Hike Mount Baldy to Wrightwood – North Backbone Trail

Mount Baldy as seen from the Baldy Bowl Trail. It’s a steep climb to the “Bowl”, let alone the summit. However, the alpine scenery and bright blue skies make it entirely worth it.

Hike Mount Baldy to Wrightwood via the North Backbone Trail.  This trip takes you from south to north, traversing the San Gabriel mountains eastern high country.   The terrain is high and dry, passing amongst wind bent pines, colorful outcroppings of rock, and views in all directions while taking you through stunning alpine scenery.

Total Distance =   Approx. 12 miles one way

Initial Elevation Gain =  3,900′  the first 4 miles to Mt Baldy.   Once on the North Backbone trail, which’ll take off northward at the 10,064′ summit,  there is an initial 1,300′ of steep descent down to the first saddle.  Next there’s 900′ of climb to Dawson Peak followed by 400′ of drop to the next saddle.  Finally there’s a brief climb of 450′ to the gentle summit of Pine Mountain.   Now and finally, there’s a good 1,400′ drop down to the last little saddle before climbing up a couple hundred yards to the end of the North Backbone trail.   In another 1 1/2 miles of level trail walking you’ll reach the upper end of the Acorn Trail where there will be  1,600′ of drop into Wrightwood.   Over the length of this hike your total Gain will be 5,250′ and the total DROP will be 4,700′.

Map to take:  Tom Harrison’s “ANGELES High Country” map, 2018.  Nothing against map apps, I just happen to really like having a physical map as well as bringing an orienteering compass, too.

Joanie and Chris just a short distance up San Antonio Canyon from Manker Flat Campground. That’s San Antonio Falls just off to the right of my shoulder.

This last Monday, my wife and I drove around to San Antonio Canyon above Upland, from our home in Wrightwood.  I’d been thinking about hiking up Mt. Baldy from the U.S. Forest Service Manker Flat campground and had been kicking this idea around for about a week.   As some days went by,  got to thinking that it’d be really nice to just keep on hiking from Baldy’s summit to Wrightwood via the North Backbone trail.  Easy, speasy.

All of this area, including the North Backbone trail,  I had hiked years earlier, meaning in some cases,  some decades ago…    It all seemed so easy in my head and being that it was only going to be a day hike, there wouldn’t be a heavy pack to lug up and down the ridge tops.   That’s it, a cinch!  I’m now pushing 59 years and still hiking, yet there’s no denying that the hikes take a wee bit longer and the recovery the day after is longer .  Yeah.  Well, as things turned out,  we got started a bit later than planned, meaning like almost 11:00 a.m.  Nonetheless, it ended up being a great day to hike!  My wife was going to drop me off at the Manker Flat trailhead and we’d meet up later in Wrightwood.

The Sierra Club’s “Ski Hut” was built back in the 1930’s. After a couple of really steep miles, the Baldy Bowl Trail passes just beneath this beautifully maintained cabin.

I’d wanted to show Joanie San Antonio Falls, which she’d never seen before, and peer down at some of the little cabins hidden along the little creek.  This meant walking the gated fire road,  which is unfortunately paved,  up to its’ first switchback at the base of the falls.  It can be sort of hot and exposed, like it was the day we went.  Still it was worth seeing the Falls.  We said our goodbyes out under the bright blue sky and off I climbed up the fire road which had now become dirt.  It’d be some ten hours before we’d meet up, again,  on the other side of the range in Wrightwood.

View looking toward Baldy Notch from Mt. Baldy Bowl. This photo was taken just minutes after passing by the Sierra Club Ski Hut.

The turn off for the Baldy Bowl trail came up quickly on my left.  That’s where the work began.  Two things that came to mind and became readily apparent in no time at all was:  1.  How much steeper the trail was than I had remembered it and 2.  Just how big Mt. Baldy really is, no matter which way you go up it.   It’s really a tall, broad mountain, especially by Southern California standards.  Throughout the climb, despite the frequent standing up rests to slow the heart down and catch my breath,  it was absolutely beautiful looking out over rugged San Antonio canyon.  The trail climbs quickly up through oaks, mountain mahogany, manzanita and of course, shading pines and white fir.  Just before reaching the Baldy Bowl, named by early x-country skiers in the early 20th century, you pass under the Sierra Club’s ski hut.  Available to overnight stays by reservation only,  this place is meticulously maintained and obviously loved by the membership.  No one was there that day and I just kept hiking along, grateful for the icy cold stream that lay just moments ahead.  There are strips of meadow flowers hugging the stream banks both below and above the trail.  Flowers and willows crowded together along the tumbling, silver thread of water.  The section where the trail crosses through the bowl is a complex of boulders, many the size of small cabins.  It’s slow going and requires taking your time to read the trail, watching for clues as to where to meander next.   Constantly, there was this sense that I was in the Sierras, and yet,  somehow this San Gabriel mountains scenery felt, looked and even had that scent of Sierra rock and pine.   All too soon, the trail leaves the Bowl and begins to switchback up through Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines.  Soon the lodgepole pines began to make their presence and so did someone else.

