Monday, July 31, 2017

W6/NC-178 Ben Lomond Mountain

Ben Lomond Mountain is a drive up peak near the town of Felton. I drove up after activating three peaks in Big Basin SP (China Grade BM, Mt McAbee, Pine Mtn). There is a CalFire station at the summit, but this is closed to the public. Others have said there is a jail as well, but I didn't see it. Some trip reports on peakbagger mention talking to the fire fighters to try and get to the high point, but that they wouldn't allow it. I setup in a small pull-out near an antenna tower, and set up my mag loop.
Pullout where I set up. True summit behind photographer and to the right.
It was late in the day, and I had trouble getting the four contacts I needed. I always seem to have trouble with activations around the end of the UTC day. The cell service was spotty as well, but there was enough to send out some spots. I eventually got one on 30 and 17 each, and two on 20. There were a lot of flies and bugs swarming around me as I operated. I called for a while on VHF/UHF, but didn't get any responses, to my surprise. I got a lot of looks from drivers and bikers as they went by. After packing up I braved the afternoon traffic on CA 17 to get back to the Bay Area.

Trailhead: Empire Grade Road.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map.
Route: Find somewhere on the side of the road to set up. All private property in the area.
Red Tape: None if you stay on the road.

W6/NC-241 Pine Mountain

Pine Mountain was peak number three today, just after Mt McAbee. This is another peak in Big Basin Redwoods State Park without a view on top. From the park headquarters, make your way to the Pine Mountain Trail. There are a few different trails that will get you here, but the easiest is probably to take the trail that parallels the road.
Opal Creek
The trail leads up to Buzzards Roost, a rocky sub-peak of Pine Mountain. The trail up to the top is well graded, so the climb doesn't feel long or difficult. In the saddle between Pine Mtn and Buzzards Roost, the trail turns sharply left for the final climb to Buzzards Roost. On the right there is a sign on a fence saying the area is closed for restoration. If you go around the fence, there is an old, easy to follow trail that leads to the summit. There is a large pile of rocks at the end.
At one of the ledges on the way up. I'm not in pain, just squinting in the sun.
There are a lot of trees at the summit, but not many branches. This made it difficult to find somewhere to throw a line over for the antenna. Eventually I found a very small branch, no more than a few inches long, and after a few throws, got a line over. I set up the station and was on the air.
Operating position and antenna at the summit. 
I had a weak 4G signal, so I spotted myself. I had never made a contact on 12 meters, so I started there. I got one, then went down to 17 meters where I made two contacts. Keeping with the theme of using the WARC bands, I moved down to 30 and made a bunch. I'd also never made a contact on 60, so I called CQ, and a few minutes later NA6O came back. Since I was having success on uncommon bands, I went up to 50 MHz and called for a while, but didn't get any takers. I then got out the HT to try the VHF bands, and to my surprise I made one contact on 2 meters. He was down near Monterey, so I probably had line of sight to him over Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay.
Buzzards Roost from the "trail"
While I was on the summit I could hear the people on Buzzards Roost easily. They sounded much closer than they actually were. After all the excitement I packed up headed back to the car to drive up to Ben Lomond Mountain, the last scheduled summit for the day.

Trailhead: Big Basin Redwoods Park HQ.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map. When you pay the entrance fee, you get a map.
Route: Make your way to the Pine Mountain Trail, and follow this to the closed sign. Go around the sign and follow the old trail to the summit.
Red Tape: None.

W6/NC-537 Mt McAbee

This was the second of four peaks today, after China Grade Benchmark, and before Pine Mountain and Ben Lomond Mountain. Mt McAbee is a low mountain near the center of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and a pleasant hike in. Park at the park headquarters, and take the Skyline to Sea Trail up to the top of Middle Ridge. I was surprised there was still some water flowing in the creek near HQ this late in the summer.
Start of the trail at park HQ.
 On the ridge you have the choice of taking the Hihn Hammond Road or the Howard King Trail. I would recommend the trail, I think its more pleasant than walking on the fire road. The trail crosses the road a few times on the way up, so you could take both. Near the top is an overlook with a bench. If its not cloudy or foggy, you can see the ocean from here, or take a break. From this point, the rest of the way up is bushwhacking.
Final trail junction and bench. Enter the woods to the right of the bench.
 Behind the bench there is a convenient place to enter the woods. There seems to be a band of very dense forest along the trail that is about 10 meters wide, then open redwood forest. If you can push through the dense band, it is an easy hike up to the top. I found that if I went downhill a little, there were more openings through the brush.
Near the top.
There were some dense trees at what appeared to be the highest point, but just to the north there was a small clearing. I threw my antenna over a branch and got on the air here. I had zero cell service, so relied on the RBN to get spots. It seemed to work, as I got contacts on the 30, 20, and 17 meter bands from all the usual chasers. I called on VHF, but again didn't get any contacts.
To get back to the trail, I followed a compass bearing. The dense brush was still there, but there was a small embankment that I accidentally slid down to get onto the trail again. This resulted in a few scrapes to my elbow and some dirt in my shoes, but nothing worse. I then followed the road back down to head over to Pine Mountain.

