Category Archives: trails|san gabriels

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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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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After the Station Fire: Strawberry Peak Summit Regrowth

Chaparral regrowth near the summit of Strawberry Peak

Did the Colby Canyon – Strawberry Peak – Red Box loop again over the Thanksgiving holidays. While taking some photos near Strawberry’s summit I was struck by the regrowth that has occurred since the 2009 Station Fire. What caught my eye were the bare limbs of the old growth, burned in the fire, projecting from the new, dense, green growth.

The growth of the chaparral over the seven years since the fire does not appear to have been noticeably impaired by the 2011-2015 drought in Southern California. (In the photograph above note the height of the regrowth compared to my friend near the summit.)

This conclusion is based in part on the observation of chaparral regrowth following other fires, such as the 2005 Topanga Fire, but is also supported by comparing the amount of new growth to the pre-Station Fire growth. This can be inferred by the length of the burned limbs and the approximate age of the chaparral when burned by the Station Fire.

According to the FRAP California geodatabase of fire perimeters, the last fire to burn the summit of Strawberry Peak was the 1979 Sage Fire, which burned approximately 30,000 acres. Before that you have to go back to 1896 to find another fire in the database that burned Strawberry’s summit.

In the absence of fire, it appears that in another 23 years the chaparral in the title photo could reach a similar height and extent to the old growth.

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Mt. Lukens, Then and Now

View of the San Gabriels from the Stone Canyon Trail
View of Josephine, Strawberry and other peaks from the Stone Canyon Trail

The last time I climbed Mt. Lukens was in the 70s. Drawn by its classic line, Phil Warrender and I climbed Lukens’ west ridge — a long, trailless ascent that started near the probation camp on Big Tujunga Canyon Road. Many years and many adventures later I was back on Lukens — this time on the Stone Canyon Trail.

Curious about the current condition of the trail, last night I read a few recent trip reports. It was a bit like reading tabloid news. If the reports were to be taken at face value, it would be a hellish, impossible to find, unmaintained, horribly overgrown, washed out trail that was lined with poison oak and poodle dog bush, and writhing with rattlesnakes.

Google Earth image of Mt. Lukens and the Stone Canyon Trail
Mt. Lukens and the Stone Canyon Trail

It was evident in the first mile that the Stone Canyon Trail is a classic, no nonsense, ear-popping trail. First shown on the 1933 La Crescenta Quadrangle Advance Sheet, the route of the trail is pretty much the same now as it was then, starting near Wildwood in Big Tujunga Canyon and zig-zagging up the ridge just east of Stone Canyon to the summit of the peak.(The 1933 topo also shows a trail along the route Phil and I climbed.)

The Stone Canyon Trail tops out about a half-mile northwest of Mt. Lukins’ summit. Like many urban peaks, the summit is cluttered with electronics, but there are still worthwhile views on and near the top of the peak.

View from Mt. Lukens of the Crescenta Valley, the Verdugo Mountains and beyond.
Crescenta Valley, the Verdugo Mountains and beyond.

While on the summit, a LASD’s Air Rescue 5 helicopter flew by to the east — I guessed on the way to the Barley Flats staging area. But part way down the peak I heard the airship to the northeast and noticed a cloud of dust being stirred up from a turnout on Angeles Forest Highway. Once again Air Rescue 5 was at work. It’s astonishing how many calls they get.

Continuing to run down the trail I thought about some of the online comments I’d read the night before.

Hellish? Well, sure, on a hot day. Unless you’re looking to get in some heat training, don’t climb it on a hot day. Climb it when the weather is clear and cool!

Bottom of the Stone Canyon Trail
Bottom of the Stone Canyon Trail

Impossible to find the trail? Except for the big sign at the trailhead parking lot, I didn’t see any trail markers. But if you have a “big picture” view of where the trail is in relation to the parking lot, it’s not too hard to find.

Unmaintained? These days most trail maintenance is done by volunteers. A trail like the Stone Canyon Trail is kept alive through use, sporadic organized trailwork, and an occasional snip here and snip there.

