Category Archives: nature|weather

Say Goodbye to the Snow in the San Gabriel Mountains

Patches of snow on the PCT west of Mt. Baden-Powell

Each year around Memorial Day weekend I like to do a run that includes Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′). It’s a good time to check how much snow remains at the higher elevations of the San Gabriel Mountains. In a heavy snow season, such as 2004-2005, higher sections of trail may still be buried in snow and drifts can persist into July. In below average years, such as we experienced from 2013 to 2016, there may be little or no snow.

South Fork Trail below Islip Saddle
South Fork Trail below Islip Saddle

There are several good runs that summit Mt. Baden-Powell. If Hwy 2 is still closed between Islip Saddle and Vincent Gap, I’ll usually do an out and back from Islip Saddle to Mt. Baden-Powell. If Hwy 2 is open, then a point to point run from Inspiration Point to Islip Saddle or Eagles Roost is a good option. Today the choice was one of my favorite loops in the San Gabriels. It starts at Islip Saddle, descends to South Fork Campground, then climbs about 5000′ to the summit Mt. Baden-Powell. From Baden-Powell the route follows the Pacific Crest Trail back to Islip Saddle.

Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.

This was my third time on the PCT between Islip Saddle and Mt. Baden-Powell this Spring. The first was at the beginning of April and was more of a snow hike than a run. The micro spikes went on at 7000′, less than 0.7 mile from the Islip Saddle trailhead. The second trip was two weeks later, in mid-April. Micro spikes were still helpful in a couple of places and there was still plenty of snow on the north side of the crest. Based on other seasons with a similar amount of snow, I thought some patches of snow might last into June, or even early July. Today (May 27) only a few patches remain on Baden-Powell and along the crest, and these will soon be gone.

Manzanita Trail between South Fork Campground and Vincent Gap
Manzanita Trail between South Fork Campground and Vincent Gap

Except for being a little disappointed there wasn’t more snow, the run went well. The South Fork Trail was rocky and rough — as usual. The Manzanita Trail, which connects South Fork Campground to Vincent Gap, has seen a lot of work in recent years and is in relatively good shape. Even the gnats weren’t bad. I saw no one on the South Fork and Manzanita Trails. As might be expected on a Saturday on Memorial Day Weekend, there were “a few” hikers, thru-hikers and runners on the PCT.

The South Fork Trail is part of a long and little-used “official” PCT detour around the mountain yellow-legged frog closure at Eagles Roost. Based on the number of thru-hikers I see on Hwy 2, most opt to hike the 2.7 road miles between Eagles Roost and Buckhorn Campground and then descend the Burkhart Trail to the PCT. It’s been more than 11 years since the initial “temporary” closure of the Williamson Rock area in December 2005. Hopefully it won’t be too many more years before the proposed plan to reopen the PCT and partially reopen Williamson Rock is completed.

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Sunny San Francisco

Land's End with Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands in the distance.

It was a warm day by San Francisco standards — sunny and in the seventies. We’d planned to go “across the bridge” for today’s run, but with the great weather it seemed half the city’s residents and visitors were queued up on the streets leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. We opted for a run in the city instead.

This was not an inferior alternative. Running in the city is fun; there are many options and much to see. Today’s course took us from Industrial Light & Magic, to Mountain Lake, Land’s End, Sutro Heights, Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park.

Some related posts: Crissy Field – Fort Point – Land’s End – Golden Gate Park Loop, San Francisco Sights Trail Run, Golden Gate Bridge Run

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Looking for Ogres in Serrano Canyon

Mustard on the Old Boney Trail.
Mustard on the Old Boney Trail.

I was covered with bright yellow mustard petals and soaked from head to toe. It had been raining, and I’d just wrestled my way through another tangle of 10 foot high mustard plants. On some parts of the Old Boney Trail the mustard was so thick it was almost impenetrable. The pestilent species becomes especially prolific in wet years, growing rapidly and overwhelming native species and habitats.

After turning onto the Serrano Valley Trail and climbing up to the overlook of Serrano Valley the trail wasn’t quite so overgrown — at least I could run. In the grasslands below the greens of the rainy season were gone, replaced with the straw-colored hues of dried grass gone to seed.

Serrano Valley
Serrano Valley

Like mustard, foxtails are bad this year. In recent weeks I’ve picked a multitude of the barbed grass seeds from my socks and shoes. Today, I’d worn ankle gaiters hoping to ward off the expected seed-storm in Serrano Valley. The seed-storm turned out to be more of a seed-shower, but the gaiters did help.

Part way through Serrano Valley I happened on a hiker, coming up from Serrano Canyon. We said hi to each other and then after he passed, he turned around and dramatically exclaimed “Don’t go down Serrano Canyon!!”

