#BagginPeaksandHavinDrinks

Southern California Trip Reports

January 14, 2018

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Strawberry Peak via South Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route)

Strawberry Peak via Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route) San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL

Final ascent of Strawberry Peak. Photo by Jeremy Boggs.


Strawberry Peak, a 6,164 foot mountain in the Angeles National Forest is located along the California Highway 2, just 10 miles north of  Pasadena. The peak features incredible views of both the western San Gabriel mountain range as well (on a clear day) the entire southern California coast. It was named by some highly creative mountaineers who felt that the peak had "striking" visual similarities to that of an actual strawberry (go figure). It is more commonly known for its class 3 approach via the mountains western ridge; a caliber of terrain that is more often found on extremely difficult day hikes such as the San Antonio Ridge Traverse,  or the approach to Triplet Rocks. On January 6th 2018, twenty-seven avid hikers met at the Colby Canyon trail head to make for the peak. 

South Colby Canyon Trail Head (3,500 ft) 

Strawberry Peak via Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route) San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL

Group descending the lowest point of Colby Canyon trail.

The start time was set for 6:00 AM and to my surprise, I woke up on time and ready to party. I stopped at the La Canada Flintridge Ralph's for a lunch and some snacks before heading north on the Angeles Crest Highway (California Highway 2). The South Colby trail head is a large dirt turnout on the left just passed the Switzer Picnic Area parking lot. As I arrived, I discovered four other cars.. I knew it was going to be a good group.
By 6:15AM, the turnout was completely filled and two other hikers were forced to park in the overflow parking a quarter mile up the highway. We counted 25 hikers in total before going over logistics and making for the trail. We descended to the bottom of the canyon and crossed the dry creek bed before climbing a couple of switchbacks moving north-east. Even without the single file of hikers spread across the route, its switchbacks were visible along Josephine saddle's southern slope as the trail made its way through the dense chaparral. A  welcome addition to our hike was a bit of drizzle in the morning gloom.

Josephine Saddle

1.75 miles | +1700 FT | -200 FT

Strawberry Peak via Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route) San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL

Approaching the water tower (center left) at Josephine/Strawberry Saddle.


Strawberry Peak via Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route) San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL

Overlooking the group from the water tower with Strawberry Peak in the back.


8:00 AM - We approached the big cement water tower located near the saddle and the goal became clear. Strawberry Peak's eastern ridge and the final class 3 climb were now all we had left. The front of the pack took a break at the saddle to allow everyone to catch up as planned, and for good reason. Three additional hikers had arrived late and made it to the saddle in time for another briefing on the trail conditions to follow. From the saddle, we would leave the trail almost immediately and head north east along the ridge (the path to the right of the main trail) for less than a quarter mile before our first rock scramble. 

Obstacles along the Ridge!

 

Strawberry Peak via Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route) San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL

The route becomes obscure as bulging granite and sandstone interweave with dirt trail, creating veins along the ridge and it can be very easy to turn a short 15 foot scramble into a class 4 exposed climb. The trick here is to stay to the left as you approach the rocky terrain. The entire group managed this part no problem and we continued north for 600 feet before I saw it; my nemisis. A small poodle dog bush lay dormant along the right of the path. I stayed behind as several hikers passed to warn more of the group.

For those unaware, Poodle Dog Bush (Eriodictyon Parryi) is a shrub unique to Southern California that thrives in areas that have recently been disturbed by fires or landslides. The plant can grow to be as tall as six feet and features hairy leaves as well as bright purple flowers in the summer months. For all its beauty and benefits of rehabilitation to the land, touching it can cause major skin irritation and blistering that can last up to several weeks. It is a nuisance! I warned enough people and decided to keep moving. 

The Mountaineers Route to Strawberry Peak

Strawberry Peak via Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route) San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL

After climbing 2,500 feet in a total of 2.7 miles, we had made it to the base of the infamous class 3 section; a 500 foot scramble made up of solid granite with almost no exposure. I looked up toward the route and some of the front runners navigated the ascent. 

We arrived to the peak at approximately 8:30 AM (an extremely fast time for a group of 27). The mountain welcomed our arrival with beautiful clear skies and endless views of Southern California's coast to the south and Big Tujunga to the north. I quickly reached into my pack and pulled out my summit beer first just in case the early morning completion scared anyone into actually having a beer. After all, we are a group of beer enthusiasts who like to get outdoors and I came to party. Cheers!

Strawberry Peak via Colby Canyon (Mountaineers Route) San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL

Our entire group of 27 with Jeremy Boggs behind the camera.

LOGISTICS

Where we started:  701 Angeles Crest Hwy, Tujunga, CA 91042 (search Colby Canyon Trail head on Google Maps/Waze).

MORE INFO

Total Distance: 7 miles 

Total Elevation Gain: 2,700 ft +
Completion Time: 5 hours (group of 27 including 45 minute break at the peak)

Trail Difficulty: Moderate
  • Easy class 1 trail up to Josephine saddle
  • Use trail along the ridge with potential exposed class 3-4 rock climbs if not careful of finding the route.
  • Poodle dog bush (poisonous plant) along the trail for the majority of the last mile. 
 
November 21, 2017

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Gabrielino Trail (West to East)

Aaron-flynn-newcomb-pass-gabrielino-trail-west-fork-sturtevant-trail-trvrs-apparel

Aaron Flynn, descending Newcomb Pass toward Sturtevant trail.


The Gabrielino trail is a 28.5 mile path that lies in the canyons of the Angeles National Forest. Its spans from Alta Dena, California to Chantry Flat recreational area (just north of Arcadia, California). It was created in 1970 when several existing trails were renamed as a consequence of the National Trail System Act. The Forest Service announcement read as  follows:

"This trail has been created for you - the city dweller - so that you might exchange, for a short time, the hectic scene of your urban life for the rugged beauty and freedom of adventure into the solitary wonderland of nature."

In 2009, over 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest were devoured by the Station Fire (one of the largest wild fires in the history of California). The fire's impact compromised the Gabrielino trail's integrity, leaving portions closed for nearly 8 years. 

The national recreational trail is made of nearly 100% single track trail, with many sources of filterable water (during winter and spring) and travels through shaded and desolate canyons of the Angeles National Forest. Its terrain includes mostly defined class 1 trail, several creek crossings, and a few downed trees. It weaves through the lush, forested canyons of the Arroyo Seco and West Fork. All of these qualities make it an endurance runners dream trail and fortunately for us, it was recently reopened due to the fantastic trail work of Southern California's incredibly motivated mountain biking community.



The Arroyo Seco

gabrielino-trail-sign-jpl-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

Trail sign in Alta Dena marking the beginning of the Gabrielino trail in Alta Dena, California.

Sunday November 12th, 2017 -- After our plans of hosting a larger group run had dwindled down to two, Aaron and I arrived at the Windsor blvd trail head parking lot to start at 7:30 AM. We strolled North along the fire road at an easy pace mostly to catch up since the previous week's C2C2C adventure. Within a couple of miles, the fire road gave way to single track and it was just too enjoyable to hold back.

gabrielino-trail-jpl-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

The infamous Brown Mountain Forest Service Dam in the Arroyo seco.

By 8:10 AM, after staying within the lowest point of the canyon for 4 miles, we had made it to the Paul Little picnic area junction, and took the path to the right where we would climb roughly 100 feet to bypass the infamous Brown Mountain Forest Service Dam and land back in the Arroyo Seco. At this point we had already crossed the mostly calm creek around 8 times and this trend would persist.

Overlooking Bear Canyon

commodor-switzer-camp-sturtevant-trail-gabrielino-trail-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

Bear Canyon with San Gabriel peak in its wake.

We made it to the Ken Burton Trail junction where we stayed along the canyon and just a mile later, we reached a confluence in the Arroyo Seco. We took the North Fork to begin a 1,300 foot climb toward Commodore Switzer Camp. From the highest point, we could see all of Bear Canyon and its surrounding peaks; the change of scenery was refreshing. We met an older couple following the path in the opposite direction. The woman stood quiet while the gentleman asked about conditions, noting that they had spent the night at Devore Campground. We assured him the trail was passable and he let out the most classic "OH BOY!" as he walked away. The reassurance of being nearly finished with their trek must have been extremely motivating, especially after backpacking 10 miles in a day on a trail he wasn't sure would get he and his wife safely back to civilization.