Horribly overgrown? The higher you go the more overgrown it is, but today it was not yet to the point that serious bushwhacking was required. I wore running shorts. (But I almost always wear running shorts.)

Washed out? Yes, there were a few small washouts, and the margin of the trail has collapsed in a number of places. With care, all were passable. One of the washouts was a little larger, and required a bit more care than the others.

Slopes at the head of Stone Canyon on Mt. Lukens.
Slopes at the head of Stone Canyon

Poison oak and poodle dog bush? Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any poison oak. There was a minuscule amount of dried up PDB. (Ask me about the PO later in the week.)

Rattlesnakes? Always a possibility, even in Winter. But this is true in most areas of Southern California. In my experience the chance of encountering a rattlesnake is less from November through February, but there’s still a chance.

Ear-popping? The trail gains about 3,270 feet in 3.8 miles. My ears “popped” a couple of times on the way up.

Theoretically the gate on Doske Road is open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The Angeles National Forest web site showed the status of the Wildwood Picnic Site to be open, but the gate was not open today. I parked in the large turnout on Big Tujunga Canyon just west of the gate and ran about a half-mile on Doske and Stonyvale Roads to the parking lot and trailhead.

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Excursion to Ross Mountain

Ross Mountain on South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell.
South Ridge of Mt. Baden-Powell, with Ross Mountain at its end.

Nearly every time I’ve climbed Mt. Baden-Powell I’ve wondered about the long ridge extending south from its summit. And nearly every time I’ve summited Baden-Powell I’ve been in the middle of another running adventure, and unable to explore more than a few hundred yards down the ridge. But today I wasn’t running to Eagles Roost or doing a long loop from Islip Saddle. Today the plan was to climb Ross Mountain, a peak far down on Mt. Baden Powell’s south ridge.

Ross Mountain
Ross Mountain

Major mountain ridges are often isolated, aesthetic and adventurous — characteristics that are magnets to mountaineers. While not technically difficult, the excursion to Ross Mountain is demanding. The first step is to climb Baden-Powell — a four mile trek with 2800′ of gain, that tops out at an elevation of about 9400′. From the top of Baden-Powell a use trail then leads down the south ridge three miles over varied terrain to Ross Mountain.

For the most part the use trail is relatively distinct and follows the anticipated route down the ridge. Even so, it is usually not as easy to follow a use trail as it is a conventional trail. It had rained a few days before, and the tracks of the last group to do Ross were vague. The most distinct tracks on the trail were from the recent passage of a bighorn sheep.

Bench on Mt. Baden-Powell's South Ridge.
Bench on Mt. Baden-Powell’s South Ridge.

The route to Ross drops 2100′ in 2.5 miles, then ascends 200′ over the remaining half-mile to the peak. The descent is not continuous. About a mile from Baden-Powell the ridge is interrupted by a large bench, and there are other ups and downs along the way. The ridge can be seen in profile in this image or the PhotographyontheRun masthead.

Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, Mt. Baldy, Ontario Peak, Iron Mountain and Santiago Peak.
Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, Mt. Baldy, Ontario Peak, Iron Mountain and Santiago Peak.

The ridge projects into one of the more rugged areas of the San Gabriel Mountains — the Sheep Mountain Wilderness. To the west is the deep canyon of the East Fork, with Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak, Mt. Baldy and Iron Mountain towering above. To the west is the very remote canyon of the Iron Fork, sweeping up to form the 9000′ crest between Throop Peak and Mt. Burnham.

The ridge hosts a wide variety of conifers — limber pine, lodgepole pine, white fir, sugar pine, Jeffrey pine and even a few incense cedars. Life on the ridge is tough, and many of the trees are contorted, broken or stunted. It appears to have been a good year for the sugar pines, and some were heavily laden with cones. Overall the health of the trees on the ridge appeared to be good, with surprisingly few trees in obvious distress from the drought.

Mt. Baden-Powell from Ross Mountain.
Mt. Baden-Powell from Ross Mountain.

A little more than three hours after leaving Vincent Gap I zig-zagged up the final few steep steps to the 7402′ summit of Ross Mountain. Not unlike other vantage points along the ridge, the summit was a pretty spot under a sugar pine tree, but in this case with a small cairn and rain-soaked summit register.