Trailhead: Big Basin Redwoods Park Headquarters
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map. When you pay the parking fee, they give you a map.
Route: Skyline to the Sea Trail up to Middle Ridge. Howard King Trail to the overlook, then bushwhack to the top.
Red Tape: None.
The pacific is under that fog.

W6/NC-221 China Grade Benchmark

China Grade Benchmark is the high point on a ridge at the northern end of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The activation zone is quite long, and the China Grade Road is in the activation zone for quite a ways. To get there, I would recommend putting the summit GPS coordinates in your map, then follow the driving directions. when you are very close, find a pullout on the side of the road to park in, then find somewhere nearby to set up in. The BSA has a camp at the end of the road, there may be signs out for Cutter Scout Reservation at the junction of China Grade Road and CA 236.
Parking spot on China Grade Road.
I did this, then walked around in the woods until I found a good branch to throw an antenna over. There are some areas of very dense forest, so it can pay to look around for the best place to set up. China Grade Road is on the eastern border of the park, so head west to avoid entering someone's private property. Last year, I drove to the high point of the road, which is past the high point, and found some open forest to set up in.
Antenna. Operating position on the other side of the bushes.
I setup my doublet and got on 30 meters. There was a weak 4G signal, so I was able to spot myself. I quickly got seven contacts, then moved up to 17. Here I got three more. There were a large number of mosquitoes, and it was hard trying to send CW while swatting away the bugs. I put out a few calls on VHF, but didn't get a response. I hadn't expected one, because there is a tall ridge separating this area from the populous Bay Area, and I didn't have a directional antenna. There were three more peaks I had planned for the day (Mt McAbee, Pine Mtn, Ben Lomond Mtn), so I packed up and headed down to Big Basin Headquarters to hike to the next peak.
Car and the road from near the operating position.

Trailhead: China Grade Road. Drive into the activation zone.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map.
Route: Operate from the road, or find a better place in the woods.
Red Tape: None.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Pixie Transceiver

On a whim I bought a cheap Chinese pixie kit from eBay. These are cheap kits, less than five dollars, that generally put out less than 1 watt. All that arrived was a static bag with the pcb and parts. There was a schematic on the eBay page, and I was able to assemble without much trouble. One of the capacitors was the wrong value, but I installed it anyways, since I didn't have a spare of the marked value. I didn't install the power LED or the buzzer. I don't think that this will be a problem. I attached a 9V battery and an RCA connector for the antenna and was ready to test.
Pixie, ready to be tested.
Attaching a dummy load, I keyed the transmitter. There was a click in the headphones, and the noise was muted, so it appeared that the transmitter was working. My dummy load, from QRP Guys, has pins that can be used to find the power. My calculations showed that the pixie was putting out about 200 mW. This is much less than the 800 mW at 9V the website claims.
I connected my antenna and immediately heard a number of stations. Tuning around with my KX3 I discoverd that they were up to a kilohertz away from 7.023, the crystal frequency. The receiver is wide open.
In an Altoids tin, for size comaparison. Plenty of room left for a 9v battery.
After thinking a bit, I decided that it would be easier to experiment if the radio wasn't soldered into a PCB, so I ordered two more from ebay. They're so cheap. Once they arrive, I'll assemble them on a breadboard so I can poke around with an oscilloscope and change the circuit easily. Then, one will get mounted in an Altoids tin to be brought out into the field for some QRPp fun. Stay tuned for updates when the other pixies arrive.