Switzer Picnic Area

8.5 mi | + 2552 | - 700 ft


switzer-picnic-area-gabrielino-trail-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

Approaching the Switzer Picnic Area from just above Switzer Falls.

By 9:45 AM, we had reached Switzer picnic area and besides a couple of hills the grade was steady enough to maintain a strong jog for most of the ascent. We quickly passed the parking area to cross a bridge and return the fun single track. The now east facing canyon trail paralleled the Angeles Crest highway. Several miles later, we reached another false junction (ladybug Canyon rd?) but easily avoided falling off track by staying to the South side of the canyon (away from highway 2) and continuing our ascent toward Redbox Picnic Area.


Red Box 

14 miles | + 4600 ft  | - 1168 ft

red-box-lady-bugs-gabrielino-trail-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

A lady bug orgy.

Aaron and I both brought water filters (Katadyn Befree, and the Vestergaard LifeStraw), and although we had passed a lot of stream water on the way up, we knew we that there was reliable water source at Red Box. I stopped in the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center for a Coke and some Knott's Cookies and within minutes we were back on the trail (located near the bathroom), descending the opposite side of Red Box Gap in the West Fork San Gabriel River.

Confusion near Devore


west-fork-mushrooms-gabrielino-trail-trvrs-apparel

There is a fungus Among us.

Six miles and 2,600 feet of descent lead us past both Valley Forge and Kenyon-Devore trail junctions, and we earned a stay at West Fork campground. So far, our trek had included five different campsites with flowing water at each and we were now in a lush green forested landscape. I was beginning to understand both how good of a backpacking trail we were running through and, as the trail became more overgrown, how little research we did on an entire 2 mile section. 

we-have-no-idea-what-were-doing-west-fork-gabrielino-trail-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

Two lost dudes, happy as ever. 

Approaching Devore campground the path became increasingly vague; often presenting sections overgrown with ferns, tall grass, poison oak, and my absolute favorite STINGING NETTLE. We cautiously navigated the route and as our confidence started to fade I decided to use my GPS device to help us stay on track. To my dismay, I had  failed to upload the route correctly. Fortunately, Aaron had a topo of the area on his phone. We quickly found our way and put my lack of preparedness behind us. 

Newcomb Pass

21 miles | +6,500 ft | -1168 ft

herman-kuhn-newcomb-pass-gabrielino-trail-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

This sign really pulled through on inspiring me to give the rest of the trail a good effort. Thanks Herman.

 As we climbed south from devore, the path crossed Rincon Red Box Road before finishing off with a few switchbacks and topping out at Newcomb Pass. The 1,200 foot hustle left us winded and relieved to know that were now sure there would be no more climbing. After taking a minute to admire the plaque commemorating a deceased Forest Service Volunteer, we made for Sturtevant Camp.

sturtevant-trail-gabrielino-trail-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

We knew we were almost finished and Landing on the classic Mount Wilson loop made it real. With each passing day hiker, the vision of my car and more importantly what was inside of it became clearer. A fresh room temperature beer was anxiously waiting to be imbibed and it had its beer goggles set on me. The remainder of the climb toward Chantry Flat would be a breeze (kind of). 

Sunset on Register Ridge

register-ridge-gabrielino-trail-chantry-flat-arroyo-seco-trvrs-apparel

Yep, we ACTUALLY made it for sunset mid-Register Ridge after a near 30 mile day and some Chipotle for lunch.

I drove along the mildly congested 210 freeway while Aaron was catching up on his phone, he abruptly turned his head asked if I'd like to go climb Mount Baldy with a friend. We turned the car around and made for Manker Flat...The END.

LOGISTICS

Where we started: 898 West Altadena Drive, Altadena, CA 91001

Where we left my car: Adams Pack Station, Chantry Flat Road, Arcadia, CA


MORE INFO

Total Distance: 28.5 miles 

Total Elevation (feet): 6,500 ft +
Completion Time: 6.5 hours (running with minimal breaks)

Trail Difficulty: Easy/Moderate.
  • Steady class 1 trail.
  • Trail is well marked, but being inside of the canyons can cause difficulties navigating due to loss of direction. Bring a compass/GPS watch/do your homework.
  • Great for backpacking or long day hikes if you are ready for the mileage.
  • Mild bushwhacking near Devore campground.
 
***If you are planning to complete this hike, please be aware of your own abilities and needs. Although the the trail is well marked and water is usually not an issue, the sheer distance makes this backpacking trail a toughie for the average day hiker.


RESOURCES

Gabrielino Trail (Trail Run) - GPX FILE 
Please be aware that distance, route and overall elevation gain may vary. Uploading this to Cal Topo, Google Earth & Strava, I found that there was a difference of +500 ft of vertical gain and up to 2 miles. Thats a big deal when you're dragging your knuckles across the floor.

November 07, 2017

3 comments


Cactus 2 Clouds 2 Cactus ( C2C2C )

On Thursday November 2nd 2017, I had reached out to Ultra Runners Aaron Flynn and Vincent Lopez about sharing a few miles that weekend. Southern California's late October heat wave was followed with cooler weather and some heavy anticipation. We spent a few days watching weather forecasts and leaning toward one trail or another before deciding on the infamous Cactus 2 Clouds trail. The route consisted of climbing from the desert floor of Palm Springs to the top of San Jacinto Peak and back down to the Aerial Tramway, where most people purchase a lift ticket to descend via the tram and shuttle back to their car. The Cactus 2 Clouds trail includes roughly 18 miles with 10,800 feet of vertical gain. Our plan was to complete the route and bypass the tram/shuttle entirely. A route called called "Cactus 2 Clouds 2 Cactus" (more commonly abbreviated as C2C2C) As the day approached, four other runners would join our collective and a party would be had. 

Continue Reading →

October 19, 2017

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Rae Lakes Loop (in 15 hours) - Kings Canyon National Park | TRVRS APPAREL


Video by Nate Moore of San Joaquin Running (http://www.sanjoaquinrunning.com/)

PREFACE

In February of 2017, I was faced with my second injury in 5 years of running. I attended phyical therapy (again...) and spent countless hours researching injury prevention. I moved most of my workout into the gym and acquired a new found love for yoga, mobility, and bodyweight strength training.  I was absolutely determined to get to the bottom of the cause for my failures. I learned that the difference between "running" and "training" is vast and that the key to sustainable running was more of a balancing act between everything mentioned above and more.

After a stressful and grueling last few weeks dealing with moving into a new place, I was off to Foresthills, CA to participate in the Euchre Bar Massacre 50 miler, a fatass style endurance challenge. All of six months of research and training would build up to this horrifying off trail death march in which one must navigate through dense forest and steep and unforgiving terrain for 50 miles with 20,000 feet of vertical gain. It was my idea of a dream race.

CROSSING PATHS AT ROADS END

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL

I spent my entire Friday morning packing since I had work in the evening, a shift I had mistakingly forgotten to request off and was forced to fit into the already tight schedule. I got off of work at 10:30pm and hopped in my car loaded with everything I needed to continually suffer for roughly 24 hours. Halfway to Sacramento, I started to yawn. It was only around 2:00 in the morning and I had not accounted for sleep deprivation to hit me this early. The race started in just 4 hours and I was on such a tight schedule that pulling over to rest meant I would not make it for the start time and yet, I was repeatedly falling asleep at the wheel. Although failure at completing the event was more than likely in any case, I wouldn't even get the chance to try.

...I was crushed.