After procrastinating a bit and checking out the south side of Ross Mountain’s elongated summit, I began the journey back to Baden-Powell.

Complex geology at head of Mine Gulch on Mt. Baden-Powell.
Complex geology at head of Mine Gulch.

Surprisingly, considering my plodding pace coming back up the ridge, it took almost exactly the same amount of time to get back to Vincent Gap as it had to go to Ross Mountain. As it worked out, the time lost on the climb back up the ridge was offset by the superb run down the Baden-Powell Trail.

According to my Garmin fenix 3’s barometric altimeter the total gain/loss on this adventure was about 5100′. If the gain/loss is calculated from the GPS track using 1/3 arc-sec DEMs it works out to about 5400′. The round trip distance was 14 miles.

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Red Box – Bear Canyon Loop Plus Brown Mountain

Brown Mountain, Verdugo Mountains and Boney Mountain in the distance.
Brown Mountain, Verdugo Mountains and Boney Mountain in the distance.

This photograph of Jason and Owen Brown (Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection) is cataloged with the following description:

Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary
Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary

“Photo of Jason and Owen Brown, sons of John Brown of the Civil War and Abolition fame. View shows Jason and Owen Brown sitting on Mount Wilson, near the site of their cabin in 1884.”

Is the reference to Mt. Wilson accurate? Probably not. The peaks in the background establish they are not on top of Mt. Wilson. While they might be elsewhere on the mountain, it doesn’t seem likely. Mt. Wilson is more than five miles from their El Prieto cabin site. In his guidebook Trails of the Angeles, John Robinson describes the photo of the Browns as being “on Brown Mountain” — a peak which is near their El Prieto cabin, and which figured prominently in their lives.

Not having climbed Brown Mountain, I was curious to see if the photo of the “Brown Boys”  was taken on or near its summit. Early this morning I set off from Red Box, Brown Boys photo in my pack, to do a loop through Bear Canyon and Arroyo Seco, and take a side trip to Brown Mountain along the way.

False summits leading to Brown Mountain
False summits leading to Brown Mountain

The detour to Brown Mountain began at Tom Sloan Saddle and followed the peak’s east ridge over several false summits to the summit of the peak. Brown Mountain’s rounded summit sits on the divide between Bear and Millard Canyons and on a clear day affords a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and much of the Los Angeles area. Big views can lead to big dreams, and according to an article in the Los Angeles Herald in October 1896, the Boys had planned to build an observatory on the peak. While this was not built, the Boys did succeed in having the peak named in honor of their father

On the summit, and with the Brown Boy’s photo in hand, I faced first north over Bear Canyon, then east toward Mt. Disappointment, San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Markham; and finally south over Millard Canyon. Neither the terrain or skyline matched the photograph.

The best match I’d found today was on a peaklet near Tom Sloan Saddle looking southeast toward Inspiration Point.  More likely the photo was taken on a ridge closer to their cabin. That adventure would have to wait for another day.  Today the clock was ticking and I needed to retrace my steps back to Tom Sloan Saddle, descend Bear Canyon and then follow the Gabrieleno Trail up Arroyo Seco and back to Red Box.

Some related posts: Bear Canyon Loop Plus Strawberry PeakRed Box – Bear Canyon Loop,  Arroyo Seco Sedimentation

Following are a few photos taken along the way. Click a tile for a larger image and additional information.

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Vincent Gulch and the Mine Gulch Trail

Mine Gulch Trail near Vincent Gap
Mine Gulch Trail near Vincent Gap

Nearly back to Vincent Gap after visiting Big Horn Mine, I debated whether to run part way down Vincent Gulch on the Mine Gulch Trail. The Mine Gulch Trail leads to the confluence of Vincent Gulch, Prairie Fork, and Mine Gulch on the headwaters of the East Fork San Gabriel River.

The only reason I was hesitant was that hunters might not expect anyone else to be down in the isolated canyon. On the way out to Big Horn Mine I’d encountered a couple of hunters and heard the occasional report of a deer rifle down in Vincent Gulch. After my experience in Colby Canyon the previous Saturday, I hoped my neon-yellow-green Mt. Disappointment 50K shirt would help make me more visible.