Monday, July 24, 2017

W6/SS-388 Musick Mountain

Musick Mountain is an easily accessible peak above Shaver Lake in the central Sierra Nevada. When planning my trip I was very surprised that the peak had never been activated before. I climbed the day after competing in the Dinkey Creek NavX rogaine, so my legs were sore and tired. There is a fire road that leads to the top, which has an old fire lookout and lots of radio antennas. I parked at the first junction, about a quarter mile from Huntington Lake Road, but the road looks like it is passable in a sedan to the junction at the saddle. I parked on the side and headed up the road. This first section is a gentle grade, and well shaded.
Second junction. Road to the top on the right, around the locked gate.
At the next junction (with Fire Road 9S22), take the road to the right. It goes down a little and around a locked gate, then starts to climb steeply. Once you've climbed a bit, there are a few openings through the trees with views to the north. I could see Kaiser Peak, which I had climbed a few days prior. The road wraps around the summit. On top I climbed up the lookout tower, and got views of the region. The trapdoor to the platform was locked open, so no access problems.
Shaver Lake.
I setup my pole on the side of the road, and sat down in the shade of the tower. I had to move my operating position a few times as the shadow from the tower moved. I decided to start on 15 meters and work my way down the bands. I only made one contact one 15, and none on 17. 20 and 30 netted me the bulk of contacts. I called on 40, but didn't get any response.
Summit. Lookout tower out of the picture to the right.
 I figured that there would be good VHF/UHF from the summit since there were so many other antennas, however there was S9 noise on both the 144 and 222 MHz bands. I called for a while on 446, which was very quiet, and did get one contact eventually. As I was taking down the pole, the guy ropes slipped off the stakes that they were anchored to. I nearly lost one of my stakes, but managed to find it in the brush before I left. Hiking down was uneventful, retracing my steps. It had gotten much hotter than during my ascent. I'm glad I went up early.
I think Kaiser Peak is on the left. Sierra crest in the far background.

Trailhead: Fire Road 9S65. There was a sign on Huntington Lake Road pointing to Musick Mountain. The turnoff is about 1.5 miles north of CA168.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map.
Route: Road 9S65 to the top.
Red Tape: None.
I think that is a bear paw print. There were also lots of deer prints in the area.

W6/SS-245 Kaiser Peak

Kaiser Peak is the high point of the Kaiser Wilderness, just north of Huntington Lake. After leaving the Bay Area early Friday morning I got to the trailhead at the D&F Pack Station shortly before noon. There was a lot of smoke in the air from the Detwiler Fire burning near Yosemite. The trailhead parking is just down the road from the pack station. The area was small, with only enough room for five or six cars. The trail leaves from the top of the pack station. There is a board with information about the wilderness area at the trailhead.
First trail junction.
On the map the trail is called the Kaiser Loop Trail, but all the signs pointed to Kaiser Peak. The trail climbs steadily over its 4.5 mile distance. There are views of the Huntington Lake area once you climb out of the stream valley the trail starts in.
Lots of smoke.
Once I climbed up to around College Rock at 9000 feet I got above the smoke, and the views got much cleaner. It took me about an hour to climb to here. After the rock there is a short flat section where I passed the first snow field. Once I finally climbed onto the ridge, the views opened up and it was beautiful. Being above the trees reminded me of the ridges in New Hampshire that are above treeline.
Kaiser Peak by my head.
The ridge walk was nice, with a few snow fields that were easy to cross or avoid. The summit was bare, with a few flat areas. I setup my mag loop and KX3 and got on 20 meters. I had an intermittent 3G signal, enough I was able to get a few spots out. I quickly got five contacts on 20, then figured I try 17 to see if it was open. I only got one contact there. I had line of sight to the Central Valley, so I figured I could get lots of VHF contacts without spotting. I did, but the people who answered my CQs were very chatty, more than those in the Bay Area.
On the summit.
 By this point I had been on the summit for an hour, and above 10,000 feet for longer, and I was starting to get a headache. I figured it was due to the altitude or dehydration, so I did something about both. I packed up and headed down, drinking most of my remaining water. The hike down was easy, following the same trail as on the way up.
One of the lakes (Jewel Lake) north of the peak was still partially ice covered.
I got back to the car, and drove over to Tamarack Sno-park, where the NavX rogaine was starting the next day.

Trailhead: D&F Pack Station, Huntington Lake.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map. Tom Harrison make a nice map too.
Route: Kaiser Loop Trail.
Red Tape: None.