The next morning I woke up in a Carl's Jr parking lot right in the middle of Nowhere, California. I stopped in to brush my teeth and use their Wifi for some quick research. The weekend would not be a complete waste of time. I got back in the car and started driving towards Kings Canyon National Park, where I had planned to car camp and wake up early Sunday to complete the Rae Lakes Loop. During the drive into the canyon, I found myself behind a large truck. A sticker on the rear window featured a red mountain goat and big black bold letters that read "Run Steep, Get High", an all too familiar slogan. 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL

As I had suspected, the truck pulled into the "Roads End" trail head parking loop, where I was headed. I parked near the permit station and noticed a sign that read "No permit necessary for day hikes" and thought 'oh, the perks of being an ultra runner'. I approached one of the guys from the truck, who I had now confirmed to be an ultra runner from his white compression leggings. His name was Deon and he told me that his group was doing the Rae Lakes Loop as well. At this point, I was already excited to shamelessly invite myself on their trek, or at least run into them throughout the event.

"What time are you guys leaving tomorrow morning?", I asked.

To  which he replied "oh, we're leaving in about 30 minutes". 

I was a little confused. It was already 2:00 in the afternoon and leaving now meant that most of the journey would take place at night. The Rae Lakes Loop is known for its endless views of prestine back country landscapes. By joining their group, I was giving up the majority of my motivation for running in the first place. Deon directed me toward the leader of the group so that he could continue to prepare for their adventure and shuffled off to the restroom.

I walked over to the truck where the alleged organizer Nate Moore was preparing supplies. After a brief introduction, I asked why the group was starting in the middle of the day. He explained that Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc 2017 Winner François D’haene was in the early stages of setting the new supported fastest known time (FKT) for the John Muir Trail, a record previously set by Darcy Piceu just a month prior (Sept. 15-17, 2017). Nate had made estimates on François' arrival within a 2 hour window.

At this point, I caught the vibe of the group and decided that if they felt comfortable crashing a pro athletes speed record attempt, then I didn't feel bad for crashing their 'crashing party'. I would commit to running through the night with three strangers, for one of the longest endurance challenges I had ever attempted...and we were leaving in now less than 20 minutes. 

BUBBS CREEK

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL
We started out for the trail at 2:30 PM. The intention was to climb up to Glen Pass via the Bubbs Creek Trail and knock out the steep stuff, then coast down the Woods Creek Trail. The path was defined and water never left earshot for more than five minutes. A relaxed pace brought us to the John Muir Trail junction right at dusk and the fading views of the lower canyon would be the last of the evening. Nate suggested we take a break since his estimates placed François further South and yet the drop in temperature quickly suggested otherwise. Moments after we started moving, the Salomon team had arrived. 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL

It was definitely a treat to share the trail with a professional athlete on such an arduous journey, but as François and his team passed, our compliments and cheerfulness were met with mostly silence. We followed them for an entire mile before reaching the Bullfrog Lake trail junction where a pop up aid station awaited the French masochist and within 15 minutes, our attempts at conversation were finally met with a plea for silence so that François could nap.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL

After refilling on water in a nearby creek, we made for Glen Pass (11,978 feet), the highest point of elevation for our journey and although we weren't able to take in any sweeping views of the surrounding Lake basins, the Milky Way was clearly visible in the night sky and at mile 17, it was all downhill from here.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL

PARADISE VALLEY, THEY SAID

I won't get into the details of the continued full mountain marathon we were still in for, but just know that there was a good balance between guessing who farted and asking if we were there yet. By 5:00 AM, we had descended what felt like 100,000 inconsistently sized granite stairs. Our quads were toast and the only thing that kept us from becoming hypothermic while wearing short shorts in now 30 degree weather was to keep pounding out a steady pace. 

Nate and I finally arrived at Roads End at 5:30 AM while Deon and Sal rolled up shortly after. A celebratory beer was the plan, but none of us could stand the cold and mostly just wanted to leave immediately. After a quick goodbye, I parked my car just down the road and fell asleep in the drivers seat.

Overall, I had a blast turning a miserable experience of DNS-ing (DID NOT START) at a race I had spent six months preparing for, into a whimsical adventure with some new friends; a memory  I will absolutely never forget. 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon - Rae lakes Loop | TRVRS APPAREL

MORE INFO

Distance : 41.6 miles

Elevation gain (counter-clockwise) : 8,750 feet

Trail Difficulty: Easy
  • Class 1 marked trail for the entire route.
  • Trail includes several creek crossings, and I swear I smelled poodle dog bush but no reactions.
  • I mean...I dunno, do you plan on doing this in less than a day?...Then yes, it will be hard.

RESOURCES

Rae Lakes Loop via Road's End Trail (counter-clockwise) - GPX FILE DOWNLOAD

If you didn't already check out San Joaquin Running, check out their site for some great ultra marathon events and don't forget to subscribe to  the youtube channel after you watch their Rae Lakes Loop video.

 

August 05, 2017

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Sespe Hot Spring via Piedra Blanca Trail

OVERVIEW

Sespe Hot Spring Los Padres National Forest - OVERVIEW | TRVRS APPAREL

Los Padres National Forest Piedra Blanca Trail - Sespe Hot Spring | TRVRS APPAREL

Located Deep within the Los Padres National Forest, nestled in one of Sespe Creek's northern reaching canyons, lies a nearly one mile stretch of what is said to be one of the hottest natural hot springs in Southern California. Sespe Hot Springs at its source produces water upwards of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Its heat can be felt in the stream all the way through the foot of the canyon and the floor of the campsites that dot the trail are substantially warmer than sites located near the Sespe River Trail. The beauty behind this hidden gem falls not only on the quality of its real estate, but in the fact that it lies over 15 miles away from civilization as this entire section of the Sespe River is protected under its designation as a National Wild and Scenic River. Its flow is completely uninterrupted by dams or concrete channels.

However, laying in one of Sespe Hot Spring's natural pools requires quite a bit of commitment; 15 miles and over 2,000 feet to be exact. Besides the distance, its trail includes ten river crossing and is nonexistent for up to an entire mile after recent storm conditions flooded portions of the trail. Its also dotted with poison oak, rattlesnakes (in the warmer months) and fallen trees toward the second half. For most, backpacking to the springs in a day is almost completely out of the question. And so, on April 17th we set out to do exactly that. 

ITINERARY

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - PIEDRA BLANCA TRAIL | TRVRS APPAREL

Although the Sespe River flows year around, the water levels can diminish during the Fall due to intense summer heat while Winter storms often leave the creek completely impassable. For the most part, the segments of the Sespe River Trail that aren't obvious paths are well marked with cairns, but bringing a map is crucial to any successful outing and here, the trail seems to diminish due to both recent flood conditions and its lack human contact.  It is absolutely necessary to check out the Forest Service website regarding road closures and trail conditions and even call the Ojai Ranger District to ask for updates before you lose cell service. 
Most would agree that staying three nights on this trail is optimal to spend ample time taking in the exquisite landscapes while minimizing fatigue. However, one of the great things the Sespe River Trail has to offer in the Spring time is seemingly limitless options for water filtration and camping. You can push to the edge of comfort knowing that another primitive site is most definitely around the corner.
The evening of Sunday April 16th was spent shuffling around the house, packing and hoping for a good nights rest so that we could get an early start on the trail. I had made some estimates on hiking time including buffers like short five minute breaks to use the restroom or filter water, but we were shooting for a 25 minute mile average with an hour of stopping time to account for the rest. 

THE SESPE RIVER TRAIL

Piedra Blanca trail head | Elevation 3,069 feet

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - PIEDRA BLANCA TRIAL | TRVRS APPAREL

Monday April 17th -- 8:30AM. I was awoken by the soothing sound of my 2004 Nissan Xterra being driven over small pothole, a jerky rattle similar to that of a tool chest being dropped from a second story window. I sat up and was treated to endless clusters of sandstone and chaparral unique to the Los Padres National Forest. We were coming down the last stretch of Rose Valley Road (Forest Route 6N31) where we would soon pass the Middle Lion Campground junction before the final descent into the Sespe Creek Canyon. 
The parking area was almost completely empty with the exception of two gorged trash cans which indicated the weekend rush that we just missed. We grabbed our packs and made for the trail head which is obscurely located to the east of the the parking lot. The conditions were perfect. Billowing clouds rolled in from the west offering shade while hints of blue sky relieved us from any fear of weather.
There are 11 notable river crossings throughout the canyon and three of them exist within the first mile. We prayed that the first two were easy to manage since our last attempt at reaching the Hot Springs only one month prior to this trip was just after a thunderstorm which made the water levels chest deep and forced us to turn back. The first bed was only a foot and a half at base level, and we plowed joyously through. Although many of the the crossings feature some sort of obvious rock path to avoid wet feet, a lot of them do not and the first is no exception.  We prepared by bringing light weight trail runners in favor of traditional hiking boots since they would dry faster and help us to avoid blisters. Within a half a mile, we had come to the Piedra Blanca trail junction. We shifted right following the River toward Bear Creek trail camp.