Hiking up the East Fork to kayak from the Bridge to Nowhere.
Hiking up the East Fork to kayak from the Bridge to Nowhere.

I’d wanted to check out the Mine Gulch Trail for a long time. Back before the drought, when rainy season storms would sometimes rejuvenate the streams of Southern California, the West and East Forks of the San Gabriel River were a local alternative to the three hour drive up to kayak the Kern River. My kayaking partner Gary Gunder, myself and other local kayakers had paddled as high on the East Fork as the Bridge to Nowhere. In 2003 Gary kayaked the upper East Fork from the Iron Fork. We’d done a lot of hiking with our kayaks and we began to wonder if it might make more sense to hike down the Mine Gulch Trail from Vincent Gap, rather than hiking up the East Fork.

Bigleaf maple along the Mine Gulch Trail.
Bigleaf maple along the Mine Gulch Trail.

Reaching the well-marked trail junction a quarter-mile from Vincent Gap, I turned down the Mine Gulch Trail. I was finally going to see what the trail was like!

I had been expecting the Mine Gulch Trail to be a rough, overgrown and little-used path. After crossing an area stripped of trees by sporadic debris flows and avalanches, I was stunned to be running in an idyllic forest of pine, fir and oak on a wide, needle-covered trail bordered with golden leaves of snowberry.

Tom Vincent's cabin in Vincent Gulch.
Tom Vincent’s cabin in Vincent Gulch.

Continuing to descend, the trail passed near Tom Vincent’s cabin site and then a mile or so from Vincent Gap started a series of long switchbacks. A couple of switchbacks down, at an elevation of about 5900′, was a small stand of ponderosa pines. Ponderosa pines are less common in the San Gabriels than the similar Jeffrey pine, but can usually be distinguished by their smaller cones. The trees had drawn my attention because one of them was especially drought-stressed.

Vincent Gulch and Mt. Baden-Powell from the Mine Gulch Trail.
Vincent Gulch and Mt. Baden-Powell

Below the switchbacks and about two miles from Vincent Gap, the trail crosses a stream bed. The seems to be a spot where many hikers turn around. The trail sees less use beyond this point, and as it descends the east side of the gulch it becomes increasingly adventurous and isolated.

About three miles in I encountered a group of four hunters hiking up the trail. They were a bit surprised to see someone running down the trail and asked if I knew about a “flat” area down the trail. Now I realize they must have been referring to Cabin Flat, which was some distance and much bushwhacking away.

Mine Gulch Trail low in Vincent Gulch.
Mine Gulch Trail low in Vincent Gulch.

After encountering the hunters, the trail became less distinct and more disconnected. The “good” sections of trail were relatively long and the game became to piece together the sections of old trail, rather than traipsing through the rubble of the ravine. Intending to be back at Vincent Gap by about 1:00, I continued working down the gulch about another 30 minutes and finally turned around about a half-mile before the Prairie Fork junction.

Terrain in lower Vincent Gulch.
Where’s the trail?

Having just solved the main trail-finding puzzles on the way down, the ascent of the gulch was relatively fast and took about as much time as the descent. Part way up the switchbacks I caught up to the hunting group on their way out. They joked around, asking what my “secret” was. I told them I’d still be down in the canyon if I was loaded down with the 50-60 pounds of gear they were carrying.

Running down the Manzanita Trail, then over to Big Horn Mine, and then down the Mine Gulch Trail had been an enjoyable stream of thought adventure. I’d found Icy Springs was still running and learned more about the geology and history of the San Gabriels. While I probably wouldn’t be carrying my kayak down Vincent Gulch, becoming familiar with the trail did open the door to other adventures.

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Big Horn Mine Trail

View from Big Horn Mine of Mine Gulch and the headwaters of the East Fork San Gabriel River.
View down Mine Gulch from Big Horn Mine. Mt. Baldy in the distance.