A solitary Big Horn sheep on the west side of the Baldy Bowl. This is a female or commonly known as a ewe. Often elusive, these creatures are able to easily scale the steepest and loosest of high country slopes.

It had been years since seeing a bighorn sheep.  Like always, it was never my eyes that would detect these elusive creatures.  The sound of a few pebbles breaking loose from the hillside caught my attention and there she was!  A few minutes later, another ewe peered at me from behind a fallen tree.  She and her lamb were grazing on about a 45 degree slope on the edge of the Bowl.  A double gift for sure.  Occasionally I’d stop at the end of a switchback and take in the changing view of the ridge line (Devil’s Backbone)  coming in from Baldy Notch.   By now I’d reached the broad ridge top defining the west side of Baldy Bowl, the immense scale of the smooth talus slope dropping steeply off the south side of the summit had become apparent.    The trees, pretty much all lodgepole, were twisted and sculpted by the centuries of storms blowing in off the Pacific.

One of the trail signs at the summit of Mt. Baldy. There’s no lack of directional signage here, a good thing.

One thing that really caught my eye along the whole route were the really well made and maintained trail signs.  Not only are there good directional signs along the way, there are even square steel posts with reflective tape on them, often giving you a good sense of where the trail would be should it be dark or there be a mantle of snow on the ground.   This trail has really been well thought out.   Another detail that became subtly apparent after some time was the lack of litter.  My route was especially pristine and free of trash.  There’s definitely a sense of stewardship going on up here.  I hadn’t brought a watch, so never did determine just when I summited.  That was purposeful and there was this wonderful relief at not having to know.  Probably at least several hours had elapsed before making it to the top.  There were probably no more than a dozen people sharing the trail up to the top that day.  Really peaceful.   Found a spot near the summit marker (elev. 10,064′) to sit down on my tired haunches, looking out to the north  and down into the Fish Fork.

Here’s the monument marking the summit of one of the most popular peaks in Southern California.

While taking in the view, a fit 30 something man with a solid build and neatly cropped red beard approached, asking if he wasn’t spoiling my solitude.  Of course not!  Pull up a boulder and sit down.  Pretty soon I learned where he’d been, as his IPA cracked open and quickly vanished.  Sam had started out at the Heaton Flat trailhead way down in the East Fork before heading up to Iron Mountain, one of the most isolated and difficult peaks to reach.   From there, he worked his way across West San Antonio Ridge to the summit of West Mt. Baldy.  From here, he’d drop down to Manker Flat and find his hidden mountain bike and take that back to his car by pedaling over the Glendora Mountain Ridge Road!  That’s the caliber of company you can sometimes run into on higher peaks…   Soon I was off and heading down the North Backbone Trail toward Blue Ridge and Wrightwood beyond.  Gotta tell you, taking trekking poles was one of my best moves of the day.  The descent was extremely steep down to the first saddle north of Mt. Baldy.  Spots where I definitely would have slipped just from fatigue, were pretty easily walked down with the aid of the poles.  This is a trip where you’d be glad to have a set of them.

Here’s the view looking toward the North Backbone trail from Mt. Baldy’s summit. That’s Dawson Peak straight ahead, just off to the right of the steel sign. Pine Mountain is further out, on the left of photo. Hiking this ridge is the key to traversing the San Gabriels to Wrightwood.

The climb up to Dawson Peak went well.  There’s lots of rabbitbrush along the way.  The trail weaved in and out of the thick yellow blossoms, giving the late afternoon light a feeling of autumn.  Mountain mahogany and twisted rock outcroppings kept things interesting as well.  There was a great view down toward the Cajon Pass with commuters making their sluggish drive back toward the desert.  A freight train could be seen climbing the serpentine railroad tracks as well, tiny in comparison to the arid landscape.  All this activity was silent, visible, yes, yet no sound whatsoever.  To my left, grand scenes of the Fish Fork and Mount Baden Powell, continued to dominate my senses.  A refreshing and constant breeze out of the west kept me cooled down.  Once on top of Dawson (elev. 9,575′), I signed the summit register and continued on down a gentle descent through sun – polished plates of schist.  Talus, I suppose.  Beautiful stuff that sounded like ceramic dinner plates clunking together under my boots at times.  There were even these beautiful, hidden, forested and shaded flats just below the trail at times, spots that would make for a perfect campsite.  Untouched.  Just before reaching the saddle between Dawson and Pine Mountain, I saw the old and seemingly untrammeled Fish Fork Trail coming in from my left.

Trail junction for the seldom trod Dawson Peak Trail in the upper Fish Fork. This is the upper end of what appears on Tom Harrison’s Angeles High Country map as being the 4 1/2 mile route down to Fish Fork Campsite, probably one of the most remote places in the San Gabriels. The elevation at this spot is 9,200′.