ONTO BEAR CREEK TRAIL CAMP

Bear Creek Campground | Elevation 2,812 feet

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - PIEDRA BLANCA TRAIL | TRVRS APPAREL 
The trail was easy to navigate, being as wide as 10 feet in some sections and featured a slow and steady descent. The most difficult part here was resisting the urge to tear off our clothes and jump into the many swimming holes the river bed had to offer. We strapped on some horse blinders and managed a strong pace, eating and adjusting our packs as we walked. 
By 10:20 AM, we had completed 4.5 miles and a most of our homemade turkey club wraps. We could have easily bypassed the gorgeous Bear Creek Trail Camp by staying to the left most trail, but its shaded sites and sandy beaches are always worth investigating. We spent all of two minutes admiring its comforts before strolling further East.

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - WILD FLOWERS | TRVRS APPAREL

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - WILDFLOWERS | TRVRS APPAREL

Just passed the camp, the path crosses the channel for the fourth time and although the trail appears to continue east after crossing, it instead shifts south-west to climb a quick switchback, bringing you above the floodplain where it remains for another mile before crossing the river yet again. We filtered some water and made way for the creek bed. This one is probably the longest creek junction, spanning at nearly 50 feet of shallow water. Once we made it across, we were greeted with an array of wild flowers including Notch-Leaf Phacelia and Bristly Fiddleneck. Their miniature purple and gold buds contrasted each other wonderfully making for a great visual experience.

ROLLING HILLS & OAK FLAT CAMPGROUND

Oak Flat Campground | Elevation 2,600 feet

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - PIEDRA BLANCA TRAIL | TRVRS APPAREL

After a mostly steady descent for nearly 6 miles, the trail begins to move away from the creek, climbing the northern hillside. At the top, we were rewarded with some spectacular overhead views of Oak Flat Campground and another descent. This 'rolling hill' fashion would continue for the remainder of our trek toward Willet (mile 9.5) for a total of five climbs ranging from 100-200 feet which can be a pleasant change of scenery or an exhausting challenge, perspective dependent. 

WILLET & THACHER CAMP

Willet Camp | Elevation 2,520 feet

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest | TRVRS APPAREL

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - Willet Campground Ruins | TRVRS APPAREL

12:40 PM -- We started descending the last of the rolling hills after nearly 4 hours of determined motion and although the early morning blessed us with cloudy weather, the afternoon brought on clear skies and just a little more sunshine than we needed. We continued along the hillside staying west of the creek passing the many sites of Thacher Camp since the year before, we had spent the night there and were under the impression that the trail to Sespe Hot Spring continued on this side of the Creek. I even went as far as confirming the route with two other skeptical backpackers along the way. Within minutes of passing the Willet Hot Spring junction and a few old rustic metal shack ruins, the trail began to disappear and I knew I had done something wrong. I pulled out my map and was able to determine that we should have crossed the creek near Thacher Campground and avoided Willet altogether. We shuffled through the bush, where we quickly found a washed out trail.

***If you are wondering why we didn't just drop our packs and head for Willet Hot Spring to call it a day, its because Willet Hot Spring is a algae ridden, murky man made pool with smelly luke warm water. Plus we had already done that last year guys, c'mon!

DIFFICULTIES UP TO HARTMAN CAMP

Hartman Camp | Elevation 2,489 feet

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - HARTMAN CAMP CAIRN | TRVRS APPAREL

The humbling experience of falling off track was cause to halt our hiking trivia game and focus on navigating, especially since the prior months storms had mostly washed away portions of the trail leaving nothing but muddy foot prints flanked with poison oak. At mile 10.5, we crossed the creek yet again which brought us to Hartman Camp. The cool water soothed our aching feet while trail cairns and a wide open path brought us some much needed comfort after our previous difficulties. We were now just over a third of the way to the hot springs and a victory glass of wine.

Coltrell Flat

Coltrell Flat Campground | Elevation 2,312 feet

At 2:20 PM we had traveled 12.3 miles, climbed 1,300 feet, descended just under 2,000 feet and crossed Sespe Creek nine times in total. Our heavy packs were no longer a burden since our shoulders and hips were mostly numb. We were in autopilot. Our eyes followed the dirt path as it parted the lush grassy hillside ahead. This would be the biggest climb yet, but we were up for it. We knew were close.

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest | TRVRS APPAREL

We marched onward and as we reached the top, a progressively strong breeze set off what seemed like a choreographed waltz in the meadow that surrounded us. The views from the top of this hill were some of the best our trek had to offer and the majority of mile 13 would consist of a barely visible trail between a pasture of tall grass with Coltrell Flat somewhere in the center. It looked like something out of the Land Before Time.

The Johnston Ridge Trail

Poplar Creek Canyon Junction | Elevation 2,365 feet

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - HOT SPRING SIGN | TRVRS APPAREL

As we made another short ascent, we reached an intersection (mile 14) with a sign that read  'HOT SPRING'; the arrow pointed north. The reassurance that we had almost arrived to our destination was welcomed and after taking a quick photo, we made moves away from Sespe Creek and onto the Johnston Ridge Trail which followed Poplar Creek. Just half a mile later, We had reached the ironically titled Cold Water Fork and as the trail crossed over the now negligible creek, I decided to stick my hand in the water. It was warm. 

The Sespe Hot Springs Trail

Sespe Hot  Spring Trail Junction | Elevation 2,643 feet

Sespe Hot Spring Canyon - Los Padres National Forest | TRVRS APPAREL

 

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest | TRVRS APPAREL

At mile 15, we had reached another Fork and the final creek crossing. It was here that our prior research had indicated the Johnston Ridge trail would continue to climb out of the canyon (an adventure we had hoped try out another time) while the Sespe Hot Spring Trail would follow the eastern side of this ridge. However looking around, we could see some really nice camp sites. We followed the trail through some surprisingly dense bush and popped out in a wide open canyon. A group of palm trees stood out in the distance and I knew we had reached our oasis.

CAMPING NEAR SESPE HOT SPRINGS

Sespe hot Springs Camp Site | Elevation 2,700 feet

Sespe Hot Spring Los Padres National Forest - CAMPSITE | TRVRS APPAREL

We had made it to the Springs at 4 o'clock PM where saw a couple of backpackers nestled under the Palm Trees in what looked like the best site available.  We introduced ourselves and found out that Joey and Spencer were locals who had been there dozens of times. They noted that the only filterable water was just a quarter mile upstream and was much cooler than its sulfur instilled counterpart. We thanked them for the information and finally parked our gear just 200 feet south of their location near the water.  We set up our tent and sat inside to avoid the bugs and the heat,  but we were completely exposed and the sun would not go down for another hour.
Moments later, my girlfriend noted that a bug was inside of the tent. At first I dismissed the remark as I scrolled through photos we had taken during the day but when she called for my attention again, I turned to see a massive tick crawling on the tent floor. I looked around for something to smash it with but its exoskeleton seemed to be impervious. I ended up having to wrap it with a bandana and twist it like I was trying to ring out moisture. After three attempts, it finally stopped moving and I threw it out of the tent only to see a black widow climbing onto our tent fly, which I quickly flicked off. There we sat; dirty, hot, and confined. It was a freaking paradise. 

Sespe Hot Spring Los Padres National Forest | TRVRS APPAREL

After enjoying a well deserved dinner, we decided to take our wine down stream to see if we could find cooler pools since we could only stand the intense heat of the ones near our tent for moments at a time. We found a small pool with two strange looking men wearing nothing but bath robes. We said hi and kept our distance. Within minutes, the awkward silence was broken by one of the men. He asked us what we were drinking and offered to share his plastic bottle of rum with us. We kindly refused and left shortly after.

