I first noticed Marsh Benchmark a few years ago while on a hike up Mount Diablo with my son's Boy Scout Troop. It caught my attention as a moderately lofty and isolated peak about 6 or 7 miles to the southeast from where our hike was. Scoutmaster George saw me pointing my camera in that direction and asked me what peak that was. I told him that I didn't know, but it looked like it would be worth a visit someday.During the next three years I managed to visit nearly all the other main peaks in the region. Only Marsh Benchmark and a few others remained. Still, I hesitated about doing this peak. Why? Mainly because it rises only about 500 feet above the Morgan Territories staging area and is located less than a mile away. I needed to spice things up a bit. I studied the park map and noted a few other worthy peaks on the opposite (east) side of Morgan Territories Road from Marsh Benchmark. Combining all these 3 or 4 peaks together would make a fine loop. Maybe a little too spicey? Only one way to find out.
It was about 8:30am on a Saturday in mid-December when I set out on the trail. It had rained hard the previous Thursday. Normally, the trails would have been a muddy sloppy mess, but the temperatures that morning were down to the low to mid thirties. The trails were frozen almost solid. That was excellent, but what would they be like by late morning or early afternoon?
I followed a system of trials and then a gulch with a well used cattle trail up to the northeast of the summit where a dirt road climbs the remaining distance to the top. It was quite cold and the slight breeze was biting. Still I was having a great time. The views were amazing and I was happy that I could finally check off this peak.
I followed the dirt road off the east side of the peak and began what would be a long descent to the northeast to the floor of the canyon containing Morgan Territories Road followed by a long ascent up the other side of the canyon to a ridgecrest containing my other goals for this trip. It was late morning by the time I reached the gate defining the park boundary. (Marsh Benchmark lies just outside the actual park in a region set aside as a landbank. I didn't see a single sign prohibiting access to hikers.)
Beyond the gate I continued my descent as the trails began to soften and thaw in the sun. Traveling was tricky at first, then it got downright miserable. My hiking speed slowed down considerably as I focused most of my attention on trying to remain upright in the slippery (and disgusting) mixture of water, mud and cattle poop. Slipping and falling on my butt was not an option, but fall I did. My camera even fell out of its case and rolled in the mud. Drat! Luckily, that was my only fall. But, it was at that moment that I realized that my progress was much too slow to continue on my bonus peaks. I changed course and began to head back to the staging area by following the narrow windy road up the hill toward the south.
It didn't take long for me to realize what a bad idea it was to hike up the road. It was very narrow and often without shoulders to walk on. Fortunately, there was very little traffic. Nevertheless, when I reached the junction with the Mollok Trail, I decided to use it instead of the road. There were several portions where there was damage due to cattle or fallen trees. Crossing a small creek turned out to be quite tricky due to slick mud coated boulders Ugh!
Finally, I arrived back on the trails that I'd followed early that morning when things were still frozen. The difference was like night and day. Where I had been able to travel so quickly going up, I found a slippery morass of muck and poop coming back down. Where I could, I often hiked on the grassy areas next to the road, but even that was unpleasant. Some parts were saturated with water and my boots often sank in at least an inch or more. At least it wasn't quite a slippery as the road.
In spite of all the mud and other obstacles, I made it back to my truck only a little after 1pm only slightly disappointed about not completing my intended route. Oh, well. This is a very beautiful park and well worth another visit - hopefully in dryer conditions.
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