There’s even an old graying wooden sign indicating the way down.  I’ve always wanted to follow this trail which drops down to Fish Fork trail camp, probably one of the most isolated haunts in our range.  That old feeling came back somewhat suddenly, mixed with wonder at how good things still are in the backcountry here.  Pristine.  And since it’s hard to get to, at least for me, nothing’s trashed.  A constant truth throughout the ages.  Thank God. Amen.

A section of the North Backbone trail, looking back toward Dawson Peak. The ridge line on the horizon, seen off to the right is part of the Mount Harwood / Mt. Baldy massif. This picturesque “flag” tree in the foreground is one of many found along these high country slopes and ridge tops, sculpted over the centuries from the high winds blowing in from Pacific winter storms.

Soon I was climbing yet, again.  This time it was up to Pine Mountain (9,648′).   Weaving amongst more pines and mountain mahogany,  the sun continued to drop further and further down across the mountains, casting longer and longer shadows in the gentle wind.  Up on top, the summit register of nested red cans was easily found in a cairn of rocks.   The desire to linger here awhile longer was resisted by the nagging feeling to at least get to Blue Ridge and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) before it got dark.  So, reluctantly, off I dragged my now tired self down a gentle slope amongst a thick forest of lodgepole pine.  The deepening pools of shade penetrated the forest in a way that reminded me of being a little boy, maybe six or seven, running through the giant sequoias where our family used to camp every summer in a tent cabin.  I missed people that I hadn’t thought about in awhile.  They all came back for a bit and I reveled in this.

As the sun sunk lower and lower in the west, I made my way along the top of the ridge to the north of Pine Mountain, dropping toward Blue Ridge which is visible to the right.

After a short while, the ridge top timber all but left, becoming a sharp edged knife of rock, bathed in orange golden sunlight.  Take your time here, Chris, something kept gently telling me.  I was tired and starting to get sloppy, not quite so nimble as hours earlier.  Eventually the ridge got easier and right before sun had set below the horizon, a beam of that gold light struck some dangling cones hanging from an ancient sugar pine.  This hike kept getting more and more gorgeous, nostalgic in a way.  In the graying light, I made a last little climb up to the dirt road (East Blue Ridge recreation road) to the northern terminus of the North Backbone Trail.

The gold light of early evening illuminates several sugar pine cones along the North Backbone trail. That’s the Mojave Desert in the background, while distant ranges still bask in the sunset.

I scurried up the slope behind the road, following a scratch trail that led to the PCT.  Turning left (west) and continuing at a pretty fast clip, I arrived at a spot just to the west of the large slide above Wrightwood.  The lights of homes were now twinkling in the early evening darkness.  Time to get the flashlight out.   I continued on in the dark, amongst and under the tall white fir and pines. Still no one around.  Perfect.  Here and there you could make out the silhouette of Pine Mountain to the south.   A short time later was the turn-off for the Acorn Trail, which would descend about 1,600′ feet down into upper Wrightwood.  Up here, it was possible to reach Joanie by radio, and yes, you guessed it….  Without a bit of shame, I took the ride back to our home in the little red Honda while Joanie told me about her day.  Why the hell not?  Who wants to walk on pavement I say to myself.  That ride was heaven on earth.  And so there you have it, it’s possible to walk across the highest point in the San Gabriels in a day!  The next day my thighs felt entirely spent while walking on the little stone paths around our yard.   And yet, looking back on it all, such as all good hikes,  it was definitely worth it.

 

 

Bobcat Fire Aftermath – Big Santa Anita Canyon

This photo was taken just a couple of days ago by an unnamed fire fighter and posted on Instagram. Photo was taken near Chantry Flat and is looking north up toward Sturtevant Falls. The arrow tip is in the Fern Lodge area of the main canyon, where the Upper Falls Trail and Gabrielino Trail leave the canyon bottom, continuing up and past Sturtevant Falls toward Cascade Picnic Area and Spruce Grove trail camp. It appears that much of the canyon bottom tree canopy is still intact after the Bobcat Fire !

Attached are two photos taken of Big Santa Anita Canyon in the aftermath of the Bobcat Fire.   There’s a third photo here, too.  It is of the flames dropping into the upper Big Santa Anita Canyon during the fire’s early stages of development.  The first photo was taken a couple of days ago.  Here you’re looking up the canyon from a point near the trailhead at Chantry Flats.  The second photo was taken by Larry Webster of Mt. Wilson just a day ago.  The view is from the east end of the summit looking down toward Sturtevant Camp.  Note the smoke still curling up from either the camp or adjacent to it.  It’s still too early to know what the damage actually was to the camp or the nearly eighty private cabins up and down the Big Santa Anita Canyon and Winter Creek.   Updates to follow as they come in.

This photo was taken after the fire passed through,  by Larry Webster of Mt. Wilson, CA. That’s Monrovia Peak, highest point in center horizon of photo. At the tip of arrow is Sturtevant Camp. As of this writing, it’s unknown how the camp fared in the Bobcat Fire.