FINDING A GOOD POOL 

The next morning we decided to follow the stream even further down. We were determined on finding a comfortable pool with some privacy. The route was a little tricky, and we often needed to negotiate fallen brush, but within a quarter of a mile, we had found an 8 foot pool with about 2 feet of depth. The temperature was perfect and there were no strange dudes in sight! We very quickly realized that this pool was closer to the Fork we had passed before, which featured a few shaded camp sites as well as opportunity for hammock. We agreed that if we ever came back, it would be to camp there. 
After an hour, we decided to return to camp and pack so that we could spend the rest of our morning drinking coffee at our new resort before high tailing it out of there. We returned to a slight sprinkle and the warm creek water below perfectly contrasted the cool moisture from above.

GETTING BACK HOME

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - Johnston Ridge Trail | TRVRS APPAREL

Within minutes of setting out, the light drizzle became showers and we nervously adjusted our layers. I knew that we weren't expecting a down pour so flooding was out of the picture, but if the moisture lasted for the extent of our hike back, we would probably be uncomfortable and in low spirits. The showers stopped shortly after we made it back to Sespe Creek and we were left with the scent of fresh rain and vibrant cloud work.
There was really no destination or deadline since we had planned on spending one more night in the wild and empty campsites riddled the trail. However trekking back to Bear Creek Trail Camp seemed ideal, so that the last push for the trail head would be short and sweet. Plus, Joey and Spencer had said that they were going to spend the night there and they seemed like good company.

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - BUTTERFLY | TRVRS APPAREL

At around 3 o'clock PM, we had reached Bear Creek where we saw our friends. We spent the evening laughing over an imaginary campfire with a few drinks and the following morning we decided to hike out together. They schooled us on a number of other great adventures in and around the Los Padres National Forest and by the time we had made it to the cars, we were ready for more.  

Sespe River Trail Los Padres National Forest - GROUP PHOTO | TRVRS APPAREL

 

MORE INFO

Distance (from trail head to hot spring) : 15.6 miles

Commulative Distance (out-and-back) : 31 miles

Elevation gain (to hot springs): 2,142 feet

Total Elevation gain : 4,797 feet

Trail Difficulty: Hard.
  • Class 1 marked trail for most of the route
  • Trail includes 10 creek crossings, rattle snakes, and poison oak.
  • The only real difficulty is the sheer mileage from trail head to the hot springs, but its worth it!
 

RESOURCES

Sespe Hot Spring via Piedra Blanca Trail (April 2017) - GPX

Please read the trip report as we fall off track shortly after Willet Camp. That is good information to know!

Mount Sill via North Fork Big Pine Creek (Spring Ascent)

Mount Sill & Sierra Crest via Palisade Glacier North Fork Big Pine Lakes | TRVRS APPAREL

Photo by Victor Jara (@victorbandana)

Mount Sill via Big Pine Lakes North Fork - OVERVIEW | TRVRS APPAREL

OVERVIEW

Deep within the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, bordering the Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, lies a group of steep and rugged mountains known as the Palisades and climbing them can present some notable mountaineering challenges. Mount Sill is no exception.  Its 14,153 foot peak soars over Big Pines Lakes and the the Palisade Glacier to the north east while all of Kings Canyon can be seen to the west. The views from its summit have been described as some of the best in the Sierra range most likely due to it being located on a sharp turning portion of the Sierra Crest. On June 11th, 2017, I had the pleasure of climbing Mount Sill in winter conditions and witnessed only a fraction of its grandeur as lingering storm clouds swallowed the mountain whole just before I made the summit, creating a complete white out. The conditions, however limiting in visibility, only amplified my overall presence during the climb making it an unforgettable experience. 
 

ITINERARY 

For about a month and a half before this trip, we had planned to climb Split Mountain's St. Jean Couloir. As the date arrived, we had reached out to a few other climbers whose efforts to summit were thwarted by poor snow conditions caused by warm weather. Our group discussed other options until our very own Victor Jara was able to speak to a Ranger, confirming our suspicions that Split Mountain should probably be avoided. We were able to snag a few last minute backpacking permits for Big Pine Lakes North Fork, where we knew that trekking in just six miles would allow us to assess conditions for climbing either Sill, Cloudripper, or Temple Crag the following day. We were essentially playing the entire trip by ear.

UPPER SAGE FLAT CAMPGROUND

David and I had arrived at 11:30 PM on Friday to a quiet campsite. Although it was apparent from the warm ash in the fire pit that Victor (who had driven up separately) had only recently gone to sleep. We knocked back a couple of night caps and followed suit. The morning was spent speculating on trail conditions and packing in leisure since we knew we were just a few miles from the trail head and our entire day would only consist of trekking six or so miles by foot. We even opted to pay an additional $5 for overnight parking near Glacier Lodge instead of taking the Logging Flat Trail, which starts at a separate free parking area and includes an additional 3/4 of a mile and 200 feet of gain over exposed dirt trail. We weren't missing much.

BIG PINE CREEK TRAIL HEAD

Glacier Lodge Road | Elevation 7,832 Feet

Glacier Lodge Road Big Pine Lakes - Bridge | TRVRS APPAREL

June 10th, 2017 -- By 9:53 AM we'd begun hiking on the Glacier Lodge Road which runs parallel to and eventually meets up with the Big Pine Creek trail. Within a quarter of a mile, we had come to a bridge that runs over the cascading waters of North Fork Big Pine Creek. The gushing water left us in awe, and yet the feeling followed with a mental image of the slushy slopes to come. After crossing the bridge there is a junction that separates the North and South Fork at which point we kept right toward a bunch of switchbacks following the creek and crossed another foot bridge over First Falls. The trail continues north west in a partially shaded dirt road. It eventually moves away from the creek and onto the northern slope blanketed in chaparral for a long switchback through the exposed hillside. A four way intersection follows which brings all of the previously described trails together, while the sound of the running water will once again pull you in the north west direction of finally entering the John Muir Wilderness. 

LON CHANEY'S CABIN

Lon Chaney's Cabin - North Fork Big Pine Lakes | TRVRS APPAREL
At roughly mile two, we passed the wooden John Muir Wilderness sign, but not before giddily taking out our cameras for a quick touristy photo shoot. If you are impressed by the beginning of the trail, everything past this sign is like stepping into another world completely. The hints of Aspen and Jeffrey Pine that preceded were now flourishing. Small spillways of water trickled from one side of the trail to the other, continually feeding the stream with fresh snow melt. At mile three, we had come to a large Forest Service cabin that once served as Hollywood Celebrity Lon Chaney's summer home and was designed by Architect Paul Revere Williams in 1929. Although, at first glance you'd probably have never guessed it to be nearly a century old building. The cabin served as a perfect opportunity for a break, and we spent nearly thirty minutes relaxing under the shade of its massive patio to watch the stream. 