Returning from the run on the Manzanita Trail, I crossed Highway 2, stopped briefly at the car to switch packs, walked over to the gate in the southwest corner of the Vincent Gap parking lot, and began to run down the old road that leads to Big Horn Mine.

Mill buildings of the Big Horn Mine
Big Horn Mine mill building.

Like the sure-footed animal for which it is named, the Big Horn Mine stands comfortably in a precarious spot on the east flank of Mt. Baden-Powell high above Mine Gulch and the headwaters of the East Fork San Gabriel River.

Gold hues of big leaf maple along the Big Horn Mine Trail.
Gold hues of big leaf maple along the Big Horn Mine Trail.

Most accounts of the discovery of the mine describe mountain man Tom Vincent’s relentless search for the gold lode that was the source of the rich placer deposits of Eldoradoville and other workings along the East Fork. The story goes Vincent was out hunting for bighorn sheep when he made the discovery in 1895. This page from USGS Geological Survey Bulletin 1506-A-E lists mineral production for the Big Horn Mine and several other mines in the San Gabriels.

Big Horn Mine Trail about a mile from Vincent Gap.
Big Horn Mine Trail

The route to the mine follows an old roadbed and is generally straightforward. About 0.2 mile from the parking lot there is a big sign where the Mine Gulch Trail splits off (left) from the Big Horn Mine Trail and descends Vincent Gulch. About a mile from the trailhead the trail to the mine crosses a rough section where flash floods and debris flows have destroyed the road. Over the next mile the road gains about 400′ in elevation, ending at the mine’s mill building at about 6900′.

The mine was purchased by the Forest Service in November 2011.

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Manzanita Trail Morning

Trees silhouetted by the early morning sun on a ridge above the Manzanita Trail.

Many of the hikers and runners that park at Vincent Gap climb Mt. Baden-Powell via the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT isn’t the only trail that can accessed here and Mt. Baden-Powell isn’t the only hike. Vincent Gap is also the trailhead for the Manzanita Trail, Big Horn Mine Trail and Mine Gulch Trail. My run today involved these three trails.

Morning sun on trees at Vincent Gap from the Manzanita Trail
Morning sun on trees at Vincent Gap

First up this morning was the Manzanita Trail. The trail is part of the High Desert National Recreation Trail and connects Vincent Gap to South Fork Campground. It’s about 5.5 miles long and can be done as an out and back or as part of an approximately 23.5 mile loop that joins Islip Saddle, South Fork Campground, Vincent Gap and Mt. Baden-Powell.

California coffeeberry (Frangula californica) along the Manzanita Trail.
California coffeeberry along the Manzanita Trail.

That loop is a favorite and this morning’s short run on the Manzanita Trail was to check if a small stream/spring I use as a water source was still running. Remarkably it was!

Some work had been done on the trail since I was there in June. A washed out section just below Vincent Gap had been repaired, the tread in several places improved, and the indistinct trail across the rocky wash about a mile down from Vincent Gap had been much improved.

Some related posts: South Fork AdventureTrail Running Weather, San Gabriel Mountains Running Adventure, Islip Saddle – Mt. Baden-Powell South Fork Loop

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Plan B: Barley Flats

Pines and pine seedlings at Barley Flats
Pines and pine seedlings at Barley Flats

Nearing the junction I debated what to do — turn left on a well-used trail and climb Strawberry Peak or continue straight on an abandoned, overgrown road and go to Barley Flats? If I continued on the road it would be my second bush-whacking adventure of the day. Earlier, I’d abandoned an exploration in upper Colby Canyon when frequent rifle fire made the canyon feel confined and dangerous. This adventure was my plan B.

Overgrown Forest Service fire road connecting Red Box and Barley Flats, built in 1926.
Overgrown Forest Service fire road built in 1926.

Each time I’ve done Strawberry Peak from Red Box I’ve wondered about that overgrown old road. In the book The San Gabriels, John Robinson mentions that it was a Forest Service fire road built in 1926. It’s shown on the USGS 1934 Mt. Lowe and Mt. Wilson Advance Sheets connecting Red Box Gap and Barley Flats and then continuing to Charlton Flats, Chilao and the high country. Back then Angeles Crest Highway didn’t go to Shortcut Saddle, it turned at Red Box and went to the top of Mt. Wilson.