This photo was taken before the Bobcat Fire reached Mt. Wilson.  Sturtevant Camp’s heliport is marked by the small red arrow.  Coincidentally, the camp itself, is located at the bottom, or start,  of the arrow’s shaft.

The Bobcat Fire dropping down into upper Big Santa Anita Canyon. At the end of the little red arrow is the heliport at Sturtevant Camp. Photo taken from Mt. Wilson by Larry Webster.

Wrightwood’s Blue Ridge Trail Hike

Joanie pauses alongside the Blue Ridge Trail to check out some dried flower stalks of grass in the fading light.

Wrightwood’s Blue Ridge Trail hike, located just three miles west of this scenic mountain village, is a good place to get some shade and maybe even a little cooler weather, this time of year.   The trail runs between Big Pines and Blue Ridge Campground, traversing richly forested mountainsides.  Total elevation gain is only 1,100′ in the two miles spent under the canopy of expansive white fir, black oaks, Jeffrey, ponderosa and sugar pine.  Starting at 6,800′ , the trailhead is located just across Highway 2 from the old Big Pines Lodge.   There’s also a U.S. Forest Service information station here, which incidentally,  is closed for the meantime due to Covid cutbacks throughout the Forest Service.   Park in the paved lot adjacent to the restrooms.  Walk down a worn trail through the brush that’ll cross the Mountain High West parking lot’s exit road.  Look for the brown painted trail sign.

Clusters of asters are found growing along much of the Blue Ridge Trail, Wrightwood, CA. Also, look for them along the Lightning Ridge Trail as well as the Pacific Crest Trail where it runs along both East and West Blue Ridge.

Halfway up the trail is, true to its’ name, the Half Way rest.  It’s a nice log bench indicating that you’re only a mile from Blue Ridge Campground and a mile from where you began.   You’ll pass by some gentle draws along the mountainside where glades of gentle green squaw currant, dogwood and willow grow lushly.  There’s the smell of moist plants and earth dropping down from these quiet places.  The terrain is gentle, especially for the San Gabriel mountains.  Take the time to breathe all this beauty in.  Return the way you came.

Hike the Dawson Saddle Trail for Cooler Temps

Late afternoon sun works its’ way through layers of smoke and cumulus clouds while the Ranch Fire burns way down below in the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon. That’s Mt. Williamson in the background, just right of center.

Hike the Dawson Saddle Trail for cooler temps and beautiful views of canyons and desert.  A few days ago, Joanie and I drove up to Dawson Saddle for a late afternoon hike.  Located approximately 13 miles west of Wrightwood, Dawson Saddle is the highest spot along the Angeles Crest Highway.  At an elevation of 7,901′ , this trailhead starts you out at about the coolest temps possible this time of year.  While the Front Country of the San Gabriel mountains smolders during the occasional heat waves of summer,  high country hikes, or walks, are well worth considering for a refreshing getaway.

Scarlet monkey flowers are in full bloom along this small unnamed stream flowing off of Mt. Burnham. The location of the photo was taken along Highway 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) just east of Dawson Saddle. In the background is a culvert running underneath and through the old rock work of the highway.

About a mile up the trail, while heading toward Throop Peak, we caught this scene of smoke and cumulus clouds out over San Gabriel Canyon.  The Ranch Fire II was still out of control a short distance up Highway 39 near Azusa.  Up above 8,000′ , the breeze coming in from the Pacific was cooling, yet tinged with the acrid scent of burning chaparral from miles away.   Our light was beginning to fade and we turned back around for the trailhead.  While driving back home, we stopped at a spot alongside the highway, where an unnamed stream flowed down the north slope of Mt. Burnham and then under the road.  Clusters of Crimson Monkey Flower and Columbine graced the stream bed.  Scooping up the icy water and splashing our faces and arms under a darkening  summer sky revived us for the twilight drive back.

Arroyo Seco’s Royal Gorge

The Arroyo Seco’s Royal Gorge is a beautifully rugged, wild and trail less portion of the well-known canyon whose headwaters begin way up at Red Box and eventually emerges from the mountains near JPL in Altadena.   This hike samples a variety of landscapes.  The route requires hours and hours to complete, best done during the warmer months when days are their longest.  We actually spent 14 hours doing this trip, allowing enough time to take it all in.  If you’re looking to experience a bit of the old San Gabriels, a time before trails and roads left their imprint on the mountains, this deep canyon’s tranquil light and scenic pools will delight.

A portion of Tom Harrison’s Angeles Front Country map depicting the hike up the Royal Gorge portion of the Arroyo Seco. Park along the Angeles Crest Highway at elevation 2,980 near the gated fire road that goes out along CCC Ridge. This is your starting point. Leave a vehicle to return to on the highway at the entrance to Switzer’s picnic area. The Royal Gorge is that super squiggly blue line. You can see where the Gabrielino Trail departs the stream (near the letter “G” in Gabrieleno. The x-country portion of the Gorge draws to a close when you intersect the Bear Canyon Trail as both it and its’ canyon namesake enter the Arroyo Seco.

