pain.

They’re pricey, starting at around $300, but look and feel cheap. The silver paint rubs off pretty easily, the cut plastic is uneven and they use a telephone connector to join up the pedal with the main unit. More seriously the lack of quality shows up in the number of times they go wrong. I’ve had to open up and fiddle with all of my keyboards and footswitches. They’re surprisingly low-tech inside, with a small PCB and chips for the keyboard and old-school analog sensors for the foot switch. Because of this I’ve sometimes had luck when the problem turned out to be a loose connector or dirty contacts, but I’ve never had one last more than 18 months before it’s declared dead. Before you blame the victim, I’m pretty careful with my equipment, so I don’t think I’m putting them through anything unusual. They have a 2 year warranty, but I’ve not wanted to lose my keyboard
for the time that would take, and have usually hacked mine so much by
the time I give up that I don’t feel like I could return it.

I still recommend them to anyone who wants a hand-friendly keyboard, Liz now has two, but go into the relationship with your eyes open. I’d love to hear alternative suggestions too from anyone who’s found something better.

Off the grid on Santa Cruz Island

Photo by Kevin Sarayba

Tomorrow morning I’m off for a four day camping trip to Santa Cruz Island, where we’ll be working with the NPS rangers to fix up some of the hiking trails. It’s like a trip back to the 19th century, with no phones, cars, planes, and no permanent inhabitants on a 100 square mile island. I can’t imagine any other way of escaping from my compulsion to check my iphone and RSS reader, and it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth to boot. All that and it’s just an hour’s boat ride from LA!

To keep you busy while I’m away, I recommend checking out the Bombay TV video mashup site. It’s very simple, just placing subtitles on some old bollywood movies, but the clips are perfectly chosen. I guarantee that you’ll wake up everyone in the room if you use this for your next presentation.

You need pictures

Photo by The Pack

I’m a very visual person, and I love plastering photos over anything I can. Jud mentioned he got a kick out of some of them on here, so I’d better confess and acknowledge my sources. Thanks to the internet and a wonderful community of artists, you can spice up your own documents, presentations and blog posts with some stunning pictures, all for no money down and zero monthly payments.

Flickr users have made a lot of beautiful photos available through the Creative Commons license. If you do a search like this:
you’ll get around 3 million CC attribution/non-derivative/non-commercial licensed pictures that contain "the" in their description, sorted most-interesting first. Alter the search term if you want to explore something more specific. Make sure that you include proper attribution for the photo if you do use it, and respect the licensing. Be careful though, sometimes I end up spending more time browsing for photos than actually writing the post!

Once you’ve got one you like, my preferred way of getting them for a blog post is to screen-grab from the thumbnail shown on the main page for the photo. This is about the right size, has been downsampled well, and lets me do any cropping I want to do, all very quickly without ever having to load up a photo editing program. On the Mac you press Command-Shift-4 to bring up the cross-hairs, and then the result is saved as Picture X.png on your desktop. On Vista, load up the "Snipping Tool" from accessories and choose "New" to do pretty much the same thing.

What’s that plant?

Photo of Liz by Kim Kelly

Pearly Everlasting. Liveforever. Manzanita. Shooting Stars. I love the names, but I’m hopeless at identifying local plants. Luckily I hang out with people a lot smarter than me. Liz has been writing Plant of the Month on the trails council site for the last couple of years, and she’s accumulated an amazing amount of knowledge of the local flowers. Probably the best way to learn more yourself is to go on an organized hike with the a group like the Conejo Sierra Club, or join one of our Saturday trail maintenance days. There’s usually at least one old hand who will happily tell you the story behind any of the plants.

If you want some books to take on the trail I highly recommend buying Milt McAuley’s Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains. He’s a local legend who started building trails here in the 40’s, and who was still leading trail work a few years ago when I first arrived. The other book to turn to is Nancy Dale’s Flowering Plants: The Santa Monica Mountains. She covers a lot of detail and it’s a lot easier identifying something with an alternative source.

They haven’t figured out how to get internet access at the bottom of the canyons yet, but for when you’re back home Tony Valois has put together a very clear identification guide. He’s done a great job with the navigation, letting you look through his collection of photos by appearance, common names and scientific names.

With the recent sprinkling of rain, you’ll be able to see the best display for years, so don’t delay getting out there!