CAMPING AT THIRD LAKE

View of Temple Crag via Third Lake - North Fork Big Pine Lakes | TRVRS APPAREL

Photo by David Richard (@drpeak2peek)


After briefly discussing potential group campsites over a map, we started moving toward our final destination for the day. I decided that it would be a good idea to try and pass a few more hikers on the way up to lock down a good site for our group. From this point on, the trail is much more straight forward, having only one marked trail junction (mile 4.5, 9985 feet elevation) prior to reaching first lake. This junction serves as an alternate route to Black lake, but even backpackers heading in that direction are better off hiking the main trail to enjoy the remarkable views of vibrant glaciated Lake water surrounded by beautifully forested landscapes and Temple Crag's monumental northern face as its centerpiece. 
I pressed on toward the subsequent Lakes, at first focused on the goal of reaching camp. With each clearing in the trees came a hypnotizing view of my surroundings. My pace progressively slowed and soon, what was a march of intent became a casual stroll through the woods. After wandering an entire mile further I was granted another lakeside view of Temple Crag and suddenly my relaxing walk had come to a perplexing halt. The lakes were so close together that I had completely lost track of which one I was passing. Within a few minutes, a day hiker was able to confirm my location as Third Lake and I parked up against a comfy rock to relax. 
Victor had arrived shortly after and to my surprised, David had slipped passed me hiking up half a mile further before turning back. I felt much better knowing that I wasn't the only one experiencing difficulties navigating and even more so when Victor reminded me of the Cannabis infused chocolate covered espresso beans we had eaten back at the cabin. We left our packs near the trail and started looking for a good place to make camp. Strong winds were expected throughout the following day and everything we were looking at was exposed. We eventually settled on one because of its proximity to a snowy mound that we could use to keep our beer cold. It was perfect. We enjoyed some dinner and decided to call it an early night since we had a 3 AM wake up call. Our goal was to start early enough for the snow pack to be firm throughout our climb. 
At 3 AM, after spending most of my night laying awake listening to the incessant flapping of my tent fly, I rolled over and fell back to sleep. Two hours later, I forced myself into my gear and out of my tent to check on the others only to find that they had slept poorly as well. The winds followed me back to my tent where I again fell back asleep in full gear to wait out the cold. This was not going well. 

REACHING THE PALISADE GLACIER

Sam Mack Approach via North Fork Big Pine Lakes | TRVRS APPAREL

Finally at 7:25 AM, the winds died and we started for Sam Mack Meadow, a gorgeous grassy glacier spillway nestled below Sam Mack Lake. Just under a mile from camp, we came to another seemingly impassable river crossing and followed the creek further north to get across. In late summer and fall, a series of switchbacks bring you up to the meadow where the trail to the Palisade Glacier continues up the Southern moraine. In our case, the entire slope was covered in hard packed snow. I took the direct path where I was presented with a steep 60% graded slope while David and Victor opted for the traditional route in order to check out the meadow.

Collectives Lakes via the Palisade Glacier Approach | TRVRS APPAREL

We met up at the top of the ridge where behind us was an overhead view of the collective lakes, a perspective that emphasized the historical glacial activity in this region. Looking ahead, we were finally able to see Mount Gailey, Sill and other portions of the Sierra Crest peaking out from above the glacier's terminal moraine. We discussed taking a long break at the Palisade Glacier to relax and possibly call it a day if the conditions up to Sill looked rough. After walking a bit further I noticed a hiker coming toward us and yelled, "Guys! BETA!" 

A Snowy Slope Approaching Palisade Glacier - Big Pine Lakes | TRVRS APPAREL

Approaching the climber, I noticed he was wielding two technical ice axes and wearing a climbing harness; attached was a Trad Rack. I asked where he had been. His intention was to climb Mount Sill and check out conditions to traverse the ridge to Polemonium to the west with two others, except one had fallen and dislocated his shoulder on the steep ascent to Glacier Notch. He asked us if we had any medical experience and we shook our heads. The others descended toward us and it was very obvious which one had fallen. The rest of the groups day would consist of a long slow walk back to the trail head while splitting their gear between two.

Glacier Notch & Mount Sill's North Couloir via the Palisade Glacier | TRVRS APPAREL

Photo by David Richard (@drpeak2peek)

Before they walked away, I asked the climber if he thought we could make it to the Peak. He said the snow was rock hard on the way up and he barely had any use for his ice axe, but that on the way back it started to soften up suggesting that it was possible and the conditions were likely getting better. It was at this point that any tip-toeing around the idea of not making summit completely left my mind. I was going for it.

GLACIER NOTCH

Victor jumped up ahead and began the descent toward the Glacier. All I could think of was how much time and effort that would add to a climb in which I had no idea what to expect. I turned toward David and told him that I would follow the tracks that traversed along the bowl and ascend toward Glacier Notch. We both knew that my knowledge of the route was limited, so turning back at that point was pretty likely. We parted ways and my pace immediately quickened. The thought of my climbing partners waiting on and even worrying about me was not one I had intended to instill. 

Glacier Notch Approach via Palisade Glacier - Mount Sill | TRVRS APPAREL

I moved south across the bowl before coming to another 50 degree graded chute straight up to Glacier Notch. After only three steps, I was completely out of breath. The elevation was getting to me and this stop-and-go trend would persists throughout the rest of the ascent. Just fifty feet from the notch was a slew of large boulders to my left and after a 500 foot ascent of pure ice in new mountaineering boots, my feet welcomed the opportunity for a good rock scramble.

Top of Glacier Notch w/ North Couloir (left) - Mount Sill | TRVRS APPAREL
View from Mount Sill's North Couloir - North Fork, Mount Gayley, Contact Pass | TRVRS APPAREL

I had reached the notch by 11:30 AM after climbing 3200 feet in just over 3 miles from camp. I could see the ridge to Mount Gayley and the upper lakes of South Fork Big Pine Creek. Thick clouds hovered over the Sierra Crest to the West taunting me with the chance of white out conditions while the tracks I had been following before had started to disappear. Mount Sill's North Couloir hid eloquently behind the ridge to Apex Peak. I moved toward the base of the chute where I was faced with another 300 foot climb in about 1/5th of a mile. This was definitely the steepest snow ascent I had ever made, but I realized very quickly that there were no rocks or cliff faces below, so losing my footing really only meant that I would have to climb more. I was mostly just happy that I didn't need to deal with the talus field that likely existed under all the snow.

SILL-APEX NOTCH

Mount Sill / Apex Peak Saddle - North Couloir | TRVRS APPAREL

By 12:10 PM I had made it to another Notch where the view of the Sierra Crest was starting to dwindle. I noticed a small spur called Apex Peak to the right, but I had no idea that it was named at the time. Strong gusts of wind and the incoming clouds pressed my focus back toward Sill. I peaked over the saddle to see a fairly exposed ledge followed by some Class 3 boulder scrambling; in the center was a cairn. I traced the best potential route and made way across the upper portion of the ledges. From the end of the ledges, I continued directly up the ridge through some solid Class 3 granite. At about 13950 feet, I finally decided to remove my crampons making note of the sawtooth rock they were near. The gusts were more and more frequent, and it started to snow, but I was so god damn close.

MOUNT SILL SUMMIT

Mount Sill Summit via North Couloir | TRVRS APPAREL

At 1:00 PM, the Class 3 ridge gave way and I knew I had finally made summit. I looked around for the register and found it nestled between two medium sized boulders. While examining it, I realized that I was now in a complete white out with maybe 30 feet of visibility. I lost all interest in sticking around and started back down the ridge. I would have to come back and see those gorgeous views R.J. Secor promised me another time. 

GETTING HOME

After descending roughly 100 feet, I started looking for the nearest saw tooth granite slab to pick up my crampons and didn't see them anywhere. I immediately started to question the idea of placing them on the rocks instead of packing them. I tried to retrace my steps and within a few moments (that felt like an eternity), an opening in the clouds presented the top of the Palisade glacier off in the distance allowing me to orient myself. I was climbing down the wrong side of the mountain. 

Northern Slope of Temple Crag from Palisade Glacier | TRVRS APPAREL

I traversed across to the next ridge and found my crampons near a similar looking saw tooth slab. As I finished attaching them to my boots, the wind whipped across my face. "Alright, I'm movin'. I get it!", I said aloud. I shuffled down the ridge and back to the notch. Getting down to the snow was such a relief. I had three major sections to descend, all of which consisted of steep hard snow. Of the three miles back to camp, I managed to glissade and self arrest for for about half that distance. I learned that a 250 foot sustained self arrest is almost as difficult as running down a snowy slope and twice as stressful. 

Snowy Slope Below Temple Crag from Third Lake | TRVRS APPAREL

Descending the long snow field below Temple Crag placed me on the South side of Third Lake. I took a few minutes to change my layers for the twentieth time and made for the highest point on the hill to get a visual on a potential route where I found a few cairns. 

View of Palisade Glacier Moraine & Sierra Crest via Third Lake | TRVRS APPAREL

As I crossed the creek, there was a break in the clouds. Calmly falling snowflakes filtered the view of Third lake and the forested slope above while I could hear the muffled sound of rushing water underneath the ice. Back at camp, David and Victor were packing. I told them about my adventure and they congratulated me with the last remaining beer David had packed.