Total length, one way = approx. 7 miles

Elevation loss and gain = 1,180′ initial loss from CCC Ridge to Arroyo Seco via Dark Canyon.  1,500′ of gain from confluence of Dark Canyon and Arroyo Seco  at the site of Oakwilde to Switzer’s picnic area.  

It’s highly recommended that you bring water shoes for the long slog up the stream bed of the Royal Gorge.  Also, I was glad to have brought trekking poles to help with balance in the gorge.  The rocks, even the ones underwater, often have a slime coat that’s slick as ice.  Take a dry pair of boots / shoes for the trail sections.

All that we found at the former Oakwilde C.G. site. Silt from storms that followed the Station Fire of 2009 have covered much of a remaining picnic table and Klamath stove.

WARNING:  Your only real obstacle is a low waterfall in the Gorge.  There’s a slime coating on polished granite next to handholds and footholds.  This spot is technically class #3 bouldering, however, with the slime coat, you may want to consider carrying rope and bringing a hiking partner.  

Start your hike by walking around the white pipe gate located where the CCC fire road comes out at the Angeles Crest Highway.  The hot, exposed road soon peters out and turns to single track as soon as you leave the ridge top.  The trail soon reaches the green canopy and watered bottom of Dark Canyon.  You’ll pass by some old cabin ruins with some really nice rock work that still stands.

The instigator! Bohdan Porendowsky leads us up the Gabrielino Trail. Here we’re just upstream from Oakwilde C.G. (site).

Passing by black berry bushes and under a canopy of white alder, the trail stays with the little side canyon until reaching the broad sandy wash of the Arroyo Seco’s main canyon.   While here, it’s worth poking around the site of a former U.S. Forest Service campground – Oakwilde.   Once a thriving resort from the “Great Hiking Era,” the site became a backpacking campground, which I first spent the night at back when I was twelve years old.  Not much remains now, especially after the Station Fire of 2009 and subsequent flooding and debris flows.

A narrow slot pool fringed with willows. Pristine and quiet.

From here, cross over the stream, picking up the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail.  Continue up canyon, the trail following the stream amongst willows and mammoth overhanging canyon live oaks.  You’ll find a solitary pipe frame from a picnic table that burned back in 2009.  This is the little site of Red Shangraw’s Rest Area.  Red was a U.S. Forest Service fire patrol officer who roamed much of the Angeles front country back in the late 1940’s to early 1970’s.  In a little while the Gabrielino will make a stream crossing.  It’s here where you’ll stay with the stream, allowing the Gabrielino to do it’s climb up and through the hot chaparral cloaked slopes, detouring around the Royal Gorge.

Here I am sporting Salomon water shoes. Much of the trip, especially with the good winter behind us, looks like this. Lots of wading under the high cliffs in the Royal Gorge.

Stay with the stream.  As of this writing,  the water’s nice and high.  In most cases, you’ll find it easiest to just stick to wading up the stream bed itself, avoiding the inevitable thrashing through willows and brush.    Cliffs, many a couple of hundred feet high, drop dramatically down to the twisting narrow stream.  Once you’re in, this section of the canyon has you until emerging at the sight of the Bear Canyon Trail which’ll be off to your right after miles of wading and bouldering.

Here’s the most prominent obstacle throughout the Royal Gorge. Climb up and around to the right hand side. Be very cautious of the dark slime patches exuding from cracks in the polished granite!

Bohdan and I actually ran out of light in the Royal Gorge, having to use our headlamps for nearly the last hour before tying in with the trail.  Stick with trail which’ll now take you up and along the pools of the Arroyo.  Eventually, you’ll come to the junction where folks head up to the base of Switzer Falls.  This turnoff is well signed, directing you up to the Gabrielino Trail and onto Switzer’s campground above the Falls.  At the spot where you finally meet back up with the Gabrielino, it’s a dry and exposed, quite high above the Arroyo.  Now you’re only a couple miles back up to your car.  It’s amazing how steep and cliffy the terrain downslope from the trail really is.  One misstep in a number of spots and that would be it.  Take your time, since you’ll most likely be a little tired by now.  Pass by Switzer’s C.G., continuing upstream as the canyon takes on a gentler nature.  You’ll walk along long gone stretches of a single lane road and retaining walls that nature’s reclaimed to herself as a hiking trail.  You’ll finally come to the end of your time with the Arroyo as you cross a substantial wooden footbridge at Switzer’s picnic area.  Since we’re still experiencing much of the Angeles N.F. camps and picnic areas closed due to the Corona virus pandemic, walk steeply up the paved, switchbacking road past the empty parking lots to the Angeles Crest Highway.

Photo looking back on pool below the Royal Gorge Falls. Note the large pile of driftwood on far end of pool. A testimony of our recent big winter.

After this hike, you’ll always know another part of the Arroyo Seco that many will never see.

This little frog blends in with the surrounding rock above a pool in the Royal Gorge. Quite often as we moved amongst the smooth boulders, frogs would jump off and away at the last moment.