My own private Los Angeles


A friend who lives nearby sent me this photo. It’s pretty mind-blowing that there’s parts of LA where this is a necessary public service announcement, and got me thinking about how I experience the city. When I talked to the recruiter about jobs in the US the only guidance I gave was "anywhere but LA". I had grown up with LA Law, Baywatch and countless movies that left me certain that I’d hate it. Of course, all the interviews he arranged were in LA. I ended up accepting an offer here, with the idea I’d stay maybe a year.

A couple of days after I landed, I pulled out a street map and looked for any big patches of green, in the hope of finding some small place to walk in peace. I was surprised by the size of the blank spaces and picked one that looked promising. Rancho Sierra Vista was only a few minutes from where I was staying, and I found I could walk 9 miles straight through wilderness along Sycamore Canyon, right to the Pacific. Even more amazing was that this was the narrow axis of the parkland, it stretched for over 30 miles from Santa Monica to Camarillo. Ever since then, the Santa Monica Mountains have been my real Los Angeles.

Unlike any other city I’ve lived in, LA is entirely optional. Hardly anyone I know visits the east side, or even the sketchy neighborhoods near Santa Monica. The reliance on freeways means that downtown is a lot less important than you’d expect, with events and attractions scattered through the other hot locales like Hollywood. You can pick and choose which areas you want to visit and miss out on very little. It’s not like London where the center has all of the biggest shops, tourist traps and entertainment, reinforced by the flow of the tube lines. The only place that forces you to come into contact with Angelenos from the whole city is the freeway itself, with Humvees scattered between gardener’s pickups.

I’m not proud of my isolation from the majority of the city, but it does seem characteristic of LA. One of my favorite parts of trail work is getting local kids who have no idea there’s even wilderness on their doorstep excited about the outdoors. Many of their families are as ignorant of the beauty on offer as I was when I arrived, so getting the word out is crucial. The reason I’m writing up the local spots is so anybody who starts an internet search for hiking or camping hears about all the choices. I love my Los Angeles but I want to share it, even if that makes it a little less private.

Snow in Boulder


I flew into Denver last night, and caught the last snow storm of the year (according to the locals’ guess). I’m loving it, even though it made the drive to Boulder an adventure. I met some friends for dinner at The Kitchen, somewhere I’d wanted to visit after hearing about its slow food philosophy. It must be tough to get local produce at this time of year, but the potato fennel soup and herb gnocci I had was great winter fuel. Even better were the garlic fries, which seemed like they might show the British influence, since they were the closest approximation to chips I’ve found over here. Thick, with a crispy surface, but a soft and fluffy interior like mashed potatoes, they really hit the spot.

This morning was beautiful, with snow making the trees look more like coral. Josh and Rob from Eventvue joined me for breakfast at Burnt Toast. Colorado has the best breakfast places, me and Liz still speak in awed tones of the meal had last year at Dozens. Burnt Toast didn’t disappoint, with a light and fluffy breakfast burrito and very friendly service. I got to hear all about Josh and Rob’s startup adventures. Their determination to fight past all the inevitable problems was truly impressive, and now they’ve got a completed first release to show for it.

See where they filmed MASH


I spent today leading a crew fixing up a trail near the old film set for M*A*S*H. Inside what’s now Malibu Creek State Park, anybody who’s seen the show will instantly recognise the chaparral-covered hillsides that doubled as Korea in the opening credits. Even better, there’s actually a couple of army vehicles left over from the filming! A wildfire swept through during the original series and there wasn’t enough time to get them out, so now they’re part of the landscape.

If you want to see it yourself, it’s pretty easy to hike or bike to. It’s around 2.5 miles in, with a few hundred feet elevation gain. Here’s a map showing how to get there:

View Larger Map

You start off at Malibu Creek State Park. Take the Las Virgenes Road exit south from the 101, or from the PCH head north up Malibu Canyon Road, which turns into Las Virgenes. The entrance is well signed, and it costs around $5 to park. I recommend the lower lot as it’s usually less crowded, and is closer to the trail head.