What?? Were there ogres down there? He’d obviously made it through the canyon OK. All limbs were intact and I didn’t see any cuts or bruises. I quickly ran through the possibilities and rejected most of them. One possibility that seemed plausible was that the trail had been washed out.

Covered in mustard petals after mustard-whacking on the Old Boney Trail.
Covered in mustard petals.

One of the reasons I was doing this run was to see how Serrano Canyon had fared during the February 17 atmospheric river event. I’d seen the damage caused by high flows in Blue Canyon and Upper Sycamore Canyon. This was the first chance I’d had to investigate Serrano Canyon since the flooding, so the hiker’s warning had the opposite of its intended effect — it just made me more curious about what was going on in the canyon.

All the way down the canyon I kept an eye out for X-Files monstrosities, but saw none. Serrano Canyon did not appear to have had as severe flooding as Blue Canyon and Upper Sycamore Canyon. Some sections of the trail were very overgrown and a short section of the trail was partially washed away, but with care and a bit of mustard-whacking the trail was passable.

Canyon Sunflowers
Canyon Sunflowers

I’d had my fill of mustard and was happy to reach the dirt road in Big Sycamore Canyon. I returned up canyon using a combination of Big Sycamore Canyon Road and the Two Foxes Trail. This was much more straightforward than Old Boney and it took only about an hour to reach the Upper Sycamore Trail.

The work done on the Upper Sycamore Trail by the Santa Monica Mountains Trail Council during Trail Days was impressive. Several sections of the trail were washed away by the February 17 atmospheric river event and all have been restored.

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Savoring the Snow Between Islip Saddle and Mt. Baden-Powell

Snow on the PCT east of Mt. Burnham.
Snow on the PCT east of Mt. Burnham.

The two hikers stopped on one side of the broad chute and I stopped on the other. We were on the Pacific Crest Trail about a half-mile from Little Jimmy Campground and had paused to put on micro spikes before crossing the icy slope. It was the same chute that had been so unnerving for a couple hiking down from Little Jimmy on a chilly morning two weeks before.

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Mt. San Jacinto from Mt. Baden-Powell. Click for a larger image.

After the hikers crossed we chatted for a moment about the snow. They were doing the PCT and I asked them what gear they used on Fuller Ridge — an infamous section of the trail on Mt. San Jacinto. They said they’d used micro spikes and ice axes. The segment had gone well, but at one point it had taken them four hours to do two miles!

It’s not often there’s this much snow in April in the mountains of Southern California. After venturing to Mt. Hawkins a couple of weeks ago, I had wanted to get back to the San Gabriels and check out the snow on the higher part of the crest between Mt. Burnham (8997′) and Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′).

Mt. Burnham (near) and Throop Peak (behind) from just west of Mt. Baden-Powell.
Mt. Burnham (near) and Throop Peak (behind) from just west of Mt. Baden-Powell.

The photo on the left is a view west along the crest from the shoulder of Mt. Baden-Powell to Mt. Burnham and Throop Peak. Strong, southerly winds that accompany Winter storms blow from left to right across the crest, depositing extra snow in the wind-shadowed lee of the ridge. Snow accumulates along the ridge in dense, deep drifts, which in a big snow year can persist well into Summer.

Snow at 9100 feet along the crest just west of Mt. Baden-Powell
Snow at 9100′ along the crest just west of Mt. Baden-Powell.

The PCT between Mt. Baden-Powell and Throop Peak generally follows along the crest, tending to the north (right) side of the ridge and detouring around Mt. Baden-Powell and Mt. Burnham on their north slopes, and around Throop Peak on its southeast side.

Today, I stayed more or less on the crest between the summit of Baden-Powell and the PCT’s junction with the Dawson Saddle Trail, using the trail and snow where possible, but avoiding big drifts and steeper snow slopes. Between Throop Peak and Islip Saddle I stayed on the trail, and used micro spikes in a couple of places.

Lower elevation snow is melting relatively rapidly, but snow on the north-facing slopes at higher elevation could be around for weeks. Some patches and drifts may last into June or July. We’ll see!

Snow-capped Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from the summit of Mt. Baden-Powe;;

On the summit of Baden-Powell I pondered Mt. Baldy and thought about Sam and his love of the outdoors and Mt. Baldy. His effusive spirit will linger there always, and we’ll smile when we encounter it.

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Warming Up for the PCT

Snow on the Pacific Crest Trail near Little Jimmy Spring. April 2, 2017.

Seasonal snowfall in the mountains of Southern California is inconsistent at best. According to Tony Crocker’s Your Guide to Snowfall, in the past 20 years SoCal snowfall has ranged from a record high of 267 inches during the strong El Nino of 1997-98, to a low of 29 inches in 2013-14 during our prolonged drought.