 

 

Hike Circle Mountain, Wrightwood, CA

Hike Circle Mountain without having to leave Wrightwood!  If you live in or near Wrightwood, this local mountain is in just about everyone’s skyline on any given day.  The view along the way, not to mention at the summit, is a superb 360 degree panorama.  In less than a mile, you’ll climb about 800′ to the top.  Some parts of the trail are hard-packed sand and super steep.  It’s easy to slip, especially on the descent, so I highly recommend bringing trekking poles.

Excerpt of U.S.G.S. 7.5′ quadrangle showing the terrain from the east end of Wrightwood up to Circle Mountain. The ranger district boundary line from Lone Pine Canyon Road (BM 6,078) to the summit (6,875) is the hiking route to the top.

The route starts at a shiny white, heavy duty Forest Service fire road gate, at the crest of Lone Pine Canyon.  If you live in Wrightwood, it’s that gate on your right hand side when you reach the very top of Lone Pine Canyon Road before coming back into the village from the freeway.   You might even know the area at the fire road gate as “Helicopter Hill.”

Joanie stops to wait for me on the steep, sandy path. The summit is still a ways off.

Just walk around the gate and follow the fire road eastward for a few minutes before reaching a barricade of boulders, marking the drivable end of the world’s shortest fire road.   From here, the little sandy path drops down a little and continues along the exposed the ridge top before your climb begins in earnest.  After the initial steep climb, the trail levels out a bit before you begin the second pitch.  The Blue Cut Fire really burned off a lot of brush, including scrub oak and a number of pines.  Despite this, plants are coming back.  There are hardly any places to duck out of the bright sun, so bring a good sun hat and plenty of water.  You’ll pass by clumps of Poodle Dog Bush, recognized by its’ ragged leaf margins and pungent scent.   Also, look for Fremontia (flannel bush), chamise, yuccas and buckwheat.  The chaparral that grows here is subjected to day after day of intense sunlight.

Chris pauses by a trail cairn of “balancing rocks” on the way up Circle Mountain. The burnt thickets of branches are from the Blue Cut Fire. Scrub oaks are slowly making a come back in the scorching sun.

Here and there, as you climb, you’ll spot Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines with fire scars at their bases, yet their crowns blaze deeply green against the cobalt blue sky that only the high elevation can provide.

This view toward the southwest highlights some of the highest peaks in the eastern San Gabriels. From right to left: Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mount San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) obscured by the pine trees. That’s Lone Pine Canyon Road in the right hand foreground.
Looking back up the Swarthout Valley toward Big Pines. The eastern portion of Wrightwood is in the immediate foreground. The main road heading straight through the pine forested landscape is Highway 2, the Angeles Crest Highway.

Something to know about Circle Mountain, is that its listed on the Sierra Club’s Hundred Peaks Section “peak list.”   The list was created by Weldon Heald back in 1941.  Throughout the decades, those attempting to bag all 100 summits, make a visit to our backyard mountain.

After reaching the summit, Joanie and had our lunch in a little glade of grasses amongst a grouping of tall pines on the north side of the mountain.  From there we looked off into the hazy distance of the Mojave.  The gentle summery breeze combed through the green boughs above.  A little bit of heaven just minutes from the start.  As we descended, the treat of one of the most unique views of Wrightwood and its’ Swarthout Valley was laid out before us.  This little hike, though steep, is one worth making the time for.

Joanie Kasten signs in at the summit register. Look for a U.S. Forest Service pre-attack marker and this little cairn of rocks while up on the broad summit.

 

Western Fence lizards are out at Tin Can Point

 

This turquoise colored fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) was seen out in the warmth of early Spring at Tin Can Point. Tin Can Point is just up from Fern Lodge Junction on the Gabrielino Trail. It’s the first switchback you’d encounter after the trail passes through the canyon live oak forest and then enters the chaparral, just a few minutes up from the trail junction.

A beautiful fence lizard basks in the gentle warmth of early Spring at Tin Can Point.   See inset of the Chantry Flat – Mt. Wilson Trails map, below, to see where this point is.  As of this writing,  a cold wet pacific storm is dropping nearly six days of chilly rain and snow in much of the San Gabriel mountains.  Big Santa Anita Canyon dam has received over 5 1/2″ of rain in the last week.  Something I just learned recently about these Western Fence lizards is that their populations have the effect of reducing the incidence of Lyme’s disease in the ticks that live in the chaparral,  such as found covering much of the slopes of the Big Santa Anita Canyon!  Apparently, a protein in the lizard’s blood kills the bacterium in the tick’s gut, which is good news for hikers and even their dogs during the spring and autumn months.

Like most reptiles, Western Fence lizards hibernate, at least for a little while each winter throughout their habitats which are wide-spread throughout California.  As for food, these lizards eat spiders and various insects such as mosquitos, beetles and grasshoppers.   The females lay several small clutches of eggs (3-17) in the spring, the young emerging in the summer.