Take the Crags Road trail from the bottom of the parking lot. Stay on the fire road for around half a mile, and you’ll find yourself near the visitors center. The road continues, with the steepest uphill section of the route. You’ll pass Century Lake on your left once you reach the summit. In the summer it’s a relief to detour to the waters edge, and walk along the lake’s shore. If you look on the other side you’ll see some trees that look out of place. Those redwoods and pines were planted when the area was a privately-owned resort, and their shade is a good shelter from the heat if you make it that far around the lake on the Forest Trail.

To get to the MASH site itself, keep straight on along Crags Road for 1.5 miles. You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting the location, the rusting Jeep and ambulance are right beside the trail. If you’re biking in and want more of a challenge you can continue a quarter of a mile and take the strenuous Bulldog trail that branches off to the left. Be prepared for some relentless uphill climbing for several miles.

Hikers can check out the Lost Cabin trail we worked on today. It heads south off the road a little before the set. Thanks to a great crew of volunteers rounded up by REI, we cleared a lot of the overgrowth, and repaired the tread where it had washed out, so it should be a lot more pleasant than it used to be. It dead-ends after around a mile, but it goes through some great scenery. Here’s a shot from where we stopped for lunch:


What should you look for in predictive SF?

Photo by Dark Matter

Brad Feld just mentioned that he’s reading and watching as much science fiction as he can, to open his mind to the potential future. I’m a sci fi addict, and the same thought was on my mind after seeing Rick Segal’s post on the machines being built to scan books. Rainbow’s End from a few years ago largely centered on the competition to scan as many paper libraries as possible, with Google and other companies in a race to grab all that juicy data as quickly as they could. They resort to putting the books through a giant tree-shredder, photographing the pieces as they fly through the air, and then using algorithms much like those used to reconstruct the Stasi files to piece the complete text back together. It makes a lot of engineering sense, but also makes the book-lover in me squirm.

Vernor Vinge is one of the best authors if you’re looking for plausible future technology. As a computer science professor, his extrapolation is grounded in a deep knowledge of the present. For instance, I love his passing mention of the nanobots in A Deepness in the Sky having a software stack with Unix buried deep at the bottom. I’d never thought it through before, but it makes total sense that we’ll always keep adding more layers, and over thousands of years you’ll need code archaeologists to understand the depths. He also has some sobering characters who were todays programming hotshots, but ended up like buggy-whip makers or steelworkers once the technology left them behind. A good reminder to keep up your 401k.

What should you look for in SF if you want an insight into the future? My top criteria is that everyone should have jobs. There’s a dividing line between the utopian fiction of ideas, and those where people have the same problems as we do today. Putting the technology in the hands of ordinary folks with jobs and families forces the author to tackle questions of practicality and usability. Philip K Dick and Vinge and William Gibson all focus on this everyday world, and you get to see technology that’s both useful and plausible. I love Iain M. Banks, but his characters mostly live in a nerd-rapture utopia where everything is free and people only work for fun. If there’s no constraints, you end up with cool but never-in-our-lifetime technology like the knife missiles.

Another tip is to look for short story collections. There’s a lot higher idea-to-words ratio in the short form, and it allows writers to focus on a sketch of a corner of the world, rather than getting lost in the details of how the whole system works. For a regular dose I recommend a subscription to Interzone, probably the best SF magazine around.

Hike Big Sky Trail in Simi Valley

Photo by vw_huntsinger

After growing up somewhere flatter than Kansas, I love any terrain that rises above head-height. The Simi Hills aren’t glamorous or well-known, but they’re full of fascinating canyons and offer some great views. They’re also very off the beaten track, with miles and miles of wild land in the triangle between Filmore, Simi and Santa Clarita.

A small part of that has just been turned into a housing development. Thankfully that led to the dedication of a new park and the installation of a trail system, mostly along some old fire roads. Big Sky Trail is a four mile loop that me, Liz and Thor took for the first time last week. Here’s a map:

The upper section, which we took first, heads steeply uphill, and then follows the ridgeline for a couple of miles. You end up with some great cliff-top spots to enjoy the view out over the valley, all the way to Boney Mountain in the Santa Monicas if it’s clear. The way back winds alongside a stream, through some beautiful oak groves. There’s small parking lots next to most of the spots where the trail crosses the small streets of the development. Me and Liz hiked from a small one off Erringer. It looks like the trail might extend west past Erringer too, but we didn’t check out that side.

Now I need to figure out how to climb deeper into the hills, I can’t leave that much unexplored territory sitting on my doorstep!