Monday, July 17, 2017

W6/NC-496 Burra Burra Peak

Burra Burra Peak was the second SOTA summit I activated this day, after the unnamed Point 1679. I had been cooling off in the visitors center, talking to the ranger. She said there was an old copper mine near the summit, and the entrance was still visible. She also told me how the peak got its name.
Back during the Civil War, the South controlled most of the copper mines, so the price for copper in the Union went way up. This meant that a lot of prospectors headed out to try and find more copper. After some prospectors found copper on the peak, the called the mine the New Burra Burra Mine, after the Burra Burra copper mine in Tennessee. After the war ended and copper prices went down, the mine was abandoned, but the name lives on.
Burra Burra Peak.
From the Dowdy Ranch visitors center, take the trail next to the center up to Kaiser Aetna Road. Cross the road and continue up the trail to the summit. This is a fairly short hike, about one mile. The summit is covered with shrubs, but there are some open areas to set up in. I lashed my pole to a shrub, and sat on a convenient rock. There was good cell service on the peak. I spotted myself and made a number of contacts on 30 and 20 meters. I had no luck on 40, and didn't even get any RBN spots. I managed to make one contact on 146 and 446 each. The CQ VHF contest was going on, but I didn't realize until afterwards that the rules forbid making contacts on 146.52.
View to the west.
On the way down I continued around and made a loop. I stopped by the old copper mine, which was easy to find. It had started to get cloudy, and some rain would have been nice, but none came.
Old copper mine entrance.
The entrance had collapsed, and is fenced off.
The mine entrance is under the tree.
There was a second entrance to the mine, but I did not find it. I got back to the parking lot at 4, just as the ranger was leaving. Since I was the only one there, she waited for me to leave so that she could lock the gates behind me, rather than having to come back this evening at the published closing time. The drive back down Kaiser Aetna Road was uneventful, and I made it back to CA 152 for the drive home.

Trailhead: Dowdy Ranch, Henry Coe SP.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map.
Route: Seven Oaks Trail to the Burra Burra Trail.
Red Tape: None. Dowdy Ranch is only open weekends during the dry season. Check the Henry Coe Website or call to make sure entrance is open.
One hot hiker.

W6/NC-517

This unnamed peak is one of two SOTA peaks near the Dowdy Ranch entrance of Henry Coe State Park, along with Burra Burra Peak. Kaiser Aetna Road, which leads to the trailhead, is gated and only open weekends in the summer. I arrived at the gate around 8:15, and it was open. The dirt road was well graded and my car had no problem driving to the ranch. I did see a coyote while driving in which was neat. At the visitors center I paid for parking, then set off. It was warmer than I would have preferred, but not too hot yet. Dowdy Ranch is at the same elevation as Peak 1679, so I had to go down about 950 feet, then climb back up. I took the Mack's Corral Trail to the bottom.
The peak, from just below the trailhead.
It took about 20 minutes to get to the dry stream bed at the bottom. Here I left the trail and began bushwhacking up the slope. There is an area of open forest that was easy to follow up to an old ranch road. The road then led up most of the way to the top. About a quarter mile from the top the road turns and goes down hill. Here, cross the old fence and bushwhack through the thick scrub to the top. There are some areas in this last section that look like there might have been a trail here, but overall it was very dense.
One of the denser sections near the summit.
I made it to the top and got set up. There are a few trees at the top and in the activation zone, but I just set up my pole and doublet. There was great cell service, so spotting was not an issue. I got on 30 meters and quickly made eight contacts. 20 and 40 meters were less productive, but I made a few more. I didn't expect much for VHF, but I tried calling anyways. No voice contacts from this peak, CW only. By this time it was getting hot in the shade, so I packed up and headed down the hill.
Antenna setup. Burra Burra Peak on the left. Dowdy Ranch was visible too.
It was a quick hike back to the river and Mack's Corral, but it was very hot for the climb up to the visitors center. I had brought two liters of water with me, and finished them both by the time I got back to the parking lot. I didn't have a thermometer, but it was probably at least 100 degrees. I had to stop a few times on the way up because I was getting so hot. At the top I stopped in the visitors center to cool off and have some lunch. I ended up taking a long lunch and talking with the ranger. Apparently there is an old mining claim on the mountain that can be seen if you know where to look.


Trailhead: Dowdy Ranch, Henry Coe SP.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map.
Route: Mack's Corral Trail to the bottom. Cross the stream and climb through the open forest to the old ranch roads. Follow roads up ridge to barbed wire fence. Cross fence and bushwhack up ridge to summit. Note that the ranch roads are not marked on most maps, but are easily visible on aerial imagery.
Red Tape: None. Dowdy Ranch is only open weekends during the dry season. Check the Henry Coe Website or call to make sure entrance is open.
The poison oak was the greenest thing around.

Monday, July 10, 2017

W6/NC-435 Tiburon Peninsula

This was the final peak of the day, after Pine Mountain and Bald Hill. The peak is in a residential neighborhood, and the summit is in someone's backyard. At the corner of Sugarloaf Drive and Place Moulin there is a small traffic island with a bench that you can operate from.
Operating position. The mag loop is on the right side of the bench.
Drive up to the top, and park on the side of the road. Others have recommended parking by the water tanks, but Street View shows the area closed by a fence. I parked in front of a hedge. There is not a lot of horizontal space, so bring a compact antenna if you're going to operate HF. I brought my mag loop. I set up on 30 meters and made three contacts. The fourth proved elusive though. I didn't get any RBN spots on 40 after calling for a while, so I switched to VHF and quickly got the final contact. I didn't bring my jacket, since it had been so hot on Pine Mountain and Bald Hill, so I was getting cold.
Traffic island from my car.
I packed up quickly and headed for home after three successful activations. This peak is not very interesting, and I would not recommend it except for completeness or an extra SOTA point. The view towards SF was good, but it is very narrow.