Detail of Gabrielino Trail section, Chantry Flat – Mt. Wilson Trails map.

On your next hike out from Chantry Flats, watch for for lizards flitting about on the trails and sunning themselves on the myriad stretches of rock.  As for the various types of reptiles to be found in the Big Santa Anita, Western Fence lizards are abundant and deserve a place in the sun!

source:  Wikipedia, Western Fence lizards

Douglas Wallflowers in Blossom

Here’s a Douglas Wallflower alongside the Upper Falls Trail as seen this last Monday while hiking up the Big Santa Anita Canyon under cloudy skies.   Our series of much-needed rain storms have brought back thick green grasses and the start to what’ll most likely be a colorful Spring of other wildflowers as well.  Joanie and I hiked the two mile Falling Sign Loop that originates out of Fern Lodge.

These Douglas Wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum) popped out at us just downstream from the double slot pools on the Upper Falls Trail. There’s also a nice grouping of wallflowers near the second bench up the road from Roberts’ Camp in San Olene Canyon.

Sturtevant Falls was tumbling down nicely.  The scent of white sage peppered the cool air and the background surf-like sound of the stream followed us the whole way.  We brought along an old shovel, cleaning off small slides here and there.   Wild lilacs (buck brush) are still sending their mild lavender scent into the canyon breezes while the bright red orange of Indian paintbrush pokes up from the damp earth near Hoegee’s Drop-Off.  And overarching along most of the route, the Laurel bay blossoms still cling to the dark green canopies.  Look for the tender dark reddish purple leaves of the canyon big-leaf maples as their foliage begins to fill back in for a new season.  Even the white alders are pushing out a myriad of their bright green leaflets, replacing that smokey look of dormancy with new life.

View looking east up into the East Fork of Big Santa Anita Canyon from Gabrielino Trail. Note the Toyon in the foreground, still hanging onto some of its’ red berries. That’s Rankin and Monrovia peaks in the most distant background. Clamshell Peak is barely captured on the right hand side of photo.

Hike Chantry Flat to Mt. Wilson by way of the Rim Trail

Looking east from the Rim Trail just before reaching Mt. Wilson. On the horizon, far left, can be seen Twin Peaks. Mt. Baldy is in the center distance. Big Santa Anita Canyon is below and off to the right.

Hike Chantry Flat to Mt. Wilson by way of the Rim Trail during these bright, crisp winter months.  This last weekend, I made my way up Big Santa Anita Canyon’s Upper Falls Trail from Fern Lodge Junction.  Our rain gauge has recorded nearly 12″ of rain from the two previous storms of late November through December, so lots of bracken fern beds are at their height of deep and bright greens as they perch high on their cliffy ledges above the bubbling creek.  Although we’re off to a dry start to the new year, the plants are responding to the generous rains and even snow in the higher elevations.  This is also a good time to still catch the deep orangy red of the Toyon berries in their showy clumps that still feel reminiscent of Christmas time.

Trip Details:  

Total roundtrip distance:        16.9 miles

Elevation gain / loss:                 440′ initial loss to Roberts’ Camp.  3950′ gain to Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock.

Take Gabrielino Trail up Big Santa Anita Canyon to junction below Sturtevant Camp.  Continue on toward Newcomb Pass.  From there, follow RimTrail west to Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock.  Return toChantry down Sturtevant Trail and continue back on Gabrielino to the trailhead.

Mt. Wilson as seen from the Newcomb Pass Trail (Gabrielino) about a mile and a half up from Sturtevant Camp. Some healthy looking toyon is seen here in the foreground.

So, on I went past the songs of canyon wrens, their descending, laughing tones evoking that eternal longing for Winter becoming Spring.   As always, leaving behind Sturtevant Falls, the crowds dropped off, too.   Save for an occasional small group of hikers, I saw few people between the top of the Falls and Spruce Grove Campground.  Once on the section of the Gabrielino that heads off for Newcomb Pass, there’d be no one, with the exception of squirrels, birds and gnats until reaching the top of Mt. Wilson.  Solitude.

A curious tree squirrel peers down at Newcomb Pass.

At the trail junction just below Sturtevant Camp, I peel off for Newcomb Pass and the quietness envelopes me.   The trail was a bit overgrown and more noticeably there was a fair number of trees and shrubs over the trail.  No problem,  just took my time climbing down or up and around on the dark, loamy soil with winter’s dampness.  Once out in the chaparral, on came the sunglasses and the great joy of warm winter days that only Southern California can bestow upon the mountains.   The most prominent scene that kept repeating itself was the red display of Toyon against the background of varied greens.  Pretty soon the backcountry opened itself up, first Twin Peaks, then the Mt. Baldy massif.  Snow, blue sky and chaparral all seemed to merge as I neared Newcomb Pass.

Bracken ferns along the Gabrielino Trail. Photo just up canyon from Falling Sign Junction, Big Santa Anita Canyon.