MORE INFO

Total Distance (from trail head to summit) : 9.5 miles

Total Elevation (feet): 7,117 feet 

Trail Difficulty: Hard.
  • Class 1-2 marked trial for first 8 miles up to Palisade Glacier in the Summer (little to no snow). 
  • Steep class 2-3  talus and rock scrambling for everything up to 13,750 feet.
  • Class 3-4 solid granite rock scrambling to Mount Sill summit (final 500 feet)
 
***If you are planning to complete this hike, please be aware of your own abilities and needs. There is plenty of water from the trailhead all the way up to the Glacier, after which point, any sort of life besides the occasional Marmot is nonexistent. 

RESOURCES

Mount Sill via North Couloir (mostly traditional route) - GPX FILE 
Tammy Luther and Roberto Chavez - summer ascent. The GPX file provided includes an alternate route that travels through Sam Mack Meadow and climbs a gully toward the Palisade Glacier instead of using the switchbacks to the left at roughly mile 7. Everything else is pretty typical route.

Mount Sill via North Couloir (personal account) - GPX FILE
Ricardo Soria Jr. (writer) - Spring ascent following heavy snow season. The GPX file provided includes several routes in which snow, ice axe & crampons are required. 

November 21, 2016

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South Hawkins Ridge Traverse

Video by Jeremy Boggs (instagram: @Adventurela)

Overview

Angeles Forest Overview - South Mount Hawkins Ridge Traverse | TRVRS APPAREL
Overview of the Angeles National Forest's Sheep Mountain Wilderness - South Mount Hawkins Ridge Traverse via Rattlesnake Peak (Shoemaker Canyon Road)

In the middle of the Angeles Forest and the San Gabriel Mountain range, sits a 7,782 foot peak named South Mount Hawkins. The peak is most commonly accessed from its Northern Ridge via Crystal Lake's Windy Gap Trail and a small section of the Pacific Crest Trail. However, a close look at its surrounding topography reveals that this ridge continues south along the Western edge of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness to a mountain called Rattlesnake Peak (5,826 feet). Rattlesnake Peak is in itself one of the harder peaks to bag in the San Gabriel Mountains; its terrain and grade often being compared to that of Iron Mountain. The trail head can be found near Azusa Canyon's Shoemaker Canyon Road which is most famously known as the "Road to Nowhere" due to its incomplete construction. 

Rattlesnake Peak Group Photo - South Hawkins Traverse | TRVRS APPAREL
Group Photo atop Rattlesnake Peak | Photo credit: Jeremy Boggs (instagram: @Adventurela)

 

On November 13th, TRVRS Apparel held its second ever group hike in which eighteen of Southern California's strongest outdoor enthusiasts (and one bad ass dog named Rebel) set out to climb South Mount Hawkins by way of its southern ridge starting at Shoemaker Canyon Road, a trek that climbs over 7,000 feet in under eight miles including some off trail navigation, bushwhacking and Class 2 terrain with the exception of a couple of minor Class 3 moves. Its difficulty is matched only by its awe-inspiring views of the Pine Mountain Ridge, the entire East Fork, the San Gabriel Reservoir, and the beautifully forested landscapes of Crystal Lake. This write-up should serve as a guide for anyone interested in the South Hawkins Ridge Traverse as well as our account of what turned out to be an incredible experience with some amazing individuals.

Itinerary

This trek is long and difficult even besides the fact that it includes off trail terrain, so it is important to plan its completion in accordance with your groups abilities. Our original plan was to finish the 17-mile out-and-back since the weather a few weeks prior to the date had been cool and cloudy. We went on a day when the heat peaked at 86 degrees and used most of our water by the time we had reached South Hawkins. We probably could have made it back to our water cache, but we all agreed to call for someone to pick us up at Crystal lake. Had we decided to head back, we wouldn't have made it to the cars until 9 or 10 pm. However, it would not be wise to depend on that kind of thing. Instead, prepare a shuttle at your finishing point OR if you are really looking for an adventure, enjoy the ridge as a backpacking trip starting at the bottom of the canyon and using the Crystal Lake Cafe as a resupply point and its campgrounds to stay the night before descending the following day.

The Road To Nowhere

Shoemaker Canyon Road | Elevation 2300 feet

November 13th, 2016 -- 4:00 am. The original meet time was set for 5 o' clock, but the weather indicated a hotter day than originally expected. Roberto and Tammy suggested that we move it back an hour to get a head start on the sunlight. Ironically, they were the only two hikers to show up late while the rest of us waited, sleep deprived in a parking lot for their arrival. After organizing a carpool, we caravaned up Highway 39 and made it to the trail head.  We began unloading and preparing last minute provisions and at 5:20 am, we made for Rattlesnake Peak. 

The Road to Nowhere is a mostly flat fire road walk, which allowed us to socialize and warm up the legs in preparation for the real climb. Eventually, I heard a yell from the back of the pack. I had missed the turnoff for our ascent. Although the fire road continues toward a massive tunnel, the route to the peak abruptly heads east 1.5 miles from the trial head after climbing 500 feet. I rushed past a bunch of wary hikers toward the offshoot while casually reminding everyone that I knew what I was doing. 

Ascending to the South Ridge

Elevation 4043 feet

 

South Ridge of Rattlesnake Peak and adjacent Eastern Spur | TRVRS APPAREL
Jason Sudo (@sdhiker) ascending Rattlesnake Peak's South Ridge | Photo Credit: Justin Williams (@wjustin1781)

 

The moment we left the fire road was discouraging as it is mostly made of loose dirt held together by dead roots and eroding rock. This type of terrain is quickly replaced by hard packed dirt, but continues to make appearances throughout the ascent toward the South Ridge of Rattlesnake peak. After five minutes climb, the trail continues north-west, crossing a gully before rounding the spur to the left. From here it is a consistent ridge line hike all the way up to Rattlesnake Peak, climbing 3,200 feet in under 3 miles. This portion of the trail although steep is mostly easy to navigate, but the further we climbed the more I noticed that the chaparral had grown since an ascent a year earlier and shoulder level Poodle Dog Bush now dotted the last quarter mile to the peak. The seemingly rapid growth of plant life was a consequence of the Williams fire which burned 4200 acres of this area in September 2012. Still we couldn't help but admire the panoramic views of the East Fork and they were only getting better with each step.

Rattlesnake Peak

Elevation 5826 feet

8:35 am -- Our arrival to the Summit was both rewarding and shocking. Although we had potentially completed half of our climbing efforts, the heat of the day had not yet set in, only reaching around 72 degrees, and a lot of us had used more water than we expected. On top of that, South Mount Hawkins and most of its Southern Ridge were now in plain sight, which allowed the days challenge to sink in. We took a long break to regroup, enjoy some snacks, and prepare for the rest of our trek. After some brief discussion on how we should approach the descent, we eventually agreed that we would drop down just North of the summit.

 

Rattlesnake Peak Descent - South Hawkins Traverse | TRVRS APPAREL
The team negotiating the steep descent to an unnamed Saddle past Rattlesnake Peak. | Photo Credit: @Hikerfighter

 

Initially, the steep terrain was made of mostly loose dirt and grass, which alleviated any fear of taking a plunge. A safe descent only required that we lean into the hill as we dropped down, but within minutes we were facing some class 3 exposure. It didn't feel right, and upon closer inspection of our surroundings, we all agreed that we had come the wrong way.  A clear animal trail traversed the south-west side of the peak. I was able to confirm this trails usability a few days later when I came back to collect our water cache and a lost Walkie Talkie.*


* I found that backtracking about 300 yards from the peak is a landing (flat open area) with less plant life. It is here that you can round the south-west side of the summit safely and traverse the faint animal trails that lead you across the gully to the western ridge of Rattlesnake Peak. Upon my completion of this route, I actually made an arrow out of rocks with the initials "SMH" to signify both "South Mount Hawkins" and also "Shaking My head" at your decision to continue past Rattlesnake Peak.