Trailhead: Corner of Sugarloaf Dr and Place Moulin.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map.
Route: It should be obvious.
Red Tape: None. Lots of people walking around, but none talked to me.

W6/NC-400 Bald Hill

Bald Hill was the second peak on my SOTA Sunday in Marin, after Pine Mountain. I hiked in from the north side, starting at the Deer Park Parking Area and Trailhead. Park, then walk south around the Fairfax-San Anselmo Children's Center. There were signs indicating this area might be closed during school hours. On the other side, turn left at the football field. On the left side there is a trail that climbs up to the ridge. I didn't have a map, so I went straight here and climbed up a ways before I realized my mistake, and had to turn around.
Main trail on the right. Turn left here, and on the left side of the field is the trail up.
This trail, the Deer Park Trail, is closed to bikes and gently climbs to the ridge via a series of switchbacks. Just up from the intersection with the fire road is another junction. If you take the path to the right you can avoid some extra climbing that the fire road does. On the other end of the trail, take the road to the summit. Maps label it as the Worn Spring Road. Like the name implies, the summit is bald. There are no antenna supports, so I set up my pole and doublet and got on 30 meters. After a few CQs I quickly got four stations. I went up to 20, but there seemed to be a lot of activity, so I called on 40 meters instead. I quickly found that any metal left in the sun got very hot. I had to keep my paddles in my shadow so they'd stay cool enough to use. I also put my water in the shade of the small bush so it wouldn't get so hot.
Mt Tam behind my station. Maps claim the peak on the right is the highest by a few feet.
After a few contacts I went to VHF. KI6JJW across the Bay answered my CQ, and we had a long QSO after switching up to 220 then 440. With his beam I was able to run on the lowest power setting, about 0.5 watts on 440. After talking with him, I think there's something up with my radio on 220. He said 220 is usually quiet, but my Kenwood is usually noisy on the band.
On the way down.
I was getting hot, so after we said 73 I packed up and headed back to the car. There was still plenty of light, so I headed over to the Tiburon Peninsula to activate that peak.

Trailhead: Deer Park Parking Area, Fairfax-San Anselmo Children's Center.
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: AA6XA SOTA Hikes map.
Route: Deer Park Fire Road. At the field, left to Deer Park Trail. At the ridge, right on Buckeye Trail and Worn Spring Road to the summit.
Red Tape: None. Parking area may be closed during school hours, when the kids are around. If this is the case, it looks like there is also access from the south.

W6/NC-331 Pine Mountain

It was a beautiful day, and was forecasted to be cooler, so I headed up to Marin County to activate a few more SOTA peaks. On the schedule for today was Pine Mountain, Bald Hill, and Tiburon Peninsula. The first trailhead, for Pine Mountain, is at the height of land on Bolinas-Fairfax Road, at the Azalea Trailhead. This is a fairly large lot. The road seems to be popular with bikers, so watch for them on the drive up and back.
Parking lot, looking across the road to the trail.
I crossed the road, and headed up the Pine Mountain Fire Road. The junctions are all well signed, and it was easy to follow the road to the top. The road seemed rougher than other fire roads I've hiked in the Bay Area. The fire road does not go over the summit, but it does enter the activation zone. The summit is covered in knee-high scrub, but there are some thinner areas if you want to get to the high point. The high point is a rock with a metal pole sticking out of it. It took me about an hour to get to the summit.
At the summit.
At the top there is a flat rock, perfect for sitting and operating on. There were no trees nearby, so bring an antenna support. I set up my doublet, and was on the air. There was decent service, so I was able to self-spot band changes. I quickly made seven contacts on 30 meters, then went up and made two on 20. I called on 220 and 440, but didn't get any responses. I was able to get four contacts on 2 meters. It was getting hot, so I packed up and headed back the way I came. There were a lot more people on the trail heading up than an hour earlier. I drank a bunch of water at the car, then headed down to the Bald Hill trailhead.


Trailhead: Azalea Hill Trailhead, Bolinas-Fairfax Road..
Website: SOTA Site.
Maps: KB1KXL SOTA Hikes map.
Route: Pine Mountain Fire Road.
Red Tape: None. Watch for mountain bikers.
Mt Tam on the right, Mt Diablo in the center-left distance