Once at Newcomb’s, I found a sunny picnic table and finished off my sandwich.  Ever since the Station Fire of 2009, the debris of cut down trees for re- establishing a firebreak has taken away the charm of the place.   Coupled with that, some hair brain scheme had taken place, erecting T-posts with orange web fencing at the bottom of the man-made swaths.  Sort of like what CalTrans might do along a highway construction site.  The old Newcomb Pass sign lay forlornly off to the side, a casualty of yet another oak that has fallen.  I got so depressed by the memory of what once was and what was now that only a few minutes elapsed before taking off on the Rim Trail.

A gentle stretch of the Rim Trail about a mile west of Newcomb Pass.

The first 1/2 mile along the Rim Trail was fraught with downed oaks, lots of them.  The tracks of those before were clearly etched in the soft, moist soil as they worked out ways to get over, under, up and around thickets of branches tangled up with thick cords of poison oak.  Aside from this, most of the going was pleasant, indeed beautiful as this area truly is.    If you love being under oaks and amongst ferns and spruce, this is a good place to be.  Also, you’re regaled with scenic views down into the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and out across to places as far west as Mt. Pacifico and eastward to Mt. Baldy and beyond.  Fire scars from the Station Fire are still seen at the base of many big cone spruce along the trail.  These are healthy scars only running a short distance up from the ground, leaving a really healthy evergreen forest.  It’s peaceful country.  Toward the top, you begin to encounter places where the trail is whittled out of rock.  Old dry stack walls, the good work of trail builders from another century, still hold the trail into the mountainside.  Eventually you make your way up and through a gentle twisting and turning through forested hillsides along the summit to the asphalt maintenance road near the Cosmic Cafe’s Pavilion.  Turn left here, following signs toward the Sturtevant Trail.  Pass by the Astronomical Museum, the Solar Camera and eventually the 100″ and 60″ telescope domes before dropping down to Echo Rock and the beginning of the Sturtevant Trail.

Here was one of the first trees that I encountered on the way up to Newcomb Pass. This spot is about a quarter mile up from Sturtevant Camp. Most of the downed trees along my hike were canyon live oaks.

Take the time to look off of Echo Rock before your descent back into the Big Santa Anita Canyon.  The view is superb and you really can get a good echo if you set your mind to it.  Yell toward the cliff straight across from you!

Get ready for a steep drop down from Echo Rock.  I’m big on trekking poles for preventing slips and saving your knees on descent.  Years ago when my wife and I ran Sturtevant Camp, we starting using the poles when we had a winter (2005) that had washed out the Chantry Road, necessitating getting to the camp by way of this very trail.    Pass by the “Halfway Rest” and on down further into the upper canyon.  This is timbered and wild country between the top and Sturtevant’s Camp.  Savor the views and more solitude.

Here’s the sign you’ll find halfway between Sturtevant Camp and Mt. Wilson’s Echo Rock. There’s 2,500′ of elevation difference between the places in only 2.8 miles!

When you pass by Sturtevant Camp and then walk across the check dam to the side of the camp, you’ll drop down to the junction where you were earlier in the day, having just completed your loop.  Head back to Chantry the way you came.

 

 

Mt. Wilson – A great place to hike the Front Country in Winter

A friend of ours gave us this vintage postcard a number of years ago. The artwork depicts a scene that may have been intended as having taken place on the east end of the summit, perhaps near Echo Rock. The image somehow seems timeless, evoking that magical pull that the San Gabriels have had on generations past and those to come.

Whichever canyon you choose, getting out on our local trails is a great way to get a good start on the new year.  I’m especially fond of the trails that make their way up to Mt. Wilson.  One route that I’ll be doing in the next couple of weeks will be to  head on up the Gabrielino Trail from Chantry Flat to Newcomb Pass.    From there, take the Rim Trail to Wilson’s summit.  Return by way of the Sturtevant Trail.

Here’s a trail scene taken just below the “Halfway Rest” The forest is healthy and vibrant here in the upper Big Santa Anita Canyon.

This is a great trip to get some good winter sun while climbing up and through the warm chaparral before getting under the oaks and pines on the north side of the Rim Trail’s watershed divide.  The stream’s flowing really nicely right now, especially with the good start to winter storms that we’ve had from Thanksgiving through Christmas.  Wrightwood, alone, has received nearly an average year’s worth of snow accumulation within about a month at the end of 2019.   So, get out and enjoy the flowing streams, the bright green fern beds and the scent of damp soils and leaves.  A word of caution, though…

The bubbling Big Santa Anita Creek near Bear Trap Canyon on the Gabrielino Trail.

Make sure to be cautious of ice in the some of the higher elevations as you approach Mt. Wilson from Newcomb Pass.  Also, while traveling back down the Sturtevant Trail, watch for an ice chute within a half mile of the summit.  This time of year, it’s a good idea to at least carry a pair of MicroSpikes or a similar traction device that you can add to your shoes.  Take your time and savor the front country of the San Gabriels in the winter.

A lady bug rests here in the sun on a white sage leaf. This photo was taken on the Upper Falls Trail, Big Santa Anita Canyon.