 

Arnold's Drum

An Unofficial Peak | Elevation 5335 feet

 

South Hawkins Traverse San Gabriel Mountains - Arnolds Drum | TRVRS APPAREL
A small hill between South Mount Hawkins & Rattlesnake Peak. | Photo Credit: Arnold Levin

 

After dodging another batch of Poodle Dog bush, we began to approach the first of two saddles along the ridge and it was clear that the transformation from our traditional Angeles Forest front country to its forested high country counterpart was beginning to take shape. We planted most of our water at the saddle and made for the next 300 foot hill climb. After taking another short break at the top of the hill (5 miles, 5335 feet climbed), Erin and Sara noted that our Sweeper Arnold had deviated from the trail at the bottom of the hill and had not yet arrived. They asked him why he was not following the group to which he responded something along the lines of "theres a drum in my head and I walk to the beat of it!" before disappearing into some bushes. I tried to contact him on his Walkie Talkie, but the only response I could make out was short bursts of word fragments and silence. This made me even more nervous.

The logic of going around the small hill was good in theory, but I can think of several scenarios in which I had done this in the past only for it to backfire. We had all seen the route that he took, but the clear open trail up and over the hill was just so definite that we decided to stick with it. Finally, Arnold responded, saying that he was negotiating some steep rock walls riddled with degrading tree roots in which his only option was to friction climb across. I stood at the top of the hill with a couple others while the rest of the group began to descend to the next saddle and finally Arnold responded again saying "Hey! I'm with Tammy and the others! Whats taking you so long?" I let out an awkward combination between a sigh of relief and a chuckle before making for the Devil's Saddle. 

 

South Hawkins Ascent

Devils Saddle | Elevation 4890 feet

Ascending Hawkins Ridge from Devils Saddle | TRVRS APPAREL

Chris Johnson ascending Hawkins Ridge from Devils Saddle. | Photo credit: Danny Valadez (@mountainfiend)

 

At 10:20 am, after climbing 4,205 feet in 5.3 miles, we had reached Devils Saddle, which is no official name but I am calling it that anyway because it lies just above Devils Gulch to the east and it sounds cool. The views up to this point had made our next goal very clear. We had one more long rolling ridge to climb straight to the peak and most of it was exposed to the harsh sun. On top of that, most of the group had already begun to express concern for the amount of water they were consuming and the rest of mile 5 (3/4 of a mile) featured a little under 1,200 feet of gain making for a very slow and draining start. Eventually, the steep terrain started to level, only to be replaced by a plant I had been all to familiar with. Loose, airy Buckthorn lined the trail throughout the rest of mile 6 like an obstacle in a Spartan race. We got lucky as it was mostly avoidable, but I wouldn't want to be here in another year or two when it will likely be overgrown and tricky to navigate without becoming intimate with.

 

Hawkins Ridge Traverse San Gabriel Wilderness - Buckthorn | TRVRS APPAREL
Manuel Herrera (@trailseeeker) & Tammy Luther (@ourmillionmiles) Buckthorn overgrowth near mile 6 on Hawkins Ridge. | Photo credit: Jeremy Boggs (instagram: @Adventurela)

 

True Angeles Forest High Country

South Mount Hawkins | Elevation 7,782 feet

South Mount Hawkins Ridge Traverse - Final Section | TRVRS APPAREL

Mark Ochoa (@8a_marc) and Cisko Serrano Jr. (@hikerfighter) on Hawkins Ridge | Photo credit: Jeremy Boggs (instagram: @Adventurela)

 

After making it through most of the Buckthorn, we sat under the shade of a tree for one last regroup before our final push. Everyone was hot, tired, and ready to be finished. Phoning for a ride had now become a serious topic of conversation. Because I didn't have a phone or think that cell phone reception was an option, I got up and made for the peak. It seemed that the entire group was comfortable moving at their own rate and Jose, an experienced mountaineer and ultra runner who I had met that morning was right behind me, motivating me to continue at a strong pace. I was in autopilot when I noticed a drastic change in the environment. Sharp chaparral had been replaced by soft grass and large pine trees, and a cool breeze now cloaked the effects of the relentless California sun. I turned away from the peak to take in the view. The Pine Mountain ridge extended outward to the east, grasping for Mount Baldy who hovered over Iron mountains shoulder like an older sibling in a family photo while the San Gabriel River lay across its base. The adjacent south-west  spurs of Hawkins Ridge featured massive firebreaks that pointed toward the San Gabriel Reservoir and a little further north was a sea of blue hues made up of hundreds of peaks and canyons I couldn't name. We had entered true Angeles Forest high country. 

At 1:20 pm (8.5 miles, roughly 7,400 feet climbed), Jose and I had made it to the peak. South Mount Hawkins has quite the wide open area to explore including a small brick building, a broken down picnic bench, and a toilet which we thought may have held the summit register. It didn't. We parked up next to the building to keep an eye out for the others but immediately sprawled out to take a nap and about 45 minutes later, we heard the rest of the group start to arrive. They had used their time climbing the ridge to find us a ride from Crystal Lake, which turned an extremely difficult 7 mile off trail descent into a very easy 5 mile fire road walk. This gave us plenty of time to hang out around the peak and share a few laughs. 

A Hike for Mike

RIP Michael Powell San Gabriel Mountains | TRVRS APPAREL
Pen & Ink drawing of Michael Powell by Ricardo Soria Jr. | Photo credit: Lorena Rubio (@loreluvsu)

During the weeks of planning this hike, we had decided that it would be dedicated to the memory of Michael Powell. A man who was a strong member of the Southern California hiking community, a photographer, and a founding member of the group Hike Likers. He had passed away on October 18th while descending the Mount Whitney trail. Although a lot of us barely knew him, it was obvious in our short interactions that he was a great person and the circumstances from which he left us sent a ripple effect throughout our community bringing together hundreds of hikers to use the hash tag #hikeformike on their own memorial outings. We carried a summit register to the peak including an original pen & ink sketch of Michael and built a rock cairn for any visitors to find it. Michael made it clear that he wanted to join us on this hike the weeks before the date and we all felt like he made it up. 

 

Descending to Crystal Lake

Crystal Lake Cafe | Elevation 5830 feet

 

Crystal Lake Campground View San gabriel Mountain Wilderness | TRVRS APPAREL
Crystal Lake view from Forest Road 3N07. Photo credit: Jose Montellano (@bmxboyforever)

 

At 3:30 pm, we decided it was time to head down to Crystal Lake by way of Forest Road 3N07 which is the same one that loops around South Hawkins' Summit. Sara's father was to meet us there at 5 pm and the 5 mile trek would take us roughly an hour and a half at a steady pace. The descent offered some excellent perspectives of the Windy Gap and Mount Islip's South Ridge with Twin Peaks steep northern slope in the background. The highlight of the descent was about 2 miles in when we encountered an entire herd of Big Horn Sheep which in Southern California is a spectacle as rare and magical as a shooting star. We stood in awe until they left our view and continued on the path with smiles from ear to ear. 

We had arrived at the Crystal Lake Cafe at 5 pm just as our ride got there and started to shuttle back to Shoemaker Canyon Road. It took two hours to collect everyone's vehicles and head back to Azusa where our adventure had begun. Most of the group had called it a night after picking up their cars, but a few of us went to the Congregation Ale House to have a drink and reflect on the incredible journey we had completed. A strong group was being formed and we would share many more adventures in our local wilderness.

 

Elevation Profile

San Gabriel Mountain - South Hawkins Ridge Traverse Elevation Profile | TRVRS APPAREL

Total Distance : 13.5 miles

Total Elevation (feet): 7565 feet 

Time to completion: Our 18-person group of strong hikers finished this hike in just under 12 hours with an hour long break at the summit. Safe to say a smaller group also experienced in off trail navigation could complete this in the same time.
 
***If you are planning to complete this hike, please be aware of your own abilities and needs. There is absolutely no water on this trail and we were very LUCKY to find cell service to call for a ride. You will need 6-8 liters to do the out-and-back comfortably in the same weather.

RESOURCES

Chris Johnson's GPX via Strava App (iphone)