At the junction, I stepped over the rocks marking the left turn toward Strawberry Peak and started up the old road. After about five yards, I almost turned back. The trail was so overgrown it seemed nearly impassable. Yucca and whitethorn conspired to block the way, or at least make it too painful to proceed.

Having done my share of bush-whacking I’ve learned that it’s usually not as bad as it looks. With a little patience the determined hiker can usually find a tolerable way through. That was the case here, but not only was the trail overgrown, there were downed trees and limbs from the 2009 Station Fire, and several small rock slides and wash outs partially blocking the trail.

Barley Flats with Waterman Mountain and Twin Peaks in the background and Mt. Baldy in the distance.
Barley Flats

For 2.5 miles I kept repeating, “That wasn’t that bad. I’ll just see what’s around the next corner.” After nearly an hour and a half of seeing what was around the next corner — and almost turning back several times — I finally reached Barley Flats.

Like many places in the San Gabriels, Barley Flats has a colorful history. In the middle 1800s the site was a favored hideout of horse thieves and cattle rustlers. During the cold war it was one of the many Nike defense sites surrounding Los Angeles. More recently it was a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Probation Camp and Retreat and today continues to be used as a staging area for LASD’s Air Rescue 5. Much of Barley Flats and the surrounding area was burned in the Station Fire.

Air Rescue 5 airlifts a traffic accident victim from a tight spot on Angeles Crest Highway.
Air Rescue 5 in action on Angeles Crest Highway

Air Rescue 5 has conducted numerous life-saving missions in Angeles National Forest, including countless air ambulance evacuations from “nearly every corner” of Angeles Crest Highway.

Even before reaching Barley Flats I had decided to take an alternate route back to Red Box. Barley Flats sits on the divide between Upper Tujunga Canyon and the West Fork San Gabriel Canyon. Doing a loop through West Fork sounded a lot more appealing than running the thorny gauntlet back to Red Box on the old road.

It took about one-third of the time to run three miles down paved — and brush-free — Barley Flats Road as it had to bushwhack from Red Box to Barley Flats. There were a few hunters out on Barley Flats road, but all had their rifles shouldered. Since leaving Red Box I had heard only one very distant rifle shot — a big change from the far too frequent rifle fire in Colby Canyon.

From the intersection of (gated) Barley Flats Road and Angeles Crest Highway it was only about 0.7 mile over to Shortcut Saddle. At Shortcut I picked up the Silver Moccasin Trail. As I began to run down the trail toward West Fork, I reached around with one hand and lifted my pack. How much water remained?

Spring at West Fork
Spring at West Fork

The plan was to run down to West Fork, get water, and then run up the Rincon-Red Box fire road to Red Box — completing a loop. The spring at West Fork is usually reliable, but with the drought I couldn’t be 100% sure. Nearby Mt. Wilson was recently forced to close its restrooms and turn off the water spigots used by hikers and runners because of insufficient water.

I was surprised to find the spring was running as strong as it had been in early July during the Mt. Disappointment Endurance Runs. Water was not going to be an issue on the five mile run up to Red Box.

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Ducking for Cover

Sunrise in Colby Canyon
Sunrise in Colby Canyon

When I heard the rifle shot, I was a couple hundred yards off the Colby Canyon Trail, trying to find a way through some thick brush and across a ravine. I reacted to the shot before I heard it, an involuntary spasm of fight or flight snapping me to attention. The high-powered report filled the canyon, echoing off its walls and then continuing to ring for several seconds. Another echoing shot followed and then another.

As I worked back toward the trail, I starting searching for the source of the gunfire. About 100 yards up the canyon, wearing a bright orange vest, a hunter stood in the brush at the edge of the ravine. We waved, each surprised to see the other. Now I understood. Deer hunting season had opened.

A few minutes later more shots followed. What the heck was he shooting at? With the frequency of gunfire, any animal in the canyon would be ducking for cover.

That included me. It was time to give up on this adventure, run down to the trailhead, and go for Plan B.

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