Snow-covered slopes from the Pacific Crest Trail near Little Jimmy Spring. April 2, 2017.
Snow-covered slopes from the PCT near Little Jimmy Spring.

So far this season, Your Guide to Snowfall’s total for SoCal is 143 inches, which is a bit above average and far more than we’ve had in recent years. After seeing the amount of snow on the higher peaks of the San Gabriels from Mt. Waterman a couple weeks ago, I was curious to see what the conditions were on the PCT between Islip Saddle (6650′) and Mt. Baden-Powell (9399′).

Joining me on today’s adventure was Patty Duffy. An avid outdoorsperson and ultrarunner, Patty did the JMT last year, and will soon be embarking on an epic border-to-border journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Epitomizing the “hope is not a strategy” approach to challenges, today she was using much of the gear she would be using on the PCT — and in addition — carrying a sleeping bag, tent, stove and two days food!

Icy stretch of snow on the PCT at 7100', about 0.7 mile from Islip Saddle.
Icy stretch of snow on the PCT at 7100′, about 0.7 mile from Islip Saddle.

Even though we started an hour later than normal, and temperatures had warmed  the past couple of days, the snow on the shaded, north-facing slopes was still icy. Two hikers on their way down from Little Jimmy had trouble crossing one slippery slope. They had no crampons or micro-spikes and threw dirt on the snow to get by. It was obvious when we reached the area they described – a northeast facing gully. The slope was steep enough that a fall would have been very serious. Steep slopes, chutes and gullies are common along the trail between Islip Saddle and Baden-Powell.

Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from near Mt. Hawkins.
Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy from near Mt. Hawkins.

The question of what is appropriate gear for hiking an icy trail in this kind of terrain doesn’t have a simple answer. Boots, “real” crampons, and an ice axe provide a lot of security when crossing a steep, icy slope; but many other combinations of footwear, traction devices, poles, and self-arrest tools are commonly used. Conditions can rapidly improve or deteriorate and equipment can fail. Whatever combination of equipment is selected it’s important to understand its use and limitations.

After reaching an elevation of about 8000′, we stayed on the crest all the way to Mt. Hawkins (8850′) and the Mt. Hawkins lightning tree. The ridge route had the advantage of being mostly snow-free, but in places is quite rocky and steep. There are also a number of downed trees scattered across the ridge — vestiges of the 2002 Curve Fire.

Summit of Mt. Hawkins (8850').
Patty on the summit of Mt. Hawkins (8850′).

In middle of Winter in 2014 there was so little snow on the PCT between Islip Saddle and Mt. Baden-Powell it was possible to run to Baden-Powell and back, do Mt. Hawkins, Throop Peak and Mt. Burnham along the way, and be back to Islip Saddle in the early afternoon. Not today. Winter’s storms had left more of the trail snow-covered than snow-free — and not with just a little snow.

A little beyond the Hawkins – Throop Peak saddle we stopped at a sunny, wind-protected spot with a nice view of Mt. Baldy for a few minutes, and then headed down. The snow conditions had improved considerably, and at one point we glissaded down a short slope.

It had been another outstanding day in the mountains, and I could only sigh, thinking of the many great days and experiences that Patty would have on the Pacific Crest Trail.

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Malibu Creek Flooding

Flood debris against a redwood along Crags Road near the Forest Trail in Malibu Creek State Park
Flood debris against a redwood along Crags Road in Malibu Creek State Park

My plan had been to check on the MCSP redwoods and then do the Phantom Loop. Running along Crags Road west of Century Lake I started noticing flood debris along the trail, but it wasn’t until I reached the bridge across Malibu Creek that the magnitude of the flooding became evident. Most of the bridge’s wooden railings had been swept away and debris hung in the trees 10-15 feet above the creek.

View downstream from bridge across Malibu Creek on Crags Road.
View downstream from bridge across Malibu Creek on Crags Road.

A short distance beyond the bridge, near the junction of Crags Road and the Forest Trail, a large tangle of debris was piled at the base of a redwood. Continuing toward the M*A*S*H site there were debris piles along the trail and scattered across the stream course. The flood had filled the 150′-200′ wide canyon with a torrent of water. One large debris pile in the center of the streambed was 15′-20′ above the current water level.

Flood debris along Malibu Creek
Flood debris high in the trees.

The flooding resulted from heavy rainfall associated with an atmospheric river that hit the area on February 17. Between 4:00 a.m. and midnight the Remote Automated Weather Station near Malibu Canyon Road and Piuma Road recorded 4.45 inches of rain. Runoff was increased by the soil being nearly saturated from the above average rainfall we’ve experienced this rain season.

Many streams in the area experienced high flows on February 17. According to provisional USGS data Sespe Creek near Fillmore peaked at 34,000 cfs at 7:45 p.m.; the Ventura River near Ventura peaked at 20,400 cfs at 5:45 p.m. and the Los Angeles River at Sepulveda Dam peaked at 16,700 cfs at 4:30 p.m.

Eventually I returned to the Forest Trail and checked on the redwoods. My impression is that the trees in trouble have continued to degrade and the trees in better condition are holding their own. I will be curious to see how much new foliage there is later in the growing season.

I never did make it to the Phantom Trail but did have a nice run over to the Tapia Spur Trail.

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Downed Trees, Melting Snow and a Waterfall

Snow-covered slopes from the Mt. Waterman Trail

Climbing up the slope and around the big incense cedar I stopped for a moment to enjoy the smell of the splintered wood. There had been so trees across the trail I’d lost count, but this was in the neighborhood of the 35th tree I’d had to work around on my way to Mt. Waterman.

Trees near Three Points burned in the 2009 Station Fire
Trees burned in the 2009 Station Fire

My run on the Mt. Waterman & Twin Peaks Trail had started at Three Points. Initially, I’d been encouraged to see some trees had been cut and removed from the trail. But the area was hard hit by the 2009 Station Fire and the combination of fire, years of drought, and rough winter weather seemed to be felling an increasing number of trees each year.

Across the canyon the north face of Twin Peaks was still blanketed in snow. On this warm, south-facing slope the snow was almost gone, exposing a veneer of pine needles, last Summer’s gray and wilted ferns, and the Winter excavations of industrious moles. In every gulch and gully water spilled down the mountainside; splashing, bubbling and burbling downslope under gravity’s spell.

Snow-covered Mt. Baldy from the Mt. Waterman Trail
Mt. Baldy from the Mt. Waterman Trail

This was supposed to be a recovery run, following last Saturday’s abridged — but arduous — run on the Backbone Trail. (Many thanks to Howard & Mike and all the volunteers!) The plan was to just go to the summit of Waterman and then back down the same way. But… the idea of crawling over, through or around more than 40 trees a second time just didn’t sound that appealing.

When I reached the junction with Mt. Waterman’s summit trail it took about a millisecond to make the decision to continue on the loop. It would be longer, and would have more elevation gain, but it was a beautiful day and my legs felt OK. Who knew when there would be another opportunity to do the loop in these conditions?

Snow along the Mt. Waterman Trail about a half-mile from Buckhorn
Snow along the Mt. Waterman Trail

Much of the trail down to Buckhorn was covered with snow. Not so much snow as to be a problem, but enough to be interesting and scenic. The weather was great and snow conditions excellent. Following the tracks of hikers, my socks didn’t even get wet!

Reaching Angeles Crest Highway, I ran east a short distance to the entrance of Buckhorn Campground. The gate was locked and the campground still closed for the Winter. Patches of snow, deadfall and other debris littered the area. When the camp is open, I top off my water here. Today the faucets were dry, but with the cool weather that would not be an issue.

Most of the hikers on the Burkhart Trail were going to see Cooper Canyon Falls. Seeing the falls was one of the reasons I’d decided to continue on the loop. My thoughts drifted back to April 1995 when Gary Gunder and I carried our kayaks down this trail and paddled Little Rock Creek from Cooper Canyon to the South Fork. (We put-in below the falls.)

The flow over the falls was the most I’d seen in several years and was probably nearing its peak. After enjoying the falls for a few minutes I scrambled out of the gorge and headed up the PCT. Like all that visit the falls, I now had to climb out of Cooper Canyon.

Drought-stressed young pine in Cooper Canyon
Drought-stressed young pine in Cooper Canyon

The effects of a prolonged drought don’t just disappear overnight, no matter how much it rains or snows. This was particularly evident on the sun-baked segment of the PCT above Cooper Canyon Camp. Just above the camp a large, green-needled Jeffry Pine had collapsed, leaving a large crater where its roots had been. In the year since I’d been on the trail, trees on the warmest, south-facing slopes had become more drought-stressed. It seemed additional trees had died and more had yellowing and brown needles.

Cooper Canyon can be hot, but today the temperature was pleasant. Eventually I reached Cloudburst Summit and clambered over a final steep patch of snow to reach the saddle. Three Points was now just a few miles away. I crossed Hwy 2 and started running down the trail.

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East Las Virgenes Canyon

East Las Virgenes Canyon

This is a view of East Las Virgenes Canyon from the power line service road that connects the Las Virgenes Canyon Trailhead to Cheeseboro Ridge. East Las Virgenes Canyon is part of the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (formerly Ahmanson Ranch).

From this afternoon’s keyhole loop run from the Victory Trailhead to Cheeseboro Ridge.

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